Exciting new production debuts at Fantasia, SciFi Japan chats up the director!
Author: Aaron Cooper
Official Site: The iDol
Special thanks to Keith Aiken and Bob Johnson
A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
U.S. born Norman England is known by genre fans as a journalist and photographer of Japanese films and productions. His work has appeared in such magazines as Fangoria, Starlog, Japanese Giants and Hobby Japan, as well as many more Japanese publications. With the help of many of the contacts he’s made through the years, Norman has written, directed and produced the film THE iDol. Norman has graciously agreed to sit with SciFi Japan and discuss THE iDol, which premieres at the Fantasia Film Festival in Montreal, Canada on July 16th, 2006.
SciFi Japan: Before we get into the production details, let’s learn more about Norman England, the person. Tell us a little about yourself and how it was you ended up with a career in the Japanese film industry.
Norman England: My life in Japan began when I moved to Osaka in 1992. Before this I was a guitarist with a rock group and worked in a studio in New York City. I became interested in Japan during the Japanese economic bubble period of the mid ‘80s. At this time there was a wave of nouveau riche Japanese entering the city. It was an exciting time of learning because, more then than today, there was a huge cultural gap. I liked the Japanese I met and, following the unexpected and sudden break up of my band, I decided to move to Japan. To be honest, I didn’t have any clear vision as to why I did so. I guess I did it because it seemed extreme.
After getting to Japan I poked around and did a number of odd jobs. I thought about getting back into music but found I wasn’t too impressed with the local music scene. All anyone cared about was that I came from New York, which everyone insisted was incredibly cool. Although flattering, it annoyed me because I couldn’t take such attitude seriously. So, I gave up music and got into writing. I devoured books and began experimenting with poetry and short story creation. One thing I always loved were Japanese giant monster films, especially Toho produced ones. With the Heisei Godzilla series in full swing, I cut my teeth writing about the experience of being such a fan in Japan for amateur publications. Through friends I made in the Osaka kaiju circle I got a regular gig writing a column in Hobby Japan introducing US genre TV shows. I also began to appear on TV talking about cross-cultural media.
At the end of 1997, video game maker Capcom flew me to LA to cover the set of BIOHAZARD 2 (known as RESIDENT EVIL in the United States), a TV commercial being directed by George Romero of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. There, I made contact with Anthony Ferrante from Fangoria. Anthony put me in contact with Fango editor Tony Timpone who asked I write a piece on director Shusuke Kaneko. I went to Tokyo to interview Mr. Kaneko at Nikkatsu Studio. At the time he was doing the audio mix for his film F, which he shot between GAMERA 2 and GAMERA 3. A few months later I met up with Mr. Kaneko on the set of GAMERA 3. I spent four days there during the shooting at Kyoto Station. At this time I had many chances to talk with Mr. Kaneko and was pleased to find that we had similar views on film and society. Following this, I started to visit Japanese film sets on a regular basis, and met a wealth of directors, producers, and actors. I was commuting regularly between Osaka and Tokyo. Finally, in the fall of 2000, after Mr. Kaneko told me he had gotten the job of directing a Godzilla film, I decided to give up on Osaka and move to Tokyo. I did this because I was able to be on the set of a Godzilla film unhindered, which no one outside of Japan had been able to do before. With this opportunity, I set it upon myself to learn all I could about film creation Japanese style.
GMK (Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack) marked a turning point in my life. I was there from its conception to its premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival. During production I moved freely between the special effect and live action sets, devouring as much information as I could. In return, I wrote about these experiences in a bi-weekly log for the Toho website site at the request of Shogo Tomiyama, who is now president of Toho Motion Pictures. I’ve been to many other sets since then, and spent much time observing and asking questions, even helping out behind the scenes and being tapped as an actor. But GMK was the set that taught me the ways of filmmaking. It was also at this time that I put together Mr. Kaneko’s website, which I still maintain when I can find the time, which isn’t as often as he’d like!
SFJ: How did you get the idea to do a film?
NE: After my GMK experience, I felt a strong urge to put my newfound knowledge to use—and in a way that reflects what I believe comprise filmmaking sagacity. However, one thing I learned from talking to directors is that no one is going to give you a chance unless you first prove yourself. In Japan, the traditional route to becoming a director is the long road of paying dues as an assistant director and then, if you’ve made a good impression, being given the task of directing. As this was not an option for me it meant I had to take matters into my own hands.
SFJ: Did you (or do you) have any influences or mentors that made you believe you could really pull off an entire film production and move you to the next level?
NE: The first person to encourage me to make a film was Tomoo Haraguchi (director of SAKUYA: SLAYER OF DEMONS, special effects for the recent Gamera films, UZUMAKI). I was having dinner with him and Shinji Higuchi (special effects director of the Heisei Gamera trilogy, director of LORELEI: WITCH OF THE PACIFIC OCEAN and SINKING OF JAPAN) in Shibuya back in 2001 when out of the blue Tomoo said he’d be more interested in seeing a Godzilla film directed by me than anyone else. As for a mentor, I would say that the closest person to this is Shusuke Kaneko, as he’s the director I’ve spent the most one on one time with discussing film. He gives me carte blanche on his sets too, so I can poke around and get a feel for what it takes to make a film.
SFJ: Let’s discuss THE iDol more in depth. Tell us a little about the film itself. Do you ‘classify’ it in any way (sci-fi, comedy, etc.)?
NE: It’s a science fiction film that lampoons elements of Japanese culture. It’s a comedy of sorts, but not in the ‘let’s get the audience rolling on the floor’ way. I enjoy poking fun at things I find absurd, and when writing the story I found opportunities to rib a few of the eccentricities of Japan, which for all its charm is kind of a convoluted place. For example, the film centers on Ken, who is an easily swayed ‘otaku,’ or fanboy. Early on in the film there is an exchange in a toy store between Ken and Tanaka, who owns the shop. While not all customer/dealer relationships are this dysfunctional, I have seen such exchanges. So, even though I don’t expect anyone to be shedding tears of laughter, it’s humorous to watch these two go at it.
Getting back to the story, THE iDol details how this collector, Ken, comes into possession of a toy that is in actuality a creature from another world. The toy-like alien then proceeds to mix itself up in Ken’s affairs causing him happiness at first and then grief.
SFJ: What’s the genesis for the storyline of THE iDol? How did you come up with THE idea?
NE: I thought up the premise while riding home on Tokyo’s Chiyoda subway line back in early 2002. Pressed between groups of business men, I sketched a drawing of the alien figure and wrote down a five sentence synopsis. Why I decided on a story centering on an action figure is a good example of how I built the production, which was to work out what I had at my disposal and then incorporate it into the film. So first, while on the train, I recalled a friend who is a top figure / model maker in Japan and asked myself what he could do if I were to tap his talent. I already knew I wanted to do something in science fiction, as it is both my favorite genre and the most underused in Japan. Putting the two together, I came up with the basic story of a toy-like creature terrorizing the universe.
SFJ: What do you hope viewers will take away with them once they’ve viewed the film? Did you have any sort of message you hoped people would get from it?
NE: My favorite film is DAWN OF THE DEAD. While it’s little more than the story of four people trying to survive a zombie plague, it has interesting observations on the nature of consumerism. Like Romero does in his films, I’ve tried to put comments beneath the surface of THE iDol. It’s more attitude than message and can be easily ignored if you don’t care about such things. All I hope is that people enjoy the hour they spend watching it.
SFJ: You’ve said that the film itself was produced on a small budget, yet you have an A-list crew and some surprising cameos, including Yukijiro Hotaru (the Gamera trilogy, GMK, MIKAZUKI, DEEP SEA MONSTER REIGO), Tomoo Haraguchi and Takashi Yamazaki. This is by no means “guerilla filmmaking”. How did you go about gathering together this cast and crew?
NE: You have to realize that in Japan almost no one gets rich making films. They do it because they love filmmaking. As long as the bills are getting paid most people will work on projects they find interesting simply because that’s why they are doing this work in the first place. It’s also a small, tightly woven community. Nearly everyone on my staff and in the film are people I’ve known for years. I’m not saying that everyone jumped at the opportunity to work with me but it wasn’t hard to get people on board once they saw what it was I was trying to do.
SFJ: Especially since you maintained complete creative control, do you mind giving us some insight into the pre-production, production, post-production, essentially overall process from idea to screen? Anything that stood out in the creative process and what has to get done before another stage can be met.
NE: Before anything, I knew I needed a completed script. This took years and I worked closely with Jiro Kaneko, who is a working scriptwriter in Japan. I also had help from Takashi Yamazaki, who wrote and directed RETURNER and just won Best Director of the year for his film ALWAYS: SANCHOME NO YUHI (Always: Sunset on Third Street). Once the script was set, I began creating designs and storyboards. I also went about raising money, which was an annoying and frustrating experience.
One of the bigger challenges was finding actors. Although I didn’t have a lot of money for the production, I didn’t want to mar things with amateur performances. Again, it was a matter of knowing people in the industry and, moreover, these people knowing me. In the case of Yukijiro Hotaru, who I’ve known since GAMERA 3, he has a reputation for helping out upstart productions. I sent him the script and he called me right away asking to join the production.
Takako Fuji, who plays the ghost Kayako in the JU-ON/THE GRUDGE series, came to the production early on. She’s a terrific actress and I often go to see her act in playhouses in Tokyo. Going to the theater is something a director must do to find new talent. This is where I found several of the film’s actors. Also, my producer Shinako Sudo pulled in three fine actors, including Shio Chino, who is a high profile announcer at Fuji TV. My lead actor, Jin Sasaki, came to me through recommendation by Shusuke Kaneko, who had worked with him on the TV show HOLY LAND.
One source of concern was trying to find an actor with a strong vocal presence to do the voice of the alien figure. Throughout shooting everyone asked me what it would sound like. To be honest, I had no idea. I just kept saying, ‘wait and see!’ Well, time passed and I couldn’t find anyone I liked. Then, earlier this year, I was on the set of the first DEATH NOTE and an acquaintance I made on ULTRAMAN MAX, Toshiyuki Watarai, was doing the on-set vocal reading of the character Ryuk for Tatsuya Fujiwara to act against. He was so great and I knew I had found the right guy for the job. And, man, did he nail the figure’s voice perfectly when I took him into the studio!
The most difficult casting was for the magazine idol Mayuka. It’s easy to find pretty girls, but hard to find ones that can act. I looked and looked for nearly two years with no luck. Luckily, I got an in at Stardust Promotions, which is a huge talent agency in Japan. I auditioned girls there until settling on Erina Hayase, who I think is a fine actress and an adorable girl.
Active production commenced in August 2005. Until then I was working out of my home in Shimokitazawa in Tokyo’s Setagaya ward. As a production, we were fortunate because our production manager Rika Hayashi supplied us with a comfortable office from which to operate. This space also doubled as Ken’s office in the film. Shooting began at the end of August and went into the first week of September.
As with most independent movies, post production took a long time. I started editing in October 2005 with Rob Moreno, a Tokyo based film editor. It took us eight months to piece the film together. I enjoy editing, but it’s a tedious, slow moving process.
SFJ: How did you go about raising funds for an independent production?
NE: Raising money was not at all easy. I worked long and hard on a business proposal. In the end the money came from friends and family. It was tough and utterly stressful. The production came to twenty-five thousand dollars. But this number is deceptive because if I were to have paid for everything out and out, it would have cost closer to sixty thousand, maybe more. Of course the upside to having raised the money myself is that I didn’t have to answer to anyone and could make THE iDol how I wanted.
Although there is money in Japan, grants are rare. Japan is very backward in this department. Despite being a wealthy nation with talented people, it’s a culture with a strong business mindset that doesn’t place much value in the arts. That is unless it’s somehow connected to tradition. But there are ways around this if you know where to look, and one thing that greatly benefited the production was getting sponsorship from Panasonic Japan. They offered us a DVX 100A at no charge. While this is a terrific camera, and I did use it in spots, I’m not a big fan of mini-DV. Even though a number of successful films have been shot with it, I wanted to go a step higher and opted for the DVC-PRO format. In this case Panasonic helped us to cut rental deals at vastly discounted rates. I can’t say enough good things about Panasonic Digital DU and Tec’s Rental in Tokyo.
Another resource was film schools in Tokyo. Our producer Shinako was able to get students for some of the PA and camera assistant positions from Japan Academy of Moving Images, and our production manager Rika negotiated studio time at the Tokyo Film Center, along with a couple of their students. All of this went far towards saving money and keeping production costs down.
SFJ: What was the hardest or your least favorite aspect of production?
NE: Shooting was the least enjoyable part of production. Conversely, it was also the most exciting. Our shoot was nine days long. It was grueling. Not just for me, but for everyone. We had days where we would shoot on one side of Tokyo, pack up the trucks and then ride to the other side of the city. I would go to bed at 1am and get up at 4am. Then there was the rain. We got washed out at least four days, which impaired the production a bit. Time is the enemy when shooting. If this were a true short or if I didn’t care to use anything but natural lighting nine days would be enough, but I wanted the film to look as good as it could. Fortunately, I had a brilliant DP named Hiroo Takaoka. He was able to understand what it was I was trying to accomplish and, like most DPs working with first time directors, Hiroo helped me through the spots where I had no experience to draw upon.
SFJ: What was the best or favorite aspect of production?
NE: Whether it’s staff or cast, I enjoy working with creative people. There were so many times during the production when I felt that life doesn’t get better than this. For example, working with Kow Otani (composer for the Gamera trilogy and GMK) on the score was something I won’t soon forget. First, I’ve been a fan of his music since before becoming friends with him. To now find myself sitting in his living room, watching a film I wrote and directed and discussing musical cues and how they can enhance the emotional content is an experience that makes all the tough times worth it.
And, as idiosyncratic as they are, I enjoy working with actors. I tend to give my actors a lot of freedom, correcting their choices only when I feel they’ve gone to a place I don’t want to go. Hotaru was a joy to collaborate with. He’s got so much experience and worked with so many great directors. I would have thought that this would intimidate me, rather I felt the opposite.
Working with Hajime Matsumoto, who did the optical effects for THE iDol, was a dream come true. He’s not too well known outside the industry as he’s fairly reclusive, although you can see him in a rare interview on the Media Blasters release of PYROKINESIS. Matsumoto has worked on countless films and TV shows. He made the Sadako video on the original RING (aka RINGU) film, was FX supervisor on the Heisei Gamera series and GMK, wrote the screenplays for the ZERIAM series, and directed the special effects on last year’s live-action GIGANTOR (Tetsujin-28)movie, among a million other things. Matsumoto-san is the kind of genius who has an innate understanding of the soul of cinema. Often on sets he’s consulted by directors for his opinion on their artistic decisions. When it came time to work with him on THE iDol he was on THE GRUDGE 2 as FX supervisor. He was going back and forth between Takashi Shimizu and me, which I think is kind of cool. I learned more about filmmaking in the time working with him than with anyone else.
SFJ: Did you have any influence on your directorial style?
NE: Not consciously. I don’t try to mimic anyone, although I have moments here and there that pay tribute to films I like. More than anything, the goal of a creator is to find their own voice. It is the hardest thing to do. I don’t know what my style is, but I do know that I won’t find it by matching setups and cutaways of other filmmakers. I would say my influences show in the style of the set. My two favorite sets have been those of George Romero and Shusuke Kaneko. I try to apply their approach, which is to let the production lead itself but to be ready to reign it in at a moment’s notice.
SFJ: Any good stories or anecdotes regarding production you’d like to relate?
NE: Japan is notorious for being a filmmaker unfriendly country, and the bureaucracy does what it can to make it difficult to film. But, this being Japan, they don’t like to say ‘no’ outright. For example, we got permission to film in Shiba Park but were told we couldn’t use a tripod. This is like telling a drummer he can play but just not with drumsticks. Then, when we were shooting, these guys from the city office descended on our set in jump suits and began taking photos of everything with digital cameras and yelling about this and that. Fortunately, our production manager was able to appease them and we could continue shooting.
A story I like happened at Nikkatsu Studio. We shot all the riverbank scenes in the stretch in front of the studio. One day we wrapped the location early and went to Nikkatsu for lunch before moving on to Shibuya. There, I bumped into Shusuke Kaneko, who was in pre-production on DEVIL’S RIGHT HAND/GOD’S LEFT HAND. I asked him why he didn’t stop by the location that morning. He replied, “That was you? I saw your set from the street and thought it was too good looking to be your set.” We both got a laugh out of this. But, other than a few frayed nerves, shooting went off without a hitch.
SFJ: How do you plan or hope to get THE iDol marketed and distributed? Is there any chance for a North American or even worldwide release?
NE: THE iDOL clocks in at 57 minutes, which is not long enough to be considered a feature, and is too long to be considered a short. Frankly, I don’t care; I didn’t determine the length, the story did. Actually, there is a market for films of this length in Japan, which is near unheard of in the US. To be frank, I’ve been so busy finishing the film that I’ve not put much energy into distribution, although throughout the production people interested in the film have approached me. After Fantasia I’ll get to work on this.
SFJ: What kind of marketing will be associated with the film? The film’s website shows off a very cool vinyl figure. Will there be any other merchandise in conjunction with the film?
NE: I’m not a fan of marketing, which is where the basis for the film originates. However, as the main character of the film is an alien figure, I can produce these with a clean conscious—especially since everyone is asking for one! I’m talking to some people now about doing a small run of them, but nothing is set. However, I will be offering the soundtrack at some point and will have a small quantity of them for sale at Fantasia. Again, the reason is because I’ve had people ask me for a copy of Otani’s score, which I think is a Grade A piece of work and should be made available.
SFJ: What are your plans for the future? Do you have any other projects in the works?
NE: I’m developing a science fiction feature now. I feel that science fiction is the most overlooked genre in Japan and might be the next big genre thing here. It’s weird because there is plenty of science fiction in Japanese animation but when it comes to live action there is almost nothing. I’m also producing a documentary on Japanese horror for inclusion on the eventual DVD release of THE GRUDGE 2 in the US.
SFJ: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
NE: I don’t know if I’m really in a position yet to dish out advice to aspiring filmmakers as I think I fall under that banner. However, I can tell you that no matter how successful you get this is not an easy or pretty job. I know filmmakers on every level of success and each offers its own set of difficulties and worries. It never gets easy. And there are many personal sacrifices one has to concede to make a film. In fact, I’d say that if you aren’t willing to make some heavy sacrifices then it’s better not to get into filmmaking. But if you are and you do forge ahead, the personal rewards can be fulfilling.