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MUSINGS OF A RONIN: A Word With SWORD OF THE DEAD Director Stephen Vitale
Back row: David Bowlen, Masami Kosaka/Front row: Stephen Vitale
As important as it is to know how to make a film to begin with, what also matters is your vision, and how well you package it. Such is the case for the lot of independent content that I've covered in the last five years, and surprisingly, of which only a handful I notice are given the festival treatment. And I've seen my fair share of short films to be fascinated and amazed, as well as even befuddled that they would go straight online.
It's a tough road though, and so opportunities like that, I reckon, need to be planned and timed in such a way that at least the initial steps can be covered toward garnering the attention of investors. And today's film market is one that is vastly full of ideas ranging from some of the most top-notch and intriguing, to the less-than-impressive that are otherwise still shamelessly presented as proud pieces of work.
Having immersed my filter through plenty, I can certainly attest the work of filmmaker Stephen Vitale fits far from the latter. It was late last year I tried catching up to him upon discovering his latest venture, Sword Of The Dead, as he was teasing it online, following up his previous short, Hoshino, which instantly spoke to me with YouTube personality and actress Anna Akana (Youth And Consequences) starring.
"Anna was a pro," he says. "She had no reason to trust I could pull that short off... we were on very limited time and had a fairly limited budget for what we were setting out to do. She brought a lot to the character and made my life easy by only needing a couple takes each setup. She was on her game for sure. She's on camera all the time so she has a great awareness of the camera in relation to her performance."
Watching Hoshino leaves me hoping from time to time that further progress with Stephen's career and that of Anna's will have them back together on set for the right project and the budding filmmaker himself feels the same way. For now though, apart from playing drums since the age of eight, he's got his hands busy pursuing Sword Of The Dead, the latest milestone of his craft in hopes of a career he's been chasing since childhood and in his late teens.
"I didn't pick up a camera until I was 18 or 19, but I've been pretty obsessive about film my whole life." he says. "I just didn't really ever think it was something I could do - it felt like this weird thing that was entirely out of reach. But at a young age my dad would talk about movies he loved, not realizing the impact he was having and it snowballed. I got obsessed. I remember in college thinking I should take a film elective and try it and a teacher of mine saw this small experimental film I made and told me she'd give me an A if I promised to keep making films - was sort of the first person to say 'hey you can do this!', 'you should do this!'. It gave me the confidence to say that was what I would pursue. Now film is everything for me."
Stephen had a few gems published last year which caught my attention, revealing what I felt was something truly reverent in his adherence to period Japanese cinema. I hadn't seen anything like it either and so I knew I wanted to do more than just add it to the Hit List. As such, he's finally published this gorgeous-looking proof piece on Tuesday this week, and will all the proven love and appreciation he's got wrapped with a tidy little bow here for genuine, classic jidaigeki, western and horror films. He had the idea in mind at first a few years later but he knew he wasn't ready to dip right into production, and so like any filmmaker with his/her salt, he did his homework.
"I just started watching stacks of samurai films and fell in love with movies like Kwaidan and Harakiri by Masaki Kobayashi, and of course all of Akira Kurosawa's work." he says. "I also really love spaghetti westerns and horror films - so this obsession with filmmakers like Sergio Leone, John Carpenter, George A. Romero bled into all the Japanese films I was watching and I very quickly had a focused idea of the look and sound and how I wanted to mix all these things together, to see what the western cinema creation of a zombie would look like with the iconography and tone of eastern cinema and samurai."
Personally, I'd only ever been able to catch but a mere few handful of chambara titles (I made damn sure to catch Kurosawa Akira's Seven Samurai when I was younger and my father had me renting videos when we didn't have cable). A lot goes into constructing good and memorable characters for films of this nature and I definitely have a few favorites of my own thusfar while my watchlist still remains pretty extensive.
It's especially important for directors to take heed to this as well and Stephen himself is no stranger to this particular element; Even dating back to his work on Hoshino, strong characters and story are part of a larger template that resides his interest in hybridizing between genres which is exactly what Sword Of The Dead achieves.
"I love genre so usually if I can find a genre or a couple genres I can blend together in a unique way that lends itself to a human story then I'm hooked." says Stephen. "Once the process starts the most important thing to me personally is that the idea never dims and that it is always on my mind - that's when I know '....Okay, I need to make this. Something with this idea is consuming me creatively so I need to follow it.'"
Judging by everything Stephen shared with me in our interview pertaining to a lot of what he needed, it almost feels like a string of luck came at just the right time. On talent, we have short-lived Dango Samurai webseries actors Masami Kosaka (Samurai Avenger: The Blind Wolf) and Rome Kanda (Sonatine) heading the tale of a ronin cornered into an epic battle against the undead after washing shore on a desolate island and meeting a man left to die.
"Masami came out from Japan to shoot this, and I didn't realize this when I decided on casting but him and Rome knew each other." says Stephen. "So they were excited to dig in and do the scene and I think they both brought really interesting performances to it."
Stephen also credited Hollywood stuntman Hiroo Minami who served as the project's stunt coordinator among a check list of noted crew members and a crew of up to ten stunt players, initially complimenting Minami for helping adapt to certain changes on location and still managing to come up with a fluid, exciting and honorable ode to golden-age Japanese movies.
"Hiroo and the team of stunt performers were so professional and had it not been for them nailing the action setups so quickly the shoot could have been very tricky to get done in the time we had." he said. "We also had a great team working on the Ronin's wardrobe led by Sueko Oshimoto. Again, I got lucky and she had worked with our actor Masami before so the fitting and the fabric and the look came together quickly and I think echoes the influences we were pulling from."
Stephen continued: "Ten stunt performers done up as zombies rushing down a hill at a charging samurai. That was a fucking blast! The shoot was only two days and it's an eight minute short full of action, special effects, monster makeup, a fun dialogue scene between our talented actors Masami and Rome - so it was all great and all went by really fast. I mean, we were really moving each day and I think a lot of the fun came out of this fast pace we had to keep so it was a nice little two day adrenaline rush. This is the third or fourth project I've done with my friend and amazing cinematographer David Bolen so for me the fun is really building toward something with him too - in terms of visuals. I'm excited for us to hopefully do a feature next."
The action is pretty awesome as you can see in the short. Beyond the stunts and all other on-set adventures, however, is the teething journey of coming up with the right score. As concious as I was of music in a film, it never really dawned on me in my wonder years to value film composers with equal name notoriety in certain instances. Kenji Kawai would be soul food for the ears dating back to the early two-thousands as much as I dug the score that founded Yumiko Shaku's harrowing quest for revenge and survival in The Princess Blade, and the music that partly contributes to my sequel yearning for Tsui Hark's Seven Swords. For Sword Of The Dead, Stephen sought after Joey Newman in providing a soundtrack to help seamlessly sustain the "balancing act" in maintaining Stephen's genre fusion for the proof of concept he envisioned.
"...I wanted to deliver a kickass eight-minute short that you can enjoy on its own but was also just a slice of a bigger mythology and story I'd like to tell." says Stephen. "We also really tried to give the music a specific sound that wasn't just an orchestral Japanese influenced score or just a horror score. Our composer Joey Newman did an awesome job. I told him I wanted it to be a meeting of the sweeping, bold classical scores of Masaru Sato and the sinister pop-synth soundscape of John Carpenter. I think what we ended up with was an interesting culmination of the cinema I love."
I posted on social media a while back after seeing Sword Of The Dead for myself, saying I hoped a time would come in this life where Takashi Miike, one of the most prolific filmmakers of our time, would maybe see what Stephen did and reach out to hopefully produce the feature. It may be ambitious and even silly, but a project like this wouldn't be too far from his purview given the incomparable work he's done in his life time - even with the mindblowingly cuckoo, warped samurai fever dream, Izo.
Frankly, I think if Miike-san sat in a room with Stephen, broke the ice and swapped ideas, jabs and gems with one another, I think Stephen would certainly be a candidate. He's pretty much the only Western, non-Asian filmmaker I know who has gone to the extremities he has to craft a world foreign from ours on a shoe-string budget to showcase what we now have in our eight-minutes of some of the best in independently-produced action on film.
"Oh, it's just so cinematic." says Stephen on what he loves most about jidaigeki cinema. "There's this specific intensity and bold feeling to samurai films and I also think at their core samurai films - the good ones - are dealing in really grounded stories of morality."
He's also a fan of Scorsese; I tried picking his brain about films favorites in scale. He doesn't have a least favorite and has plenty of the opposite to name, while in terms of certain moments caught on celluloid in movie history, Stephen was slightly begrudged about answering that one since it changes, as he says. But this what he told me: "Okay, I'll pick something I love and I think is just one of those moments in film where you know from the first frame it's magic and the director is in full command of his art and is offering up a feast in a very sort of simple, poetic way which is the opening credits sequence for Raging Bull. Holding that shot with that music. It's perfect."
He goes on to discuss who he wants for the full feature production apart from the two principle stars; Along with Cary Tagawa, he's also cited stellar talents like Tadanobu Asano and Nao Omori who've both led sizable careers in the years that followed their chilling performances in Miike's unrelenting manga adaptation, Ichi The Killer. Other names include actor and singer Miyavi who laid the title track to Miike's Blade Of The Immortal, prior to laying claim as the main villain of this summer's forthcoming Fantasia Festival prospect, the live-action adaptation of Bleach, as well as Annihilation co-star Sonoya Mizuno and Mumon co-star Satomi Ishihara, particularly adding "Satomi Ishihara is fantastic and I think would fit the tone and a character I'm writing."
With Stephen readying Sword Of The Dead for festival treatment, he still has a number of projects going forward, including some with other writers, and at least one based on a book he's looking to option, details pending. Whatever the case is or what the next step entails, Stephen is assuring that Sword Of The Dead is included in it, and he's not going in blind either with the work he's done over the years to fashion himself and sharpen his wit, intellect and savviness when it comes to film. Directing is one thing compared to the laboring it takes for the business end of things when hitting the markets and showcasing to festivals far and wide to gain attention and potential prospects. And for what it's worth, he says he's ready, and I believe him.
"I wanted to spend time learning the craft and putting it to action and I feel like I'm ready to work on a bigger canvas." Stephen says, before divulging into a round of handy wisdom for folks looking to step in the arena - he makes some pretty valid points here and he's not wrong either with quite a few matching recent horror stories I've heard from directors myself. So this is okay stuff.
"Be as prepared as possible so you can free yourself up to where the film inevitably takes you," he says. "Stick to your gut, but listen to your collaborators as well, because if you shut yourself off to suggestions or input or criticism your work won't grow. The biggest thing for me is after I finish a project and give myself a little space. I do go back and watch it and pick it apart. Where did I drop the ball - how could I have improved a moment or communicated what I needed as a director better. You gotta be aware of your own bullshit."
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