Saturday, September 26, 2015

2015: That Was The Summer That That Was.

My summer of work has finally come to pass! 

Well, even though it has, it’s not like things have slowed any, and several nifty gigs rest yonder on autumn's horizon. But, as far as the summer of 2015, is concerned: The jobs are done, the bills are out, and all's ancient history!

To recap, my main gig over the summer was shooting stills at Toei Studios for a film called “Scanner.” Directed by Shusuke Kaneko, “Scanner” stars Mansai Nomura, Hiroyuki Miyasako, and Hana Sugisaki, (and others, of course). A big budget (by Japanese standards) film, it was an intense, almost two-month long shoot that was often fun, largely manic, and as is usual for film productions, always exhausting. But I’ll get to this one shortly.

I’ve been subbing like nuts since the last entry. One cool movie I did is “Litchi Hikari Club,” which for argument's sake can be described as “Lord Of The Flies” meets “Robocop.” It’s based on a manga from the 2000s, which in turn is based on a stage play from the 1980s. Although somewhat low-budget (like everything coming out of Japan these days), it is skillfully shot, deftly directed, and very well acted. I highly appreciate its condemning take on fascism, especially given how the government in Japan seems hell bent on going down that tired path one more time. We need all the films we can that expose fascism for what it is: A form of government that turns nations into a playground for egotistical nationalists. (Unfortunately enough, I believe that the garbage film "Attack On Titan" tried to do this same sort of thing, but failed miserably in its attempt.)

Here’s a subbed teaser trailer for the film:

Another film I subbed was Hideo Nakata’s upcoming “Ghost Theater.” Nakata films are always enjoyable to work on because of how basic they are. By "basic" I don’t mean “simple.” I mean something more along the lines of “visceral,” something more connected to one's basic responses than higher intellect. Subbing horror is much more difficult than one would think as the slightest stupid word can snap the audience out of their frightened state. I feel that subtitles tend to make film slightly less scary too, so it’s important to thin them out as much as possible.

Anyway, here’s the trailer for "Ghost Theater," although it doesn’t have subs yet.

I subbed a couple of other films too: “Ju-on, the Final Curse” (Dir: Masayuki Ochiai), “Nowhere Girl” (Dir: Mamoru Oshi), “Love of Love” (Dir: Sion Sono), and some others I can’t recall just now. Nothing much to say about them other than I highly enjoyed subbing them. I take each gig seriously. Even if it's a film I personally don't care for, I know that somewhere out there is someone who's going to love it. My sole responsibility is to help that non-Japanese speaking person get to the heart of the film. It's what I'm hired for.

My work at Eiga Hiho magazine goes well. Despite being in the middle of the Toei shoot, I managed to not miss a deadline (two of them). In fact, after three years of writing for Hiho, I’ve never missed one column! But, really, when in the midst of a shoot this can be rather tough. Sometimes I have to literally sit on a rock in the woods with the set in sight as I bang away on my laptop. Once a setup is ready to rehearse (most stills are shot during rehearsal), I drop my laptop and race over hoping I didn't miss a good photo op. My latest piece in the current issue is a tribute to director Wes Craven...pretty upsetting to see him go so suddenly like that.

And speaking of magazine work, I did my first print story for Fangoria in, like, a coon's age. It's a retelling of the work I did on Takashi Miike's "Yakuza Apocalypse." The cool thing about the article is that my editors let me do it in first person, which they are usually fully against. But because it is a story about working on a Miike film from a staff POV and not the usual "reporter dude goes to set and jots down what they've seen and heard" article, I got  away with it. Awesome cover too. Who doesn't love Elvira? It's the current issue, in case anyone reading is interested.

Anyway, back to the Toei shoot... The job went well, although the pressure was pretty much full-on the entire time. And despite what anyone might think to the contrary, it’s not all that easy being the only non-Japanese on a Japanese film crew (although there was a PA of mixed blood, he seemed to have been born here, whereas I’m still pretty much locked into my New York ways). 

First off, studio films in Japan are run like military outfits. They are highly regulated and there is a kind of weird hierarchy that makes me think I've walked onto the set of "Full Metal Jacket." Well, maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration, but there is enough of this to make me pull my eyes in tight every now and then and think, "WTF?" The crew makes the most of it, but they do so almost like privates making the most of boot camp. But like anything, there is a good side and the Japanese set's good side being that it’s pretty predictable and run like clockwork, which on a long shoot like this is very much welcome.

The shoot circled around three locations, one up in Yamanashi, one down in Chiba, and sets at Toei Studio. The Yamanashi location was pretty much a drag due to the humidity, but the set was well dressed and it was enjoyable getting photos in such an unlikely place. The Chiba location was fun, with a great view of Mt. Fuji. (The photo at the top of this blog entry was taken on that location.) Here, we exploded a house and did some other destructive things, which is always a good way to spend one's working hours. And of course Toei Studio is a lot of fun to work at. While not as big as Toho, it's a decent sized studio with access to lots of stores in the surrounding area. 

Right in the middle of the shoot we had a "moral boosting" party in Studio 7 that was a lot of fun. Tons of food, and gallons of great beer. As I can't really run photos from the film, the two shots above are from the party (the one below is one I don't think the studio will mind since it's just AD Murakami, Kaneko at his monitor, cameraman Kugimiya in his Batman shirt and his assistant Yuka pulling focus). In one, Kaneko is giving us some sort of pep talk (in his ugly yellow shirt), and the other is one of the few shots I have with me in it. This one is with the awesome camera crew. 

But if I can complain for a moment, the really annoying thing about Japanese sets is the food. Unless you like 80% of your intake being rice, you are going to have a hard time filling up. Some days the food was better than others (on good days we got nice, large portions of juicy salmon) and I could skip the rice and fill up on everything else. The worst times are when we were in the middle of nowhere and I couldn’t slip off to a supermarket or convenience store for something to supplement the lack of what I consider real food. Also, the coffee on Japanese sets is of the instant variety with no milk or sugar to be had! WTH is that about? HOWEVER, this was made up for by the ice filled cooler brimming with premium beer at the end of each and every day! Even if I was dead tired, at the end of the long day I'd climb on the upper staff bus and pop one of those suckers open, take a few sips...and then fall fast asleep.

Japanese sets also get lots of “sashi-ire,” which are food gifts brought by sponsors and visitors. The best was when the star of the film, Nomura Mansai, hired a coffee van to come up to Yamanashi from Tokyo and treat us to as many lattes as we could stand. That was a moral booster for sure. Thanks, Mansai-san!

All in all, I'm super happy with the stills I took on set. With each job I do I see improvement in my work and a deeper understanding of the craft. However, it's still a very difficult job because of the limited space on the sets. Also, there are always those on the crew who simply look down on the still photographer. So, while it's a fun, challenging job, sometimes the challenges are more like hindrances. I mean, at least 1/5 of the time I am leaning sideways from the hip with my neck twisted up trying to keep a very heavy camera centered in a tiny space between the camera operator, his two assistants, an AD, and the boom operator. In fact, I had to go to the hospital one day near the end of the shoot having screwed up a back muscle. So, if anyone thinks this is an ideal situation for taking quality photos, then be my guest and give it a try. I'll send you a box of tissues following your mental breakdown one week into the production.

Anyway, I have another still gig coming up in November, a horror film with a US director. That's sure to be a freezing set, but I'll break out my heattech and I should be fine. Also, as it's an American director it should be a whole new experience for me, although it is still basically a Japanese crew. 

Well... Until next time.