[Rapid Eye Movies]
Stephan is a man of many a talent, or even spotting it. Whether this talent be in the form of an film artist or a movie itself Stephan knows good stuff when he sees it. After all, we have Stephan to thank for introducing the world (outside of the wonderful universe known as Japan) to the film Love Exposure, by Sion Sono. However, this interview was to be about his production and distribution company, Rapid Eye Movies and in particular the film “Underwater Love: A Pink Musical”.
As an apt starting point I mentioned the previous night’s UK Premiere itself, which was hosted, perhaps ironically by Adam Torel, of Third Window Films – the distribution company here in the UK who, incidentally also brought our little country the aforementioned Love Exposure.
Anyway, enough backstory…
MM: Adam [Torel] speaks very highly of you, both personally and professionally. I understand that you know each other quite well, is that correct?
SH: Actually we share some similar tastes and we’re doing some quite similar things. I’ve been running Rapid Eye Movies as a distribution company now for 15 years, and what excites me most is to find new kinds of cinema & films. So, that’s how I focused and ended up releasing a lot Japanese films. And of course, then I came to know what Adam is doing and over the years we became friends. We exchanged a lot about the business part of distribution and what films are made & which people to meet.
MM: As the founder of Rapid Eye Movies, can you tell me why director Shinji was your first choice? Did you know him well before?
SH: I watched the films he’d made so far and found them quite interesting & within the framework of Pink cinema I think he’s the director I liked most. Then I met him in person at places like Nippon Connection, the festival in Germany, and as well in Tokyo… And somehow we liked each other. Even though he hardly speaks English. In fact, he doesn’t speak any English, but we managed to communicate. I think it’s his sense of humour which I really appreciate.
MM: How did the project of “Underwater Love: A Pink Musical” come about?
SH: Actually, the whole thing came up during a dinner with the producer, Miss Keiko Sato. She is credited in all the films she’s made as Asakura Daisuke. You have to check out this year’s Udine catalogue – Udine Far East Film Festival – they had dedicated a whole retrospective of her work. Well, not all her work but they selected 10 to 12 films to be shown there to focus on what she has done, as a producer. She’s a very interesting person. She’s now around 70, and spokes heavy & a really wonderful person. He [Christopher Doyle] talked about her last night. She managed, over the years to have, fresh & young new talent around her and gave them chances to develop films and make them actually. One of these she recently worked with was Imoaka Shinji so he was in a pool of directors at that dinner we had. That’s how things started.
MM: Shinji has been heard saying that he starts to cry when music begins in a film. I have to admit that from only 5 mins in I too was in a state of near tears due to the music & the vibe in the factory scene. Do you ever feel the same with films, or this one?
SH: Actually, I’m glad you mentioned what you thought because that came as a surprise to all of us when we were shooting the film, because there was no time for rehearsals. We just set up and then suddenly song bursts out & they started doing their choreography etc. Only one take, of course. I really love doing musicals. That was the kind of input I gave to the producer…: “ok lets do something together but please lets make a pink musical”. It was kind of a labour of love.
MM: The film is Rapid Eye Movies 1st venture into production and was made in Kokuei’s 50th anniversary year, plus it’s their 500th feature film – did it feel special because of this?
SH: Definitely. I mean, for them it was very much a routine before, making films… and they scaled down the production in recent years. Pink films had sometimes been told that this genre was going to die, because the audiences were getting older & older and cinemas were disappearing… but somehow Sato, the producer always managed to inject some fresh talents and had always been experimental from scratch, from the beginning. For example, the first 3D film in the late fifties were the Pink films. They had been shooting with some incredible techniques, like sex scenes with infrared material in the sixties. So there was always some openness to new forms. In her 500 films that she’s made, Sato embraced this idea and said “lets do a ‘Pink musical’ and get some incredible talent together”, and that was actually my job to do… to involve Christopher Doyle, and get the music [Stereo Total]… She was open enough to say ‘yes’. Other people may have been more unwilling and “just stick in this type”… Sato’s really very open-minded. For them it was very special…. to take the risk. And very special for me, of course it was very special as it was my first movie as producer.
MM: And how does it feel now?
SH: It’s a process and you could even say that it’s a journey, making this film. It took 2 years to get the script right… 7 drafts, which is very unusual with pink films, I believe. The whole thing was a real collaboration. Shooting was only 5 & a half days, which was quite quick and also post production took much longer than most Pink films. Then, the World Premiere was this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, in April. Since then, which is hardly 6 months, the film has already travelled to more than 20 festivals. Among these, there was Puchon, Sitges, Austin Texas, Montreal, Fantasia, Moscow and lots of other places. It has got great exposure and is finding its audience. It’s very original… I’m totally happy with it. The journey continues… It doesn’t stop there. You saw, as you were there last night… the film finds it’s way.
Mini Mini remarks on the brilliant atmosphere at the UK Premiere – i.e. the band doing a few songs first, before the film and therefore familiarising the audience with what was to come.
SH: Yes. Catchy tunes.
MM: Shinji stated in an interview that the producer normally decides on the title for Pink films. Was it you who came up with title of “Underwater Love: A Pink Musical”?
SH: Yes. The Japanese title which they chose is different in meaning… it’s “Onna no kappa”, which means ‘the kappa of the women’, or something like that. In Japan, the kappa is obviously very well known… every kid and child knows about Kappas. Outside Japan nobody knows. So I didn’t want to use that as a title as there would be many questions. And “a pink musical” explains what it’s about and makes you a little curious.
MM: I’d like to ask a about the choreography. The first song & main set-piece, in the factory is brilliantly done. How was it choreographed so beautifully in one take?
SH: They only had a chance to rehearse just 2 days before, with a lady who runs a dance company and studio. They were not professional dancers and were just left to do things together. They just rehearsed 2 days before and then no time on set to do more. Frankly speaking, it’s very charmingly imperfect… there are mistakes in it [Mini Mini mentions a guy coming into view randomly]… exactly, you’ve got it… It’s sweet in a way. It’s not what what you’d see in a Bollywood movie or Baz Luhrman films. It’s not perfection. Like what Chris [Doyle] talked about yesterday, we had to get that energy right.
MM: There is a great solo dance by the kappa, played by (Yoshuri….) How was he, for those specific moves advised to dance?
SH: It was the same choreographer, she advised him accordingly.
MM: The female lead, Sawa Masaki acts very well in this. How was she chosen?
SH: Casting was all done by Imai…Shinji, the director. She’s not from a pink background, so this was her first Pink film and first leading role in a movie She had been in quite a lot of internationally known or seen Japanese films. I don’t know which ones, right now. Thanks to her the film really has a soul. Her character grows in the film, from a woman who is just accepting marriage and everything having to be done in a certain way, to becoming really rebelious… and that was the kind of journey during shooting. She also becomes really open & brings a lot to the film and you really start loving her character. That is really to her credit. She was chosen for various reasons, for example she also had some background in dancing. So… she was ready to do a Pink film, a good actress and she can dance, so there are probably not many in Japan who could do all that. She actually got an award, in the Austin Texas festival for her performance.
MM: As with pink films, there are almost too many effects to mention but In the opening scene, when the kappa is shown eating a cucumber he seems almost jerky, as if not human-like at all – Was this intentional or perhaps a throwback to old visual effects?
SH: This was just to play around with time. The whole effect was nothing more than just a change of speed in the camera. There was no post production… Zero effects in the film. Everything was done by Chis [Doyle]… he was just changing speed and that was it. No time, no budget etc.
MM: Regarding the shooting itself, I believe that a small pickup truck was used as a dolly while shooting a musical number. As an aspiring film-maker myself, can you provide one or two other ‘time and money’ saving tips?
SH: The whole film was shot handheld or with the use of the pick-up truck. Just use whatever you’ve got around you. There is no luxury of bringing in more crew or more equipment. There is no budget or time for more. If there is good space and good people there then you’re able to pull off something really special.
MM: How did Christopher Doyle get involved? Was it due to his connection with certain Asian films?
SH: I just approached him a couple of years ago… and we wanted to do something together. Yeah we met several times and I just asked him and he said “yes”.
MM: I take it you agree with Chris Doyle’s remark about this being not just a film for ‘wanking’… Or ‘wichsen’ as you say in Germany?
SH: [Perhaps shyly] Yeah, yeah, yeah… Something like that. He is right… Pink cinema is… well… you have to understand it. It still needs introduction, I think outside of Japan. Luckily though, some festivals are picking it up more seriously. It is, in a way a sub-genre of cinema but with lots of freedom to experiment, which is hard to find. I like this spirit where you don’t have time or money, but other than that you can do anything you like… Just stick to a few rules. So this is quite exciting.
MM: To be honest, I signed up for the Total Stereo gig (and film Premiere) as soon as I heard the music. I was hooked. Could you tell me a little about the music, Stereo Total and how the situation came about ?
SH: It’s quite interesting. I approached the band, Stereo Total for various reasons. At that time I was just a fan… I still am… a fan of their music. I also realised that the kind of humour and lyrics in their songs make total sense for our project. So, I approached them, we met and based on the 1st script I had they were composing songs and recording them already… but the script kept on changing & changing, and so we shot on a totally different version of the script to what the music was recorded on. But, this was not of any harm to the film, because the lyrics are very poetic in a way, and create a certain kind of atmosphere. Also, the vocals Francoise recorded in the very first take, which were intended to be just used as a kind of pilot and then to be removed by the actors’ singing, never happened… we liked it so much that we said we’ll just use it as it is and it’s perfect. And, I’m so glad we did, so that it’s her voice we hear in the movie.
MM: We’ve been talking about imperfection & you’ve been heard stating you weren’t going for perfection and that Underwater Love has a charm like Spike Jonze’s video for Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You”. Can you expand on this?
SH: I maybe talked about it once. I was referring to amateurs who really try hard to reach perfection and that has something which creates empathy, because they’re very true… in a way. So, I was very happy to have that kind of approach to make the whole film. That also counts for the music choreaography part of it. For various reasons things match very well… we didn’t know before, it just turned out the way it did.
MM: Thank you Stephan. It’s been great talking with you.
Link to “Underwater Love – A Pink Musical” review:
UNDERWATER LOVE: A PINK MUSICAL
Mini Mini’s interview with Brezel Göring (from the soundtrack’s “Stereo Total”) can be found here:
“STEREO TOTAL – Mono Brezel Göring”
[Image courtesy of Third Window Films…]