Spoiler alert: The following story includes details about Sony’s film “The Interview,” which has yet to be released.
Two months before a hacking attack brought Sony Pictures Entertainment to its knees, the studio endured a crisis of another kind: Japan’s jitters over assassinating the leader of North Korea on the big screen.
Concerns about the style in which Kim Jong-un’s head explodes in a climactic scene in Sony’s film “The Interview” originated from the highest ranks of the global conglomerate.
These worries, expressed in a private email correspondence between the studio chief and the filmmaker, underscore just how sensitive the subject matter was to the Japanese corporation whose country has attempted to open dialogue with its reclusive neighbor.
North Korea, or its sympathizers, are being investigated as suspects in one of the most devastating cyber attacks on a major corporation in U.S. history. While North Korea publicly denied being behind the hack, it praised the perpetrators, and the group claiming responsibility, the Guardians of Peace, demanded Sony halt distribution of what it called “the movie of terrorism.”
Anxiety over the comedy came to light this week, as hackers released gigabytes worth of emails from Sony Pictures Co-Chairman Amy Pascal and from Steven Mosko, president of Sony Pictures Television. The communications are authentic, according to two people with direct knowledge of the matter. In a series of email exchanges dated Sept. 25, she and filmmaker Seth Rogen discuss how to address worries about Kim’s violent on-screen demise.
“You have the power to help me here,” Pascal wrote to Rogen. “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.”
Rogen responded: “We will make it less gory. There are currently four burn marks on his face. We will take out three of them, leaving only one. We reduce the flaming hair by 50% … The head explosion can’t be more obscured than it is because we honestly feel that if it’s any more obscured you won’t be able to tell its exploding and the joke won’t work. Do you think this will help? Is it enough?”
In the R-rated comedy, due for release on Dec. 25, two American TV journalists travel to North Korea to interview its young but reclusive leader. Along the way, they’re recruited by the CIA to try and assassinate him. The duo carry out their mission, and Kim dies as a result of a confrontation between a tank and a helicopter played out in slow motion, with many fiery special effects.
Kim’s death was so bloody it apparently prompted Kaz Hirai, CEO of the studio’s parent corporation, to express some unspecified worries, according to the emails. North Korea denounced the film to the United Nations and to President Obama, and called it, among other things, “an act of war.”
Pascal noted, in her correspondence with Rogen, that she has never “gotten one note on anything” from Sony corporation over her 25-year career with the studio. Although she said she acknowledges the circumstances are “embarrassing,” she added, “we haven’t just dictated to you.”
Rogen, the 32-year-old, Canadian-born funny guy and star of comedies like “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express,” wrote the following to Pascal: “We will play with the color of the head chunks to try to make them less gross.”
This was part of an exchange that had been going on since at least the summer. Rogen delivered his first revision on July 18, only to hear on Aug. 6 that it had been rejected by Sony brass, which led to the further revisions in September.
Both Sony and Rogen’s representatives declined comment.
The back and forth continued on Sept. 26, when Rogen sent an email containing new video footage. Looking for feedback, Rogen followed up three days later with the subject line: “Is no news good news?”
Pascal responds: “Let’s talk in the am. I need one night without dreaming about head explosions. But I am damn happy.”
On Oct. 6, the epic wrangling over the worrisome 15 seconds of film — a slow-motion sequence set to Katy Perry’s “Firework” in which Kim, played by the actor Randall Park, is fatally incinerated as his helicopter explodes just as he’s about to order the launch of some nuclear missiles — comes to an end.
Rogen writes: “This is it!!! We removed the fire from the hair and the entire secondary wave of head chunks. Please tell us this is over now. Thanks so much!!” The final film sequence, which runs about two minutes, is attached.
Pascal doesn’t answer Rogen directly but forwards his message to other Sony Pictures insiders, including studio CEO Michael Lynton and president Doug Belgrad.
It was about this time that news reports said that Kim, the North Korean leader, had dropped from sight, fueling rumors he might have been ousted in a coup d’etat.
“Very good,” Belgrad wrote after watching the new footage. “I’m just happy everybody’s finally happy. Now we go make this a giant hit and hope that Kim Jong-un hasn’t been deposed before our movie comes out (I can’t believe I’m actually saying that!).”
Kim wasn’t deposed. And he clearly wasn’t happy. His government has officially denied a connection to the hacking attack, but praised those who carried it out, calling their action “a righteous deed.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.