RICHARD SHEPARD ON 'TOKYO PROJECT' (PART 2 OF 3)

Richard Shepard is the acclaimed director of THE MATADOR (2005) and DOM HEMINGWAY (2013), which gave, respectively, Pierce Brosnan and Jude Law the opportunity to deliver shape-shifting performances, and THE HUNTING PARTY (2007) with Richard Gere. He is one of the most underrated of modern directors, making films that cross genres and mix tones successfully, and make you laugh as well as move you. Shepard is also one of TV's most in-demand directors of television, directing the pilots for such hit shows as Criminal Minds, Rosewood, Salem and Ugly Betty. He is also a regular director on Lena Dunham's TV series, Girls. Shepard travelled to Tokyo to make the short film TOKYO PROJECT, an unconventional love story starring Elisabeth Moss and Ebon Moss-Bachrach available to see on HBO, and in the second part of our three-part interview, I spoke to him about what he loves about Japan, his experiences filming with and without permission in Tokyo, his personal connections to the story, and how much his experience directing for television impacted upon the film.

Part one of the interview.          

The Linguini Incident

What do you particularly love about Japan and its people and culture would you say? 
I'm from New York, where we are very polite and rude at the same time. I'd like to think New Yorkers are more polite than we are given credit for, but we are abrasive and that's just how we are in general. There's a totally different energy in Japan but I love it. It doesn't feel forced. It feels very cultural and real. I like that sense of order. I like that sense of elegance. I like that you can get a plate of fish and when its served, so much effort went into the presentation. Part of my job too as a filmmaker is to put effort into everything. It's not something you can slop your way through, although some do. I think consumers appreciate it and can tell when extra effort and passion has gone into something. So, I love the elegance and attention to detail in Japan, which you can see in the scene where the bartender prepares the cocktail, but I also love this wonderful mix of chaos and calm that Japanese has.

I see travelling as a romantic thing, so wherever I am in the world, I tend to see the romance in it. I joke that every time you have a cup of coffee in a new place, it's always the best you've ever had. Your brain is thinking in a different sort of way. The first time I went to Japan, I could imagine living there if I spoke the language, and I don't get that feeling everywhere I travel. Another thing I love about Tokyo is that like New York you can get a delicious meal whether you have a lot of money or very little money.

The Matador
Japan is famous for being difficult to get permission to film. Did you experience any red tape hassles at all? 
Because we were so small, we had no permits and thus no red tape. I direct on the TV series Girls, and Girls ended up shooting an episode in Tokyo (Japan). I didn't direct that episode but I went with them when they shot it. When I wanted to do TOKYO PROJECT, I reached out to the Japanese production company that HBO had hired on that episode, and I told them ''We have no money. We have the exact opposite budget of Girls (which was millions of dollars). I can pay for the plane ticket and for the rental of the van, but that's about it.'' We got a lot of great people to volunteer their time, which was great, and they told us ''Listen, we are so small that we don't need to play by the normal rules. Nobody will even know we are there.'' Because they had that rock and roll attitude, it enabled us to do it. I can imagine a bigger movie having some real issues. They take a long time to say yes in Japan, whereas in most other countries if you ask to shoot at a particular place, you'll get a quick yes or no answer, depending on how much money you have. T-Site was the hardest location to get in Tokyo. To get them to agree to let us shoot there for an hour was a lot of ''Let's have a meeting. Let's send a fax. Let's have some tea. Let's send another fax. '' They had never let anyone shoot in there since it had first opened. Big movies can solve issues with money. On a small movie, you have to accept the 'no' and find another solution.

How personal a story is TOKYO PROJECT to you? 
Well, thankfully I have never gone through the death of a loved one like that, but I related to it even though it wasn't my story. Like a lot of creative people, I am interested in the rebirths of relationships, and how to give a second life to a relationship that may appear dead. I was interested in this need to try to invent yourself and how you can actually do it. It can give a spark to a relationship. I always talk about when you have a great first date with someone you feel like you can rob a bank. That feeling very quickly goes away into normal life even if you're in love with someone. I wanted to explore the answer to the question ''How do you get back to that place?'' These two characters managed to get back to a place where there was no past between them, and that was what was cool about it and personal and why I was able to write it and to voice it.

Dom Hemingway
Do you think there is also a subtext about dealing with middle age? The accumulated knowledge and experience can rob one of necessary energy. 
Definitely. And one has to be careful, because it can cripple you in a way. The loss of innocence is more than just a saying. It can affect you. As an independent filmmaker, if I lose my optimism, I literally can't work because, for example, I have to be able to delude myself that millions of dollars are going to find their way to a bank and allow me to make a movie. I have to trust that people who say they're going to be somewhere on a certain day will be there. I've done so many movies that have fallen apart, there have been so many actors who have dropped out of projects, and there has been so much money that was promised but never came. If I looked at these situations in any realistic way, I could never do it again. I would just wither away. Part of my job is to force myself into this delusional state, and it does help me in middle age in that you have to be optimistic in a way. When something new comes into my life, it gives me a jolt of energy. I'm not just talking about a project. I'm hugely into art and I go to every new exhibition, and every time I go, I get this jolt of energy because it's new, and I'm not someone who doesn't love revisiting old things.

Travel gives me the same energy, and with TOKYO PROJECT I didn't just want to do a romance. I wanted to do a love story about the power of travel. Travel can be deeply romantic, even when it can be deeply sad and solitary. At the beginning of the movie, Ebon's character is a little solitary, he's by himself, he's leaving a message to Lizzie saying ''I wish you could meet me for dinner, but you're never going to be with me again.'' And I know what that is like, having made movies on location my whole adult life. I know what it's like to be alone and missing your family. It's the middle of night where you are and there is literally nobody to talk to. It's like a black hole. That loneliness was definitely something I wanted to show.

One Man's Trash
I liked how you brought in an element of hope at the end in an era when most filmmakers are interested in ending their films on a dark, pessimistic note. 
It seems the go to thing because it's more arty and I guess more realistic. I felt that the movie earned that feeling at the end, because she leaves the note and signs it with the name she has created. She's basically saying ''If you want to keep going with this, I'm open to it. But our past is over. '' That indicates that they might have a future together. Lizzie really wants to do a sequel and I told her ''I'm not interested in seeing where they are in a year, but let's get back together and see where they are in say, eight years. '' Whenever I speak to Lizzie or Ebon, they always say ''Seven and a half years to pre-production!''

How much has your experience directing for television, especially on Girls, influenced your approach to directing TOKYO PROJECT? 
It really did influence me. On Girls I had been given a number of scripts that were these little two-handers, whether it was the Patrick Wilson episode (One Man's Trash), the Allison Williams 'Panic in Central Park' episode, or the Matthew Rhys episode (American Bitch) last season. They were like little short movies and I got used to exploring what I could get emotionally from a thirty-minute movie. I was astounded, quite frankly by how much you could get. It can almost give you the satisfaction you get from a full feature. With thirty minutes you can really transport people. When I had the idea to do a short, I just started writing it without thinking how long it was going to be, and it ended up at thirty pages. I think I was just so used to being in that headspace for the last couple of years on Girls. The Patrick Wilson and Allison Williams episodes were both bitter-sweet romances and I liked doing both of them very much. They influenced me in that they gave me the belief that I could try something like TOKYO PROJECT. I never wrote any of the Girls episodes. I was just the director, but I was very much part of the process. I wanted to make a two-hander short film that was my idea from start to finish, for good or bad.

Tokyo Project cast and crew
When you make a short film, there is this huge burden lifted off your shoulders. It's the burden of financial success. You know going in that it's probably only going to be playing at film festivals. It gives you tremendous freedom. When you make a feature film, they are so expensive, there is a burden to present something that theoretically has a chance of success and getting its money back. With TOKYO PROJECT, it was a lucky situation because it got bought by HBO and I got paid back the money I had spent on it. We were also lucky that after we finished the film, Lizzie's profile got lifted by The Handmaid's Tale.

TOKYO PROJECT is available to watch on HBO. Here is the trailer.  

Money Into Light's previous interviews with Shepard: Part One , Part Two and Part Three.

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2018. All rights reserved.