Interview, Older

The Measure of Success

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Synchrony is defined as “simultaneous action, development, or occurrence.” What better word to describe the connection between John Williams (no, not that one) and Shiozaki Shohei, the two principles of production company, 100 Meter Films. From an early age, both men had become enamored with movies. The Welsh raised Williams began making 16mm experimental movies with a used Bolex at the age of fourteen after a viewing of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre: The Wrath of God kindled a desire to pick up a camera. Similarly, Shiozaki’s interest in filmmaking was first kindled when he began watching movies at the theater while a high school student in Nara Prefecture. He realized then how the moving image could emotionally influence the viewer.

Both also eventually uprooted themselves from their homeland. Williams went to teach English in Japan. Intending on tapping Japan’s Bubble Era prosperity to save for film school, he ended up shooting independent shorts instead. Likewise, Shiozaki crossed the Pacific Ocean to attend San Jose State University as a film student. Then in 2001 the parallel trajectories of these two men on opposite ends of the Pacific converged. Williams had completed the lyrical Firefly Dreams and one of the film’s international bookings was Cinequest, a film festival held in San Jose. Shiozaki was in charge of visiting Japanese filmmakers there and thought the Welshman’s name on the roster a mistake. Though Williams was unable to attend, Shiozaki sought him out when he returned to Japan in 2004. Production was ramping up on Williams’ second feature, Starfish Hotel and Shiozaki would serve as assistant director when cameras rolled in 2005. Thus began a strong association founded on a dedication to making engaging movies undoubtedly sparked by their early appreciation of motion pictures. Since then, they have each served as producer on the movie the other is directing. Their movies have earned high praise, awards, and festival screenings around the world. What hasn’t happened yet is the finanicial return, but both Williams and Shiozaki have obviously understood the type of movies they set out to make are not lucrative fare. “Success” carries an entirely different meaning. They have kept to relatively small budget productions shot in local regions relating unique stories as a matter of identity, if not pride. A hundred meters of film doesn’t last long on a movie production, but as their namesake implies, both are achieving alot with relatively little.

(Editor’s Note: This interview was originally conducted in 2014. Revisions have been made with the directors’ supervision)

John, you currently lecture/teach film related subjects at a university. It must seem somewhat ironic as you initially came to teach English in Japan as a way to save for film school. What specifically do you teach?

Williams: I teach Film Production and Scriptwriting at Sophia University to Japanese students and also increasingly to Asian and American students studying in Japan. It’s great to be able to explore ideas about filmmaking with students and to have very multi-cultural classes. The way I teach film has really changed over the last five years and that has helped me understand my own filmmaking process. In my classes students develop a film from an idea to a finished project and every year the student projects get better and better and we attract more and more students who want to study filmmaking and work in the industry, even though we don’t have an actual film production department as such. It is one of my long term goals to try to develop a Film Department within the university.
The content of the class mirrors any actual production process. I chose a short story at the beginning of the year and the students have to adapt it into a Japanese setting, keeping the characters, the theme and some elements of the plot. I insist that they “listen” to the characters in the story and that the theme is expressed in the finished film. I set limits like this so that they can focus less on themselves and more on the work. As a result it seems to liberate them to be more expressive.
Once the script is ready we then proceed very much like a real production. The students choose or are assigned a role (Director, [Assistant Director], [Director of Photography], Production Manager) and stick with that role till the film is in the can. It usually takes them another six months or so to deliver a finished film, but in the last couple of years I’ve had some very nice work.

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Firefly Dreams ©100 Meter Films / Photo by Trevor Almeida

On your debut feature, Firefly Dreams, you admitted to learning that filmmaking is a very collaborative process such as the acting workshops that helped shape the script. Is this process still important today? Are you thankful for the people who challenged your ideas and pushed you to say what you wanted?

Yes, more and more it becomes clear to me that a film is made by many people and that harnessing everybody’s creative energy to go in the same direction is one of the things that a director has to do. I try to be very clear about the kind of film I want to make and what the film is about for me but I try to make [use] as much as I possibly can the creative talents that everybody else has that I lack, from Producers to DOP’s (Directors of Photography) to actors to local people who are helping out. Anything that makes the film better is good as far as I’m concerned and that could be some of the amazing locations that the Film Commission found for us for Sado Tempest, or great creative ideas from the crew or the actors.

I suppose what I meant at the time was that there have been some films in Japan that have suggested a kind of mystical aspect to the Japanese countryside that sometimes can seem like a bit of a self-exoticism. That said, I’m now guilty of exactly the same thing in Sado Tempest where I treat the island of Sado as a place of mystery and almost religious significance.

You’ve professed a discomfort with films and filmmakers that depict the countryside as nostalgic or mysterious or even “foreign” whereas you prefer a more lyrical/poetic approach. Just how fine is that line?

That’s a rather difficult question. I suppose what I meant at the time was that there have been some films in Japan that have suggested a kind of mystical aspect to the Japanese countryside that sometimes can seem like a bit of a self-exoticism. That said, I’m now guilty of exactly the same thing in Sado Tempest where I treat the island of Sado as a place of mystery and almost religious significance. Talking about this would lead to a very long and contradictory kind of answer I feel – but, cliches aside, nature is “sacred” in Japan, at least in many traditions that are transmitted through religion, everyday cultural practice and in the arts, so treating nature in this way is not as simple as I suggested before, and I think even Firefly Dreams has this sense of of a kind of “spiritual” aspect to the countryside in some scenes, helped enormously by Yoshobu Hayano’s eye. (Hayano Yoshinobu was DOP on Firefly Dreams and Sado Tempest)

Both of you display a deep affection for the regional areas of Japan, successfully galvanizing local professionals and the populace in helping to make your films. Is that something you both feel is unique to independent filmmaking, that sense of community?

Williams: I think it’s often more that the local people and authorities galvanize us. It also grew naturally out of the circumstances of a couple of our films, his first feature, and my first and third features. Since we were working in rural areas and depending very much on help and support from Film Commissions and local people this became part of the process. I suppose that in my case, too, I was very influenced early on and still am by the Czech New Wave films and other films where the actors are sometimes non-professionals. Apart from my second feature, Starfish Hotel, I have always had some non-professional actors in the cast and I like the fact that they are really rooted in the place where we are shooting. I’ve never not had professional actors in the cast at the same time though.

Shiozaki: It is not unique to make films in the [local] regions any more now. There are quite a lot of filmmakers who make features in regional areas. If we find something very interesting in a region we’ll probably go there and try to make films, but it is not a complete priority focus on our projects. John and I both write stories that take place in Tokyo and other countries too. But if I make a film in a region next time, my aim is to create a scheme [by which] the regional producers have rights to the film.

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Starfish Hotel ©100 Meter Films / Photo by Taka Koike

Given the attention gained from your debut movie, were you/are you disappointed by the lack of coverage your second effort Starfish Hotel received, John? In my research, I found very few interviews with you or write-ups about it, at least preserved online.

Williams: The film got a lot of coverage in Japanese, but maybe less overseas where it was only released on DVD. I was a bit frustrated as I had wanted to recut the film and was not allowed to do so by the producers. As a result the finished film was not quite what I think it could have been. I think some reviewers were able to look through this and see what the film could have been, but I was aware of its flaws. That said, it has subsequently acquired a small cult following and people still seem very divided about it. In Japan it wasn’t badly received at all and I think the atmosphere of the film was very close to what I wanted, but I would have punched up the pacing and restructured slightly if I’d been able to.

At a time of Sadoko and similar J-horror ghosts, you made something more distinctively gothic and “David Lynch-ian” in tone and visuals. Though you do state borrowing from The Tale of Ugetsu (dir. Kenji Mizoguchi) and Black Cat (dir. Shindo Kaneto) did you encounter roadblocks to bringing a more psychological horror to fruition in Japan?

Distributors and financiers were less comfortable with the less obviously genre film I wanted to make. If I’d pitched it more as a “Horror” film I think it might have gone better, but I’d have had to push all the elements of the film in that direction, which was definitely one direction. In reality, what I wanted to make was a kind of cross between a Film Noir and a Kaidan–a more traditional Japanese horror–and definitely more of an art-house film. At the time though I had not really understood how big the gap is between art-house and commercial cinema.
I’d found the atmosphere of the film in Murakami and the writers who inspired him, including Izumi Kyoka, and Rampo. I loved the hybrid world of Western Detective fiction and Japanese fantasy or supernatural tales and I still do. I’d like to work in the genre again and try to get it to work, but I’d really have to think through how to make the story work and how to make a film that was more commercial with a similar flavor.

I like telling stories from their perspective which we tend to lose the memory of and how it felt in the past. I remember many things that happened and my feelings when I was child so I may be trying to put those into the films before I forget.

Shohei, when you began working on your directorial debut, the short movie The Errand, you had been serving in various production roles since joining 100 Meter Films. Did you feel it was the time to direct your own movie?

Shiozaki: Yes. It was the time for me to move on to the next step, which I always wanted to direct movies. John and 100 Meter Films understood me and invested in my future. I very much appreciated [that] because it was really the first step of my directing career.

You said during a post-screening Q&A at SKIP City International D-Cinema Festival that the English title, The Errand, better disguises the buying cigarettes element and that the Japanese title (Dad’s Cigarettes) was a “mistake.” Do you believe more suggestive titles engage the audience more? What would’ve been a better Japanese title?

Yes, I really believe the title is very important. It is always difficult for me and gives me a headache. The title you come up might sound cool or match the content of the film itself, but that does not always apply to the audience’s curiosity. I still don’t know what was the best title for [the movie]. The English title sounds nice with the image of the poster but it does not seem right if I just do the direct translation of it.

Including your debut feature, Goldfish Go Home!, you’ve directed young children in outstanding performances twice now. Do you have a particular affinity for working with children or do you like telling stories from their perspective?

There was no special attention for children, but I like kids so there was no pressure working with children. But as you say, I like telling stories from their perspective which we tend to lose the memory of and [how it felt] in the past. I remember many things that happened and my feelings when I was child so I may be trying to put those into the movies before I forget.

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Goldfish Go Home! ©100 Meter Films

The story of Goldfish Go Home! was born from gaining a sense of being a minority while studying in America and reassessing the point-of-view of non-Japanese friends you had while growing up. Yet the film is not overtly political. Was there anything specifically that helped shaped the movie into a youthful fantasy story and not a comment on racism per se?

If I want to emphasize that a subject should be told in a political way then I would make a documentary about that subject. All those political elements in the movie are just the setting people [either] already know or have seen and are aware of. Watching that political element within a fantasy world is always the mirror of what we see in reality, [so] I don’t need to emphasize that part prominently in the movie.
And the most important thing is that I wanted to make a fantasy story so bringing up too many political elements may confuse the audience of what the story is about. It is the story of a boy and a girl and goldfish!

John, with your background in French and German literature, it seems like it would only be a matter of time before you dipped into the classics for one of your movies. Would you say that you and the Sado Film Commission found one another at just the right time? Were you ready to mix The Bard with Noh Theater on Sado Tempest?

Williams: Actually I think I was more surprised than anyone else about this. I never imagined that I would attempt a Shakespeare adaptation in Japanese–seems a bit like hubris when you consider the competition. But Sado was so obviously a setting for ‘The Tempest’ that I couldn’t help but incorporate the play. It didn’t start out that way, but the more I learned about the island’s history and culture it became a no-brainer really; so much so that it turned out I wasn’t the first person to think of it–Ninagawa (Yukio) had done a theatrical version of ‘The Tempest’ using Noh in the nineties.

You didn’t want to make a typical “regional film” but instead meant for the movie to reconnect people in the cities to Japan’s natural, historic and cultural treasures; to revisit Sado, but within the context of an exile story. The film commission was understandably wary of this initially. How hard was it to balance these themes in an entertaining manner?

It took some time to convince people that this was a valid approach. The typical “regional film” is designed more to please the people in the region than to please an audience outside the region and most regional films are not released nationally and don’t go to festivals. But I think this is really quite pointless. The whole point of cinema for me is that you can reach an audience anywhere–it may not be a large audience, but at least it is worth considering the fact that someone might be watching your film on DVD or in a festival in Nottingham or Sao Paolo or wherever. The great thing is that we did manage to play a lot of festivals and the Tokyo release went well, so the Film Commission realized that even though the film was dark and stormy it still got the message out to a young audience that Sado Island is a unique and beautiful place.

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Sado Tempest ©100 Meter Films, Pacific Film Partners, Pipedream Pictures / Photo by Taka Koike

I’ve wanted to film ‘The Trial’ for some time now…But it seemed like the right time to do it in Japan at present with all the proposed changes to the Constitution and the recent passage of new laws relating to government secrets.

The Proceedings, your fourth and latest movie, is an adaptation of Kafka’s ‘The Trial’. What attracted you about the material to adapt it into a feature? And specifically, is there something about the story you want to connect with the modern Japanese criminal justice system or society?

I’ve wanted to film ‘The Trial’ for some time now. (Perhaps even since I first read it when I was 15 years old). But it seemed like the right time to do it in Japan at present with all the proposed changes to the Constitution and the recent passage of new laws relating to government secrets. Like many countries in the world Japan is drifting right again, towards nationalism and even a more controlled and closed society. I believe we need to challenge this drift and I hope this film will add to the debate about what is happening here. It is not, however, directly related to the the criminal justice system (flawed as it is). A great film already exists on that subject. (I Just Didn’t Do It by Masayuki Suo).
We did however consult with the Japan Civil Liberties Union whilst preparing the film. This version is more about a more constricting form of arrest that I think all Japanese people suffer from now and which all people in developed countries suffer from – it is an arrest by the “dominant thought system” for want of a better phrase. I’ve used Kafka’s book as a starting point to explore or point at that and also the more “spiritual” and existential aspects of the novel.

Back in a 2010 Gaijinpot.com article, John described a future goal for 100 Meter Films to make a $2-3 million movie every 2 years, but Starfish Hotel budgeted at approximately $1.2 million. Do either of you still think you can achieve that goal?

Williams: Maybe not every 2 years, although at that time I was much more interested in producing, so we were really developing a slate of films. I found that producing requires a full time commitment that stops me from writing and directing, so I’m really focused on that side more now. I was speaking with my Producer’s hat on at the time, but from a Director’s point of view I’d work on any budget level if I thought it was enough money to make a decent film. In the last few years “micro-budgets” have become quite common in many countries, including Japan and the UK, but there are pitfalls to being too cheap. Unless the script is really, really good, even a micro-budget film is a big risk and the problem is that so many films are being made now that micro-budget films have to be really astonishing to compete in festivals, so there is definitely an argument against doing them unless you are starting out and willing to take the risk.

Shiozaki: $2-3 million movies are healthy budgets for filmmakers, but not healthy for producers since those budget level productions are considered the highest risk budgets in Japan. I would still like to achieve that goal, but before that I would like to make the film that can recoup [its budget] and that will get the attention [of a wide] range of audience.

This question ends all interviews. If you could send a 15 word message to your future self 5 years from now, what would you say?

Williams: If in doubt consult Ginsberg and Marley.

Shiozaki: When the time comes, it comes. But if the time does not come, know it.

Excerpted from a full interview to be published in curated eBooks which will be offered for sale sometime in the near future. Please bookmark the Indievisual blog, Backstory, for news when the eBooks are available for purchase.

Filmography

(by Williams)
2014 – The Creature in the Nakagawa Canal (Mokumentary)
1997 – Ima Doko/Where are you now?
1995 – The Man on the Platform
1994 – Voices from Sri Lanka (Documentary)
1993 – Promises
1992 – Sashimi
1991 – Orpheus Pineapple

(by Shiozaki)
2007 – The Errand

Features
(by Williams)
2017 – The Proceedings
2012 – Sado Tempest
2005 – Starfish Hotel
2001 – Firefly Dreams
1996 – Midnight Spin (medium length)

(by Shiozaki)
2012 – Goldfish Go Home!