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SxSW 2015 Interview: MADE IN JAPAN director Josh Bishop

MADE IN JAPAN - On the fest circuit
by Jason Whyte

"MADE IN JAPAN is about Tomi Fujiyama, a female Japanese Country Western singer. She is 75 years old and has been singing American country music since she was 12 years old. She played the American military circuit in the 60s on bases throughout Japan, was signed to Columbia records where she released 21 singles and 7 albums, did a two year residency at The Mint Hotel in Las Vegas and was the first Japanese person ever to be on The Grand Ole Opry in 1964. She went on right after Johnny Cash and got the only standing ovation of the 5 hour show. Tomi has never stopped singing and her dream is to once again play the Grand Ole Opry. This is our 11 year journey in bringing this story to life." Director Josh Bishop on MADE IN JAPAN which screened at the 2015 South By Southwest Film Festival.

Is this your first SxSW/Austin experience and are you going to attend your screenings?

This is my first trip to Austin ever and yes I will be attending all three of my screenings.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you became a filmmaker. Also what have you worked on in the past?

I am an American kid born to a dad from Alabama and a mom from Los Angeles. My mother is a pianist/composer and felt she would have a better shot at a musical career if we moved to Europe, so through a series of events we ended up moving to Rotterdam Holland when I was 12 and then to a small town outside Antwerp Belgium called Essen when I was 15. I grew up in and around Antwerp Belgium basically but I spent plenty of time in both California and the American south as well.

I have been playing the guitar since I was 11 and originally that's kind of what I thought I wanted to do with my life. I have always been inspired by counter culture so naturally I thought I was going to end up in a punk or metal band of some kind but around age 16 I saw Jim Jarmusch's DOWN BY LAW and it opened up a new kind of cinema to that felt like Rock N'Roll, the kind of music I played and knew. I had been unaware that you could also do this with film because until that point every film I had ever seen had come out of the Hollywood system. Those are films that I certainly enjoyed as a kid but that kind of huge budget stuff just seemed unattainable to me and quite frankly it had never even crossed my mind to do that. I got way into indie cinema and by age 17 I knew that filmmaking was what I was going to do with my life and never looked back, however I do still love the guitar and play daily. Fortunately the school I was going to in Antwerp at that time had an incredibly strong arts program and a huge audio visual department, so I dove in head first and learned everything I possibly could about actually crafting film. My cousin was a stunt guy in Hollywood and I interned with him in the summer of 1999 and got to see some film sets first hand. My first set experience was on Michael Bays PEARL HARBOR, believe it or not! This experience further proved to me that Hollywood was not where I wanted to be and when I graduated I did a few Production Assistant jobs and eventually moved to New York in 2002 where I have lived and worked ever since. I married a Japanese woman which opened up Japan and its culture to me, assisted for a long time on both movies and commercials and eventually worked my way up to Art Director which wasn't for me so I became an Editor. In the mean time I had always been making my own shorts and other artsy projects and MADE IN JAPAN was the biggest of those. I just kept chipping away at it one step at a time for ten years.

How did your movie come together?

I married in 2004 at the age of 24 to a Japanese jazz singer and ended up going to Japan for the first time shortly thereafter. My wife at the time had told me of this Japanese country singer lady Tomi Fujiyama that used to give her vocal lessons and that I should meet her. We went to one of Tomi's gigs in Yokohama and I found the whole thing to be utterly fascinating. Here in front of me was a 4'11' Japanese lady belting out Hank Williams songs and shredding on the guitar and absolutely killing it. I talked to her after the show and she told me her whole story about getting on the Grand Ole Opry etc.

The next night I was at another music event with my wife and I couldn't pay attention to the stage because I could not get Tomi out of my head. Here was a woman who was Japanese, had been singing American country music for over 50 years and had been on the Grand Ole Opry. The story was there and I knew it was a film, an actual movie that I felt I could make. I was going to tell her story and get her back on the stage of the Opry in the process. It would be a no brainer I thought.

I made an appointment to go over to her house and met with her and her husband to present this idea. What I found there was that she had an insane amount of memorabilia from her life in the form of recordings, guitars, clothes and even better, had documented her whole life with photographs. I was utterly flabbergasted and knew I had stumbled upon something great. A year later I cobbled together a few thousand dollars of my own money and was shooting with her in Japan.

It wasn't until after the initial shoot that I found the multiple collaborators that I needed to ultimately finish the project a decade later. There were many along the way but most notable were my Producers Josh and Jason Diamond who came onboard as editors initially and helped me cut a piece that we ended up showing Elijah Wood who was already a friend of theirs. Elijah, a music buff in his own right, was incredibly interested in Tomi and somewhere around 2007 officially came on as an executive producer and agreed to narrate the film. My DP Gregg de Domenico came on board in 2008 and by 2013, I had officially shot everything needed to tell the story. I was able to raise a decent chunk of money to edit the film and we approached Julie "Bob" Lombardi who had cut SUPER SIZE ME and Victoria Lesiw who came highly recommended from a mutual friend to edit the film and got them working on the project as well. When we were done Julie showed it to Morgan Spurlock who she had maintained a good relationship with over the years and he agreed to come on board with his partner Jeremy Chilnick to help us see this film through till the end as executive producers. We were also very fortunate to have been able to get Kaki King, who is an amazing musician, to write and record all of our original score. We have been fans of her music for a long time and when she graciously agreed to do it we were really excited.

What were your biggest challenges with MADE IN JAPAN?

Not surprisingly it was money and the fact that I had almost none. I worked my ass off as a PA and used what little money I had to go shoot anyway. I basically ignored the fact I didn't have the money and eventually I found some cash but not until years into the project.

If you had to pick a single favorite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

If I had to pick a favorite moment it would have to be when she was reunited with "Oscar Sullivan", the Opry member who invited her onto the Grand Ole Opry in 1964.

There is a scene in the film when she is on a radio show in Nashville and is being interviewed about her life. She starts talking about Oscar Sullivan and how she stayed with him and his wife in Nashville in 1964 during the weekend that she was on the Opry and that she remembers them fondly. She was under the impression that Oscar had died and she finds out on the air that both the man and his wife were still alive and that they were living not too far from Nashville. When she found that out on that radio show, I swear that the pressure in the room changed; every hair on the back of my head stood straight up and a tingle went down my spine. She had not seen these people in over 40 years and had just assumed them to be dead. It was the kind of moment you see in a documentary and wonder "How the hell did the filmmaker capture that?"

After the show, we were given Oscar and his wife's number and we called them. They remembered Tomi very well and we were able to reunite them. It was one of those things that makes you as a filmmaker shake your head in disbelief and say "Did I make this happen or did some other unknown hidden force do it?" Sadly, a year later both Oscar and his wife had passed and we were all upset to hear this news but I felt blessed never the less to have had the opportunity to meet this man and his wife and to have given Tomi the chance to be reunited with them. Oscar Sullivan was a true American musical pioneer and I suggest you look him up if you don't know who he is. You will probably be amazed.

What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you? How much coffee?

With MADE IN JAPAN it was necessity was what kept me going, I guess. I had a burning desire to tell Tomi's story and giving up was not an option. What drives me? I feel the urge to tell stories that no one has heard. As a filmmaker, I work hard to express ideas and thoughts that ring true to me. With MADE IN JAPAN I tried to show what can happen when a person is determined and believes in what he or she is doing. "Rising to the top" and "overcoming all obstacles" are not themes that I consider integral to a good story however and I would even go so far as to say that if I was making a narrative film I wouldn't feel comfortable exploring those themes because I feel we see them in almost every fiction narrative, especially films that come out of Hollywood. I want to show the audience something that they have not seen before as opposed to rehashing ideas that have been proven to "work". I aspire to hypnotize, provoke and engage the audience. Hopefully by showing Tomi's 60 plus year journey I have succeeded in that. Also yes, I love coffee.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film, your relationship to the director of photography, what the movie was shot on and why it was decided to be filmed this way.

We shot MADE IN JAPAN on mini-DV mostly because in 2005 when I started shooting and had no money , it was still a viable independent filmmakers medium. In the mean time it has become almost obsolete as technology has changed and you can shoot on HD much more cheaply than I could have done at that time. My cinematographer Gregg de Domenico got in the trenches with me in 2008 and really gave me his all. The man is a tank; an unstoppable shooting machine and lucky for me he was looking for a project. We collaborated very well and have continued to do so.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie at SxSW and in Austin?

I am looking most forward to showing Tomi to the world and showcasing the eleven years of hard work it took to do so. I know she will make people smile and I will very much enjoy that.

After the film screens at South By Southwest, where is the film going to show next? Anywhere you would like it to screen?

We are happy to say that the Nashville Film Fest is also showing our film, a natural fit for our movie but we also have screenings at the 20th Annual Chicago Asian American Showcase as well as a screening at the first annual Asbury Park Music in Film Festival in mid-April. I honestly just want as many people to know about Tomi as possible and we have a long list of festivals the world over that the film has been submitted to. As a Dutch speaker I would love to screen the film in Holland and Belgium so IDFA in Amsterdam Holland as well as The Ghent Film Festival in Belgium are targets. Naturally we want the film to play in Japan as well so both the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival as well as the Tokyo International Film Festival are on our list. The place that I would love to see this movie screen the most would be at The Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. After all it is the mother church of country music.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being generally disruptive during a screening of your film?

Forget the fact that this film took almost 11 years to make. This woman has been doing this for over 60 years. Show some respect.

There are a lot of up and coming filmmakers both at SxSW and reading our site. What would you want to tell them if they are aspiring to become a filmmaker?

If filmmaking has set your soul on fire and you want it more than anything then it is the right thing to do. I don't care what happens along the way, if you listen to the voice inside you, I mean actually LISTEN to it then you will be able to tune out the negativity; this includes the naysayers and the people who don't want you to succeed, and you can finish your film but you have to actually start. Don't sit around waiting for funding. A great film maker who I will not name once told me "shut up and make your movie." Single best piece of advice I ever got.

And finally, what is the single, greatest movie that you have ever seen?

As we all know this is a VERY hard question to answer. If I had to pick one movie it would be ERASERHEAD but I have been inspired by all kinds of films and art forms. Music has influenced me as much if not more than filmmakers. Regarding a favorite film festival, SXSW is a dream come true. I always envisioned the film premiering there.

We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview in our now 40+ filmmaker 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 2015 SXSW in Austin, Texas between March 13-21. 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: 04/11/15 03:41:53
last updated: 04/11/15 03:50:14
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