[EDITORS NOTE: indieWIRE is publishing two interviews daily with Sundance ’07 competition filmmakers through the end of the festival later this month. Directors with films screening in the four competition section were given the opportunity to participate in an email interview, and each was sent the same set of questions.]
Academy Award winner Steven Okazaki brings his latest documentary to the Sundance Film Festival this year, entitled “White Light/Black Rain.” The film revisits the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, and their aftermath. In the film, Okazaki interviews survivors of the bombings as well as the men who took part in the mission. “Okazaki takes us into the lives and memories of ordinary people for whom life changed in the blink of an eye. In his clear, unwavering treatment, what at first seems unimaginable becomes all too real as memory after memory unfolds through a skillful blend of contemporary footage and archival material,” writes Sundance. “To a generation of audiences living in the shadow of a new arms race, the film is a necessary rendering of the price atomic warfare exacts.” The film is screening in Sundance’s Documentary Competition category.
Please introduce yourself. Where were you born? Where do you live now? What are some of your previous jobs?
I’m 54 years old. I’ve been an independent filmmaker for 26 years, as of Dec 8, 1980, the day I walked off a TV commercial for AM/PM mini-markets and started work on my first documentary. Before that I worked as a dishwasher, school bus driver, liquor store stock boy, filing clerk at the VA, college film series programmer, janitor, punk guitarist, children’s film producer, and I was once paid a lot of money to model a sweatshirt for The Gap.
I was born in Los Angeles, close to Venice Beach, an okay place to grow up with its Bohemian, Vato, hippie, slacker history. Of course, it is now famous as the birthplace of extreme skateboarding. It is hard to imagine a more ethnically and economically diverse school on earth than Venice High School when I went there in the late 1960s. It was also very conservative. I had to hire an ACLU lawyer to force the school to let me graduate with long hair. The four most important places of my youth were the Santa Monica mall, the Vanguard Theater, Aron’s Records, and the Shrine Auditorium.
I currently live in Berkeley, California (home of gourmet food and the world’s most passive/aggressive drivers) with my wife, writer Peggy Orenstein, and daughter, Daisy Tomoko. I have offices in the Saul Zaentz Media Center in Berkeley.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?
In the second grade, I accidentally created a ceramic duck the teacher loved and was forever after anointed the class artist. The only thing that made high school tolerable was art, my three art teachers, Mrs. Pardoe, Miss Blumenberg, and Betty White, known for her pioneering work on drawing with the right side of your brain. While drawing and painting may be aided by natural talent, it is more about discipline and constantly developing your technique and hand-eye coordination, so, for the most part, I stopped when I started making films.
What drew me to filmmaking was the desire to get away from the insular world of painting. Filmmaking forces you to be part of the world, actively, while painting turned me inward in ways I felt were unhealthy for me.
Music has always been important to me and I’ve included music I love in my films. Previous film have featured music by Cat Power, Pinback, John Adams, The Promise Ring and Brian Eno, “White Light/Black Rain” features five amazing pieces by Mogwai. I have always played music, but never seriously, always just for fun, from junior high school top 40 bands (which in my era meant the Kinks, the Byrds and the Left Blanke) to mediocre Mabuhay Gardens punks bands in the 1980s to informal sessions after work.
Did you go to film school?
I went to film school at San Francisco State University during the semiology craze of the 1970s. We learned how to make films using just white frames and black frames with an Austrian filmmaker named Peter Kubelka. The one thing I got out of it was the wonderfulness of talking about movies and making films with other people. Also, I saw incredible independent films by Bay Area legends like George Kuchar and Skip Sweeney. Of course, that’s the best part of film school, sitting in the dark, watching movies.
When I started making films it was still inexpensive to work in 16mm black and white. A 3 minute roll of film cost eight or nine dollars. You could make a 10 minute film for three or four hundred dollars. It got progressively more expensive, but then mini-dv cameras arrived and it’s affordable again. But, when I started, the biggest factor for me in becoming a filmmaker was cheap rent.
Please elaborate on your approach to making the film. What are your goals for the project?
“White Light/Black Rain” is a film I’ve wanted to make for 25 years, since the day I met my first Hiroshima survivor, a woman named Judy Enseki, who lived in Los Angeles and was dying of thyroid cancer caused by radiation from the bomb. Even though it is huge moment in history and influences so much of our lives – medicine, warfare, what we eat, the media our children consume (Superman, Godzilla, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, X-Men) – most people know nothing about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, because it seems too horrible to imagine or understand and because it continues, even after 60 years, to inspire anger, guilt, myth, denial and irresolvable political arguments.
“White Light/Black Rain” came into being because Sheila Nevins at HBO realized the need for it. No comprehensive film had been made, in the United States or Japan, on the subject. It is the last chance to to do it, while there were still people left who can tell the story, who saw the bomb fall from the sky and whose lives were devastated and forever changed by it. Several of the interviewees were near death when we filmed them.
I always wanted to make this film, but had given up on the possibility of finding anyone with the resources, commitment and fearlessness to do it. When Sara Bernstein at HBO Documentary Films called me up and told me about the project, I was stunned.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings are among the most dramatic events in human history. It is an extraordinary story in which all of the characters share this one moment in time, when they looked up and saw the bomb coming down, then their lives diverges in a thousand different directions. Previous films on the subject seem to feel compelled to moralize and politicize, to inject the story with message and hindsight. For me, everything is already there. The story is the people, their faces, their voices, the way they smile uncomfortably while telling us about the most horrible moment of their lives. No need to add the politics or the moralizing. It is there. Why distract from these extraordinary stories; unbelievable and inspiring; the dignity, courage and stoicism of the people; the power of a great human story.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
“White Light/Black Rain” was completely financed by HBO Documentary Films. Even after 60 years, it is still a subject that inspires hostility and controversy. No one but HBO had the courage to make it. Not PBS, the Smithsonian or any Japanese media entity. I tried. No one else saw the timeliness and importance of the subject.
I met about 500 Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors, pre-interviewed about a hundred, filmed 30, and chose 14 for the final version of the film. Interesting, for me, is the fact that the best interviews came out of Nagasaki, perhaps because the survivors there have gotten else attention.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the movie?
Generally, my approach to documentary subjects is to be as intimate as possible, to make the story relatable to as many people as possible. With this subject I constantly worried about losing the audience because the emotions are so overwhelming and the visuals are so disturbing. Many of the stories are tragic beyond comprehension, an 11 year old boy digging up the remains of every single member of his family. An 8 year-old girl reaching out to touch her mother before she dissolves into ashes. And the stories keep coming, one after another.
But Sheila Nevins, Sara Bernstein and Geof Bartz at HBO kept at me, telling me to tell and show everything. “If this is our one chance to tell the story, then don’t hold anything back, tell it all.” In the beginning, I resisted. It was too painful to listen to some of the stories and many of the old photographs and much of the film footage are unbearable to look at. I know the subject as well as anyone and I found myself unexpectedly bursting into tears in the editing room. How would a viewer who knows nothing about the subject react? I wanted to reach people, not scare them out of the theater.
In the middle of editing, I previewed 30 minutes of scenes from the film. The presenter warned the audience about the graphic descriptions and visuals, but asked them to try to stay with it. Some people covered their eyes, but only one person out of the 300 in the theater walked out. The rest were interested, moved, eager to hear talk about it. Sheila Nevins was right.
What are your goals for the festival?
Premiering our film at Sundance is a such an honor. I am happy just to show the film and see how people react. Besides, my screenings, I hope to see other films and throw snowballs with my daughter.
Describe the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
I hoped we’d get in, felt the film was strong enough, but wasn’t planning on it. When I found out, I was pleased that the subject might get some attention. I felt a certain relief, but my upbringing won’t let me get excited about these things.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
Isn’t an independent film any film that stars Catherine Keener? What a great actor.
What are some of your favorite films? What is your top ten list for 2006?
Oh boy, I get to list my favorite films: “That Obscure Object Of Desire” (Luis Bunuel), “The Spirit Of The Beehive” (Victor Erice), “Early Summer” (Yasujiro Ozu), “The Shop Around The Corner” (Ernst Lubitsch), “Sansho The Baliff” (Kenji Mizouguchi); “High School” (Frederick Wiseman), “The Searchers” (John Ford), “Monterrey Pop” (Leacock/Pennebaker), “My Night At Maud’s” (Eric Rohmer), “Diary Of A Country Priest” (Robert Bresson). These are the films that made me love cinema and affected as if they were life experiences.
I have seen few films in 2006. So far, two excellent documentaries: “The War Tapes,” a powerful doc filmed partially by soldiers in Iraq; “The Blood Of Yingzhou District,” about children in China with AIDS.
What are one or two of your New Years resolutions?
To learn how to use Pro-Tools and to see some silent era samurai films.