Philippe McKie talks Dreams on Fire

Japan is a rich and mysterious country, yet making it there as a foreigner isn't always easy. In the film world, many have tried, but few have succeeded. It didn't stop Philippe McKie when he set out to make Dreams on Fire, a dance film set in the lively subcultures of Tokyo's nightlife. It's a fascinating project, especially coming from a Canadian-born director, so I was more than delighted when he agreed to do an interview.

Philippe McKie on Dreams on Fire

Niels Matthijs: What drove a Canadian filmmaker to work in Japan? And what exactly is it about Japan/Japanese storytelling that hits the spot for you?

Philippe McKie: My interest in Japan started at a very young age, and like many, through anime and manga. Watching Evangelion in elementary school, I was shell-shocked by the graphic violence and mature storytelling. It planted a seed, and the more I broadened my interest in Japanese culture and media, the more I realized that I would someday need to make a pilgrimage and find out where this next-level art was coming from.

When I traveled to Tokyo in 2010, I planned to stay only for a short time but was quickly overwhelmed with the cinematic potential there, leading me to drop out of film school and move there permanently. That was the start of a decade-long journey to establish myself as a director in Japan, which culminated with the release of my first feature ‘Dreams on Fire’ in 2021.

Some aspects of storytelling and being a creator in Japan I appreciate are fearlessness, the lack of taboos, and embracing extremes. It feels like a creative ‘carte blanche,’ with the priority to entertain while pushing the medium. Fandoms in Japan can be hardcore, and I love it. The curation and appreciation for cinema by arthouse theaters, fueled by passionate cinephiles, is tremendously inspiring.

Japanese directors often struggle to get their films made locally, I can only imagine how difficult it was for a foreign director. What were the biggest hurdles to overcome?

When I first arrived in Japan, I didn’t know much about the industry, and everyone I met with experience would tell me, ‘Turn back! Run!’. There isn’t much support for indie productions, and without unions and with an extreme work culture, Japanese productions can be brutal. Tokyo attracts talent and dreamers from around the world, and through making a series of shorts, the last being a cyberpunk project called BREAKER (2017), I could meet and collaborate with international artists trying to carve their careers in Japan. When the script for Dreams on Fire was finished, the main feedback I got from local producers was ‘’We like the script, but don’t think you should cast real dancers, you should use idols, as they have more fans.’’. It became clear that the film would only be made if we banded together and made it independently.

Foreign directors, even the big names, often trip up when they set out to make a film in Japan. Did you ever worry about not doing justice to the Japanese people or Japanese culture?

Arriving in Japan, the plan was to make films, but as I hit the ground running and started immersing myself in the subculture communities that interested me, I realized that before I could start shooting, I had much to learn. I put down the camera and spent roughly three years researching by working alongside local artists and exploring the scenes that interested me, for instance, the deep world of nightlife, clubs, and fetish parties in Tokyo, by performing as a DJ and eventually organizing my own events. It took those few years to feel I could make something that wouldn’t feel touristic and have authenticity at a level that could surprise even Japanese viewers. I also surrounded myself with locals with experience in the subject matter I was shooting to ensure we were creating something authentic.

Dreams on Fire was released in 2021, in the middle of the COVID epidemic. How did that influence the release of your film?

We secured distribution in Japan for a theatrical release starting in the seven biggest cities, which is impressive for an indie project, but when our bookings came around (made six months in advance) it was one of the worst outbreaks in Japan, the only time the government closed cinema-chains (but not arthouse theatres) and that was that.

I do the post-production of my films in Montreal, and when the film was finished at the start of the pandemic, I found myself locked out of Japan and couldn’t even make it to the film's premiere in Tokyo. Just thinking about it reawakens some strong emotions, I remind myself that what’s important is that we made the film, it’s out there and in time will find its place with audiences.

Why did you choose to make a dance film? It's not a very popular niche in Japan, and the genre has a pretty flaky reputation elsewhere.

The flakiness of the genre’s reputation invigorated me because the history of dance films is long, and the bar is high, set by classics like one of my all-time favorites (and with a sneaky homage in Dreams on Fire) The Red Shoes (1948). The talent of the Japanese dance community is incredible, and I felt a great responsibility in making the first feature exploring the modern underground Japanese dance scene. As a teenager, I was passionate about dancing and competed in both breakdancing and Tango for a time, as I became a filmmaker, I set all my other hobbies aside and always felt that I would never shoot a dance project as the potential, to shoot something worthy of the beauty and power of dance, was intimidating. Eventually, it clicked that I had to walk into the fire and do exactly what scared me the most.

Most directors messing with more underground scenes and cultures often end up (ab)using them to add thriller elements to their films. Did you have to resist the urge, and how did you decide what parts of the Tokyo nightlife to include?

The subcultures you see in the film are all real, and the artists on screen represent many of the most respected figures in those scenes, from the dancers to the fetish performers and the fetish fashion made by legendary designers like KURAGE. I knew that audiences would be surprised by some of these scenes, but more than anything, I hope it will awaken something, and that for every viewer that will turn off the film because the bass is too loud, someone’s curiosity in Japan’s subcultures will blossom.

As much as the film is a trip through Tokyo's nightlife, I did notice you tried hard to stay clear of the biggest sports film clichés, while still hitting those typical story beats. Was it hard getting that balance right?

Dance dramas / ‘success stories’ are so formulaic and in my opinion, dangerous, as they propagate fantasies that will be a disservice in the real world. ‘’If you have a dream, it will come true!’’ I tried my best to balance accessibility to dance lovers and viewers who want a perspective of the Japanese scene while subverting expectations by deconstructing popular tropes. Most importantly, I wanted to write the story of an aspiring artist based on my own experiences, thinking of the kind of advice or perspective I could have given myself starting out.

Philippe McKie on Dreams on Fire

How did you land on Bambi Naka and how difficult was it to get her as the lead, considering she was primarily a dancer?

Before making the film, I had been a fan of Bambi Naka for years. She has such a distinct energy and style, and working with her was a dream. While writing the script, I immersed myself in the dance scene in Tokyo for a solid couple of years, once we were ready to begin casting, I heard that Bambi was headlining a dance show, and through a contact who was also performing, managed to go backstage and meet her for the first time. After meeting her management and confirming that she wanted to join the project, I rewrote the role to tap into her unique style. Although she first came to fame through her dance performances, Bambi doesn’t consider herself purely a dancer but rather an artist who can dance, I’m excited for her to continue showing the world her immense talent, and feel honored to be a part of that journey.

Having pro dancers on board must've been very helpful, but I loved how the dance scenes were shot and edited. How did you approach those scenes, and did the dancers have any say in them?

Each of the dancers in the film is at the top of their respective styles, and knowing this, I wanted to give them complete freedom to create their choreographies. I would give each dancer a few options of songs to choose from, and once they selected a track, I would tell them what section of the beat they would perform to. In most cases, they had this information weeks in advance and would arrive on set knowing exactly what they would dance to. I worked with the venues and our DP, James Latimer, to prepare the looks for the day of shooting, tapping as much as possible into the existing lighting rigs of the clubs where we shot. On the days of shooting, the dancers would arrive, the lighting would be ready, and we would discuss what area they could maneuver in based on the camera position and focus. I was the camera operator for most of the film, and every day of shooting felt like a dance between myself and the performers. The approach to each performance in the film was decided in advance, and I quickly learned we would only get a few takes of each performance because the dancers were going full-power, and time (and stamina!) was limited. I was the film's editor, the performers gave me a wealth of stunning footage, and I did my best to push for an exciting synchronicity between image and sound. I think the fact they were all dancing to music that was playing on set helped a lot for the immersion as well.

How was it working with Akaji Maro? He only has a small role (then again, he always seems to have a minor part), but he's a real legend (and he always seems to pick the most interesting films).

Akaji Maro is a LEGEND, I’ve watched his theatre group Dairakudakan multiple times and always leave gobsmacked. The DP James put it best, he described watching Akaji Maro on stage as being in a Final Fantasy boss battle, his presence is intimidating. I’m thrilled that two performers from his troupe were also able to appear in the film in the ‘nightmare sequence.’ That was the last day of shooting, and it could not have ended on a more exciting note to have Akaji Maro in full ‘butoh-mode,’ flanked by two performers from Dairakudakan, and with Bambi Naka tied up in rope art by the master Hajime Kinoko! When he walked on set, the whole crew went silent, we were in the presence of greatness, and that energy uplifted the whole team.

One major thing that stood out for me was the score. Not only is it meticulously tailored to the film, the music also felt fitting and genuine. How did you go about selecting the tracks, and did it help being a DJ on the side?

Before going into production, I knew I wanted all the music in the film to be diegetic. We are hearing every track alongside the characters in the film, and I didn’t want to have them dance to something on set and then need to edit the performances to music selected in post. This created an interesting challenge of selecting and contacting all the music producers before the first day of shooting. I’m very proud of the music lineup in the film, from more than 20 different artists, and from all corners of the globe. We collaborated with a few labels I am a big fan of, two massive Drum’n’Bass institutions, Hospital Records and Shogun Audio, and one of my favorite wave labels ‘Vibe.Digital’. I am a fan of every artist on the soundtrack, and I hope the film brings them new listeners. I remember a screening we had in New York, I could see a few audience members take out their phones and ‘shazam’ tracks while the film was playing! I confess I haven’t mixed live in quite some time, DJing regularly can be an extreme lifestyle, I’m focused on filmmaking and prefer to shine a spotlight and collaborate with music producers I love by bringing them on board our films, in that way, I still get the thrill of ‘track selecting’ a playlist for an audience.

Is there a project you are working on right now? What's next for Philippe McKie?

I have a finished script I’m very excited about, which will soon be going out to producers for a neon-noir thriller based in Japan. What I can say is that much like Dreams on Fire, it takes place in subculture communities that haven’t been properly explored in film, this time in a story that is much more mature, violent, and erotic. I’m also getting started on a modern folk-horror story set in Canada, drawing inspiration from the mood of some of my favorite Japanese horror films like ‘Cure’ (1997).

What if you were given carte blanche for your next film project? No budget constraints, and no producers looking over your shoulders. What would you make?

I’m excited to return to the genre of cyberpunk! It blows my mind that many of the most iconic works in the genre are so heavily inspired by Japan, and yet, there is a complete void of live-action cyberpunk films coming out of the country. I think a lot of fans of the genre, including myself, have been waiting for that to happen, and with my short BREAKER (2017), I showed a tiny glimpse of what I feel is the huge potential there, I’d love to make a bigger project in that style.

Philippe McKie on Dreams on Fire

Directors are also given the chance to ask questions 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.

Philippe McKie: Going into watching the film, your expectations were low, and I don’t blame you, based on the simple synopsis and ‘dance film’ label. At what point in watching the film did you start to feel ‘ok, this might have potential’?

Niels Matthijs: I think there were two main turning points for me. The first one was the hip-hop battle on Yume's first night in Tokyo. At that point, I knew this was a film that had its finger on the pulse, and it wasn't going to be some poppy, commercial dance flick. The second scene is when Yume goes home drunk after filling in for one of her colleagues. It's the editing and camera work that made me realize this could very well become a personal favorite of mine. From there on out, it was smooth sailing and I never really doubted the quality would drop later on.

When you reflect on the film, what’s the first scene that comes to mind?

I'm going to cheat again and point to two very different scenes, as for me it's that specific contrast that makes up the essence of Dreams on Fire. The first scene is by far the most remarkable one, which is the fetish party with the dressed-up partygoers. The costumes are great (the two doll-face girls were haunting), the music is otherworldly and the cinematography ties everything together. That scene transported me to a different world, one I'd very much love to visit.

On the other hand, there are the scenes in Yume's little apartment, that give off the complete opposite feeling. Gone are the wild nights and lively culture, it's just her in a little flat, where she's all alone, trying to make it into a cutthroat world. The tension between those two aspects defines the film for me, and these scenes represent them best I think.

What was your favorite aspect of the film? Is there something that stood out?

I have to go for the score/soundtrack. I'm a sucker for colorful, maximalist cinematography, but many directors get that right (you're battling the likes of Mika Ninagawa there). Scores on the other hand are a personal pet peeve of mine, especially when a film references specific niches. They probably have the biggest ROI when it comes to establishing a mood, but they are so often overlooked or poorly used.

Especially when it comes to hip-hop and dance music, which tend to revert to poppy derivates or weak soundtrack-like interpretations of the real deal. I think Dreams on Fire nailed that part, with some very interesting choices that fit the respective niches like a glove.

What film would you pair with Dreams on Fire as a double feature? You can pick more than one!

It took me a while to come up with a good match since I first took the lazy route. There just aren't that many dance films in Japan (and Shall We Dance would only fit as a kind of antithesis to Dreams on Fire). But when I broadened it up a little, there's one film that would make a dream pairing I think.

The film I'm talking about is Ken Ninomiya's Chiwawa. I think Ninomiya is Japan's biggest directorial talent of the past 10 years, and he seems to be going for a very similar vibe. He's an indie director who works hard to get his projects funded but as a result, retains lots of control. His films bathe in color, he is closely connected to the music world, Chiwawa is also embedded into Tokyo's nightlife, and it even features Bambi Naka! As a film that's firmly planted inside my top 100 films, Dreams on Fire would be in very good company I think.