MY TOKYO WEEKEND WITH JAPAN’S NEXT GENERATION OF FILMMAKERS

My trip to Tokyo as a guest speaker for the MPA had been arranged many months ago. It was an exciting opportunity and one that I’d been looking forward for some time. Still, stepping off the long flight from New York, I found myself juggling the many demands of executive producing the television show I’d been working on for more than the last four years of my life. My body had most certainly landed in Tokyo; but my mind was still very much on set in New York.

The problem solving continued into the next day, but bright and early Sunday morning I was due on stage for the MPA-DHU Film Workshop, so I shifted focus and hauled my mental state half way round the world to reposition itself back within my body.

The film workshop, part of the Tokyo International Film Festival, was held with the MPA’s partners Digital Hollywood University – where over a thousand young creative Japanese take courses on various screen media subjects. Entering the building on that Sunday morning I passed room after room of filmmakers in front of screens. No down time for these guys.

I joined my colleagues and around 80 film students in the lecture theatre, hearing first from Sugiyama-san, the arty and cool President of DHU, camera in hand to snap his own shots of proceedings. My old friend MPA’s Mike Ellis spoke longer than his usual welcome to put the latest piracy research on everyone’s radar. 31% of Japanese pirated screen content in some form or another in 2015, it seems. People seemed shocked. I would be if I was trying to make and distribute films and TV here.

Patrick Donaldson, from .film shared his very clever, perfect-for-filmmakers domain name model with the audience. I can see how having a “.film” website for your independent film is ideal for promoting your project and gives you the added benefit of their anti-piracy protection strategy. It appears to be catching on pretty fast with filmmakers keen to both promote and protect their latest film.

I took the stage for a Q&A with MPA’s Stephen Jenner, whom I’ve known now for more than 20 years, our paths having crossed in the Australian film industry over time, and through the MPA’s most appreciated sponsorship of Tropfest, the world’s largest film festival I founded nearly 25 years ago.

We got into a deep discussion of my work on Elementary, which I executive produce and direct, talking often about how we solve challenges creatively to get an hour-long episode shot in eight days. Having worked with many of the cast and crew for many years, we now have a terrifically close team able to meet the biggest hurdles one way or another. You could say our lead characters solve crimes while we solve creative problems.

Our conversation took us back through my career, covering the time I spent on feature films (‘What’s it like to work with Robert De Niro?’ ‘He’s generous, professional, wants to be part of the creative team’), my first feature in Australia, and my work with so many, many talented filmmakers all over the world through Tropfest.

Local Japanese screenwriter Takaya Okamoto and Producer Toshihiko Yamamoto had great things to say about how best to pitch your film in our panel moderated by local (another Aussie) producer Lucas Oliver-Frost. We shared all the tips we thought the filmmakers might find useful. Given they were up to pitch their films after lunch, I guess it would have been hard to take much in.

But, one hour later, they pitched. And it seems they either had taken all our advice to heart or they knew it beforehand. In any case, I was super impressed. Pitching I learned, does not come naturally to Japanese filmmakers, and there’s certainly no history of pitching as we do in the U.S., but these guys and girls knocked it out of the ballpark. The ideas were for the most part well-formed. They came across knowing their projects well. We judges found the decision a tough one, particularly given that projects that might play well internationally may not resonate that well in Japan.

In any case, we reached a decision. Hello Baby!, by filmmaker Daisuke Yamaoka, was the film which really grabbed our attention, and came out on top. In this thriller/horror film, an App designed for pregnant women starts to behave in strange and macabre ways, to a point where the app appears to take on the persona of the child in the womb. Mr. Yamaoka impressed us with his short teaser for the film, revealing his filmmaking talent. Yamaoka wins a priceless opportunity to attend a 5-day film immersion course in LA, thanks to the MPA.

Another film, Minato (The Port), a tale of a musician’s struggle to come to terms with his son’s deafness, appeared to strike a chord especially with the Japanese judges. Mike Ellis stepped in to award the filmmaker Ms. Kanon Murakami the President’s Special Recognition Award, involving a trip to the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Brisbane. To say she was surprised and excited would be an understatement!

We emerged from the film workshop as darkness was falling over Tokyo. Declining a ride back to the hotel I told my hosts I’d prefer to take a stroll through the neighbourhood, take in the sights and get some fresh air. ‘Are you sure you won’t get lost?’ Don’t worry, I said, putting their minds at rest. I have Google maps.

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John Polson is an award-winning actor, director and producer, as well as the founder and director of Tropfest, the world’s largest short film festival (www.tropfest.com). He is currently the Executive Producer / Director on the popular CBS crime drama Elementary (Jonny Lee Miller, Lucy Liu).