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June 9, 2009 12:20 PM
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Dwarf Hamster Odyssey: “Etienne!" Director Jeff Mizushima

A scene from Jeff Mizushima's “Etienne!". Image courtesy of CineVegas Film Festival.

Editor's Note: This is one of a series of interviews with directors whose films are screening at the 2009 CineVegas Film Festival.

“Etienne!” (USA, 2009)
Director: Jeff Mizushima
Cast: Richard Vallejos, Megan Harvey, Caveh Zahedi, Rachel Stolte, Solon Bixler
After Richard’s best and only friend, a dwarf hamster named Etienne, is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides to take his pocket pet on a bicycle road trip up the California coast to show it the world before he must put it to sleep.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking and how has that evolved since starting out?

Filmmaking is addictive. It’s fun to point a camera at something and then put music over that and then watch it. Wait, is that considered filmmaking? I don’t know. I was in middle school, maybe, when I first started to point and shoot and I haven’t changed since.

How did the idea for your film come about and what excited you to undertake the project?

I came up with the idea while I was working at this after school program for kids. I thought it would be cool to bring a mascot or, you know, something that the kids could toss around and have fun with. So I bought a dwarf hamster and the kids responded to it quite well. They loved it actually. And then I started to charge them $5 to pet it and $10 to hold it and that’s when I realized I could make some real money if I made a movie about a hamster.

How did you approach making the film, and were there any pivotal moments of learning during the life of the project for you?

I wanted to shoot it like a run and gun documentary, which is basically my excuse for the poor lighting and camera work you’ll see throughout the film. And I tried as hard as I could to keep what was on screen void of cynicism. Sometimes I can be overbearingly cynical and sarcastic and I hate that about myself, so I didn’t want that to come off from watching this film.

I cannot recall any pivotal moments of learning on the project, just an overall awareness to how awful my communication skills are and how that was the cause of all the problems throughout this project. I need to get a self-help book or tape on that.

What were some of the biggest challenges in making the film?

My producer, Giacun Caduff, had to deal with most of the challenges singlehandedly. It was crazy what he did during production. We had over 30 distant locations, animals, child actors, moving car shots involving car rigs, trailers, and camera cars, various legal issues, a lot of crap that usually has a team of production staff dealing with it, but Giacun did everything himself – with no money. He even had to empty the septic tank in the RV and later that night cook everyone dinner. Did he wash his hands? I don’t know. All these little things add up and to me, everything he did was a huge challenge.

Are there any interesting anecdotes from the shoot?

Two of the hamsters had babies on set. That was really cute. There were about eight of them. They tasted like chicken.

What other genres or stories would you like to explore?

I’m dying to do horror films. Those are my favorite type of stories. I’m really into the monster baby horror sub-genre right now too. Like, The Suckling, Dead Alive, The Unborn II, Look Who’s Talking, It’s Alive 3: Island of the Alive, Baby Geniuses, and I can’t wait for this film called Bad Biology, directed by the dude who made the Basket Case trilogy.

What other projects are you looking to do?

I’m currently finishing reshoots on a feature I co-directed called, Salad Days – it ventures into the realm of Asian-American Mumblecore, although using that term might come back to haunt it.

I’m also in the middle of shooting my first feature documentary on an amazing artist/fashion designer you might not have heard of yet, Lunna Menoh.

And after that, I hope to get financing for a script I co-wrote that a good friend of mine, Junya Sakino, who’ll direct - the story is about chicks and Buddhism.

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