Film Discussion Interviews & Profiles

Special Actors – An interview with director Shin’ichirô Ueda – VIFF 2020

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.

SU: Thank-you.

You can see our full coverage of Vancouver International Film Festival 2020 here.

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