After bursting on to the festival scene in 2018 with the much lauded zombie comedy One Cut of the Dead, Shin’ichirô Ueda is back with another skewering of cinematic norms: Special Actors.
Set The Tape’s Nicholas Lay caught up with the writer-director at VIFF 2020 to chat about how his latest idea came about, what influences his style of comedy, and the lessons he’s learning as a feature film maker.
NICHOLAS LAY: Special Actors focuses on alternative forms of acting. What gave you the idea for the story and was there a particular message you wanted to convey through the story and characters?
SHIN’ICHIRÔ UEDA: This film was made through a workshop format, so unlike a regular production we did not have a script or plot when we got started. We selected 15 actors through auditions, and created the story alongside the cast. Initially, we wanted to make a film about psychics and spies, but the scale we wanted versus the budget we had made that was tricky. We realised that we could still make a film about people who “act” as psychics and spies, and that’s how the idea began to develop. I am not the type of director who has a strong message or theme in mind before writing or shooting a film. The message usually comes to me in the midst of the process, and then gradually soaks into the plot. In Special Actors, I wanted to convey that “acting” is not only used by actors and performers, but by everyone — in real life, every day.
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NL: One Cut of the Dead was a huge worldwide success. What lessons did you learn from that experience and how did you apply them to the filmmaking process on Special Actors?
SU: I had directed about 10 short films before One Cut of the Dead, and while I was shooting them I always thought about how they could be selected for a film festival, or how they might be evaluated. I made One Cut of the Dead without thinking about any of those things, I was just doing and creating what I wanted. As a result, it was a big hit and received great reviews. I learned that it is important to believe in what I like and want to do when making a film. One thing that was hard for me to overcome on Special Actors was the pressure of making a film following a major success. I had to make a film that was different from One Cut of the Dead, but also had to meet the high expectations of my audience. This sent me into a slump and for a while I was unable to write. It took some time to get back to the idea that I should do what I want and write what I like, and that’s how I finished the script.
NL: You are at the forefront of a new brand of meta comedy. What are your comedic influences?
SU: I have many influences, but comedians and manga are at the top. The three people I would point to are Hitoshi Matsumoto [a popular comedian in Japan and half of the comedy duo Downtown], Sensha Yoshida [a manga artist who draws comedy], and Kōki Mitani [a screenwriter and film director]. During my high school years I really wanted to be a comedian or a director. That is how much I liked comedy; I was constantly watching comedy shows on TV and reading comedy mangas, so those two mediums had a great influence on me.
NL: You have an eye for identifying previously unknown acting talent. What is your casting process and how do you go about getting the best from your actors?
SU: We auditioned everyone for Special Actors, whether we knew of them or not, and managed to narrow the list from 1,500 actors down to 15. We didn’t have a script at that point, so we could not match the actors to the characters directly. Instead, I went with the actors who made me want to see more of them and those whom I felt I wanted to shoot. Some were established talents, while some had no experience but did have the power to draw people in. This balance was crucial, as I needed a strong collective rather than just a few individual talents. I’m still learning how to get the best from my actors. As a director, I discover something new on set every day, and the more time I spend shooting, the more I realise how important the actors are. When I see that a particular scene cannot be shot or performed any other way, I know that I’ve got it, and it brings me great joy. I try to keep the actors on their toes, because if I give them too much time they tend to overthink the performance and start to “act”, rather then letting it come naturally.
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NL: You’re now working on Popuran. What’s it all about and what can the audience expect?
SU: Shooting has just finished and the film is currently in post-production, but the details have not yet been announced in Japan, so I cannot reveal too much. I’ve had the idea in my head for the past nine years, but only now has it been possible to make it into a film. It’s going to be a comedy unlike One Cut of the Dead and Special Actors, where the gimmick is in the structure of the story. In fact, I’m combining two genres in a way that people would not have imagined, and audiences may receive it differently, depending on whether they are reading into the story or actually just watching the film.
NL: Thanks, Shin’ichirô.
You can see our full coverage of Vancouver International Film Festival 2020 here.