Interview with Ryuhei Kitamura
February 19, 2010
Interviewed by John Wheeler
Camera by Lu Lu and Craig Stubing
Video edit by Lu Lu
Asia Pacific Arts: Tell me about Baton. How did you collaboration with Shunji Iwai come about?
Ryuhei Kitamura: Shunji and I have been friends for five years, especially after I moved to L.A. He lives in my neighborhood, and there aren't many Japanese directors based in L.A. right now, so we hang out. One day, I think it was at a nightclub in Little Tokyo, we both got drunk and suddenly Shunji told me: "Hey, I'm doing this animation project, and it's going nowhere, so why don't you do it?" And I was like "What?" And I was drunk, he was drunk, so I asked "What is the story?" He just pitched me the whole story, and it was great, so even before I read the script, I said "Yes, I want to do it."
I've done video games and music videos and all kinds of stuff, but I am a live-action director, so we had to come up with an idea that makes sense -- why a live-action director like me is doing this project. And he had this idea: "Let's do it in rotoscope." That was very shocking for me. "Woah, nobody's doing that anymore." Everybody used to do it -- that was the beginning of animation -- but nobody's doing it anymore. There has been some rotoscope animation back in the '80s, '90s and recently, but all those movies seemed to me like they just made a live-action movie and turned it into animation -- which doesn't make much sense to me, because [in that case,] I'd prefer to see the actor's face. But because this Baton is a big sci-fi story, if we did it live-action, it'd have to be a $50 million movie. So then it made perfect sense to me [to use rotoscope] and I said "yes, let's do it."
APA: Was the transition to animation difficult for you as a director?
RK: Not really because, after we decided to do it, I brought in my close friend and partner Eric Calderon. He is a great animation producer and did animation like Afro Samurai, and we've been friends for a long time. So I brought in Eric and introduced him to Shunji, and they liked each other so I knew that I had the best guy to back me up. So Eric hooked me up with this animation studio, Titmouse, and we talked a lot about how we're gonna do this because we didn't have much time.
I don't know why, but Shunji asked me at the very last minute to get onboard. So we had like two months to prep, then I had to shoot in Japan and bring back the material, edit it and hand it in to the animation people. We were racing against time. So in this very fast meeting, me, Eric, Shunji and the Titmouse guys just talked about tons of ideas, and we figured out how to make it possible. I always had great support from Eric and the animation team, and I had this great animation director, Mark Brooks, so they are the ones that supported me very well.
APA: Your last film before Baton was Midnight Meat Train. How did your experience producing a film in America differ from in Japan?
RK: I was expecting a bigger difference. I moved to L.A. like four years ago, and until then I was making movies in Japan. I had my agent here and my manager here, and I was doing it back and forth. And then I got this job, Midnight Meat Train, and they wanted to go into pre-production right away. I had about three months to pack up and abandon my country, so I was in a rush. Pre-production, production, post-production: that wasn't that much of a problem for me. A bigger problem for me was to "get the social security number, get a health plan, figure out where to live, buy a car." I felt that it was very brutal in this country, because if you don't have a credit history, you can't do anything. Of course I don't have a credit history; I was starting my new life here. So like, "What? How can I get the car?"
That part was much harder than adjusting to the Hollywood system. Making movies to me it's not that much different. It's all about communicating between my crew and my cast, and I have to be the center of this circle. When I started making movies 25 years ago, it was me and my friends from film school, so it was just three or four of us. Then it's getting bigger and bigger and bigger, so when it comes to Hollywood movies, there are maybe 100 people around me. But my job is to be the center of this big circle.
APA: What influences did you take from older movies for films like Godzilla: Final Wars and Azumi?
RK: It's strange, but I didn't get that much influence from Japanese movies. I was the kid who was at the movie theater all the time watching great American movies and Australian movies back in the '70s and '80s. I got a huge influence from Australian movies like Mad Max and directors like Russell Mulcahy, who did Highlander -- which is one of my favorites -- and of course George Miller (Mad Max). I also love movies like Witness or Gallipoli. So when I was 16 or 17 I decided to become a film director, and because I didn't get much influence from Japanese films, I was thinking about maybe I should go to America or Australia. Because of this simple reason: Gallipoli, Mad Max, Highlander -- and also because of this great Australian rock band INXS -- I decided to go to Australia at that time, and that was the beginning of my career. So I got huge influence from all those great American and Australian movies back in the '80s.
APA: On the other side of animation, what challenges did you have adapting manga into live-action as with Azumi and Sky High?
RK: That's always, always not an easy thing to do. The movie that changed my life is this movie called Versus, for which I wrote the script, directed, produced. I did everything. I had nothing. I was making that movie exactly 10 years ago now, and at that time I was nobody -- no future, nothing -- so I had to do everything myself. So I can write the script myself, and I can create my own world, but it's not easy to adapt somebody's child and turn it into a film. The most important thing for me when I do that kind of thing -- it doesn't matter if it's Azumi, Sky High, Clive Barker or Shunji's script -- my number one rule is I'm not going to disappoint the original creator. Otherwise I can come up with my own story, right? I don't have to do that.
I was surprised that there are way too many movies based on a great book or film, and most of them are not good: they disappoint the creator, disappoint the original filmmaker, disappoint the fans. I don't want to be a part of that. I normally take my job very seriously, but when I do a remake, I take it even more seriously because it's somebody's baby. So I communicate a lot with the original creator. I did communicate a lot with Clive Barker. Sometimes we disagreed on something, but we always found a way through talking it out. The creator of Sky High and Alive -- I made three movies based on his comic -- this guy is Takahashi Tsutomu, and he's like my brother now. Especially when the relationship gets personal, it's even more dangerous because it could be a relationship killer. It's all the same. It doesn't matter if it's based on the book, the script, the movie or the comic, to me the most important thing is communicating with the producers, the original creators, the cast and the crew. That's the only way to make a movie great.
APA: Were you concerned when you took on one of the most famous Japanese cultural icons, Godzilla?
RK: I didn't have much concern. That's the producer's job, I think. The first time the producer asked me to do it, the first thing I said is "Why me?" because, like I said, honesty -- saying whatever needs to be said at the beginning and communication with the producer -- is the only way to make it through. So I was very honest, straight, on my first meeting with the producer of Godzilla and I told him "I used to be a big fan back in the '70s and I love the '60s and '70s Godzilla, but to be honest after '80s I stopped watching it. I feel like you guys just forgot to update it."
If I get a chance to do this I'm going to do something with the spirit back in the '70s and try something new. I said everything: what I love about Godzilla and what I don't love about recent Godzilla movies, and then it was their choice. So I'm very straight to you; I'm honest with you. Now it's up to you. If you think I'm bullshit, then you should hire somebody else. And somehow they hired me. And I'm very proud of what I did on that movie.
APA: What do you take from films like those by Iwai, whose style is very different from your own? In collaborating with Iwai, how did you find a balance between his work and yours?
RK: That's still a mystery for both me and Iwai-san. Our personalities are very different and our style of moviemaking is very different, but somehow we have something in common. Even before we did Baton, we'd meet in L.A. once a month and just talk about lots of things. I don't know why, but we have something in common. I still haven't figured out what it is, but now we are talking about our new projects that are completely different from what we did on Baton. It's not animation. We might do animation again, but now we're talking about TV series, ghost stories.
But even before I met him personally, somebody asked me in an interview, "You always say you don't get much influence from Japanese movies, is there somebody you like in Japanese film industry?" I always said "Shunji Iwai." I respect his movies and his movie Swallowtail Butterfly (1996) -- I think that's the best Japanese movie ever made. Ask him the same question. I don't know what he'll say, but I like that guy. I think he's a genius and a great, great person and a great producer, writer, director and not many people can do that. That guy can do everything. He can write a great script, he can produce on his own, he can direct and he even composes the music.
APA: What is your next project?
RK: You know, it's the internet age so you know I can't mention it. But I'm doing a bunch of stuff, and within a couple of months, we can announce my next movie. I don't want to repeat myself, I always want a challenge. That's why I did Baton, that's why I did Midnight Meat Train because I had never made any horror movies, never made any animation. So whatever I do, the next movie that I do is going to be completely different from the movies that I did before.
Like I said, four years ago I threw away everything, and I moved here to start my new career here. It wasn't that easy, but I survived and I'm not planning to go back. I'm still doing a bunch of stuff back in Japan too. I have my own company, so I'm producing and giving opportunity to younger directors. I think that's part of my job. I have to become a bridge between Japan and America. I know a lot of American studios and producers and creators respect Japanese culture, but it's not always easy to do something together because they can't speak English, and in Hollywood they don't understand Japanese. So I think I'm one of the few people who is actually based here and has done enough filmmaking and knows a lot of people there. And I think I understand the language and the culture pretty well by now, so I'm trying to set up a lot of things -- something based on Japanese animation. One thing I'm working on is based on a huge Japanese comic, and I'm trying to do it as a live-action Hollywood movie. That's one of my passion projects. And I'm developing a different kind of horror movie based on a bestselling author's script. And I'm working on a gangster movie.
APA: Is there a dream project that you've had ever since you were a student?
RK: Yes I do, but I don't think I will have a chance to do it, because I know that's he's going to do it: Mad Max 4. That's my dream project, but I'm pretty sure that George Miller is going to do it, and if he's going to do it, he's going to do it. And he's a genius and a master, so I'm happy to become a fan again.