Wash Westmoreland has worked with some of the best actresses of his generation – directing Julianne Moore to her first Oscar in Still Alice and also working with Kristen Stewart and Keira Knightley (on Colette) – so it’s no surprise he set his focus on Oscar winner Alicia Vikander for his new movie, Earthquake Bird.
In Westmoreland’s adaptation of Susanna Jones’ best-seller of the same name, Earthquake Bird is set in 1980s Japan, making this thriller a perfect choice for a special screening at Tokyo International Film Festival’s 32nd edition.
With Vikander in the role of enigmatic translator, Lucy Fly, who is brought in for questioning after an ex-pat friend (Riley Keough) – who comes in between her and photographer boyfriend (Ken Yamamura) – ends up missing, presumed dead.
The actress showed off her prowess in Japanese after spending months studying the language for the role which also involved her becoming proficient at the cello.
Blushing at the compliments from native-speaking Japanese media, she thanks them for being kind, “It was a lot safer environment on the set where I was able to practice before I spoke. But in learning Japanese, it was a great way into the Japanese culture.
“Playing this mysterious character of Lucy, I was so lucky that I got to immerse myself in life in Japan. I also met a lot of people here who I now consider my friends,” says the actress who professes cold soba noodles to be her new favourite dish.
Filming on locations around Tokyo and Sado Island, Niigata, she adds, “I had a lot of new adventures over several months that I was here.”
Likening her first foray into speaking Japanese on screen, she harks back to her first English-speaking roles after being raised in Sweden, appearing in Anna Karenina, The Fifth Estate and Son of a Gun.
“I think the more different cultures get to work with each other, that new art comes from that,” says Vikander, 31, who is wed to fellow actor Michael Fassbender.
Having spent time in Tokyo in his youth, British director Westmoreland, 53, adds, “Earthquake Bird was always a very special story to me about a relationship between a westerner and Japan, so when I saw it come together, I felt happy and euphoric that the film captured the experience of being in Japan.
“When we were making the film, I was very conscious of wanting to be authentic to the Japanese experience and the Japanese way of life. I’m English but I did live in Japan when I was younger. But, of course, I couldn’t do that job alone so I had wonderful collaborators. My production designer, Yohei Taneda, really worked hard to recreate 1989 Tokyo. Also, my costume designer, Kumiko Ogawa, and hair and make-up person, Wakana Yoshikawa. We formed a real creative team.”
Vikander describes the film as “a beautiful poetic story mixed with a thriller drama and I think people will enjoy the story of these characters but also see a film which so wonderfully merges different cultures.”
Pointing to Westmoreland’s decision to use both Japanese and English dialogue in the film, she adds, “I think it’s a very brave decision and also reflects this character’s decision to leave her own country and embrace this new culture and create a new self in a way. So, it was important to me to speak as good Japanese as I could,” says the actress who says she read out all her scenes in English to her dialect coach who would then translate it with emotional nuance.
“Since I was a kid, I’d always wanted to go to Japan, thinking that it must be such a different culture – which of course it is – but yet I found so many things which are similar,” she says listing them off.
“I think the Swedish culture is very minimalist with a lot of wood and glass, and Japanese culture is similar. We like to queue – a lot! We take off our shoes whenever we go into your house. We also eat a lot of pickles and raw fish,” she smiles. “So, along the way, I started to feel like Japan and Sweden were a lot closer than I imagined.”
“There are a lot of films that empathise the differences between the west and Japan,” adds Westmoreland, without actually pointing to Lost In Translation. “And this one has its differences, but Lucy Fly’s character doesn’t see those differences so when the policeman says to her, ‘You are not like Japanese women’, she says ‘Yes I am’, because she feels that connection in her soul.
“I see this as a very unconventional thriller. To me, it’s more of a psychological drama because the real mystery is inside her mind and inside her past – that’s what the film really explores. I think it’s less similar to western thrillers of the ‘90s and more similar to maybe [Kiyoshi] Kurosawa’s Cure (1997) or maybe [Gakuryu] Ishii’s Angel Dust (1994), where it’s all about the psychology and the complexities of power between the characters rather than the actual set piece thriller sequences.
“I consider myself lucky to have worked with some of the world’s greatest actresses with Julianne and Keira – so when I adapted Earthquake Bird, I thought – who is the actress who is going to commit to this role? To learn Japanese and to really deliver the complexities of this character.
“I’d already met Alicia and had a connection and just knew she could completely ace this character so when we started working together, it was about a conversation, about discussions, about details and complexities of the character. And of course, Alicia aced the Japanese and also learned the cello. But, more than that, it was the daily revelations and the great depth that she brought to set which was a constant joy to me and I learned a lot from working with her.”
In discussing his casting of Keough, he adds, “I wanted her to be the opposite of Alicia, so I was looking for an actress who had a very natural and opposite energy. I spoke with Riley a few times via skype and just loved her energy but also, I’m a huge fan of her work as an actress. I just felt that the compatibility between Alicia and Riley would work so well with this very strange relationship between these two women who have an almost transference of personality as the story progresses. It seemed like a great yin and yang of casting.”
Talking about working with Yamamura (Godzilla, Black Mirror), Vikander adds, “It was exciting to see his transition to working in English. He was walking around with a camera the whole time and you sense the story behind his eyes which I think comes from his dance training. It plays extremely well on film. It was a joy getting to work with him and also getting to know him.
“I think we had a very close relationship where we both pushed each other but also served as each other’s safety nets,” says the actress whose roles include Jason Bourne, The Light Between Oceans and Danish Girl for which she won an Oscar. She is also set to reprise her role as Lara Croft in a Tomb Raider sequel next year.
Westmoreland adds, “The starting point for this film was the brilliant novel by Susanna Jones who also lived in Japan in the ‘80s at the same time as me but we didn’t know each other. She wrote this story which was published in 2004 and won many prizes for crime writing fiction. When I first read it, I connected so deeply because the psychology of Lucy Fly was so interesting. The book works through her interior monologue to tell the story, but the challenge was to translate it to screen in a way that always kept you with Lucy Fly so that you’re always watching from her point of view every step of the way. It was a wonderful book to adapt because it had a real openness to additional development,” he says, slyly teasing that fans of the book might be surprised at the film’s take.
Discussing his ideas with the author, he recalls, “She was very supportive of the changes in my adaptation because I tried very hard to preserve the feel and tone and soul of her original book.”
Earthquake Bird will stream on Netflix from November 15, 2019. For more on the Tokyo International Film Festival, head to the website.