One Piece director Emma Sullivan: ‘If you think you’ve understood how big it is, you haven’t.’

One Piece director Emma Sullivan talks influences, fears and surprises when directing the new Netflix adaptation.

British TV director Emma Sullivan is used to daunting tasks – she has, after all, directed Doctor Who in its twelfth season, aiming to satisfy newcomers and old fans of the decade-long series alike. Now, she’s taken up the mantle of One Piece, the Netflix live-action adaptation of the extremely popular manga and anime series.

Sullivan directed two episodes out of the eight in season one, titled ‘Tell No Tales’ and ‘The Pirates Are Coming’, which are each an hour long and are feature-film like in their set size and narrative scope. I sat down to speak with her about her influences, hopes, and fears when approaching the massive, beloved IP that is One Piece.

Read: One Piece review – a real treasure of a Netflix series

One Piece. (L to R) Emily Rudd as Nami, Mackenyu Arata as Roronoa Zoro, Iñaki Godoy as Monkey D. Luffy in season 1 of One Piece. Cr. Casey Crafford/Netflix © 2023

Hi, Emma – I’ve just finished all the episodes of One Piece (live action) and I loved it. Expectations were high, but they were met!

Emma Sullivan: Oh, good. That’s brilliant. Very good to hear!

Were you aware of how big this was going into it? Did you know about One Piece?

Well not when I started, but I mentioned it to my son, who’s 18. I said to him, ‘You know, there’s this rubber pirate story that they’re talking to me about …’. And he was, like, ‘One Piece?’ and I said, ‘One piece of what?’ (laughs). But I soon got to know how big it is … and if you think you’ve understood how big it is, you haven’t. It’s such a massive IP. So yes, it was quite exciting and quite daunting.

Read: One Piece is coming to Netflix – what you need to know

Is that something you were always conscious of while directing? Was there that fear looming over it?

I had a real sense of responsibility. I know how passionate the fans are about it – talking with my son helped me realise how important it is to people over the decades that [Eiichiro] Oda-san’s been writing it for. So I was aware of that and I really wanted to do it credit. The good thing is that we had Oda-san overseeing us. So if we do something and he doesn’t like it, we do it again.

Did you get to meet Eiichiro Oda?

I haven’t met him, but I hear everything he says from the higher-ups.

@screenhubdotcom One Piece director Emma Sullivan (directed eps 3 & 4) chats toSilvi Vann-Wall from ScreenHub. #fyp #OPLA #OnePiece #Netflix #OnePieceLiveAction ♬ original sound – ScreenHub Australia

Was there a list of things you had to adhere to in directing episodes three and four, or did you have complete creative control?

That’s the nice thing about the manga, is you get a real sense of movement and tone because of the way it’s drawn. That way that the frames work together and the action moves along is what I’m trying to bring into the series. And the scripts have all been directly adapted from that source, the original manga. But, you know, just making it into live action gives you a certain amount of creativity, and once I actually get it on film it’s my voice – within the parameters of the show.

A panel from the One Piece manga, by Eiichiro Oda. Image: Viz Media

The sets are incredible, too. Are you used to directing on sets that large?

It’s the biggest show I’ve done so far. I have done Doctor Who, so I’ve definitely been on big sets … but there was a level of detail in those One Piece sets that was just magical. Do you remember playing with action figures as a child? Well, it’s like walking into that. You can open drawers and there’s stuff in the drawers that is story relevant, even though you never see it on camera. The attention to detail was amazing.

One Piece. Iñaki Godoy as Monkey D. Luffy in season 1 of One Piece. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2023.

Did anything completely surprise you about directing those two episodes?

I always try to be open to interpretation from actors – so for instance if they come up and say, ‘Actually, I’ve been thinking about this, and I’d like to do that …’ I’ll take it on board and try it. I like the sense of collaboration. The other thing that often happens with directing is that there are scenes that, on paper, might not seem very exciting or necessary, but once you get it up on its feet it becomes one of your favourite scenes.

Well now I have to ask: what’s your favorite scene?

There’s a really exciting sequence in the mansion that was a lot of fun to make. I can’t say much because of spoilers! But when you see all those shots getting cut together, it’s like, ‘Ah, this is good!’. I also love all the action sequences.

I bet the action sequences were a lot of fun to make.

Yeah, and they’re amazing to watch. We had this guy Koji Kanemoto, who is a Japanese katana specialist, and watching him work is amazing. The stuff Mackenyu (Roronoa Zoro) could already do was incredible, too. I was very impressed by all of that.

I really liked how the series leans into the goofiness of One Piece. It reminded me of films like Batman (1989) mixed with Kung-Fu Hustle. Did you have any particular influences you were drawing from?

Gosh, there are so many influences that it’s hard to narrow it down. I love Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, particularly how the camera moves in that film. I love Takeshi Kitano films – he has this way of showing things that are extremely violent and also really funny at the same time. I love John Wayne films, and I love Deadpool too. All those slightly tongue-in-cheek, meta things. But it’s such a unique IP, isn’t it? You can take influences from everywhere but at the end of the day One Piece is its own thing.

Would you come back for season two if the opportunity arose?

If they asked me, I’d love to. So fingers crossed, and hopefully people will enjoy the series enough to warrant a season two.

The live action One Piece premieres on Netflix on 31 August 2023.

Silvi Vann-Wall is a journalist, podcaster, and filmmaker. They joined ScreenHub as Film Content Lead in 2022. Twitter: @SilviReports