Norman England’s New Horror Short Now Available Online
Author: James Ballard
Official Website: FEED ME
Special Thanks to Norman England, JR Lipartito and Ryoko Ohtaki
Hot off the heels of his sci-fi satire THE iDol (2006) and last year’s documentary BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE, director Norman England returns with his latest endeavor FEED ME, a low-budget horror short released exclusively as an internet download.
Filmed in English on location in Tokyo, Japan, FEED ME begins with Japanese student Mamiko and her University friends Jason, Freddy and Regan debating the merits of Japanese and American horror films. Attempting to prove the Japanese brand of horror the creepier of the two, Mamiko leads her trio of friends to a nearby field said to be the resting place of Misaru, the slain daughter of a shamed samurai. Although successful in resurrecting Misaru’s spirit, the group’s expectation of a docile, feet-shuffling ghost girl couldn’t be more off the mark. And the evening turns into a fight for survival!
In part a satire of the oft-derided Japanese “ghost girl” genre, the film offers plenty of tongue-in-cheek moments, but is ultimately able to stand on its own as an earnest horror piece.
For his second narrative film Norman worked closely with friend and fellow filmmaker JR Lipartito for the first time. “We were hanging out last year in Shimokitazawa, my town in Tokyo. It was at first just us saying, ‘let’s make a film!’” Says Norman.
Despite his long association with the horror magazine Fangoria, Norman has always been more interested in pursuing the sci-fi genre for his own projects, yet he suggested the two collaborate on a horror piece. “I guess I picked horror since it was the head of summer, which is the fright season in Japan. JR and I started batting ideas around, but none of them were anything to brag about. I went home that night with nothing but the notion to do something with JR. But later that night I got into my zone and came up with the idea of screwing around with the now-tired Japanese ghost girl genre. I didn’t want to do it in a slapstick kind of SCARY MOVIE way, but in a way that could be serious yet silly at the same time, and be done on a nothing budget. Through my involvement with Fangoria, I’m well aware of the fan grumbling concerning the J-horror genre. Basically, I wanted to address both sides of the Japanese horror vs. Western horror debate.”
An unabashed fan of Toho’s Godzilla movies, JR has been moving head-first towards realizing his childhood dreams, after re-locating to Japan eight years ago to teach English and recently establishing himself in the world of filmmaking. “Godzilla was all the inspiration I needed to get into filmmaking. I’ve always been fascinated by the way movies, particularly special effects movies, can bring imaginary creatures and worlds to life right before your eyes. Ever since I was little I wanted to make special effects movies, or more accurately, I wanted to make a Godzilla movie!”
JR’s first film, on which he served as writer-producer-director, was MRA: THE MONSTER REMOVAL AGENCY (2007), which won the Grand Prix award at the Yubari International Student Film Festival in 2008. “MRA is a 20-minute short film that is kind of parody of Japanese tokusatsu series, like Kamen Rider“, says JR. “It’s about a foreign guy living in Japan who quits his steady office job to fight monsters in Tokyo, so in a way it really reflects my own transition from teacher to filmmaker.”
JR has also put in time as a Production Assistant on BRINGING GODZILLA DOWN TO SIZE, and is currently serving as an Assistant Producer for Access Television creating the entertainment news program FOX BACKSTAGE PASS for Fox Japan.
The pair’s vision for FEED ME was a low-budget film that could be planned and produced in a relatively short period of time. With his previous experience working on student films, it was decided JR would take on the role of producer, while Norman would serve as writer-director.
“Then literally the next day, the first draft of FEED ME was sitting in my inbox”, JR recalls. “Honestly I thought Norman’s screenplay was crazy for a so-called “simple” film, but that’s what made the prospect of making it really exciting. I knew that Norman and I would have the motivation to push each other and see it through. So I think from that point on I knew the film was going to work. Moreover, I knew it was going to be fun in a twisted, masochistic sort of way. ”
In the nature of the smaller scale production, FEED ME features a predominantly amateur cast. For Norman, having previously worked with established actors such as Gamera series’ Yukijiro Hotaru and The Grudge series’ Takako Fuji, this was simply a new challenge.
“As a director, it’s almost too easy when you have skilled actors who are overflowing with their own ideas,” Norman explains. “I wanted to know what it was like to work with non-pros. I’ll tell you. It’s tough. I had a great time with the cast, but I had to constantly give them things to do when the camera was rolling. Most actors can fill in those spaces themselves. There were times when someone would deliver a line and then look at me for approval, despite the fact that the camera was running! It was comical at times. But, I have to say, as the production moved on everyone got consistently better.”
Leading the cast is Ryoko Ohtaki, who plays the quiet but free-spoken Mamiko. Born in California and raised in Tokyo, Ryoko became involved in the project through producer JR after re-discovering a flare for acting. “I’ve been interested in theatre since I was a child,” says Ryoko. “I was in the drama club in elementary school, and I also studied a bit of musical acting and took vocal lessons during my high school years. But I really hadn’t done any acting for years, and didn’t know anything about filmmaking. Then I met JR in an acting class at Temple University in Tokyo and started working on his projects. I found the process very interesting and realized again how much I love acting.
“Norman and JR are very adept at creating a good atmosphere,” Ryoko continues. “I really enjoyed the experience, despite the fact that I was very new to the filmmaking.”
Much like her character Mamiko — a Japanese girl studying at an international school with many foreign friends — Ryoko has spent much time studying abroad. “After I finished high school in Tokyo, I went to Penn State University, and then later came back to Tokyo and transferred to Temple University Japan. I lived in Singapore for a couple of years too…I am now in London, doing my Masters degree in Psychoanalysis and Developmental Psychology.”
Compared to the $25,000 budget Norman had at his disposal for THE iDol, FEED ME was produced for a mere $1,000. “For me, when it comes to budget, I just want to have enough to accomplish what I aim to achieve,” says Norman. “I wrote the FEED ME script expecting it to cost nothing. I didn’t have high expectations for the look of the ghost, lighting, camera, acting or anything. I just wanted to make something blindly. Honestly, this is not the way to approach a film, but for some reason I thought it would be fine for this production. And, in hindsight, it was.”
The ambitious film was lucky enough to take advantage of an equally enthusiastic cast and crew. “Since the movie was so super low budget everyone had to pitch in and help,” Ryoko recalls. “We had an Irehi, which is a kind of Japanese tomb stone, but it needed a Shimenawa, or a loop of straw that hangs over it like a necklace. JR and Norman really had no idea how to get or make one of these things so I volunteered to make it, though actually I also hadn’t made things like that before.”
A key sequence in FEED ME also takes place in an ambitious night time setting in the middle of a field, which proved a challenge for the budget-conscious production. “I expected the film to cost nothing and really got caught with my pants down when I realized that I had all these night scenes set in the middle of nowhere. There is no ‘middle of nowhere’ in Tokyo! It’s developed end to end,” laments Norman. For these sequences, the production moved to the Tamagawa River. “It was far from the nearest train station and we had a lot of equipment. In particular, a generator. So I had to rent a truck and get a driver. I also didn’t have the money to pay for people to take taxis home, which would be more than $100 per person. This meant that we had to wrap before the dreaded last train. Add to this that it was summer and the sun didn’t set until 7pm and so we only had 4 hours a night to shoot.”
Nature was sure to provide its own menace to the production as well. “Japan is very humid in the summer, which means we get a lot of insects,” says Norman. “Really weird ones too! Shooting the night scenes by the river meant we had to deal with a field of bizarre bugs. The worst were the cicada. They rest at night, but if provoked, they will put up a fight any time of the day. On our last night the ones sleeping in the tree above the Irehi prop must have decided that they’d had enough and started coming out in swarms. At one point I was barking orders and one swooped down and landed on my chin. If it had been a moment earlier I would have had this huge ugly bug in my mouth. The weirdest thing was our one professional actor Mari, who plays Misaru, the ghost. Mari is kind of… eccentric. At one point she took a bunch of the hard, shed skins of the cicada and clipped them up and down her Kimono. She also had them in her hair. It was a stark contrast to Rachel, the actress who plays Regan. She would scream whenever so much as a gnat landed on her.”
Clocking in at just under 20 minutes the film moves along at a swift pace, incorporating some genuinely great photography and make-up effects and supported by a fun and clever story.
Unlike Norman’s debut film THE iDol, which has screened at various film festivals and events worldwide, FEED ME is available exclusively as a $2 internet download from the film’s website. “As a short film, it’s nearly impossible to get a legitimate release. So, if I don’t show it at festivals or get it released, how will people see it?”, Norman explains. “As everyone except the film industry in Hollywood knows, downloading films is where everything is headed.”
Earnings from FEED ME will go towards Norman’s latest film project IT’S ALL GOOD, which begins shooting in May. The new film stars Japanese singing sensation Stephanie, who made her acting debut earlier this year in Shusuke Kaneko’s PRIDE (Puraido).