Saturday, April 19, 2014
I’m back from two weeks on the set of the latest Yoshihiro Nishimura (Tokyo Gore Police, Helldriver) film, and, boy, am I beat to hell…
Film sets are always tough, but director Nishimura seems to take special delight in depriving his staff of shuteye. For more than a few nights we were lucky if we got in 3 hours of sleep. The worst was when getting back to our rooms at 3am, utterly wasted from the day’s shoot that began at 6am, with the call for the next day just a scant 3 hours later, the buses leaving for location at 6am on the dot, no exceptions. Faced with that, it’s pointless to even get undressed. Just jump into bed, get up at 5:59, and get right back to it.
Don’t take this as a complaint. A lack of sleep and a little bit of physical discomfort is a small price to pay to be involved with a director as exciting as Nishimura. Besides, it’s not like I didn’t know this going in. I’ve worked with Nishimura before. I know what his sets are like. On the “Sushi Typhoon: Tokyo Invasion” video I made for the US DVD/ Blu-ray release of “Helldiver” he even states in it that his secret is “no sleep for the crew”.
The shoot went before the cameras at the end of March and the day following the set “Oharai.” This is a ceremony in which a couple of Shinto priests bless the production with incoherent chanting that is capped off with some awesome tasting sake. Following this, the cast / staff climbed into location buses for a grueling 8 hour road trip over to the city of Iga in Mie prefecture (grueling because the seats are so small on Japanese location buses that they make the economy seats of an airplane seem like first class). Iga’s claim to fame is as the birthplace of ninja, or if not their birthplace, then where ninja got their act together through training camps in the area.
While the cast got to stay at the most posh hotel in the city, the crew roughed it in a building within a communal town run by people Nishimura described to me as “the Amish of Japan”. Some kind of communal living experiment, the town was a closed community populated by people who contributed to it with skills they brought to town, carpentry, cooking, sewing, farming, etc. On the wall of the room I shared with 5 other staffers was a handwritten sign reading something like, “be kind to each other and share the road of education”. In fact, one night on the way to the local bathhouse, I passed one of the community centers and from within heard a large group of town folk happily singing the song “Beautiful Sunday”. If you didn’t know a Japanese version of this song exists then check it out:
If I were to make a film about a cult, I don’t think I could come up with a creepier tune than this to show the wacky kind of blissful happiness cults seem bent on bringing out of the followers. Still, the people in the town were cool and when we left 8 days later they gave us a huge barbecue sendoff with some of the best vegetables I’ve ever had and tons of Iga beef and pork. So, who am I to judge? I hope they enjoy the Kool-Aid to their heart’s content.
Much of the shooting took place at Ueno castle in Iga. We spent several long days working on the castle grounds. One particular morning saw about 100 extras on hand from the crack of dawn. The area was blanketed in a very thick, picturesque fog. Looking up at the castle peeking through the mist and all the extras dressed in outfits from a hundred years back, I felt as if I had been suddenly thrust into feudal Japan.
For the castle interiors we shot at the home of some long dead aristocrat that had been turned into a museum. All its rooms were fit with tatami mats and sliding wood doors that when opened overlooked wonderful Japanese style gardens, pretty much standard stuff when it comes to Japan, but nice all the same. I set up my camera gear in a room and had this awesome view for a couple of days.
Perhaps the hardest day was when we went to a strip mining facility. It had been raining from before day break and the roads had turned to mud. I’d gone prepared to the shoot with a proper rain cover for my Nikon D800, but this doesn’t make it any easier. I still had to struggle to keep the rain off the camera lens, and changing large, expensive lenses in a downpour with only two hands is quite challenging.
This being a ninja film (not sure if I mentioned that), we had dozens of ninja extras on this day. Everyone was outfit in traditional ninja black, which the rain managed to make blacker. When shooting black on black, detail tends to get lost in shadows. If I pumped up the aperture to where I was able to see it, then I blew out the rest of the frame. I, of course, shoot in full manual mode, and between the rain and trying to get the right exposure on a large group of men in black, I found myself pushed to my mental limits. Complicating this, the shoot was split into two groups so all the shooting could be completed on schedule, with one group shooting on a ridge high above the main shoot. I had to shuffle up and down the mountain side between the two. With that said, I got some terrific shots this day.
Despite what was the toughest day of the shoot, by its end, when the night had set in and the rain finally over, while the mad rush to pack up was on, I was slushing through the mud between the trucks with the horde of ninja extras returning to their tent, plastic baggies in my sneakers to keep my feet dry, and all I could think was, “what a completely cool day!”
Trying to describe a film set, in particular, a Japanese film set is not easy. Japanese filmmakers deal with each other in a way that is deeply entrenched in the culture. There are many things that irk me about Japan, but there are also a great many things about Japan that don’t irk me. One of the things I appreciate is that despite the difficulty of the shoot not once did I see anyone lose their temper. I think this would be close to impossible in the US. I mean, 50 people living together for two weeks moving from forest to mountains on no sleep and not one person yelling? Not a chance in hell! In fact, it seemed that the more exhausted people got, the more pleasant they got. Go figure…
The closest to anyone getting upset would be Nishimura himself, but most of that was just a director trying to get the shooting pace moving quicker, as if it could get any quicker. I still have echoes of his “Are we ready to shoot?” and his repetitive “Things set yet? Things set yet?” ringing in my ears. When he got this way, us on the crew had to hold in our snickering. Not out of disrespect but just because his delivery is so funny, it’s like he’s just finished downing a pot of coffee and has no idea how it’s affected him.
Basically, Nishimura’s a very funny man with a dynamic way of directing and working with people. Most directors deal with the actors and their performance only. Nishimura is hands on when it comes to camera and lighting and how he wants it shot, framed, and covered. He wants his films to have a particular look, the Nishimura look. He also knows how to get everyone laughing, and every day we’d have to halt the shoot because none of us could stop from busting up.
Another thing worth mentioning about Nishimura is that he never compromises. I mean, never once did I see him compromise the quality of a shoot or the acting. Every director I have worked with has gotten to a point where they have to take into consideration things outside the frame when calling a take “OK”. Nishimura wouldn’t call a shot “OK” unless he felt it had reached its maximum potential, even when we were running hours over schedule. At those points, when I could hardly stand up anymore, my camera feeling like a brick, and I just wanted to crawl into bed, all I wanted to hear from Nishimura was “OK”. But, Nishimura stuck to his guns, which in hindsight, was the right way. I have a lot of respect for him. And, moreover, I like the guy. He’s been an important person in my life.
I guess it’s kind of unusual to find crew guys like myself who are not Japanese on Japanese sets. Almost all of the time non-Japanese are actors (if that’s what you call them). But the short of it is, it’s neither here nor there being a non-Japanese on a Nishimura set, which is as I want. Like everyone on the crew, I’m there to do a job, a job I was given because I’m good at it. This is a business and as such all that matters is the quality of your work, followed by your on-set disposition. Also, I’ve worked for Nishimura for years and years now and this counts for a lot. We both know each other, which makes for zero surprises during shooting. I also know the main staff very well, and from the first shot we are all in sync.
However, Nishimura does like to yell out during the shoot, “Hey, where’s that second-rate foreigner?” To which I’ll respond, “The superior foreigner is over here!” So, yeah, although tough skin is necessary, the Nishimura set is an awesome place to be and I’m grateful to have the chance to work and experience Japan in such an unusual way.
Unfortunately, during the shoot at Iga castle I managed to fall out of a tree when trying to get a shot and hurt my foot. This was made worse by the relentless schedule we were dealing with and the last few days of shooting saw me limping pretty badly. Nishimura jokingly attributed it to my age (I admit I am the oldest staffer on the set) but this is another example of how he is. And, honestly, his chiding doesn’t get to me. The truth is, everyday Nishimura checked on me out of a real concern for my physical condition. (After getting back to Tokyo I went to the hospital and was told I’ll be limping around for a month or so.)
Now that the long shoot is finally over, I am editing photos, which is another huge undertaking. I’ve had to get a new monitor too, as the one I had just wasn’t cutting it in the color correction department. So, that should speed things up. Production photos should be on-line soon. I’m working on the English PR release of the film now as well. I’ll link to that stuff once it's on-line somewhere.
In other news, I’ve finished subtitling Noboru Iguchi’s new film “Live” (which is “live” as in “live broadcast”) and an action flick for Nikkatsu called “High Kick Angles”. I’ve also been working on the newest Takashi Miike film, “Yakuza Apocalypse”, which just started shooting a few days ago. I’ll be on-set off and on until shooting is over. More on that in the future.
Well, I have to go soak my foot and get back to photo editing.
Until next entry… Be cool.