This interview was originally published on April 19, 2011 for Winking At A Girl In The Dark.
This week we shine the Spotlight on Japanese filmmaker, and Harvard and MIT graduate, Atsushi Ogata. Ogata’s first feature film, Cast Me If You Can, premiered in June 2010, as part of the Shanghai International Film Festival’s “Asian New Talent Competition.” We were so happy to sit down with Atsushi to discuss the film and all that this process has meant to him.
CM: Cast Me If You Can is your first feature film. How does it feel to have accomplished such an impressive goal?
AO: For many years, it was my dream to make a feature film. I had been working initially as a video artist, then I had a number of script-writing grants in Germany and Holland and wrote scripts, but my films never went into production. I began acting and performing improv and became a regular on a Dutch TV quiz show for 3 years before finally I started directing short films, which I also wrote and sometimes acted in. My first feature, Cast Me If You Can, is a culmination of all those years of working and learning. I felt that the time was ripe, and it was something I HAD TO DO NOW, or it was never going to happen. I felt stressed out that it might never ever happen, so it was such a big relief when it finally did!
CM: How was the craft of filmmaking first introduced to you?
AO: In high school, I learned to shoot and print my own still photos, and also shot and edited 8mm films. At the time, it was more of a hobby, but when I went to graduate school at M.I.T., I had a chance to work much more intensively in color photography and video shooting/editing. Our school taught mainly documentary filmmaking and video art, so that was my starting point.
CM: Was there much support for the arts in your neighborhood, growing up in Japan? What were some of your first memories of film?
AO: As a child, I never thought I would become an artist. I was rather clumsy in my shop classes and art classes. When I had an assignment to make a cubic box from wood, I couldn’t make the six sides exactly the same, so it became clunky. And I had a hard time carving out sculptures, and I was terrible in my calligraphy classes too. But after I moved to America and began to work with cameras in high school, it came naturally to me – I could use the camera almost unconsciously like a painter’s brush – It was an amazing discovery.
When I was small, I used to watch films/TV shows about wildlife in Africa, and animation about cool thieves and Samurais. I think I really began to have a much stronger impression of fiction film when I moved to New York and began going to the cinemas, watching Clint Eastwood films, among others.
CM: Who are some of your influences when it comes to filmmaking and directing?
AO: I don’t know if I can say they are my “influences,” but I’m inspired by films by Woody Allen, Neil Jordan, Charlie Kauffman, among others. I also watched a lot of Antonioni and Tarkovsky when I was in graduate school.
CM: You are in Boston this week, screening your film as part of the Boston International Film Festival. This is your second time at the BIFF. What first brought you to the Festival?
AO: Since I went to college and grad school in Boston, I’m happy to have a chance to return to Boston to show my films to my friends, former teachers and colleagues. The Boston International Film Festival has been supportive of my films, so it seemed like a perfect opportunity. Last time I was here in 2008, they showed my comedy short Eternally Yours, a battle of wits between an elderly lady and a conman. The Festival coincided with my college reunion at Harvard, so I was able to attend both events at the same time, which was a lot of fun.
CM: So you come off the win in Boston that year for Best Storyline and head back to Japan. At what point did you first think about making Cast Me If You Can? How did that process begin for you?
AO: I began working on the script for Cast Me If You Can in November 2007, so I was probably on my fifth draft or so, when I participated in BIFF in 2008. After winning the Prize for the Best Storyline for my short, I returned to Japan and continued to develop my script further. The original inspiration was (1) an image I had in my mind of the lead actor (who also acted in my previous film) running around Tokyo wearing a police uniform, and (2) “Frasier,” the American TV sit-com, whose humorous father-son relationship reflects also the relationship I have with my own father.
CM: I really enjoyed the movie. I saw the film as being, in part, a story of longing, and of the search for love and a true purpose in life. Can you tell us a bit more about the film, as you see it?
AO: The story is about Hiroshi, a perpetual supporting actor, living in the shadow of his famous playwright father, who is marginalized both at work and at home and is always mistaken for someone else, such as a store clerk or even a kidnapper. One day, luck changes: Hiroshi has a chance to play the lead in a Woody Allen remake, and he also meets his muse Aya, an aspiring actress, who is the only person who doesn’t mistake Hiroshi for someone else. Hiroshi falls for Aya head-over-heels. Through a series of misadventures, Hiroshi tries to court Aya, struggles to play the lead in his own life, and grows as a human being.
CM: As the writer, how much of yourself was injected into the main character?
AO: Cast Me If You Can is a semi-autobiographical comedy. Like Hiroshi in Cast Me If You Can and Zelig in Woody Allen’s film Zelig, I often get mistaken for someone else. Even after landing in Boston this trip, I was at Fedex/Kinko’s on a Saturday morning, sending emails, and a customer came up to me asking me about lamination, totally convinced that I worked there! It happens to me all over the world. A lot of the lines by Kenta, the father character in the film, are taken directly from what my own father says to me, and I’ve also worked as a very minor supporting actor in Holland.
CM: Can you relay a funny story from on set?
AO: Even during the film shoot, a number of times, passersby mistook me for an actor or a production assistant and kept asking me whose film it was. When we were getting ready for a shoot in an actual store, at one point I happened to stand behind the cash register; at that point, a real customer wandered into the store and tried to buy a bunch of sake cans from me! The list goes on and on…
CM: What was something you encountered working on this project that was new for you?
AO: Having to set up our own company, so that we wouldn’t be held personally liable. Securing and working with a number producers and associate producers who helped raise funding. Holding screening events of my previous work to raise funding. Preparing legal investment contracts. Having a talented composer score original scores for the whole film and having professional top performers play the music for the music recording. Securing a distributor who theatrically released our film in more than 16 cities in Japan. Publicizing our film through newspaper, TV, and radio interviews with experienced publicists in countless media. Personally selling 500 advanced tickets for the theatrical screenings and organizing 20 others to sell more than 1500 tickets, in addition to the normal sales at the box-office. Getting a “novelized” version of my film published and sold nation-wide. Getting praise and criticism from thousands of people. Making an audio commentary for the DVD release. Contracting with various sales agents for the ancillary markets. Feeling like Jack Bauer in “24”, sleepless and running an obstacle-race continuously for more than two years straight.
CM: How has the experience of working on your first feature changed you as a director?
AO: Having shot so many kinds of scenes in so many types of locations with experienced cast and crew, I feel much more confident that I can direct more different scenes and stories moving forward.
CM: The film has been very well received on the film festival circuit. Tell us about that success.
AO: Cast Me If You Can had its world premiere at the Shanghai International Film Festival’s Asian New Talent Competition section and has been screened and awarded in festivals in California, New York, Indiana and India, in addition to being theatrically released in more than 16 cities in Japan and in San Francisco. It was inspiring to see the audience truly laughing and crying during the film screening and getting feedback from hundreds of people and being complimented by the jury.
CM: Where did you shoot the film?
AO: The film was shot in Tokyo and all over the neighboring prefectures.
CM: I know you are screening the film at Harvard University on Wednesday, April 20, as a way to help raise awareness and funds for the relief efforts taking part in your homeland of Japan. What is your goal with the screening?
AO: To show uplifting, heart-warming, humorous images from Japan to counter the overdose of disaster TV images from the past month, and also as a way to humanize the country.
CM: Your work is often comedic in nature. Can you speak to the importance of humor, laughter, and levity in life and in art, particularly in times of tragedy?
AO: Humor is what allows us to overcome difficulties in life and to appreciate it further. No matter what a bad day I had, when I describe it, people start laughing. No matter what script I write, it’s never devoid of humor. I think it’s critical that everyone nurtures and develops his/her sense of humor. Humor also provides insights into our daily lives and we learn to think “out of the box.” Even before this recent natural disaster, in Japan for the past 10 years or longer, on average 100 people were committing suicides daily, which seems unthinkable in a materialistically rich nation. With humor, hopefully, people won’t get so stuck in their own misery and can learn to overcome difficulties by laughing them off.
CM: It has been a long journey for you, getting to this high point in your career. A lot of hard work, a lot of challenges along the way. What advice would you give to a young filmmaker who shares your dream? One who is at the beginning of his long and winding journey?
AO: Watch as many films as you can, and see which ones appeal to you and why. Try to work on as many different aspects of filmmaking writing, acting, directing, both on personal projects and on industry/commercial projects to gain knowledge and experience and to build your network. Try out different things and learn from your mistakes. Find the right people to work with, while avoiding the wrong people – easier said than done, but you have to try. And make a film you feel passionately about. It’s so much work and you end up sacrificing so much, so you have to LOVE doing it.
CM: Where does the film screen next?
AO: The Newport Beach Film Festival in California.
CM: Any new projects in the works?
AO: Yes, a caper and an action film, both in development.
CM: Where can people see the film? How can they acquire a copy?
AO: If they are in the New England area, then they can come out to see it at the Boston International Film Festival this Tuesday, April 19th. Cast Me If You Can will be screening at 3:00 p.m. at the AMC/Loews Theater at Boston Common, located at 175 Tremont Street in Boston. For more information on that screening people can visit http://www.bifilmfestival.com/0000011session18.html.
They are also invited to attend the free screening at Harvard University at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, April 20, at Harvard Hall 104 (located next to Johnson Gate).
The DVD (region 2, NTSC) with English subtitles and my audio commentary in English, with a bi-lingual menu, can be ordered on Amazon inside Japan. For outside of Japan, availability is yet to be determined.
CM: What happens to the main characters in your film? Do they live happily ever after?
AO: What happens to the main characters after the ending of the film is up to your imagination.
Since its debut, Cast Me If You Can has been screened at festivals in California, New York, Indiana and India, winning prizes for Best Actress, Best Original Score and Best Title Sequence. The film has been released nation-wide in 16 cities in Japan, as well as in San Francisco, and was recently adapted into a novel.
Born in Japan and raised partly in the U.S., Harvard and MIT graduate, Atsushi Ogata has worked in Holland, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. as a film director, script-writer, video artist and actor.
Ogata’s short film, Eternally Yours, was selected for the prestigious New Directors/New Films Festival 2007 in New York at the MoMA & the Lincoln Center and won awards at the Bangkok, Moondance, and Boston International Film Festivals.
For more information on Cast Me If You Can, please visit the film’s bilingual website at http://www.wakiyakuthemovie.com.