With the movie industry grinding to a halt due to the spread of COVID-19, filmmakers around the globe have to be more creative than ever if they’re to continue working during the crisis.
It’s likely to be some time before shooting begins for full-length blockbusters, yet, as director Shinichiro Ueda has shown, it’s still possible to make short films while stuck at home.
Ueda, 36, rose to fame in 2018 after his critically acclaimed zombie comedy flick, “One Cut of the Dead” (“Kamera o Tomeru Na!”), made with a budget of just ¥3 million, became the seventh-highest grossing domestic film of the year. Last month, the Shiga Prefecture native decided to reunite its cast remotely for his latest project: “Kamera o Tomeru Na! Rimoto Daisakusen!” (translated as “Don’t Stop the Camera! Remote Operation!”), a short comedy that has been uploaded to YouTube.
“Like everyone, I’ve been sitting at home watching the news and it has been nothing but negativity,” Ueda says. “Every day it seems to get darker and that increases anxiety levels. I started to wonder if there was anything positive I could do to try to put a smile on people’s faces through some light form of entertainment.”
So, he contacted the actors from “One Cut of the Dead” and they agreed to take part.
With the cast on board, Ueda began working on the script, which took him just one night to finish. After that, he arranged a recorded video meeting during which the actors were given their lines and instructions. They then had to film their scenes on their smartphones at home before sending them to the director via a chat app. Some had to be reshot before the editorial process began.
“The actors take on the same characters they played in ‘One Cut.’ The story is a simple one based around the current situation we’re facing,” Ueda says. “Despite the fact that everyone has to stay home because of the coronavirus, director Higurashi (Takayuki Hamatsu) gets a call from his producer asking him to make an episode of a docudrama within the month. At first, it seems like an unreasonable request, but then he hears about being able to do it remotely and decides to take up the challenge.”
The new film even has extras. Ueda asked members of the general public to send videos of themselves doing a choreographed dance via Twitter, and his favorites clips appear in the movie.
“My main goal in doing this was to have fun and try to make people smile,” he says. “I also wanted it to be a possible source of inspiration to other filmmakers out there who are struggling right now. It’s a difficult time for everyone, but it’s important to know that we’re in this together. Around the world cameras have stopped, but the message I’m hoping to send is that it’s possible to keep them rolling with a bit of creativity and imagination.”
As he speaks via Zoom, the passion in Ueda’s voice comes through — passion for not only his current project, but for the motion picture industry in general. Raised in the countryside where the nearest cinema was over an hour away, he had to rely on the local video store for his movie fix as a child. When his father bought him a camcorder, the youngster started working on his own creations, mimicking Hollywood blockbusters such as “Gladiator” and “Leon.”
“I loved playing around with the camcorder and always had it in my hand,” says Ueda. “In high school, I was put in charge of screenwriting and direction for the drama club. Then, when I was around 16, a short film I made was shown to an audience for the first time at a culture festival. It was a big moment for me because I watched movies all the time and suddenly people were watching one of mine.”
Ueda says that the two directors that inspired him the most were Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, who are both known for their nonlinear storytelling and parallel plots. Ueda dreamed of emulating them by one day working in Hollywood. First, though, he decided he had to improve his language skills and subsequently enrolled at an English vocational college in Osaka Prefecture.
“That didn’t go well,” he says with a laugh. “I quit within three months because I wasn’t good and didn’t enjoy it. Then, in my early 20s, I hitchhiked to Tokyo, where I was cheated out of money after getting involved in a kind of pyramid scheme. It left me briefly homeless. I slept in Yoyogi Park for a couple of weeks before moving into a manga cafe where I stayed for about a month. My debt was more than ¥2 million.”
Despite the financial hardship, Ueda remained positive. He took on several part-time jobs to get back on his feet and by his mid-20s was behind the camera again. In 2009, he founded the film production group Panpokopina and soon garnered a reputation for himself in the independent movie world thanks to short films like “Take 8” (2016) and “Last Wedding Dress” (2014).
“One Cut of the Dead” was Ueda’s true breakthrough, however. Filmed at an abandoned water filtration plant in Mito City, Ibaraki Prefecture, it took just eight days to shoot and featured unknown actors who were mostly selected from a series of workshops at the Enbu Seminar drama school. Opening with a six-day run at an 84-seat art house theater, the production company initially targeted 5,000 admissions. Within a year, it had exceeded 2 million.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” says Ueda. “I hoped we would do well enough to maybe help finance my next film, but not in a million years did I see those numbers coming. Momentum really started to build after the Udine Film Festival in Italy. We received a five-minute standing ovation there. It was so long I didn’t know what kind of face to pull. We were all in tears afterward. It was great to be able to celebrate together.”
The movie’s success was described as a Cinderella story by the Japanese press, and it led to a growing interest in Ueda’s previous work, with his short films being screened nationwide. A new edition of his science fiction novel, “Donatsu no Ana no Mukogawa” (translated as “The Other Side of the Donut Hole”), originally published in 2008, was also released.
After debuting at the art house theater in Tokyo, “One Cut of the Dead” was initially only screened at two small independent cinemas before word of mouth spread. Ueda remains thankful to these theaters for giving his film a chance, and recently joined several high-profile directors, including Hirokazu Kore-eda and Shinya Tsukamoto, in getting behind the drive to help these small businesses through the #SaveTheCinema (Minishiata o Sukue!) campaign, a petition calling on the government to compensate cinema owners for lost box-office revenues. He’s also supporting the Mini-Theater Aid crowdfunding initiative.
“If these small theaters collapse, it would have a hugely adverse effect on the film industry in this country,” says Ueda. “Without them, who knows what would have happened to ‘One Cut of the Dead.’ These are places people go to for cinematic diversity. For up-and-coming directors or actors, it could be where it all begins for them. We must do everything we can to protect them.”
To watch “One Cut of the Dead Mission: Remote,” visit https://youtu.be/HTk2wqBxVfY.
In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.