How is shooting a short documentary different?
With the scope of a feature-length film, you get more story and you suck people in through a longer narrative. With a short film, you're asking people to get very invested, and then you need to pay off that investment in a very short period of time. It's a tricky length in that way. But I think the length is perfect for this subject. It takes you on this journey from the tsunami to the cherry blossom season and really shows you the journey the survivors are on, without dragging it out a moment too long.
How did it feel to conduct these interviews with people who had lost so much?
The difficult thing was dealing with people who had been traumatized and were suffering visibly with their grief. We wanted to make things better and not worse. Honestly, I wasn't sure whether people were going to want to talk to us, but as it was, people seemed happy to know that the rest of the world cared enough to ask them how they were doing. When we were there, it was a very deserted landscape with just a few survivors, wandering around looking for their possessions, and a small number of rescue workers strung out a across a very large, terribly destroyed area. People, it seemed, were happy to find another human being in that space. People were happy to share their stories. Japanese people don't have a reputation for opening up emotionally, and these people really did bare their souls and were so eloquent. I recently met the Japanese ambassador to the U.S., and he said the number one message he's hearing from people in that region now is: "Please don't forget us." Because their struggles continue.
The style of the film has these great lingering images - as the story was coming together, how much did the narrative lead the visuals, versus the other way around?
Aaron Phillips is a very talented cinematographer. He can work on much more complicated jobs, but he can also work - as he did in this case - with a very stripped-down setup. The production style was very much dictated by the fact that we were working in a disaster zone very little crew - just Aaron, myself and a translator. We were carrying the equipment literally on our backs as we trudged around. It's tough to separate the images from the subject, just because the image of the cherry blossom is such a beautiful one, with such a power of visual storytelling. I knew that it would not be just the survivors' words that would tell the story, but also the amazing images that Aaron was able to capture. The storytelling and visual storytelling go hand-in-hand.
The image of the cherry blossom is such a beautiful one, with such a power of visual storytelling.
You've known for taking the music of your films very seriously.
I'm very lucky to know Moby, the wonderful musician whose music I think is so emotional and universal. We had a guy named Pedro Kos cut the music, so it's Moby's music that Pedro and I edited for the film. When you're in post-production, you have the luxury of having all the options before you, and you can try things out. It's a really wonderful adventure. I used to DJ for fun on the side, and I think every filmmaker should be forced to DJ. It's a fantastic skill to have. When you're a DJ, you're taking people on a musical journey, and when you're a filmmaker you're taking them on an immersive journey, which includes music, visuals, sound, dialogue and all that stuff. Being a DJ is just great training, and the music is a part of the process I really enjoy.
Nature has a deep presence in the lives of the Japanese people - what was it like to explore that under such intense circumstances?
Yes, Japanese people have a wonderfully deep relationship with nature. At the same time, of course, they have a very modern and high-tech culture. It's a deep and complicated relationship. I was really lucky that we got a rare interview with the 18th generation cherry master, who knows more than anyone alive about these cherry trees. He was just such a "Yoda" figure with deep, deep wisdom of the trees, and he had so many interesting things to say about them. For example, in the Shinto tradition in Japan, spirits can inhabit these natural features of the world, which people were very conscious of, with so many lives having been lost in that moment. He also talked about nature's healing powers, but pointed out that when something bad happens in our modern world, we're very shocked at the destruction. But that's the mystical way that nature moves - it's creative and destructive all at once. This was a particularly destructive moment, but still, spring comes, and these trees blossom. It's a simple image, but a powerful one: Spring comes, even after the hardest of times.
Monday, July 16 at 10 PM