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 first part of our three-part interview, I spoke to him about his ambitions for the film, his experiences making it, his feelings towards Japan and Japanese cinema, and casting Elisabeth Moss.         

Living in Japan myself, I found TOKYO PROJECT especially poignant. I loved how you captured one arriving in a foreign place, with a showreel running in your brain of all the images you associate with that place, and the sheer optimism that you are going to have a great experience. 
Every time I've been to Tokyo I've been jetlagged the entire time, and it leads to some weird level of seeing things. I was trying to capture the way I feel every time I arrive in the city. When I go to new cities I always think of all the movies that have been made there, and I wanted to replicate that half awake feeling of going to a city and feeling like you have been there before, even when you haven't.

I also liked how you set up the audience to expect a film depicting a romantic, sexy, illicit encounter, but by the end of the story what we are watching is extremely poignant. 
I wanted to write a sad love story, and also a mystery, which is a genre that interested me and something I had not done before. It's like a short story. You don't really know what the film is. It sort of sneaks up on you and then suddenly it has this immense power. You can watch the film a second time and it plays like a different story. When we were editing the film it was really interesting because we found that when we tried to make Elizabeth Moss's reactions to certain situations a little sweeter, it hurt the big picture of the story, and that if we made her more elusive and distant it made the story more powerful at the end when you realise what the movie is really about. Then all of her reactions seem absolutely correct. It added to the mystery in a strange way because I like to think it didn't seem quite tangible – that it felt a bit off but that it worked as well. She says at some point in the film ''This is a city of ghosts, and I could be a ghost. '' I like the idea that she has that kind of presence in the film. Ebon Moss-Bachrach's character also questions if this is all really happening.

Elizabeth and Ebon's characters keep running into each other. That's a movie conceit, but it's also something that does happen in cities, and definitely in Tokyo. 
Yes, I find that does happen in big cities and it's a strange thing. I'm from New York City and I'll be walking down the street thinking ''Wow, I haven't seen my college girlfriend in a while. '' And then I'll bump into her. It's a strange thing to happen in a city that you can be anonymous in. I think one of Tokyo's great pleasures is that there are secrets everywhere. I'm fascinated by the fact that there is this chaos of so many millions of people and then there areas of complete tranquility in the least expected places, whether it be the third floor of a building that you had no idea had businesses on, or a weird little alleyway where there's a very quiet sake bar. I also like the fact that at some point, these two characters might have discussed what they were going to do while in Tokyo, and they follow the same trajectory because they are such similar people. They've been together for so long.

Were you keen to show a different side to Elizabeth Moss in the film? There's a more sensual, enigmatic quality to her here. Before your film she had success as much different characters in Mad Men and Top of the Lake, for example. 
I wrote the part for her, but I didn't know her at the time. I was just imagining her in the movie because I think she's so great. Short films are easier to get casted because it is such a small commitment of time. It's so hard when you're doing a feature film because you're dealing with people's schedules. On this movie I could just say ''You're going to come to Tokyo, and you'll be done five days later. '' Lizzie read the script and liked it, and was psyched to go there.

I think there's something sexy and mysterious about her and I haven't really seen this used in many movies. I think she spotted this too and that this was one of the reasons she wanted to do it. The movie was a really intimate filming experience, more than any film I've ever done since I was a student. We had a twelve-person crew and were moving around Tokyo in two vans. You walk on a normal movie set and there's like a hundred people. You can clear people out and have a closed set, and there's still twenty-five people. At one point Lizzie was changing outfits in the back seat of a car. We took the subway from one location to another and when we did the sex scenes, it was just me and the actors and the camera crew in a hotel room. It was very intimate, and I think all this allowed the actors to lose the artifice of movie-making, which is of course by its nature artificial. We were filming in small spaces, and because we were only in Tokyo for a short time we were all going to dinner together and drinking together every night. The intimacy was there for the entire time we were shooting and in a weird way I wasn't just the director, I was part of the travel group. All this made for a more interesting movie I think, and enabled us to get a movie made in five days on the streets of Tokyo that looks as good as it does.

Did you feel like you were a Nouvelle Vague filmmaker like Truffaut running through the streets of Tokyo? 
If I can steal a shot, it's like my favorite thing to do. Even if I'm shooting a feature with locations and permits and crew, while everyone is setting up I'll take a camera and take some shots without telling anyone. There's something liberating about it because everything is so planned and overscheduled on movie shoots. TOKYO PROJECT definitely had that. We would be walking through Shinjuku and Lizzie and Ebon would have a radio mic on, and most people didn't even know we were shooting. There was no boom person, for example, only five people walking down the block. We just had natural light too, so there was no need for any special lights. Super fun. One time I decided we should go back and get some more shots for a scene we had already filmed, and we just jumped on the subway, went back to the location and did it. On a real movie, that wouldn't happen. It would have cost us another $100, 000 and we would have had to repark the trucks and everything. I think the energy of how we made the movie is embedded in the actual movie itself.

Did you speak to Sofia Coppola at all about filming in Tokyo? 
I didn't, no, and I purposely didn't watch LOST IN TRANSLATION (2003) again. That movie's so great on many levels, but I didn't want to be influenced by it. I've been to Tokyo a number of times and had my own experiences there and that in a way was what I wanted to capture. Whether it was the T-Site bookstore or the movie poster shop in Jimbocho – these were places I had already been to and loved and wanted to film. I wanted to show what my version of Tokyo was. It's funny how one film (LOST IN TRANSLATION) now owns a city! I would describe TOKYO PROJECT to people and they would say ''Oh, it's like LOST IN TRANSLATION?'' It's unfair. I mean, it's a great movie, but how many films have been made in New York, for example?

When did you personally discover Japanese cinema? 
Japan seemed so foreign to me as a kid that it made me even more interested in it. When I was in high school, I worked in a movie theater in New York, and at that time you could turn up to any movie theater in the city and tell the staff you also worked at one, and the usher would let you in. I would watch seven or eight movies a week. My best friend Mark Mullan loved Japanese movies and he turned me on to Kurosawa. RAN (1985) came out when we were in high school and that was a big deal. I started getting into Japanese and Asian film in general. I remember being blown away by SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980). Asian movies are a lot of fun and continue to be. When Egon recalls all those Japanese movies in the opening montage, they are all movies that I saw and very much enjoyed and were indelible to me. It's not every city or country that I could make a montage of film clips about.

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.

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