When movie industries fail you, all you can do as a director is go out and fund your own film. Of course, this is much easier said than done, but these adventurous types exist and quite often the resulting films are all the better for it. Keishi Kondo did exactly that when he made New Religion, and in doing so he created one of the best Japanese horror films in years. Mr. Kondo was nice enough to answer a couple of questions regarding his breakout film, so if you're interested to hear what it's like to go against the grain and do your own thing in the world of cinema, here's your chance.
Niels Matthijs: Can you tell us a little about how the film got made? I read you were still working full-time while shooting, and that you relied on crowdfunded money to do the post-production. That must've been quite the challenge.
Keishi Kondo: Basically, the production fund was my personal fund. The crowdfunding that I did made up about 5% of the total budget. I have to say that completing the film would not have been possible without the volunteer work of many people. Many supported my film. I'm sure I will never be able to do it again in the way that I made New Religion.
Do you reach out to other young directors, do you guys try to support each other, or is it each man for himself?
I live in a city far away from Tokyo, so I have no connections with other filmmakers. Rather, I feel that I find more support from filmmakers from England, Canada, and other countries.
What would you change about the film if you had a bigger budget? Or do you believe budgetary limitations may actually lead to increased creativity?
The finished film is the finished film. I try not to consider any other possibilities.
I do believe it is true that low budgets support creativity because low-budget filmmaking is unpleasant. It limits almost every part of the filmmaking process, including location, script, equipment, and so on. Very uncomfortable. To escape that feeling, I have to find creative or artistic ideas and I'm quite happy when I find those ideas. The more I go back and forth between those happy and uncomfortable times, the better the quality of the film.
What were your main sources of inspiration when writing and directing the film?
It is very difficult to answer this question. Everything around me was an inspiration. But music and cigarettes were really important.
What I really loved is how you're telling a rather personal story, but the film gives you glimpses of a bigger event playing out in the background. A lot is left to the audience to decipher though, was that a conscious decision?
I did not intend to focus solely on the story of the mother who lost her daughter. By simultaneously depicting macro and micro perspectives, I wanted to create a film with a mythical, cosmic expanse. A film should not be a slave to the narrative. I believe it should be a medium that provokes and expands the imagination of the audience. I feared that revealing everything to the audience would close off those possibilities. It is very difficult to find a balance between how much to explain and how much to leave in the dark. I intend to pursue that line in my next film and beyond.
I noticed that you're planning some shorts that seem to play in the same world as New Religion. How long would you like to continue to explore this universe?
I am interested in using one "music", New Religion, to transform another melody or genre of music. The short films I am currently planning share the same world of New Religion, but each has a different expression. One more film will follow in addition to the currently announced short films called Neu Mirrors and Neu Forests.
The visuals play an important part in setting the mood, the film even opens with an abstract sequence that sets the tone for the rest of the film. How important is the visual aspect for you when making a film?
Visuals are certainly important. But in my case, the music seems to come first before creating those visuals. When I make a film, I always have music in my head, and it's as if that music is looking for the right visuals.
Personally, I think my favorite element of New Religion was the music. It's certainly not the first film to use dark ambient and drones on its soundtrack, but too often there is a disconnect between sound & images. With New Religion I felt they were tailored to each other. How did you find the right artists for the soundtrack?
I love the music in this film too. You don't feel much of a disconnect between sound and image because I pay close attention when editing. This cannot be explained in words. I always find a point where the "texture" of the images and music becomes one.
Kaho Seto is a relative newcomer to acting, but she's a real discovery. How did you find her and did you have to coach her a lot, or is she a natural?
I discovered Seto Kaho completely by accident. I saw her in a music video that showed a similar situation to this movie. You can watch the video on Youtube. She struggled to become familiar with her role, but the results were great. She didn't need much guidance from me.
What's next for you? Did New Religion launch your career, or is it still a struggle to get funds for your next project(s)?
The spin-off film I am currently producing is being done with my own funds. There is almost no government support for short films in Japan. I am planning to do crowdfunding, so if you come across it, please support my films.
I can say that my career has started, but I have no concrete plans. And I'll plan to keep making films the same way, putting in the same amount of hard work.
And finally, the good old carte blanche question: Imagine some wild, rich benefactor giving you a blank cheque and full creative control. What would you love to make?
The feature film I am trying to make now is a (Western-style) monster movie. These monster movies are rarely made in Japanese cinema, and I have not known of such a movie with a sufficient budget for a long time. I hope someone will support my next film. Seriously. That monster movie will have a very dramatic love story as well.
Directors are also given the chance to ask a question they've been dying to see answered, which I will then try to answer to the best of my ability. Since there's so much one-way communication happening between creators and their audiences, I figured it might be interesting to see what would happen if the tables were turned.
Keishi Kondo: Do you wish to fully understand a film and its story? Why is that?
Or do you still love a film and its story, even if it is a mystery to you? And why is that?
Niels Matthijs: A tough but interesting question. I'm pretty certain no definite answer exists, as there aren't just personal, but also cultural elements that play into this, but I'll have a go at it anyway.
When considering broader audiences, I think a clear and understandable plot is a necessity. For most people, cinema is primarily a narrative medium, where plot reigns supreme and everything else is added in relation to the story being told. The ending is by far the most crucial part of the film and it's best that everything is neatly wrapped up by then, leaving no threads unexplained. If they can't make sense of it or have to spend too much time filling in the gaps, they feel cheated and unsure of why they've put in the time. A story must have a point to it to be valuable, otherwise, it's just a string of unrelated facts. It's also why we have sayings like "form over function/style over substance".
Personally speaking, I think a film is more about the experience. As long as it makes sense on an emotional level, I'm fine with just about everything. I'm looking for films that move me through their vibe and atmosphere, rather than logic and plot. I once described it like this:
In the same way I prefer melody and rhythm over lyrics in music, I prefer the abstract beauty of the audiovisual experience in films. I rarely get intellectually triggered by a movie, to me most of them feel too (mis)leading and labored. When a director has a specific point to make, he can build an entire film around it (from styling and mood to characters and dialogues) to illustrate his point, but that doesn't make it valid or truthful. Film is pretty bad at capturing the complexities of reality and a little too effective at hitting emotional triggers, which makes me distrust whatever it's trying to sell. Hence, I find more worth in style-driven mood and atmosphere.
So I don't mind a little fuzziness, or some things left unexplained. It can even add to the mystery.