Unsung Auteurs: Fran Rubel Kuzui

December 1, 2022
FilmInk salutes the work of directors who have never truly received the credit that they deserve. In this installment: distribution pioneer Fran Rubel Kuzui, who helmed Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Tokyo Pop.

When it comes to the hugely popular and influential nineties TV series Buffy, all of the credit for that goes to one man: Joss Whedon. Once a much loved pop culture figurehead with adoring acolytes and massive media support, Whedon has since been well and truly cancelled, hated by many for what he perpetrated on Zack Snyder’s Justice League, and disparaged by others for the various allegations of sexual misconduct that now tar his once very good name. Tossing Whedon onto the pop cultural scrapheap, however, has also, in a roundabout way, placed the achievements of a fascinating female filmmaker on the junk pile next to him. Producer/director Fran Rubel Kuzui is largely credited with “discovering” Joss Whedon, which has obviously and sadly tarnished her reputation. Let’s refocus, however, on a female filmmaker who has done some very interesting things.

A graduate of New York University’s prestigious Master’s programme, Fran Rubel first worked in the industry as an associate producer and production manager at America’s public TV station PBS. Rubel then moved into work as a script supervisor, which is where she met her husband, Kaz Kuzui, on the set of a Japanese film called Proof Of The Man, on which he was working as a first assistant director. A mini-powerhouse, the couple eventually kick-started Kuzui Enterprises, which distributed independent films between Japan and the United States. Together they worked the company up into a formidable success, with Kuzui Enterprises eventually becoming one of the leading distributors of US and foreign independent films in Japan, and a prolific distributor of Japanese films to the US.

Carrie Hamilton and Yutaka Tadokoro (aka Diamond Yukai) in a publicty still from Tokyo Pop.

Kuzui made her big screen debut in 1988 with the utterly charming but now largely forgotten Tokyo Pop, a film that deserves much more praise for both its style and energy, but also for its fascinating highlighting of Japanese culture more than a decade before Sofia Coppola would more famously do the same with the wonderful Lost In Translation. Drawing on Kuzui’s own experiences of learning about Japan, the bubbly comedy-drama stars the late Carrie Hamilton (the daughter of Carol Burnett, and a talented singer and actress who also appeared on TV’s Fame and in the movie Shag, among others) as Wendy Reed, a wannabe singer who bounces from her band and ends up in Japan. Slammed by a massive hit of culture shock, Wendy slowly adapts to Japanese culture, and ends up fronting a band in Tokyo, who utilise her bleach blonde hair and innate Americanness as a sales gimmick. Funny, snappy and charming, Tokyo Pop deservedly received great notices on its release, and played successfully at The Cannes Film Festival.

The relative success of the very low budget Tokyo Pop saw Fran Rubel Kuzui brought on board at a major studio, for what turned out to be a very unhappy experience. “I got removed from a movie and I got told that they had decided that it was a guy’s story, and they better have a man direct the film, okay?” Kuzui told Wide Angle in 1991. “And not before I’d done any creative work, but while it was in the process of getting financed and everything. I had never started a movie and then not finished it…I’m talking about in the fray while it’s all coming together. I have found myself suddenly standing outside many, many times. I could tell you some really ugly, disgusting stories. I have been really mistreated by a lot of people because I was an outsider – I had made one film very much outside the system – and because I was a woman.”

Kristy Swanson and Paul Reubens in Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

After that bitter, unhappy experience, Fran Rubel Kuzui opted to take greater control of her filmmaking career.  She discovered Joss Whedon’s screenplay for Buffy The Vampire Slayer, attached herself as director, and helped to expanded the central character with Whedon, and put a little more flesh on her bones. Then, together with husband and producer Kaz Kuzui, Fran Rubel Kuzui strung together the financing to produce the picture, eventually landing it at major studio 20th Century Fox, where she had a much better experience than on her second, sadly aborted big screen project. “Buffy The Vampire Slayer was a film that I owned,” Fran Rubel Kuzui told Wide Angle in 1991. “This was the first time I owned a film, but I was afraid that that same thing would happen to me. The stakes were really higher on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. I thought I could fuck up. Tokyo Pop is a really little canvas, and suddenly I was painting on a large canvas with big strokes. And Tokyo Pop had two very wonderful actors, but neither one of them had really done a feature film before. On Buffy, I suddenly had Donald Sutherland and Rutger Hauer staring at me. I was working with two actors who between them had made close to 150 movies. That’s like pretty daunting.”

Despite being somewhat overawed, Kuzui showed a great command of the material, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer turned out to be a pop cult darling. Its eponymous high school student, cheerleading, popular girl, killer of the undead (played wonderfully by Kristy Swanson) was instantly indelible, while Kuzui’s casting of a terrific crew of support players (the aforementioned Rutger Hauer and Donald Sutherland, along with the late Luke Perry, Paul Reubens, Candy Clark, David Arquette, Stephen Root and others) enlivened and emboldened proceedings enormously. Brimming with colour, well-timed humour, and a rollicking sense of energy, Buffy The Vampire Slayer is a bloody, funny, kinky cocktail of horror tropes and nineties trends. While it very obviously springs from the vivid and singular mind of Joss Whedon, Fran Rubel Kuzui’s skill in making it all work and click together so effectively can’t be understated.

Fran Rubel Kuzui with Donald Sutherland and Kristy Swanson on the set of Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Though Kuzui would produce other movies (including Guy Ferland’s Telling Lies In America and Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s utterly outrageous Orgazmo) and TV series (including Buffy and Angel), and continued for a time to distribute films, 1992’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer still sadly stands as her last film. There was talk of another feature (“I’ve decided to direct one more film and have just finished the screenplay,” Kuzui said back in 2009. “We hope to shoot it later this year in Japan”), as well as constant chatter about a Buffy reboot, but Fran Rubel Kuzui has sadly been largely silent. “I’ve trusted the universe to tell me where to be at any given time. It’s worked so far and so I think I’ll just stick with that.”

If you liked this story, check out our features on other unsung auteurs Elliot Silverstein, Liz GarbusVictor FlemingBarbara PeetersRobert BentonLynn SheltonTom GriesRanda HainesLeslie H. MartinsonNancy KellyPaul NewmanBrett HaleyLynne RamsayVernon ZimmermanLisa CholodenkoRobert GreenwaldPhyllida LloydMilton KatselasKaryn KusamaSeijun SuzukiAlbert PyunCherie NowlanSteve BinderJack CardiffAnne FletcherBobcat GoldthwaitDonna DeitchFrank PiersonAnn TurnerJerry SchatzbergAntonia BirdJack SmightMarielle HellerJames GlickenhausEuzhan PalcyBill L. NortonLarysa KondrackiMel StuartNanette BursteinGeorge ArmitageMary LambertJames FoleyLewis John CarlinoDebra GranikTaylor SheridanLaurie CollyerJay RoachBarbara KoppleJohn D. HancockSara ColangeloMichael Lindsay-HoggJoyce ChopraMike NewellGina Prince-BythewoodJohn Lee HancockAllison AndersDaniel Petrie Sr.Katt SheaFrank PerryAmy Holden JonesStuart RosenbergPenelope SpheerisCharles B. PierceTamra DavisNorman TaurogJennifer LeePaul WendkosMarisa SilverJohn MackenzieIda LupinoJohn V. SotoMartha Coolidge, Peter HyamsTim Hunter, Stephanie RothmanBetty ThomasJohn FlynnLizzie BordenLionel JeffriesLexi AlexanderAlkinos TsilimidosStewart RaffillLamont JohnsonMaggie Greenwald and Tamara Jenkins.