Ahead of the UK premiere of Oh Lucy! at the Raindance Film Festival 2017 Opening Night Gala, we sat down with director Atsuko Hirayanagi to talk about the film.
Raindance: Why did you decide to adapt Oh Lucy! from a short film to feature, and what were the greatest challenges in doing so?
Atsuko Hirayanagi: I actually had the idea for the feature before thinking of the short. My then grad school professor told me… ‘no, that’s not a feature, it’s a short!’. I guess it was too ‘thin’ to be a feature. So, I wrote it as a short and shot it as my thesis film, in the back of my mind viewing it as the first twenty minutes of the feature. The greatest challenge of going from the short to the feature was not diluting the core story of Setsuko/Lucy.
I first compressed the idea into the short, and then expanded it to show what happens next. One inspiration for ‘what happens next’ came from a true story of a Japanese woman travelling alone to the Grand Canyon to celebrate her birthday. She was later found dead at the bottom of a small fall in the canyon. That woman’s trip to the US and the tragic component of that story resonates through multiple characters in the feature.
Setsuko is an unlikely protagonist – unstable, unfulfilled and a touch delusional. Was it important for you to portray such an unconventional female character?
As a storyteller, it is important for me to find and portray a character that I haven’t seen before on screen. Everyone has a story to tell and things to say, and I feel this is especially true of the quiet ones. I remember being asked during the admissions interview for film school, “describe a person in your life you don’t like”, and then the interviewer goes, “now make that person the protagonist in a movie, and tell me that story…” This question somehow stuck with me, so I often find myself looking for the unlikely protagonists.
Despite her character flaws, it’s impossible not to be endeared to Setsuko. What is it about her character that gets audiences to connect with her?
I believe that in the centre of things, at the very core, we are all the same. So if we dig into that core, I believe our fears are buried in there. If we’re open to showing these fears, being honest, we may be able to understand each other better — and just connect. We, humans, are often so weak; some of us are more disciplined and know how to hide our fears better than others. Some have better and thicker masks than others. But deep inside, we’re scared little chickens. Perhaps audiences connect with Setsuko because they see some of those raw and unmasked moments, and can relate to her fears.
Setsuko tries to conform to an “American way” of living, which eventually leads to her downfall. Is the film acting as a cautionary tale of the possible repercussions of living in an increasingly globalised world?
Wow, such an intimidating question! I feel like a PhD thesis student right now! I simply used ‘America’ as a device to stretch Setsuko as far away and opposite direction as possible from her Japanese self. ‘Freedom’ is the word associated with America for me, ever since I remember it as a kid. It’s okay to laugh loudly, and it’s okay to put your feet on your desk (right or wrong!). That’s America, which is completely the opposite of Japan. I wanted to unleash Setsuko by giving her that freedom and see how far she would go. I personally don’t see this process as her downfall, as long as she can find her center, which is neither Lucy, nor the quiet office lady, Setsuko.
After a period of intense suffering for Setsuko, the film ends with a train approaching the platform she’s standing on. Does this ending signify a new beginning for her?
Spoiler alert? Yes, this is the first time in her life she’s confused and being honest. She’s facing her fears, asking the question …who am I? Sometimes if we don’t destroy something, nothing new will be born.
How did Megan Mullally’s cameo come about?
It was luck! She’s with the same agency as mine and one of our producers just finished a film with her, so we sent her the script. She read it and said yes! We couldn’t believe it. She’s super cool, down to earth, and obviously an extremely talented artist. She makes acting look so easy. I wish we could have all her scenes. She is hilarious. We should put them in the DVD.
Given the film is about a clashing of cultures, have you noticed audiences reacting differently to it around the world?
I feel like I haven’t seen enough reaction from audiences to answer this question yet. For the short film however, the reactions were definitely very different in different countries. People would laugh at different parts of the short, even when there was no specific comedic intent for it. The universal question that came out was what would Setsuko do next.
What projects are you working on next?
I’m working on a couple of originals that I am not ready to discuss, but it feels so good to be writing again. I’m also considering projects that are not mine, but have similar DNA, kind of tragic and funny at the same.
Book your ticket for the premiere of Oh Lucy! at the Opening Night Gala of Raindance Film Festival 2017, followed by a Q&A with Atsuko Hirayanag and star Josh Hartnett and an after party.