Kazuo Hirai was worried. For months, the Tokyo-based chief executive of Sony Corp. had been raising questions about his Hollywood studio’s plans to go forward with a film depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
In a June 23 email, a Sony executive in Japan sent word to the studio, writing that Hirai was “very much concerned about this film” and its potential for angering the North Korean government. Two days later, North Korea declared the film an “act of war.”
More communications followed, including requests that the gruesome death scene be toned down. Filmmakers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg made numerous attempts to edit the sequence — submitting a cut on Sept. 23 and another three days later.
But Hirai was still worried.
“He really really hates it,” Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures, wrote to a fellow studio executive Sept. 28. “He wants to say no he wants to say yes … he is deeply conflicted.”
These exchanges were reviewed by The Times after hackers broke into Sony’s computer system and released thousands of confidential files on the Internet. In the wake of terror threats to cinemas, Sony canceled the film’s planned Christmas Day release. The FBI on Friday said the North Korean government was responsible.
A three-decade veteran of Sony Corp., Hirai, 53, lacked a background in the movie business before becoming Sony’s chief executive. Born in Tokyo, he joined Sony in 1984, fresh out of college.
Most of Hirai’s emails with the Culver City studio involved the mundane aspects of running the business, such as box-office prospects for “The Amazing Spider-Man 2.”
Occasionally, Hirai comes across as a wide-eyed Hollywood outsider. After attending an Oscar party hosted by Vanity Fair in March, he wrote to Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton to describe it as “a sea of Hollywood humanity.”
But when it came to “The Interview,” Hirai wanted a front-row seat.
The executive had persuaded Pascal to approach Rogen about changing the final scene in the film. Rogen wasn’t thrilled, but told Pascal June 27 he and co-director Goldberg would “really look at the shot and consider how to make everyone feel good about this.”
With the film still up in the air, on July 7 Sony’s public relations team came up with talking points for Hirai should he be asked about the movie at an annual meeting of media executives in Sun Valley, Idaho.
“I am leaving the day-to-day development and creative decision making process to Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal, our executives who lead the studio,” Hirai was advised to say if forced to comment on “The Interview.”
But by Aug. 1, a final cut of the film had yet to be approved, emails show. With the comedy’s Oct. 10 release date rapidly approaching, Pascal frantically urged distribution executives to push the movie’s opening.
“JUST MOVE INTERVIEW ASAP,” Pascal pleads to a couple of top executives at the movie studio. “WE NEED SETH TO MAKE ALL THE FILM CHANGES AND THEN PRAY KAZ IS COMFORTABLE.”
On Aug. 7, the studio announced “The Interview” had been postponed to a Christmas Day release.
With more time to work on the controversial scene, Rogen and the studio went back and forth on a few different versions. The filmmakers sent Sony executives a version of the ending Sept. 23 that Rogen believed he would “be able to justify creatively and that will get a laugh.” The actor checked in the following day to see if the cut had been approved yet; it had not.
And then Sept. 25, the actor expressed his frustration.
“It’s been more than three weeks since you told us this would be taken care of,” he wrote to Doug Belgrad, president of the studio’s motion picture group. “If amy won’t go to kaz, then someone else has to, but this complete lack of movement in any direction is not cool at all anymore. Do something.”
Pascal tried to do damage control. Hours later, she wrote a lengthy email to Rogen on her cellphone from temple on Rosh Hashana. She said she was trying to serve two masters in Hirai and Rogen, but stressed the severity of the situation in Japan.
“I have never gotten one note on anything from our parent company in the entire 25 years that I have worked from them,” she wrote. “And this isn’t some flunky it’s the chairman of the entire sony corporation who I am dealing. With.”
Her final plea? Make the shot just a “little less gory.”
A few hours later, Rogen acquiesced. Pascal thanked him, emphasizing that Hirai’s “anxiety was the head exploding as you know.” A day later, on Sept. 26, Rogen sent what he hoped would be the final revision of the scene.
“We took out three out of four of the face embers, reduced the hair burning by 50%, and significantly darkened the chunks of Kim’s head.”
Despite his hesitation, Hirai wrote Pascal Sept. 29 to say he’d “given this a lot of thought” and decided to go ahead with the filmmaker’s latest cut.
“It would be much appreciated if you could push them a bit further,” the executive said in an email. “Also, please ensure that this does not make it into the international version of the release.”
Rogen was elated, writing an email to Pascal a few hours later with the subject line “Aaaaaaahhhh!!!!!!”
“I’m so happy,” he wrote. “I honestly almost cried.” Pascal was equally gleeful, telling the actor to consider sending a note of gratitude to both Lynton and Hirai.
“You don’t have to say more than thanks for the support and if you haven’t met Kaz that you’d like to … next time he is on la.”
There has been no comment from Hirai since the troubles began at the film studio, which accounts for a relatively small portion of the parent company’s bottom line.
Sony Pictures Entertainment made up about 10% of the whole company’s sales in the latest fiscal year. Besides its video games, electronics and music divisions, the Japanese giant also runs a large financial services business.
“It’s very difficult for an electronics executive to understand what’s going on with the pictures division, so the authority is delegated to the executives in the U.S.,” said Yasushi Hamao, a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business. “The studio system is a completely different animal.”