'The Sea of Trees' Producer Ken Kao on Filming in Japan's Suicide Forest, Making a Life-affirming Story

"The Sea of Trees" featuring Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe
Matthew McConaughey and Ken Watanabe in "The Sea of Trees."

The KCET Cinema Series launched its fall season on August 16 at the historic Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. The nine weeks of film screenings began with "The Sea of Trees." The drama stars Matthew McConaughey as a professor who ends up inside Japan's notorious Sea of Trees, also known as Suicide Forest, where he meets an enigmatic stranger played by Ken Watanabe. "The Sea of Trees" also stars Naomi Watts and was directed by Gus Van Sant. 

Following the screening, producer Ken Kao joined Cinema Series host Pete Hammond for a conversation about the making of the film. A portion of that conversation appears below. 

The KCET Cinema Series runs weekly at the Aero Theatre through October 10. Check out the schedule for upcoming screenings and ticket information. The fall season of the KCET CInema Series is proudly sponsored by the James and Paula Coburn Foundation. 

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On what "The Sea of Trees" is about.

First of all, the most obvious thing is that it's just an examination of how people process grief differently. I think that if you dig a little deeper, what really struck me was that it's also a life-affirming story and I think that in the world we live in today, where things are so busy and moving around, it forces you to kind of be mindful of the here and now, and what you have to take care of before you're no longer here. 

On the real Sea of Trees. 

Aokigahara is a real place. It's in the foothills of Mount Fuji in Japan. It's about two hours outside of Japan. This place that over the last few decades became a haven for people to commit suicide. In Japan, suicide is a cultural thing. It's been that way for centuries. It's kind of a spooky forest. We actually did shoot there for a week. 

For the most part, this was shot in western Massachusetts, but we did -- Gus, Matthew and I, and a very small camera crew -- went to Japan for a week and did venture in the forest for a little bit. 

It's pretty spooky. A lot of the stuff you read about are true. You don't hear any animals. It is set on volcanic rocks, so you don't hear any animals after you start venturing in, about 15 minutes of walking and then you don't hear any animals or insects and it's... I think for some it's spooky and for others, they find peace. They find it to be really peaceful. 

"The Sea of Trees" producer Ken Kao
Pete Hammond and Ken Kao talk about "The Sea of Trees." | Photo: Liz Ohanesian.

On shooting the film in Massachusetts. 

I think we always knew that we would have to shoot at least part of it in Japan because we wanted to see the real forest itself. I think as the world of production actually goes now, you have to do your exercise of looking for the most cost-friendly places in the country, whether it's Georgia or New Orleans, Vancouver and then, ultimately, when we scouted all these different places, Massachusetts oddly enough was the most visually accurate of all of the forests. 

Actually, the forest itself, when we finally made it to Japan, it was kind of shocking because we were surprised that, from basically the knees up, it did look exactly, or very much like western Massachusetts. It was only from the knees down, the volcanic rock, that's missing in Massachusetts.

Shooting in Massachusetts is kind of a harrowing experience. We, our production, for the production shoots, they have 15 pages of warnings and danger because western Massachusetts actually has the highest rate of lyme disease, so there's ticks. There are all kinds of insects there. 

On Matthew McConaughey. 

I think, actually, If I remember right, it happened, he was doing the whole Oscar circuit right as we were negotiating his contract... It was a little bit of a blessing and a curse.

On the experience in Cannes, where "The Sea of Trees" was booed. 

I actually was more uncomfortable sitting here watching this with my friends than I was at Cannes... I don't know. I think, for us to be working in this creative space at the highest level, I'm definitely not somebody who is against inviting criticism or reviews. I wish that it was just more intelligent. If you want to sit down and have a thoughtful conversation and write about why you do or don't like our film, that's fine with me. I think the way it was received was maybe very specific harsh critics looking for sound bites and, you know, unfortunately, we were on the wrong end of that, you know. For the most part, I think, I'll let other people judge for people who have spent the time and take the opportunity to dig into this film, it has some type of enriching experience. 

"The Sea of Trees" featuring Matthew McConaughey
Matthew McConaughey in "The Sea of Trees."

On what happened in the year-and-a-half before the release of the film. 

As you mentioned, we had some internal dialogue about it. It was just soul-searching to be done with the film, but I think, for the most part, we just decided to stay with what we believed in, and the original intention of the film. I think we were lucky to find a distributor like A24, who has released such great movies over the last few years and for them to believe in the film and want to help share it with the rest of the world, we're really grateful. 

On Kao's work as a producer. 

Short answer is that I've been working in the space that I've always wanted to. I love the art form. I think making a great film is a blessing and is truly the greatest artistic medium out there and as far as who I'm involved with, I just feel blessed. It's beyond my wildest dreams that I could be working with the people that I'm working with right now and the relationships that I do, and am enjoying my journey.

On Gus Van Sant.

A lot of times, the director needs and wants to have ownership over the script and coming into the script, because it was so celebrated, I was expecting Gus to maybe want to take some liberties with it, but he actually shot the script very religiously. I think where there is some elements of what you're asking is on a daily level when he's working with our actors... and how much he trusts them in allowing them to do their own thing and breathe their own life into the characters. [He's a] very collaborative director. I wouldn't naturally see on screen just what you see on paper. 

On Ken Wantanabe's character. 

I wish Chris was here to answer this for himself because he deserves credit for writing this. If you knew Chris, Chris is not necessarily somebody who is specifically affiliated to a religion or some kind of denomination or anything like that... but Chris is a very spiritual person. I think in the way that he thought about this film, this is about life beyond the here and now and I don't mean to be evasive about it, but I think it's for each person to have their personal experience with it, whether they literally want to think of Ken's character as the reincarnation of Naomi or it's something more ambiguous than that or whatnot. I think it's meant to be for people to have their own personal experience of it. 

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