By John Jeffcoat | Indiewire April 1, 2014 at 12:57PM
"Big in Japan" is a semi-fictionalized rock and roll road movie about a struggling Seattle band determined to not fade away. The film, which is based loosely on actual events, follows real life rockers, Tennis Pro, as they travel to Japan in a last ditch attempt to prevent their day jobs from becoming their careers.
When you play in a trio, like Tennis Pro, there's no one to hide behind. Each member of the band has an essential role in the song. It's finding that harmony in the stripped down simplicity that makes a great trio. I wanted to try and bring the same concept to the film crew when making this film.
After making a film ("Outsourced") with a crew that at times numbered over 100 people, I was interested in exploring a narrative project with a crew that was closer to what I'd been working with on documentary projects. The key was to figure out how small we could go without compromising production value.
We made two trips to Tokyo to shoot "Big in Japan" -- the first to shoot the live music scenes, cast, location scout and essentially write a treatment or story outline. After we raised our financing, we traveled to Tokyo with a full length screenplay broken down so we could properly shoot all of the dramatic scenes.
It was the first time to Japan for all of us with the exception of Alex Vincent who plays the band's 'tour manager' in the film. In real life, Alex played in a band called Green River whose members split up to form Pearl Jam and Mudhoney. Following his band's break up, Alex spent many years playing and traveling in Japan. When he returned to Tokyo with us he was instrumental in making many introductions to bands like The Harpys and Red Bacteria Vacuum, who were critical for filling out our cast and lining up shows for Tennis Pro to play in Tokyo.
Essentially, our field production team consisted of a trio: two cameras and a sound man, and our key cast of Tennis Pro with the addition of Alex. We could move quickly and afford to take chances - as well as make mistakes.
Crew member (and drummer for real band the Maldives) Ryan McMackin and I would meet in the morning and choose a couple lenses that we'd use for the day. Then we'd pack our bags and those backpacks would hold our gear for the day. No going back to the hotel to swap anything out, the idea was to be creative and make use of what we had.
Since we didn't have any camera assistants we were in charge of our own gear and since we were shooting nearly everything in available light we were using very high speed lenses and had to pull our own focus.
A small crew was essential to move from location to location quickly with all our gear - dragging it through subways and taxis.
After our first trip to Tokyo where we experimented with scenes and filmed all of the live shows, I created a story outline. I also planned to incorporate real life experiences the band had while in Tokyo. For example, one of our first hotels with a toilet/bidet went from a late night conversion to a quick improvised scene the next day. Another cast and crew dinner with lots of Japanese beer led to our sound mixer Adam Powers doing impersonations that had us all cracking up and led to the creation of the character "Mans."
It was a free flowing creative vibe, where we had the ability and flexibility to experiment.
Working with non-actors was an added production challenge but I believe the small crew was a tremendous asset. There were no professional actors in the film and it was essential to gain the trust of the band and have them willing to put themselves in very vulnerable situations in order for the film to work. At first, this meant a lot of liquid courage courtesy of Suntory whiskey, but eventually, Adam, Ryan and I became like additional members of the band. There was a trust that developed and once the band was able to view edited scenes, they became far more confident with their acting.
There was no script supervisor, wardrobe or continuity person so I decided it would be essential that the band's luggage gets lost when they arrive in Tokyo, that way we wouldn’t have to worry about wardrobe continuity. They'd either be wearing the clothes they had on on the plane or their tennis whites. This decision saved our lives in the edit room. And the added bonus of Sean, Tennis Pro's drummer, being a hair stylist in real life was great.
There was a gap of over a year before we were able to raise the financing and complete a script to shoot the rest of the film. We brought on Producer Jannat Gargi to secure financing and oversee all the logistics and production with a very ambitious shooting schedule. We also engaged Michelle Witten ("Fat Kid Rules the World") as our editor who we brought to Tokyo and locked up in a closet-sized hotel room with a laptop where she was fed her dailies to be sure we were getting everything we needed.
The language barrier was very challenging with production in Tokyo, but we were fortunate to bring on a fabulous Coordinator, Mayuko Otusbo, who eventually became our Co-Producer in Tokyo. The only time we had an issue shooting in the streets of Tokyo was when the band went busking in Yoyogi park. They were able to play two songs before the police shut them down. And I should mention the police were incredibly polite, waited for the band to finish, and then suggested they try around the corner where they would be out of their jurisdiction.
We fell in love with the people of Tokyo who are gracious and hospitable and the camaraderie between the bands that played the basement bars was fantastic. They embraced Tennis Pro immediately and deep friendships and bonds were established early on.
Shooting with a small, experienced crew can be a wonderful thing for the right project. It's not the way I’d like to work all of the time but I think getting back to the basics and stripping down to the core, forced me to pay attention to every detail which isn’t as feasible on a larger set. It also left me with a tremendous appreciation for every member of that larger crew and everything they do to help create your vision.
"Big in Japan" recently premiered at SXSW and will be screening at The Sarasota Film Festival next week. John Jeffcoat, who previously directed "Outsourced" and "Bingo! The Documentary" is the director, editor, cinematographer, actor and producer for "Big in Japan."