When the Japanese-Americans are sent to internment camps, many of the extras were Japanese-Americans who had actually been sent to the camps in the 1940s.
In later years, Ethan Hawke admitted that this film was "not a great acting experience".
Several scenes were shot in Greenwood, BC, 275 miles from the coast. Several "Harbor" and "Ocean" signs remain there, confusing tourists.
Boats used in the production were provided by the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria, Oregon, and can be seen in its permanent collection.
Several scenes were filmed Greenwood, British Columbia, Canada. A lot of the Japanese extras were Japanese-Canadians who were interned during there war.
Set in 1950, the film traverses two previous decades via flashbacks triggered by the memories of its characters. Its multi-layered form sometimes involves flashbacks within flashbacks, in different time frames, of more than one character, before returning to the story's dominant setting, the murder trial of Kazuo Miyamoto.
"The whole film," said director Scott Hicks, "is about the process of revealing. Nothing is quite what it appears to be, therefore you never give it all away at once, but gradually. That was our guiding principle in the entire overall design."
When Ethan Hawke read the source novel, he became enthralled with the idea of playing Ishmael Chambers. He said, "It's rare you read something where all the characters are fully constructed representations of human beings, with a past and a future. There is so much richness of detail and it's a very interesting story; mysterious, romantic."
Max von Sydow said of his role "I loved the script very much. It's a wonderfully intelligent, rich story with many levels which are cleverly interwoven. It deals with real people that you care about, whom it's possible to understand. Also, Nels is a man of common sense and that's very appealing."
James Cromwell talked about the importance of the story to modern audiences, saying "This is that rare kind of film which informs an audience and alters its perception. Even though I knew this history, it's still compelling. When you adjust your view, you can see it's still mirrored in the events of today."
Celia Weston said of her role, "The character leapt out at me when I read the book. I tracked its film prospects and when I learned that Scott Hicks would direct it, I called my agent, and told him I wanted to be seen." The part was hers because, said Hicks, "she wasn't just Etta the villain, but Etta the grieving mother who'd lost her son."
The film is set against the national crisis which erupted following Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor. The film moves back and forth in time to include scenes of World War II as well as the crisis on American soil.
Of the cast, director Scott Hicks said, "Some of these actors' performances I've grown up with. In fact, they were part of my inspiration to become a filmmaker. Then there is Sam Shepard, a legend of his own both as a writer and an actor, and powerful actors such as James Cromwell, James Rebhorn and Richard Jenkins and Celia Weston. There are also many, many strong character actors and a wonderful Japanese cast."
The movie was originally set to be filmed in the fall of 1997, but was pushed back to early 1998 due to casting difficulties.
The United States of America officially joined the war effort abroad, while confronting at home, a developing climate of paranoia and suspicion towards Japanese Americans. Eventually, by governmental decree, Japanese Americans were relocated to internment facilities where they remained for the duration of the war. When it ended, many returned to their original homesteads.
This was Scott Hicks's second film to be nominated for an Academy Award. The first, Shine (1996), got seven Oscar nominations with one win in 1997.
The role of Hatsue Miyamoto was challenging to cast. Kerry Heysen saw Yûki Kudô in Heaven's Burning (1997), which was shot near Heysen and Hicks' home in South Australia. After watching her in Picture Bride (1994) and Mystery Train (1989), Hicks was convinced he'd found Hatsue. He said, "It was obvious that Youki claimed the role, which is the ideal thing you look for. She has a unique sensibility, placing herself within the emotions of the character so accurately and profoundly it's quite remarkable to watch."
Sam Shepard was impressed by the humanity of the characters, and identified on a personal level with the story's historical events. "This aspect of American history means something to me because my dad was in the Air Force and I grew up in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. I remember very clearly the resulting prejudice against Japanese Americans. Pearl Harbor was still an enormous shock well into the 1950's so it's understandable, as in this story, that people were still full of fear and suspicion."
The film's complex structuring was first begun by screenwriter Ron Bass, who adapted David Guterson's source 1994 novel. Bass said: "What fascinated me about the book was the way it presents the interplay of past and present in our lives...their interconnectedness; how everything that has gone before, all the elements that seemed so accidental, are present in defining who we are, and what we'll do at a given moment."
Of the film, to production designer Jeannine Oppewall, "it shows the arbitrary and capricious nature of life - its randomness - something very difficult for us humans to accept. We all too often resort to a court of law because we need someone to blame."
For source novelist David Guterson, his source novel was the end result of his own contemplation upon an evident reality. He said: "Horrible things happen to innocent people all the time, for no good reason."
According to director Scott Hicks, "the story is told through the gradual unravelling of several different mysteries: what happened at sea...in the war...what happened to Hatsue and Ishmael. I wanted the film to move seamlessly through its different time frames, like a knife through a slice of cake."
Production Designer Jeannine Oppewall joined the producers and director on months of scouting throughout the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. She said: "It was important to find the most poetic and visually arresting locations. Since the story reflects the impact of an accident."
DirectorScott Hicks felt from the outset that a strong ensemble cast was required to tell the story.
The film, like the source novel, is set on San Piedro, a fictional island north of Puget Sound. There, the Anglo and Japanese-American populations have long lived in relative harmony - albeit within a tacit caste system in which immigrants, who are not permitted to own land, work Anglo berry farms. But Japan's shocking action electrifies, and divides, the community. Some people take advantage of their neighbors' tragedy, while others watch in silence as San Piedro's entire Japanese American population is sent into exile.
The film was made and first released about five years after its source novel of the same name, by David Guterson, was first published.
The film exemplifies a dovetailing of story and setting, theme and style and, over-arching these elements, a philosophical perspective about life.
Achieving the kind of coherent vision took exceptional effort on the part of the entire filmmaking group. To get it all right, each kept certain primary realities in the forefront of their minds: the Pacific Northwest is a "character" in and of itself; there must be historical verisimilitude and accuracy; and information was meted out very gradually.
This was Anne Suzuki's film debut, and Reeve Carney's film debut in a physical role. Carney did some voice work in Pom Poko (1994).