INTERVIEW: Walking in L.A.: Takeshi Kitano's New Beat
by Erin Torneo/indieWIRE
(indieWIRE/ 07.18.01) -- I'm going to assume you know about Takeshi Kitano's extraordinary career. With painting, novel writing, stand-up comedy, acting, screenwriting, editing, and film directing all under his belt, Kitano's c.v. reads like someone suffering from multi-personality disorder. Not bad for someone who's made a cinematic career out of silences, facial tics, and long static shots of people walking.
"Brother," Kitano's latest writing-directing-acting-editing project, is his first shot in the United States. For the quintessentially taciturn performer, it's also the first film he's made principally in English. Starring Omar Epps, Claude Maki, and, of course, Kitano himself, the film centers around a yakuza exiled to L.A. who builds a new crime family out of his half-brother's posse of street thugs. It's another moody installment to his oeuvre of heavily stylized gangster flicks. Only this time, Kitano's strangely lyrical violence and deadpan humor takes place on the baked boulevards of L.A. and in its eerily empty downtown. And with its Mexican, African American, Italian, and Little Tokyo hoods, "Brother" is as much a comment on cultural displacement as it is on the loyalties that can bind and betray, and ultimately, the language of "brotherhood" that develops despite race or ethnicity.
indieWIRE's Erin Torneo sat down with Takeshi Kitano to mangle her Japanese in an effort to get the silent tough guy to laugh, and talk about the City of Angels, improvisation and falling on banana peels.
indieWIRE: You give ample screen time to silence in "Brother," whether through Aniki's inability to speak or his discomfort with the English language, which heightens the sense of cultural displacement. Was that your intention?
Takeshi Kitano: Not so much too purposely. Rather, I thought what I had to do with this film was to depict behaviors of authentic yakuza gangsters. And my understanding is that the yakuza gangster -- if he's really a top-ranked yakuza -- are not the type of guy who talks a lot. And, usually, it's the silent type of guy who will get to the top. So I just wanted to depict this character as the authentic yakuza guy, who would not concede his behavior, his ideas or his manners, wherever he is.
iW: So many of the characters you play are also silent. So I'm wondering how you handled working with actors with a foreign dialogue? Was any writing done in English?
Kitano: Actually, I wrote the whole script in Japanese. And during the process of translation there were several native English speakers who would consult with the assistant directors and producers. And on set there was a dialect coach who would teach the Japanese actors who speak the English dialogue to make sure they pronounce the expressions correctly. So, basically, it's a collaborative effort.
iW: Did any of the actors improvise?
Kitano: In terms of Omar Epps' scenes, the majority of them are improvised. I just wrote in the script the skeleton of what he should be saying. Then he would add his own phrasing -- more the modern African-American slang.
iW: You are obviously very involved in all aspects of your films, from writing, directing to editing. So is it strange or difficult to relinquish control and have actors improvise?
Kitano: Even in my earlier films, which were entirely shot in Japan, I let some actors improvise. And I just convey to them the gist of what the character is going to say. Otherwise, if I give too many instructions to the actors, it would make his or her performance unnatural. If they try too hard to articulate dialogue, it would spoil the natural feeling of the performance. So it's not the first time that I let actors improvise.
When actors cannot deliver the dialogue in the way that I want it done, what I usually do is to just cut out the dialogue. I'll spontaneously change the script and come up with a different idea. And not just the dialogue. When some actor's visual statement is not as I intended, I usually change the position of the camera. It's always me that moves fast, rather than straighten the actor's performance.
iW: Is this because you are an actor yourself?
Kitano: Yes. But it's more simple than that. I'm a very impatient guy, and I cannot wait until the actors get really prepared, and geared up, to do the scene. And I'd just rather move on.
iW: I read that Los Angeles was specifically chosen over New York because of its wide-open spaces, in contrast to Tokyo, which is a very dense, urban environment. Did that difference in environment influence the style of filmmaking?
Kitano: I've shot most of my prior films in Tokyo. And what happens when I shoot the urban scenes in Tokyo -- in the city section of Tokyo -- is that there are so many passersby, and they started noticing and bothering us. And some of those passersby would ask me for my autograph during the take, and, eventually -- even if I shoot in Tokyo -- I have this tendency to prefer the deserted, open places, rather than the dense, crowded streets. So upon choosing the location, I thought that New York is pretty much like Tokyo -- it's crowded, and a lot of people walking as opposed to Los Angeles where basically everyone moves by car, and there's not many passersby. And I just thought it would be just more convenient to shoot in Los Angeles. But it turned out that I was wrong. Because there's always two or three policemen who accompany the shooting crew to somehow make the location available, and make it organized. So I would have shot the film in New York if I knew that the crew system in all of America is that systematic.
iW: But didn't this location factor specifically into the storyline? Los Angeles, of course, has a long history of racial and gang violence, particularly with the recent riots, and the clashes between Asians and African Americans.
Kitano: The story happens in Los Angeles, but my mind-set is to make my own films wherever I go. And this one happens to be located in Los Angeles. So I could maintain my own taste, and I could maintain my own uniqueness. That said, the last time that I was in Los Angeles -- before the pre-production and the shooting of "Brother" -- was several years ago when the Rodney King incident had just happened. And the racial conflict amongst the local people was pretty much a hot topic of the day. And I got quite interested to see the whole phenomenon that involved the Rodney King incident. And the relationship between the characters in "Brother" -- and the title of the film "Brother" -- for me refers to the brotherhood of the yakuza. And the brotherhood of the yakuza is the kind of relationship that, once you become a member of the organization, your actual talent, and your actual siblings, is less important than your relationship to the yakuza family. The big bosses become your parents -- and your direct boss will be referred to as older brother. So, yes, I was conscious about gathering a bunch of people who were from different ethnic backgrounds, and gradually building the brotherhood's relationship between them, despite the differences of race or ethnicity.
iW: Did you hesitate to bring your particular brand of violence to the U.S., because the U.S. has a very troubled reputation with its own real violence.
Kitano: What I find problematic in Hollywood action films or TV news is that violence is expressed in such a way that it doesn't convey the pain that violence essentially has. During the Gulf War, they showed pinpoint bombing of the city of Iraq. And it's exactly like you're playing a video game or something. And they didn't show the dead bodies or mutilated body parts that are brought on by violence. What I keep in mind when I depict violence in my own films is I always try to depict them in a way that conveys the pain that accompanies it. Because I believe violence in real life is something that is unpleasant to watch. And my policy is to depict violent scenes in such a way that would give a certain amount of aversion to the audience.
iW: I want to talk about comedy, because you somehow manage to touch upon comedy and tenderness as well as violence in most of your films. Can you comment on those elements?
Kitano: I believe those three elements that you mentioned work together. Because my perception is that comedy is something that works well with violence. Because both of them work the best when it comes to you unexpectedly -- because the funniest jokes are always the jokes that are given at the most unexpected times.
I will give you an example of this. What if someone was walking on the street and slipped on the peel of a banana and fell to the ground? For an observer of the event, that is quite a comical scene. And if the person who slipped fell upon the ground was, say, a very influential political figure, that makes the joke even funnier. And if in that exact same situation, the person who collapsed were a very hungry, poor old man, then it would look sad. So the exact same event can be perceived in a lot of different ways. And that can be true for tenderness, too. And it's very ambiguous. The same event can be very ambiguous.
Like what if someone was walking on the street, slipped on a banana peel and fell to the ground, and somebody noticed? And this other gentleman runs up to help the first man stand up again. And that would express the tenderness of the other character. But what if he slipped on the banana peel, too? That would look comical, and way funnier than the first slipping.
iW: What did you think of Los Angeles, and will you make any more films in the U.S.?
Kitano: I spent almost a month in Los Angeles, during which I was concentrating on shooting -- and I didn't have much free time for really wandering around the streets of Los Angeles -- so I only have a rough image of what the city is about. And I can say that it's pretty much like the country, for me, rather than comparing it to New York or Tokyo. It's very much spread out, and people are more relaxed. And especially the film industry types that I bumped into during the shooting looked to me like they're old gold miners or something.
And speaking of shooting another film in America, of course, there's no reason to decline, especially if I could work with as much creative freedom as I was able to have with the creation of "Brother." It really depends on what type of script I will come up with in the next several years. Then, if I have a script that would be set in America, I would definitely do it.
[Erin Torneo is the Associate Editor of ifcRANT. Portions of this interview appeared in the May/June issue of ifcRANT.]