Interview: John Foster

Feature by   |  Apr 26, 2005

For 2 years I worked as Co-coordinator on Sky Movies short films season, and quickly came to realize that for verve, wit and style, short films are the David to Hollywood’s bloated Goliath.

One day Ara Paiaya’s original ‘Dubbed & Dangerous’ landed on my desk. I watched it with my colleague and we both knew our season had to have this movie. Here was a film that transplanted Heroic Bloodshed from Hong Kong to Scotland, mixed it with a splash of Jackie Chan and was a joy from start to finish.

“Believe it or not, the reason I decided to mix the yakuza and horror genres in ‘Elegant Slaughter’ is because of Shakespeare!”

I had a similar experience in January this year when American director John Foster sent me ‘Kyoto Nocturnes, Part 1: Elegant Slaughter‘. Confident, bold, imaginative and influenced by cinema of the East, ‘Elegant Slaughter’ takes the nihilism of Japanese yakuza movies and concocts a sharp, mischievous brew of gangsters, lethal geishas and vengeful zombies.

John was kind enough to take time out of his schedule to talk about making a low budget short in Japan, what Eastern flicks float his boat and more. Read on and then look out for ‘Elegant Slaughter’!

Rob Daniel: John, I really enjoyed ‘Kyoto Nocturnes, Part 1: Elegant Slaughter’. What had you done prior to it?

John Foster: ‘Kyoto Nocturnes’ is my second film. My first was ‘Rendezvous with Zack’, a short that crossed film noir with Hong Kong style gun-fu. At the time I loved the cinematography in films like ‘Ashes of Time‘, ‘The Bride with White Hair‘, and ‘Chungking Express‘, so I used some of the same techniques as those films like the highly saturated colour palette and the step-printing. It’s about three fugitives hiding out in a bar after they’ve pulled a bank job. They’re waiting for their leader, Zack, to arrive with their money, but the cops are closing in on them. It won best short film at two festivals in the U.S. and also appeared on cable television for a couple of years.

RD: What drew you to the yakuza genre and why did you decide to mix it with horror?

JF: I didn’t really discover yakuza films until about five or six years ago. Two directors drew me to the yakuza genre: Tai Kato and Kinji Fukasaku. I was really struck with the way Kato uses low angles and has characters diving in and out of the frame during action scenes. Fukasaku really captures the sense of anarchy and chaos of a gang war or shootout, and then he freezes on a dramatic image. As you can probably tell, I like films and directors that bring a totally unique style to filming action. I’m trying to find my own action style in ‘Kyoto Nocturnes’.

Believe it or not, the reason I decided to mix the yakuza and horror genres in ‘Elegant Slaughter’ is because of Shakespeare! To me, Shakespeare uses the supernatural elements to reveal his character’s inner desires and fears. And, of course, supernatural elements just make a story more interesting. Who doesn’t love a good ghost story?

In ‘Elegant Slaughter’, the bloody and mutilated ghosts of the yakuza soldiers tell us about Boss Watanabe. He’s losing his grip on reality and sanity just as he’s losing his grip on control of Kyoto’s yakuza underworld.

RD: How has the response to Elegant Slaughter been so far?

JF: So far the response has been very positive and enthusiastic. You obviously liked it otherwise we wouldn’t be doing this interview! Mark Schilling, who wrote ‘The Yakuza Movie Book’, called the film “a stylishly off-kilter entertainment that mixes yakuza and other Asian action genres to humorous and horrific effect.” He also thought it was “a strong start to the planned series.” That really made me feel good.

A local journalist from the Kyoto area told me he was really impressed with how the film captured Kyoto’s beauty without trying to show the tourist spots the city is so famous for. A few other reviewers have seen the movie and told me they really liked it, but I haven’t seen their reviews yet.

RD: Elegant Slaughter’s cast and crew have some pretty impressive credentials. Could you tell us about the people you worked with, and how you attracted them to project?

JF: I was very, very lucky to have an excellent cast and crew, especially when you consider that when I started ‘Elegant Slaughter’, I had only one tiny connection to the Japanese film industry. I had lived in Fukuoka during the mid 1990s, and I was a volunteer with the Fukuoka Asian Film Festival. When I decided to make ‘Elegant Slaughter’, I asked if they could introduce me to any filmmakers in the Osaka area. One of my guardian angels was Katsuyuki Taguchi, the technical coordinator of Panasonic’s Camera Promotion Team. I couldn’t have made it through post-production without his advice and introductions to key people like my editor.

My two leading actors, Keishu Tsumagata (Boss Watanabe) and Manabu Inoue (Uchida) were a joy to work with. Tsumagata-san has over 40 years experience and Inoue-san about 20 years, so they were completely professional. I wanted both characters to be very complex, and we really dug deeply into their motivations and personalities during rehearsals. I think both actors give a psychological depth to their roles that you don’t find in many genre movies.

My cinematographer, Akihiro Matsuura, doesn’t speak any English except for four or five curse words I won’t mention here, but he was my closest friend and ally on the set. Many people have commented on how the film looks like we spent a lot more money on it than we did, and a large reason for that is Matsuura-san’s cinematography and the lighting of Kazuya Kishida. Kishida-san and his two assistants lit the entire film by themselves. In America for a film of the same size, the lighting crew would have been at least nine or ten people!

When I talk about the film’s visual style, I have to mention two other key contributors. Susumu Nakatani of Kid’s Company created the makeup for the yakuza ghosts, and all the bullet wounds and sword slashes look very realistic. One of the ghosts (Hiroshige Yano) has individual shards of glass sticking out of his face, and that makeup took hours to put on! You can’t have a yakuza film without tattoos, and the Needlework Crew came up with some elaborate tattoo designs that look like the real deal. Kawamoto-san, the lead tattoo artist, was an elementary school classmate of one of my best friends here, so they did the film for free!

In post-production I really relied on my editor, Kazuo Kajikawa. The film has two pretty wild action scenes, and they took a long time to put together. Kajikawa-san did a great job on them and the dramatic moments as well. I didn’t realize it when I was first introduced to him, but Kajikawa-san is one of the top period drama editors in Japan, and he’s worked on some really big television shows here.

‘Elegant Slaughter’ is a synthesis of American and Japanese cultures, and I wanted the music to reflect both cultures. Composer Kentaro Nojima was the perfect choice because he feels equally at home in both musical cultures, and he’s scored over thirty yakuza and chambara films. In fact, he was working on Riki Takeuchi‘s new movie and a movie starring Sonny Chiba at the same time he was working on ‘Elegant Slaughter’.

I think two things attracted all these people to ‘Elegant Slaughter’. The first is that for Japan, ‘Kyoto Nocturnes’ is a pretty unusual project. There aren’t many American directors here trying to direct a Japanese yakuza film. When you combine that with the fact that I don’t speak much Japanese and this was an independent film I was financing myself – people were curious about what I was doing. After that initial curiosity I think the script intrigued people. It’s definitely a yakuza film, but there are some horror elements in it and there are the complex action scenes. One of the things I’m most proud of is that cast and crew members have told me how different this film was from other films they’ve worked on, from my approach to working with actors to the dialogue to the way we use colour to the way I perceive yakuza and the city of Kyoto, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

RD: How did you find working in Japan with a Japanese cast and crew? Were there any language or cultural challenges?

JF: Since my Japanese isn’t very good, I had to have an interpreter to communicate with most of the crew. Of all the people who worked on the film, only four spoke any English, and none of them spoke it fluently. We looked into hiring a professional interpreter, but they wanted about four hundred dollars a day, and that was way beyond my budget. We ended up using a combination of volunteers. My main interpreter during production was a graduate student who has since become a high school English teacher, and my associate producer acted as my interpreter during post-production.

I wanted to avoid communication and cultural problems, so I made the conscious decision to be the only non-Japanese person on the crew. I still think this was a good idea, but it made life very stressful for me because I couldn’t communicate with most of the cast and crew in my native language, and a director has to be able get his ideas across clearly. Miraculously, there were never any major communication problems, and my Japanese listening skills are good enough that I could usually tell when my interpreter had misunderstood what I wanted them to translate. It didn’t stop me from worrying a lot, though.

RD: What advice would you give to other short filmmakers considering shooting abroad?

JF: First, make sure you speak the language of whatever country you’re shooting in or have a great interpreter! I’d also recommend finding someone who works in that country’s film industry to show you the ropes. I looked for such a person but never really found one, so I had to go it alone and learn the Japanese system as I went. And I’m still learning it. Finally, make sure you keep on open mind. Sometimes you have to do things the way your crew is used to doing them even though you’ve done things differently. Be willing to cooperate and learn and you’ll be okay.

RD: Elegant Slaughter is part one of five short films in the Kyoto Nocturnes series. Did you originally intend to make a feature film?

JF: I’m still intending to make a feature film. ‘Elegant Slaughter’ is the first of five parts that combined will become ‘Kyoto Nocturnes’. The stories all take place in Kyoto in the dark hours after midnight, and they all involve the Kyoto criminal underworld. Some of the characters in ‘Elegant Slaughter’ will appear in other parts of the film as well, and the other parts also mix the yakuza genre with horror elements and action.

As I said, I financed ‘Elegant Slaughter’ myself, and I’ve known from the beginning that I wouldn’t have enough money to make the full feature. So, my plan has been to make Part I and show people just how much I could do. I’m sending Part I to festivals and reviewers likeĀ Far East Films, and when I have enough positive buzz, I plan to meet with bigger production companies here in Japan and back in America to get the financing together for the other four parts.

RD: You have made an impressive movie on a limited budget. How much did budgetary constraints dictate what you could achieve?

JF: Not very much, actually. I might have shot on 35mm if I had had more money, but we used Panasonic’s Varicam camera, and I think the film looks great in high definition. I can’t imagine that shooting on film would have given us a better image. In fact, since we shot in high def, I was able to enhance a few shots with digital effects. If we had shot on film, I wouldn’t have been able to afford them.

Most importantly, I don’t think we would have been able to get the locations we did if we had been a big budget film. We shot a few scenes on location in Gion, the largest and most famous geisha district of Kyoto. Our other main exterior was the Gekkeikan Sake factory in another old section of Kyoto, Fushimi Momoyama. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it is notoriously difficult to get permission to film in Kyoto. Even Hollywood films like The Last Samurai have problems — that’s why they didn’t shoot in Kyoto. I think because we obviously didn’t have much money and didn’t have a monster crew blocking all the streets, they gave us permission. We kind of flew under the radar, and that gives Kyoto Nocturnes an authenticity that very few films of any budget can match.

RD: In Kyoto Nocturnes I noticed a healthy interest in Eastern cinema. Could you tell us about your influences?

JF: We’ve already talked about Wong Kar Wai and the yakuza directors. I also love Chang Cheh‘s films with David Chiang and Ti Lung, and Chor Yuen‘s adaptations of the Gu Long novels. I’m just really discovering these last two directors since their films are only now being released on DVD. These days, I definitely watch more Asian films than American or European ones, but I still love American films from the golden age of the studio system, especially film noir.

RD: Why do you think Eastern cinema is currently so popular in the West?

JF: I think part of the appeal is that they appear exotic. If you look at Zhang Yimou‘s two latest films, ‘Hero‘ and ‘House of Flying Daggers‘, you have the lavish costumes and spectacular scenery of China. And Zhang’s wonderful use of colour, as always, plus the characters who can walk on water or kill someone with a bamboo stalk or have such speed and power that they can make fallen leaves into a weapon. You won’t see these things in any Hollywood films.

The other main appeal, in my opinion, is that because of the cultural differences, we get a new sense of character and conflict. People criticize Hollywood films for rehashing the same old plots and stories again and again, which I think is true for the most part. I don’t think the plot of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, was that different or unique, but the conflicts caused by Chinese culture (the Michelle Yeoh character and the Chow Yun Fat character not being allowed to be together, for example) and the characters’ reactions to those conflicts are new and different to many of us. The stories might be similar, but the characters surprise us in many ways.

RD: Rendezvous with Zack played on Starz and the Action Channel. Where can we expect to see Elegant Slaughter?

JF: Hopefully at a theatre near you in the not-too-distant future!

RD: Finally, I understand you?re in the early stages of Kyoto Nocturnes – Part 2: The Fourth Time I Killed You. How’s it going?

JF: We’re pretty much set to go, except for the money. I’m going to use the same core crew again, I know the actor I’d like to play the lead, and the locations have been scouted. I’m really looking forward to Part II and beyond because I know the crew well now and they know me. That knowledge will help us make the remaining parts even better.

Far East Films would like to thank John Foster.
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