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SxSW 2016 Interview: WE ARE X director Stephen Kijak

WE ARE X - At SxSW 2016
by Jason Whyte

"WE ARE X is a psychedelic violence crime of documentary shock about the greatest Japanese rock band you have never heard of ...yet!" Director Stephen Kijak on WE ARE X which screens at the 2016 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Great to see you back at SxSW this year! We have interviewed in the past but remind our readers of your past work and Austin.

I have been fortunate to have four films at SxSW: CINEMANIA, SCOTT WALKER: 30 CENTURY MAN, JACO and now WE ARE X. I have been to Austin both during SXSW and at other times and I always like the vibe, the food and the people. I make films about music and musicians so its total nirvana. Nothing like wandering around with a tequila buzz discovering new bands.

Looking forward to seeing you once again in Austin. Remind our readers how you got your start!

I went to undergrad at Boston University College of Communication and studied with Cassavetes scholar Ray Carney, and that really turned a light on. I made an indie feature a few years out of school that more or less tanked but it helped me find a new direction in documentary. In fact, it was SxSW Film Lead Janet Pierson and her husband John that really kick-started my doc career by commissioning a short from me for their IFC show SPLIT SCREEN that evolved into my first doc feature CINEMANIA. Since then I have focused my attention on music and musicians. It started with my passion project about cult icon Scott Walker, which was exec produced by the late, great David Bowie and from there I have been lucky to have collaborated with some incredible and diverse artists, from The Rolling Stones to the Backstreet Boys.

So how did WE ARE X come together for you?

This is my third collaboration with producer John Battsek & Passion Pictures; they had been approached by the band. He spoke to me about it and it sounded fascinating. It all came together very quickly. I got a call on a Sunday and by Thursday I was in Yokohama, Japan, watching an X Japan arena show side-stage. I had never seen anything like it. We had about a week after that to prep a shoot at Madison Square Garden.

Sounds intense! So what keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?

There's always a moment, either during the shoot or in the cut, where you find or edit a scene that seems to hold the key to the whole thing, and then you're driven to wrap everything around that moment or that feeling and bring it all home. It is when you can sort of see the whole thing, and that is inspiring. I am also inspired by my collaborators; I work with a brilliant team of people, from my producers to our DPs and editors, and our GFX team, who have been short-listed for the SXSW Excellence In Title Design award! They constantly challenge and surprise me.

Also, coffee is the source of all life.

So what was your biggest challenge with making WE ARE X, the moment that was the most rewarding to you, where you knew you had something special?

The biggest challenge was covering three days of rehearsals and the entire Madison Square Garden show with less than a week of pre-production. Props to producer Diane Becker for making it all happen!

For the most rewarding moment, I think it was the moment shooting the dress rehearsals; you have this alien-looking rock band, all wearing surgical masks, crazy hair, studs and leather, framed by these surreal backdrops, with pyro popping off in the background; I was looking at the monitor and cinematographer Sean Kirby and I sort of looked at each other and we were both thinking the same thing, "This is the weirdest shit I have ever shot in my life." It was surreal and beautiful and held a sort of mystery; on one level it was just a rock concert, but it felt like it was beamed in from a parallel universe.

I am about to get technical, but I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you use to shoot, your relationship to the director of photography and how the movie was photographed.

We shot with a combo of the Arri Amira and a C300, and sometimes a C500. Two DPs contributed to the film; Sean Kirby shot mainly with the Amira. We stuck to the leader of the band Yoshiki for the most part, used the Amira also to capture all the beautiful slo-mo in the film, and much of the stuff we did in Japan. John Maringouin was more the run-and-gun guy with the C300. He took a slightly more invasive approach, busting into different band members dressing rooms, looking for the more surreal and off-kilter shots and situations, where Sean and the Amira went more for the grandeur and beauty; but then sometimes it switches depending on what was happening in the moment. They're both brilliant, have great instincts and eyes.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?

I am looking forward to a music-savvy crowd getting a look at it, both fans and other musicians. X Japan is still very much a cult item in the Western world, something we hope this film starts to change.

After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?

Not sure! Distribution is being sorted out now and we have a handful of other fests to decide on.

If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?

I would love to screen it at the recently-renovated Regent Street Cinema in London. London has always been like a second home to me and the Regent is a gem. It was originally built in 1896 and was the first place in the country to show moving pictures, screening the Lumiere brothers' CINEMATOGRAPHE. The renovation is stunning. It's a great room.

What would you say to someone who was talking or texting through a movie?

I'll let Jack Angstreich, from my doc CINEMANIA take this one: "You can't let people ruin a film. I have had to rip the food out of somebody's hands and throw it on the floor. Really, there's no alternative. If you don't get up and threaten them or something, then you're going to actually have the film ruined." He did get arrested once for going overboard with a noisy patron. I wouldn't go that far but people really need to show some respect.

We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business as a piece of advice?

Make friends with a really great producer.

And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?

I am going to go with Ciro Guerra's recent EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT from Colombia that I saw at Sundance. It cured my hangover and is still haunting me. After seeing a handful of so-so American indies this film blew my mind. Consummate cinematic craftsmanship.

Be sure to follow Stephen Kijak's work at or on Twitter at @Stephen_Kijak!

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our interview series for our site. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 SXSW in Austin, Texas taking place March 11-19. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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originally posted: 03/07/16 16:47:42
last updated: 03/07/16 16:50:44
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