Monday, March 21, 2011

Tuan Hong and Alex Moscato interview

Tuan Hong and Alex Moscato are two Tokyo based film-makers. They began their career with the short film My Ex-Girlfriend's TV, about a guy struggling to get rid of said household appliance, post-break up. They have just finished Use Your Delusion, which is their first feature length film.

Film in Japan:What is Use Your Delusion about?

Alex Moscato: UYD is a dark comedy about the exploits of four foreigner Karaoke contestants ridden with delusions of grandeur and split personality disorder. The camera documents their trials and absurdities as they participate in the Kings of Karaoke competition held in Tokyo, Japan. The audience is taken behind the scenes, into their video blogs, and right into the heart of the drama where our contestants ultimately learn that the true path to becoming the king is not by destroying one’s opponent, but by defeating oneself.

Tuan Hong: The film mainly follows Lugnut, a guy who is so deep into his delusions that he believes he is Axl Rose as well as a living God. He is defending his title as the reigning karaoke champion. His opposition is Virginia, an ex-childhood star turned lawyer who becomes obsessed trying to expose him for just being a regular guy. The other two contestants are Friggy Fresh, a struggling hip hop artist hoping to build a fan base and Travis McDane, who longs to reunite with his ex-band, Scrotus and win their acceptance. The film deals with themes of celebrity culture, identity crisis, and of course, delusion.

FIJ: Where did you get the idea for UYD?

AM: Believe it or not it was based on a hilarious karaoke performance of Hungry like a Wolf [by Duran Duran]. The performance was so funny we just had to write a script. Little had we known at the time what magnitude and depth the script would take on. It really makes us see how any event in one’s life no matter how insignificant it seems at the time, has the potential to grow into an experience of a lifetime.

TH: From the beginning we wanted larger than life characters battling it out in a karaoke tournament. Outlandish karaoke performances and the eccentricities of popular musicians were the main source of inspiration.

FIJ: The film treads a line between comedy and social commentary, how would you classify UYD?

TH: I think it's pretty difficult to pin down UYD. The film really grew organically and as it did it and we had to continually steer the film back to the original intention and themes of the film.

AM: We wanted to make something with depth that was also entertaining and fun. When you watch tabloid coverage of some celebrity scandal you are only dealing with the entertainment aspect of it. And the typical response to it is a reactive knee jerk judgment on how immoral the celebrity is.

So we wanted to turn this on its head and show that we, the viewer, share more in common with the very celebrities whose downfall we revel in. So we created characters who weren’t famous, but acted as if they were. We gave them all of the same quirks and eccentricities. But when watching normal people act as if they were famous makes the entire thing look quite absurd. The result was a hilarious movie that strives to show the audiences the delusions that we all share in society as a whole.

FIJ: How did you find the actors, and how large a team did you have?

AM: The main actors are our close friends. And what makes this movie so unique was that the actors were an integral part of the creative process. They designed their own wardrobe and were a large part in creating their own character. In fact, an inspired monologue in front of the camera had the potential to take the movie in an entirely different direction never conceived before at the time.
TH: The result is four very unique independent perspectives that were brought together by Alex and myself through the editing process and the graphical and artistic look of the film.

FIJ: UYD pokes fun at ex-pats and their cultural mishaps, does any of your own experience come into the film? Are any of the characters exaggerated incarnations of people you've met in Japan?

TH: Living in Japan we come across a lot of foreign guys who come here, receive a lot of attention and let their egos get out of control often leading to self destruction. Some of the ex-pats out in Tokyo strut around like celebrities and completely change how they dress and behave from how they were back in their home country. Tokyo really gives you that liberty to start again with a clean slate and people’s egos do take over.

AM: We saw the humor and the irony in this. It just seemed so absurd. So yes, this was definitely a big influence on how we developed the characters.

FIJ: The film was made on a small budget. What were the challenges of this and what ways did you find to cut corners?

AM: Like many independent films, people contribute out of the love of creating and being part of a film. And what I think is most important when you ask someone for help is to express your enthusiasm and love of the project. That enthusiasm is contagious. And you’d be surprised how many people would want to help you if you just ask. For example, a friend was kind enough to take us up in a Cessna [an airplane] for free so that we could get aerial shots of Tokyo. Another friend, who is a very high profile producer, agreed to compose the theme songs for the characters for free.
So I don’t think the phrase, cutting corners is appropriate. It wasn’t the type of movie where you had to make the most of whatever money you could scrounge from the investors. The movie was conceived from the beginning as getting people together who wanted to share their talents and express themselves. So I guess there were no corners to cut.

TH: Well, we had to stretch the money we had on mainly the locations for the scripted scenes. The majority of the budget went into a multi-staged studio that happened to have a lot of ready-made sets that were suitable for the film. The main karaoke room for the competition took up most of the rest of the budget, it was filmed in the biggest karaoke room of it’s kind in Japan, or so that’s what they claim.

FIJ: The mockumentary style works really well, why did you decide to take this route?

TH: We’d put the actors in front of the camera and have them talk. We used this to help develop their characters and some of their spontaneous monologues turned out to be so dynamic and entertaining, we realized that this was the best way to bring out the depth of the movie. Also, when we filmed the more rigid scripted scenes, something felt stale about it.

AM: We were filming a movie about eccentric people. And we felt the best way to film their absurd eccentricities was to put them in situations where they were free to act completely unexpectedly. Of course this posed a real challenge to the writing and editing. But the result was well worth it.

FIJ: The film features, in its story and the way it's told, lots of social media, "koktv", Facebook, etc. What significance does this have?

TH: The film took over two years to make and in this time we saw how fast the world around us was changing, especially with the impact of the social media. Due to the organic nature of the making of the film, we felt it was essential to include in the narrative.

AM: Our movie is essentially about identity crisis. And as we witness global recession, war, regime change and social upheaval, one cannot help but see that the world is going through a global identity crisis right now. And with the rise of the internet, even traditional media is going through an identity crisis. People, who are increasingly growing skeptical of TV news are turning to the internet and reading blogs of citizen reporters. People download music and film these days instead of buying DVDs or CDs. So in response to all of this, traditional media is trying to branch out into the internet in order to reclaim its subscribers. And the result is a modern media that doesn’t quite know how to define itself as being either new media or old media. It seems stuck in a form of purgatory between heaven and hell trying to atone for its sins of the past, metaphorically. And this is epitomized in our movie in the character Phil Dutton, a famous music producer, who in reaction to plummeting CD sales decides to air the Kings of Karaoke tournament through streaming video.

On the other side there are many musicians and artists who felt excluded from the major production companies who are turning to the Internet to promote themselves. And this is depicted in our movie through the character Friggy Fresh who shamelessly promotes himself through social media and his video blog throughout the movie. His character was influenced by the fact that we see how the power of the internet gives rise to individual voices can be a double edged sword. The internet can be used for self-expression or to rage out against wrongs committed by society, which we see as a powerful productive force. But at the same time it promotes narcissism. Everybody is documenting their lives and promoting themselves to their fans. They are embracing the new media, but seem to be manifesting the ideals of the old media. And this works perfectly with the theme of our movie which focuses on normal people who act like celebrities.

FIJ: This being your first feature, how did you find the transition from making shorts? Did you have to adapt your style?

TH: There were a few difficulties we ran into with making a full feature. The first is dealing with the pace and flow of the film. With the shorts, we had to be really concise with our shots and I was more comfortable with that. With the scenes in UYD they really took a life of their own and I found it difficult to regulate the flow of the film. There was also the problem with the information and how it was presented, a lot happens in the film and with so many major characters it was deceiving to us as we were familiar with the plot, we were too immersed in the film and had difficulty seeing it through fresh eyes.

AM: The fact that we hadn’t made a feature before ironically made it possible for us to make one under our current circumstances at the time. We had no money. Just an idea and a small talented crew. We were extremely idealistic.

I think many people get discouraged when they go through the logistical details of what making a movie actually entails. The money, the locations, the equipment, the time, the organization… And it’s a shame. Cause a lot of talented people with dreams and ambitions of creating something never end up taking the chance to just do it.

We didn’t have the resources to make a feature. But eventually we decided to put our fears to the side. We didn’t know how it would all come together. We just knew that somehow it would work out. And I think it was that mentality that allowed us to secure a lot of great talent and a lot of people who wanted to contribute to making a great film.

FIJ: What challenges, or benefits, came from being a foreign film maker working in Japan?

TH: The obvious hindrance is the language problem, it made it difficult for us to find and seal locations and it raised problems with working with the Japanese actors. Due to the language barrier it was difficult to explain script points and to give them exact directions. A major plus would be Tokyo itself. It's such a vibrant place, we really wanted to show the city to the audience. Showing the locals thoughts and feelings and interacting with the characters also fleshed out the feel of the city. However Tokyo is a really noisy place, there are trucks with loudspeakers blaring, Cicadas in the summer buzzing, and masses of people and traffic bustling about. The sound was an absolute nightmare.

AM: Japan is radically different to anything we’ve experienced in western culture. Things that are strange to us are normal to them and vice versa. We come from a culture that glorifies and encourages one to stand out, while in Japan they encourage one to blend into the community. There is a real sense of beauty and dysfunction to both ways of life. And that really comes through in our characters. They are characters who strive to stand out and seek attention. But we don’t take a one sided stance on it, neither demonizing nor glorifying it. We show the absurdity as well as the humanity in it. And we leave the audience to judge. We ask what it means to be normal, and question where that drive comes from to not want to be normal.

And the beauty of shooting a movie about identity crisis in Japan is that it really is a strange and intriguing country to the foreign observer. There is something so alien yet intriguing about Tokyo. And once you get past all of the quirkiness that surrounds you, there is a real sense of humanity beneath it. These are the very qualities we wanted to instill in our characters.

FIJ: Has the reaction varied between the different audiences you've shown it to?

TH: The foreigners living or that have lived in Japan are the ones that can really get all the small cultural differences. Of course the Japanese audience had difficulties as we have yet to subtitle it to Japanese and the humour is mainly dialogue based and is generally aimed at a Western audience. The audience in New York actually felt rather awkward with some of the humour concerning the cultural differences. Overall though the reaction has been really positive and as we have gone on making changes the response to the pacing and plot comprehension has really improved.

AM: As filmmakers it is very hard to distance yourself from what you make. So to be honest, we had no idea how people would react to the movie. It’s also a movie that switches from dry humor, to goofy, to dark. So we had no idea how the audience would take this. First we were wondering if the humor was either too dry, cryptic or absurd. Then we wondered if the darker scenes would put people off. But when we saw that people were laughing all the way through we realized that we made something entertaining. As for the darker scenes in the movie people loved the acting and others debated the character’s mental health. So it was then that we realized we had made something engaging. To connect with the audience on that level gave us such a feeling of satisfaction and galvanized us to promote the film.

On another note, we also noticed that people tend to identify with one of the four characters. I think this is because the four characters are so different from each other. It is a movie that can be understood from different vantage points. And people felt such a liking or an aversion to specific characters that the way they talked about them resembled coworkers gossiping about other coworkers around the office water cooler. Something that made me laugh.

FIJ: What filmmakers do you admire and what has influenced your work?

TH: We watched many mockumentaries, comedies, documentaries and TV shows like American Idol in the process of making the film and I think the main influences for this film would be Best in Show, Anvil, and Hard Core Logo. Best in Show was the basis, Anvil was discovered in the middle of the film and coincidently it had several similarities to our film. I just found out recently that the process Christopher [Guest] took to make Best in Show was rather similar to ours. Apparently, he filmed over 60 hours of footage of the main characters just talking in front of the camera then it took him 6 months to edit it down which is way over the average in Hollywood. We discovered Hard Core Logo towards the end and I think this influenced in bringing out the depth and dark side to the film. Personally, I admire many filmmakers, but the ones who have inspired me with this project would be Christopher Guest, Woody Allen and Darren Aronfsky.

AM: Our first influence was actually the TV show American Idol. We were awed by all of those crazed fans and the desperation of the contestants and the sensationalism of the entire event in it’s graphics, montages and editing. We knew we wanted to spoof this. And as we worked on the movie we watched a lot of mockumentaries. One of the first mockumentaries we saw was Best In Show. Our movie revolves around four characters as does Christopher Guest’s film. So just watching how he wove the interviews of the four pairs of contestants helped us a lot in understanding how to pace a movie with so many characters. Another film we watched was Anvil. Even though this movie was actually a documentary, it could have been a mockumentary. These characters were goofy and over the top, but there was a real humanity to them. And that is what struck us about the movie. Cause at first, we felt that our characters weren’t likable enough. And watching how in Anvil these characters that would be so easy to hate, you just couldn’t help but fall in love with them. So we wanted to really bring out the humanity in our characters in UYD as well. And I’d say that the last film that really influenced us was Hardcore Logo. We loved how it was dark and arty, but didn’t feel like an art film. There was nothing pretentious to it. And actually on one of the last cuts of our film, we explored the darker sides of the characters more and gave it more of an artistic feel in certain parts of the film.

FIJ: Do you have anything new in the pipeline?

TH: It's been a real journey making the film and for now I would like to focus on getting the film in festivals and on the distribution side of the industry. The writer Haruki Murakami said that writing a novel is very rewarding but it takes a lot out of him and he feels that writing short stories revitalizes him and sparks ideas that could develop into future novels. I feel very much the same way after finishing this film and would love to make some more shorts and music videos before delving again into a full feature. But if the right idea emerges, I'll go with the flow.

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