LOS ANGELES – Sony Corp. Chief Executive Officer Kazuo Hirai personally approved scenes in “The Interview,” the Seth Rogen film that angered North Korea and may have prompted a cyberattack on the company’s Hollywood film studio, according to emails made public by the hackers.
In messages to Sony Pictures Entertainment Co-Chairman Amy Pascal, Hirai gave input and ultimately the go-ahead to an edited scene depicting the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and he asked the studio executive to make sure the filmmakers didn’t allow Kim’s exploding face to make it into versions released outside the United States.
“I’ve given this a lot of thought and would like to go ahead with a variation of version 337,” Hirai wrote in a Sept. 29 email to Pascal. “It would be much appreciated if you could push them a bit further as you mentioned in your email. Also, please ensure that this does not make it into the international version of the release.”
The exchange with Pascal, who runs the company’s film unit, highlights the unusual scrutiny senior Sony executives gave the comedy, about a CIA attempt to assassinate Kim.
It also shows how Pascal worked to balance their demands with the filmmakers’ as she tried to get “The Interview” approved for release.
Never before had Pascal received input from Sony’s Tokyo headquarters on a picture, she said in an email to Rogen, who co-produced, stars in and co-directed “The Interview.”
“As embarrassing as this has been from my point of view, you have to appreciate the fact that we haven’t just dictated to you what it had to be,” Pascal said in a Sept. 25 email to Rogen. “Given that Ihave never gotten one note on anything from our parent company in the entire 25 years that I have worked for them.”
Sony in Tokyo declined to make Hirai available to comment on his involvement in the film. A spokeswoman for Sony Pictures in California declined to comment on Pascal’s behalf. Through a spokesman, Rogen declined to comment.
The emails are included in about 33,000 documents stolen from Sony’s computer system and uploaded to the Internet in the cyberattack. The data include salary spreadsheets for 6,700 employees of Sony Pictures and Social Security numbers for celebrities.
Pascal and other Sony film executives asked Rogen to remove some of the gore from the scene in which Kim dies in a slow-motion fireball. The aim of the cuts was to emphasize the comedic nature of the film and depict the scene in a more cartoonish light.
“In shot #337 there is no face melting, less fire in the hair, fewer embers on the face, and the head explosion has been considerably obscured by the fire, as well as darkened to look less like flesh,” Pascal wrote to Hirai on Sept. 28. “We arrived at this shot (#337) after much cajoling and resistance from the filmmakers.”
The movie has drawn scorn from North Korean officials, who called it an “act of war” and in June promised to “mercilessly destroy” anyone who had a hand in making it.
The hackers were linked by Sony investigators to a group associated with North Korea, people with knowledge of the matter said last week. Many cybersecurity experts say the episode bears the hallmarks of a hacking group with suspected links to North Korea that struck South Korean banks and media companies in 2013.
North Korea, which has denied any involvement in the Sony episode, released a statement this month saying the hack “might be a righteous deed” of its supporters or sympathizers.
In the emails seen, Hirai didn’t mention the possibility of provoking retaliation from North Korea. Executives including Michael Lynton, chief executive officer of Sony Entertainment, and Nicole Seligman, who is president of Sony Corp. of America, shared published reports on North Korea’s relationship with Japan.
“I haven’t the foggiest notion how to deal with Japanese politics as it relates to Korea so all I can do is make sure that Sony won’t be put in a bad situation and even that is subjective,” Pascal wrote to Rogen on Sept. 25 while asking for him to tone down the gore.
‘Falling on my sword’
Pascal voiced support for Rogen and highlighted her efforts to keep “The Interview” moving forward as executives raised questions and North Korea spoke out against the movie.
“I’m not taking no for an answer,” Pascal wrote. “If I was prepared to do that, we would have been done a long time ago. . . . I would have done the easy thing and shut this down but I haven’t, much to everyone’s incredible annoyance here.”
“The Interview” is scheduled to open on Dec. 25. The film stars Rogen and James Franco as producer and host, respectively, of “Skylark Tonight,” a celebrity tabloid show. The two find out Kim is a fan and land an interview they hope will build their journalistic credentials. The CIA then recruits them to kill the North Korean leader.
The Sony emails reveal how the executives weighed the risks of making the “The Interview.” As far back as July, executives focused on the scene in which Kim is killed.
“In the interest of getting this approved, I would still like to see them eliminate the tendril of flesh on the left side of his forehead that comes just before the fireball,” Doug Belgrad, president of Sony Pictures Entertainment motion picture group, said in a July 19 email to Pascal.
In response, Pascal presses Belgrad to negotiate the changes with the filmmakers.
“I don’t feel like falling on my sword for this one,” she added. “No other studio would even touch this movie and we all know it.”