We Are Little Zombies: I AM Makoto Nagahisa
We Are Little Zombies, the debut feature film for Japanese director Makoto Nagahisa, was undoubtedly one of the break-out films and auteur visions to come out of Sundance 2019, which went to on to win the Special Jury Award for Originality. Nagahisa previously won Sundance's Short Film Grand Jury Prize in 2017 with And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool - the first Japanese film to receive a Grand Jury prize at the festival.
And So We Put Goldfish in the Pool - Courtesy of the Artist
Nagahisa’s We Are Little Zombies continues his outrageous millennial trip into rainbow, hyperbolic adventures inside the detached world of kids who don’t give a damn, frolicking through and creating their own matrix of truth and lies with fantasy, poetic euphoria, and song.
Four orphans, the oldest 13 - Hirako, Ikuku, Ishi, and Takemura, bond after the death of their parents through murder, a freak accident, suicide, and an explosion. After falling into a pile of rubbish, these child misfits decide to, or rather fall into, a transformation into a viral rock group - We Are Little Zombies, that sends these nihilistic orphans into a sudden streak of kid pop-stardom.
Nagahisa sat down for an exclusive interview at Sundance with I AM FILM’s Editor Amy Tam, to discuss his latest work; described by audiences at the premiere as no less than, “a work of genius” and to delve into the deeper meaning behind making death beautiful, his creative process, and what’s next after his second Sundance hit.
We Are Little Zombies Trailer - Courtesy of the Artist
First of all - congratulations on your incredibly successful premiere here at Sundance. In your own words, what is your latest feature film We Are Little Zombies about?
MN: So, this is my first feature film. It is about four kids who have lost their parents, but they don’t despair. Instead, they go on an adventure together, all four of them, and the movie is about how they form a band and show some personal growth through that experience.
Was this story based on any personal experiences in your life? Where did the inspiration for We Are Little Zombies come from?
MN: So, about two years ago, I was on leave to raise my children. And that’s when I heard the news about a social networking site in Russia that kind of made a lot of kids in younger generations commit suicide. And when I heard about it, I felt that I should write and make a story that gives hope to the younger generations, so that they don’t have to despair about life.
My parents are still very much alive. But what the characters feel throughout the film, are exactly the things that I felt as a child. For example, the main character lives in a very tall apartment building. And both of his parents were working, so there wasn’t a lot of opportunity to feel his parent’s love and affection.
We Are Little Zombies feels like a pop-culture soundtrack for the millennial generation, with a disregard for societal values and a focus on only the Now. Is there a deeper meaning behind that?
MN: While I was making this film, what I realised was, in modern society now, it is common for people to think that you shouldn’t stay at home all day cooped up inside playing games; you should go out and experience things—to face reality.
But reality is so harsh, that I feel it was important to not so much face reality…it’s okay, sometimes, to run from it, if it means protecting yourself, surviving and living.
Even if we aren’t understood by adults, it is okay to kind of slack off and be lazy. Just keep moving forward somehow—and that’s good enough.
Absolutely. You remarked during the premiere that, “You’re not sure about this thing called reality.” Throughout your film, the visual style that you have and your cinematic points of view are entirely unique. We are perceiving from the middle of cup seeing a face drinking out of it or in your first short film, we see the four girls from below their chins, while the shot is moving like a fish. It feels like you’re almost playing with our sense of what reality is and laughing at it.
MN: Yes, yes, yes. So, I try to make it look like my imagination. In the world of your imagination, your view can rapidly change from one thing to another. And that’s what I wanted to show by doing that, by changing the perspective constantly.
AT: By seeing from multiple perspectives?
MN: Exactly, yes.
You have chosen to focus on child protagonists in your stories. Can you tell me a little bit about why you chose children, as opposed to adults, as the best vehicle for your vision as a filmmaker?
MN: I feel that children, as opposed to adults, don’t have this skewed sense of what is common sense and stuff. They are so much more pure and they have a much more neutral view on the world, and so, that’s why I feel they are the best vehicle.
Let’s talk about your distinctive visual style, that blew the audience away. Tell me about your creative process as a director from the concept to what we see on the screen.
MN: I feel that each line of the script is very important. What I do at the beginning is put together all of the words, one-by-one. I like to read the Bible and observe how every sentence is very different and can be interpreted very differently, depending on what your consciousness is in the moment. So, I feel that that is the kind of thing I wanted to do.
AT: To give things multiple meanings?
MN: So, it could be like one person feels differently about something depending on the timing or it could be at any point lots of different people will have a very different interpretation at different times.
Are you religious?
MN: I’m not exactly religious. (smiles)
It is more like poetry to me. The next step for me after the words comes the sound. The sound is very important to me. I make the full length of the film basically - the sound of it. And then, after that, comes the picture. I draw the entire storyboard. And then I shoot the film.
That’s a very interesting way to do it... with the sound first. So, how do you create the sound without the picture at the start of your process?
MN: I read the script (out loud) to myself. And then, I try to listen to it and see what the correct tempo would be for it, that would match the words.
AT: Like a music composition.
MN: Yes yes - it’s like writing an orchestral score.
That would explain the meticulous editing on this film. We heard at the premiere that you wrote the screenplay in a very unique place, in a 7-Eleven. Could you tell us why and how that inspired your script?
MN: So the first and main reason is because I was still raising my children and the free time I had was only 15-30 minutes a day. I wanted to be as close as possible to home, so I could use that time to write. But also... because it is very interesting…with all the things inside, being so unique and playful.
Describe to us the title We Are Little Zombies…What is a ‘Zombie’ to you and how long have you considered yourself a ‘Zombie’?
MN: I found it very interesting that there are a lot of zombie films and zombie TV series, but none of them are told from the point of view of the zombie. And so, I was very interested by that fact.
I feel zombies are just lonely people who aren’t understood by everyone else. They’re prejudiced against and thought of as evil and bad. And I feel that maybe...that’s not the whole story.
If zombies are actually like soulless kinds of people, not very energetic, then I would consider myself a zombie for the 12 years that I worked as a salary-man in a Japanese company.
So, tell me a little bit more about that, before you had the luxury to make films, what were you doing?
MN: For 12 years, I worked in advertising. I made commercials. And a lot of it was videos you would play in supermarkets to show you, you know; this is the best way to grill a steak and stuff like that or five-minute shows playing on only local TV stations of these local mascots. So, that’s what I did. I learned a lot from the experience.
You said that you had to sacrifice everything to make this feature film. Tell me about that. How did you come to finance this film?
MN: I was doing advertising and did a lot promotion. Instead of pitching what kind of message this project would have, I focused more on how I would promote it (the film) and how it would lead to a big hit, to all these companies. And that’s how I got people to finance it. I’m very grateful.
What I learned while I was a zombie, is what I was able to use for this project. So, I am glad I was a zombie.
And what was the budget for this project?
MN: 2 million USD
Tell us about the sound and music. It is so eclectic. There are video game references, both stylistic and graphic, throughout the film. And the song “We Are Little Zombies” - it’s clear audiences are obsessed with it.
MN: I put the message I wanted to get across in my lyrics and I reached out to a Japanese musician/artist, who works in New York, they are called Lovespread. I really liked their music, so I asked them to collaborate together. We had Skype meetings where we spoke about the project and making the music together. Unfortunately, one of the two members passed away last month. So, I’m really praying that the energy of this premiere is reaching him.
Love Spread music video - Run in Pain, Depressed, Innocent Youth
I’m so sorry to hear that. Do you have plans for the song? Is it going to become a music video?
MN: There is footage that was not used in the film that was taken specifically for the music video. So yes, I do hope to make a CD out of it and I am thinking I want to do live performances, maybe.
You’ve done so well at Sundance, this is your second time. I think that it was clear at your premiere that you’re one of the most unique directors we’ve seen in a very, very long time. What is your next project? What are you hoping to do?
MN: Wow, I have so many, many projects that I’m like, what should I do next? I’m thinking that for my next film, I maybe want to do a love story, a romance, and a science fiction film. I want it to be bigger and I want it to go global.
I’m pretty sure we’d love that - film financiers take note. The final question I wanted to ask you is, in ten years time, what do you want to say as an artist? I know that’s a big question. But what do you want people to feel through your work?
MN: Ultimately, the message I want to get across is the same; with my short film, and with this film.
Secondly, in these modern times, everyone is trying to be more efficient and cut out things that seem unnecessary. But it is actually all the little things, the little words, and the moments that seem unimportant, that become very important in life, in the end. To have that consciousness. To cherish those moments is what I want to get across. To have people feel that it’s important to not forget.