by Gill Pringle

Ryusuke Hamagachi’s Drive My Car continues to accelerate through award season, collecting this year’s AACTA for Best Asian Film.

Based on Haruki Murakami’s 2014 short story, and co-written and directed by Hamaguchi, the film follows Yūsuke Kafuku (Hideotoshi Nishijima) as he directs a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya while grappling with the death of his wife.

Selected to compete for last year’s Palme d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, the film would win three awards including Best Screenplay. Since then, Drive My Car has picked up more than 50 international awards, and chosen as Japan’s entry for Best International Feature at the Oscars later this month.

Now nominated for four Oscars – Best Picture, International Feature Film, Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay – Drive My Car’s success is driven by previous non-English language favourites such as Mexico’s Roma and South Korea’s Parasite.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi, 43, tells FilmInk why audiences have joined him for this twisty three-hour ride.

What do you recommend to other filmmakers who want to follow your path to tell their own stories?

“I really don’t believe that I’m in any kind of position to be giving any advice to other people. If I were to say something, and if people were thinking about adapting a story into film, I think it’s really important to stay as close as possible to the spirit of the original story – to the very core of the original story, and then to try to bring that to life in the medium of film. And that isn’t just about translating the words of the original story but it’s more about thinking of it as a visual medium and how to translate your own experience of the original story into the visual media, and I think that requires an ability to believe in your experiences of what you felt through the original story. It also requires a lot of polishing of your own beliefs so you can actually believe in those feelings.”

You’ve said in various interviews that you wanted to use The Beatles’ original song, “Drive My Car” in your film. But this is a comic song for a dramatic movie, so I wondered why you wanted to do that? Also, did Paul, Ringo and Yoko not allow you to use the song?

“It is true that I said to my producer that I would like to use the song, however the response that I got from my producer was that they didn’t think that would be possible. But I don’t know how much negotiation actually happened to be honest. But if you have already seen the film and seen the ending, I think the ending is quite open-ended. I would also add that I really love the song, “Drive My Car”. Of course, I’m not sure if I fully understand the lyrics of the song, so that’s part of the reason why I thought it might be a good fit to be the ending of this film. But there’s something very frank and open – and also bright and jolly – about the song itself that I felt was actually quite suited to the ending of the film. But I think, at the end of the day, I ended up using Eiko Ishibashi’s music. I think her music is wonderful, so all is good.”

How did you decide that this red Saab would be the motif of your film? And where is that car now?

“I hear often about how when directors are casting and how they say, ‘I finally found the right person’, and my encounter with this car was really quite similar to this. I was walking around and then finally I found the “one”, the “right person”. I was originally looking for a yellow Saab 900 which was in the original story but this red one was a car which the coordinator for the car came riding in. I remember his car coming in and seeing how it stood out against the landscape and thinking how cool this car was, and then I found out that this car was also a Saab 900 which was also the line of cars that we were looking for that was in the original story, so I felt that I had a reason to use this car. Our car coordinator still rides around in this car right now.”

Is the car more extroverted than the actual character who drives the car himself?

“I don’t necessarily think that this car is super-extroverted. Sure, it really pops in some way but I think the shade of red has a curtain depth to it, but it doesn’t feel necessarily extroverted, even though it’s red. To me, it’s a kind of red that suggests that there’s something deep hidden behind it.”

During award season, have you had any interaction with your fellow Oscar-nominated directors such as Steven Spielberg or Jane Campion?

“The sad truth is that I haven’t actually had any interactions with my fellow directors so far. I’m actually calling you from Japan today and I haven’t really had any direct interactions with anybody yet, but there is a side of me that is actually quite relieved by that fact because a part of me does not feel ready to meet a lot of these people. For example, directors such as Steven Spielberg… as a child I watched his films such as E.T. When I first became cognizant of watching movies in general, he was somebody who was already working in the films that I was always watching and so, the fact that I might be interacting with him is something that is almost unbelievable to me right now, and it also makes me nervous to think that this actually might happen. I have watched some of the nominated films so to think that my film is in the same stage as these wonderful works, I feel very honoured.”

How did you react when you got the four Oscar nominations?

“I was in complete disbelief that this was happening but, I think even more so, I was scared out of my wits that this was happening. I was thinking, ‘Can this be true?’ ‘Can this really be happening to me?’ I was actually on a plane to go to the Berlin Film Festival when the nominations were announced so it was only when I arrived in Paris that I received a lot of messages and started to hear what had happened. It was really something that I never imagined would happen in my life so, more than feeling happy, I remember this feeling of fear and of the blood rushing away from me and feeling like I needed to calm down.”

How do you see this movement of the Academy Awards looking at more international films like Parasite, Roma and The Worst Person in the World?

“I know it’s not the first time but I also know it’s very rare for an award such as Best Director to go towards an international filmmaker. But I think that Parasite made a huge impact and really opened these heavy doors for Asian films and beyond, for other international films to be able to make it through those doors, and so I’m very grateful for that, and I very much feel like I’m a part of this movement that is happening toward international film.”

How do your handle the massive expectation on you in Japan?

“I don’t think there’s much I can do at this point other than to just keep going. I’m very lucky to get all these interviews and as I see people’s reactions during these interviews, day by day, I realise just how amazing this situation is. I think these film awards are not the same as sports where you do sports the same day as you also get your award, so the film is already made, therefore that’s not too much I can do at this point other than really watch and see where this film can go. But I feel beyond pleased about how much praise this film is getting. I cannot even imagine what would happen beyond these nominations.”

What’s so beautiful and immersive about Drive My Car are the reflective moments especially where the characters share a quiet moment over a cigarette where you wonder what they are thinking about. Did you have a particular process with your actors?

“I think that if the audience is able to keep watching and continue to feel something, even though the actors themselves are not speaking, I think that’s really because the actors themselves are feeling something when they’re playing those roles; they’re not just standing in there; they’re feeling something and they’re not just doing what they were told that they are; in fact, living their own interpretations of the characters in front of the camera. And I realise that this is a very difficult task and so, as a director, I want to do my best to help them get to that place so one of the things that I do is to write backstories for my characters. Of course, I want my actors to have their own interpretations of their characters – but I don’t want to be in a place where the direction I’m going with my own story-telling mismatches in some ways, so I want those to be aligned, so I give them the backstory and have the actors think through that. Actually, I have the actors act out some of these backstories themselves because, by actually acting out the backstory, it doesn’t become just ideas and thoughts but, in fact, it becomes memory and experience.

“We acted out the relationship between Kafuku and Oto as a couple, and to have that memory become physicalised can be of help for the actors, especially in these quiet moments when they don’t necessarily have things to say; their body can actually help, because their body remembers acting out these pasts. I think this kind of process leads to a wonderful commentary.”

How did you maintain the tones of both tragedy and beauty over such a long time?

“I feel like tragedy and beauty is not necessarily two entirely different things. I think to lose somebody that you truly love and to also think that you might have caused that is definitely a tragedy, and to get over that, means to accept that fact. I think that acceptance is sad and a difficult thing to do and it’s also a tragic thing, but it’s also quite beautiful and shows a human beauty that can arise from being able to overcome. It’s not necessarily about balancing the two things, but actually to get through a kind of tragedy that leads to a natural beauty.”

Can you take us through the logistics of the driving scenes with the long shots and also through tunnels and what they represent within the story?

“Regarding the scenes in the car, I did actually have the car driving through various locations. In terms of thinking about what these locations actually represented, the honest answer is that it’s not significant or representative necessarily of one meaning. Although, I was thinking about the emotional resonance of what some of these landscapes can actually bring about. Because, at the end of the day, a car is an enclosed space and, by having a further enclosement outside of this, such as a tunnel, I felt I could create an even more intimate space within the car. The idea of the car coming outside of the tunnel, I was thinking about the relationship between the characters going into a new level – something has changed after coming out of that tunnel. Regarding the character of Misaki, I had read the original – and there were the characters of Misaki and Kafuku – and I knew that, towards the end of the film, I needed Misaki to also feel like a protagonist in the same way Kafuku does, so that was something that I added.”

Drive My Car is in cinemas now.


Leave a Reply