Producer Shozo Ichiyama Talks About Film Production

At the 76th Venice International Film Festival, I met producer Shozo Ichiyama again, and I had the honor to interview him about a new film he produced: ある船頭の話 a.k.a. THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME, the directorial debut by Japan’s top film actor Joe Odagiri. The film is so poetic as to make this Biennale shine like Sirius.

I have been a fan of Joe Odagiri for quite a while. Though he did not act in this movie, we can see his thoughts and aesthetics in each frame. The splendid performance of the whole cast has a solid script base created by Joe Odagiri himself; together with the masterful cinematography by the one and only Christopher Doyle, ある船頭の話 is definitely on my 2019 Top 10 list. Watching the final shot is almost like a catharsis. I have watched it twice in Venice, and I am going to watch it for a few more times in Tokyo.

(If I could, I would like to ask Odagiri-san why and how he cast Hosono-san in this film. Honestly, to see Hosono-san on the big screen is another visual treat for me.)

In this interview, Mr. Ichiyama talked about his collaboration with director Joe Odagiri. He also talked about working with Jia Zhangke and Song Fang, before revealing details about Kazakh filmmaker Yerlan Nurmukhambetov’s new film THE HORSE THIEVES. ROADS OF TIME, which is to open the 24th Busan International Film Festival in October.

XJ: Could you please first introduce THEY SAY NOTHING STAYS THE SAME?

Actually this is a project Joe had been thinking for 10 years: he wrote the script 10 years ago. He was one of the main roles in THE WHITE GIRL, a movie made by Christopher Doyle and Jenny Suen. Chris said to Odagiri-san: “Why don’t you make this film by yourself? If you are the director, I’ll be your cameraman.” And then Odagiri-san started to think to be the director.

He rewrote the script and submitted this project to Kinoshita Group, a big conglomerate in Japan that produces 5 or 6 films a year. Kinoshita confirmed to invest in this film. I myself had worked in Office Kitano for a long time, but last year, there was a big change in the company so I left and I happened to join Kinoshita Group.

Odagiri-san and I have known each other for a long time. In 2004, I produced a film for director Atsushi Funahashi and it was totally shot in the U.S. Odagiri-san was the main actor and I spent almost one month with him. Since then, I didn’t work with him, but I knew him very well.

After I joined Kinoshita Group, I was assigned to be the producer (of this project). In this case, I was not responsible to find the money because it has already been confirmed. Also, there is a very good line producer, who is a friend of Odagiri-san’s. After the shooting is finished, of course I would discuss about the editing and give advice about film festivals. I talked with Venice Film Festival.

As for the script. It’s very well-written. The only problem was it was too long. So we discussed many things during editing. The film is now 2 hours and 17 minutes, but it was much longer. Finally, we agreed to have this length.

The script was so well-written that you can see Odagiri-san has the confidence of what he wants to show the audience. One funny thing is, after I read the script, I asked: “Who wrote the script?” Odagiri-san said: “I did it.”

He didn’t ask any screenwriter, but it was very precisely written. I can understand everything with the script.

Actually, when I joined the project, he had already decided to shoot the film in Niigata. Almost everything happens in one river, but it was shot in 3 places, where the rivers flow at different speeds. Also, there is a scene with mist – it was shot somewhere famous for its mist, one hour drive away from the main location.

Also, the Film Commission of Niigata was very cooperative.

The film was set in the beginning of the 20th century, so no modern house should be in sight. The main location looks natural. Actually, there are still hunters.

So what is your opinion about Odagiri-san as a director?

He has a very precise idea, even for camera work, and he will discuss with Chris. He is very clear about the actors as well. Like Akira Emoto; Isao Hashizume, the actor who plays the doctor, and Mitsuko Kusabue, the actress who plays the lady revisits her hometown are all senior actors, but Odagiri-san took good care of them.

I see. Could you talk about the other film projects you produce?

There is a co-production between Japan and Kazakhstan: THE HORSE THIEVES. ROADS OF TIME. It will be premiered in Busan as the opening film. (-Is it made by the director whose work went to Berlinale?) -No, but the cameraman is the same, Aziz Zhambakiev, who won the Silver Bear in Berlin with HARMONY LESSONS. The director Yerlan Nurmukhambetov won a prize in Busan before – the Best Picture in New Currents with a film called WALNUT TREE. Lisa Tekeba – the other director, she had a film in Rotterdam.

It is a story about a young boy who lost his father, who was killed by thieves. Then one young man, the mother’s ex-boyfriend, comes to the town, and starts to help this family, but he runs into the thieves. It’s kind of Western, like SHANE. And the landscape in Kazakhstan is fantastic.

As it is a co-production between Kazakhstan and Japan, we needed to cast a Japanese actor. I recommended Mirai Moriyama, because his face looks like Kazakh. The director looked at his picture and said maybe he could act as a Kazakh. I then sent him the script and he was very much interested in working with the Kazakh filmmaker. Actually the film was totally shot in Kazakhstan, and he learned to speak Kazakh.

Another film is still in post production, by a Chinese filmmaker called Song Fang (XJ: Oh, I met her in Rotterdam 6 years ago.) She is very talented. The working title is THE CALM (PING JING), a film she shot last year. It is produced by Jia Zhangke. It takes a long time to edit and I helped with the shooting in Japan.

Maybe it has been asked a lot, but what is the difference between working with Hou Hsiao Hsien and working with Jia Zhangke?

Actually, when I started to work with Hou Hsiao Hsien, he was already a master: he had won the prize in Venice for A CITY OF SADNESS and in Cannes for IN THE HANDS OF A PUPPET MASTER, so I just needed to find money for him in Japan. There were not so many things for me to do – he was very famous and I could easily find foreign distributors.

But for Jia Zhangke, I started to work with him when he was very young, so I must do many things for his early few movies. He could ’t find money in China, so I tired that in Japan and Europe. It was hard work for me, but the result was very nice and all his films were accepted in Cannes, Venice and other film festivals. We received good reviews from European critics. But at first, it was hard for me to raise the money.

You have been working with Jia Zhangke in the past 20 years. How does it feel to work with someone for 20 years?

I think probably there is a kind of trust between us. Because I trust his talent and he is very honest with me. He doesn’t hide much. That’s why we can continue working together.

I saw his XIAO WU. At that time, I was already quite sure he’s a very talented filmmaker, so I respect his style.

Sometimes, I try to protect him from foreign producers, because they might say many things about editing. But, to be honest, if I think the advice from the foreign producer is good, I would tell him: “Maybe you are not satisfied with this advice, but it is somewhat useful, you must think about it.” And he would rethink.

If I don’t tell him and just say the editing is very good, it might cause big problems.

So what is so special about director Jia Zhangke?

He has the ability to capture the atmosphere. This is one thing I saw when I was watching XIAO WU. Though I had never been to Shanxi Province at the time, I felt as if I was in Shanxi.

Also, he has good ideas of vision and style. Most of his shots are well-constructed. (-XJ: Do you mean he also uses very good DoP?)

Yes, yes. Yu Lik Wai

Actually I think there is some kind of trust between them. They didn’t need to discuss much. Every time they arrive at the location, Jia says: “I want to have this and that.” and it goes like “OK, let’s shoot.” because Yu understands everything Jia says. So there is no conflict. They also have very good relations.

If you need to talk to junior producers, what would you advise?

Perhaps first is to learn how to build relationship with the director. Of course, he must think about the relationship with the crew and the actors, but mostly he needs to create a good relation with the director.

Because if the producer cannot trust the director’s talent, then maybe it’s better not to work with together. Even if he thinks the project is nice, he must decline.

If you start to work with a filmmaker without confidence in him, it will lead to a bad ending.

And how did you spot Yerlan Nurmukhambetov, the Kazakh filmmaker?

Actually I saw his second feature and I understand he is a very sincere filmmaker. He is not that kind of filmmaker whose work got selected in Cannes or Venice, but I felt he has the ability to organize the shooting and how to communicate with the crew and actors. I can see that in his movie.

Also I talked to him when I saw him in Cannes and I felt it. It was very difficult to put it in words, but when I saw Jia Zhangke, I felt it, too. I think he is not only a good filmmaker, he is also a nice person to work well.

So what do you think are the common grounds of all the good directors?

One thing is, even if he has a very good plan to shoot, if he cannot communicate well with the crew and the actors, then it will be very bad. For the director, the ability to communicate is very important. If he is not good at communicating, maybe he can be a painter, because for the painter, he can do everything on his own. But for filmmaking, it’s teamwork, or the shooting will be a mess.

Also, I think it is necessary to have many experiences. Not in filmmaking, but in ordinary life. If he has experienced many things, sometimes he can find a good idea from his experiences. But if he just studied filmmaking and he is not interested in any other things, it probably will be difficult for hims to find new ideas and to solve problems.

How did you started as a producer?

For myself, I was just a movie fan before I joined Shochiku Film Studio. I saw many films when I was a university student. I majored economics in Tokyo University – it had nothing to do with filmmaking. When I entered Tokyo University, I started to regret: I should have entered some cultural department! I lost interest in economics. I was more fascinated by cultural stuff: music, art and filmmaking.

Actually, I was born and raised in the countryside. I didn’t have many opportunities to know this kind of cultural stuff until I entered Tokyo University in early 1980s.

But later, after I went into the film industry, many things I learned in the university helped a lot, because I have many memory of the films I saw. Sometimes, it helped my work.

Do you still remember who were your favorite directors?

Actually, my favorite director is Seijun Suzuki. 铃木清顺

I liked his film a lot! After I joined Shochiku Studio, I tried to work with him and I developed one project, but Shochiku had a big problem in financing – they told us “We cannot make this kind of arthouse film.” Then the project stopped. It’s one of my regrets. I never got to work wit him, but I tried one time.

Do you also enjoy watching any foreign movies?

At the time, I also liked Tarkovsky a lot. Also, I enjoy watching some Hollywood movies made in the 1940s.

What is your favorite film festival experience?

Of course, I attended Cannes, Venice and Berlin, but one film festival I like is Locarno. It’s a very relaxing film festival, and open air screenings at the Piazza Grande is marvelous. Everybody is very relaxed and concentrated on the film, and talks about the films. Locarno is my favorite.

What about TOKYO FILMeX? – As you are in charge of it.

One thing about FILMeX is that we want to build a small festival, not a big one. Every year, we would have 30 to 40 films. With this number, everybody can see all the films. But of course, it’s still hard to see them all. But if they take a one-week vacation, they can see all the films in the main competition and some special screenings.

If there are a lot of films, people need to choose. Of course, it is necessary to have big film festivals. On the other hand, I think we need some small festivals, which concentrates on arthouse films. And that’s the reason we have FILMeX and we continue till the year.

Producer Shozo ICHIYAMA joined Shochiku and started to work as the producer for films such as Nowhere Man (1991) by TAKENAKA Naoto. Since 1994, he has worked with HOU Hsiao-hsien and produced Good Men, Good Women (1995), Goodbye South, Goodbye (1996) and Flowers of Shanghai In 1998, ICHIYAMA joined Office Kitano and started producing films by Asian filmmakers. He has been acting as the program director for Tokyo FILMeX, which was founded in 2000 and focuses on Asian new talents.

Mr Ichiyama’s filmography as a producer also includes Platform (2000), Unknown Pleasures (2002), The World (2004), 24 City (2008), A Touch of Sin (2013), Mountains May Depart (2015) and Ash is Purest White (2018) by JIA Zhangke; Delbaran (2001) by Abolfazl; Big River (2005), Cold Bloom (2012) and Lovers on Borders (2018) by FUNAHASHI Atsushi; Sharing (2014) by SHINOZAKI Makoto; Chasuke’s Journey (2015) and Mr. Long (2017) by SABU.


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