Steve Mcqueen and The Tea Ceremony

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The King Of Cool.

One of the reasons I became an actor.

Japanese film directors.

One of the reasons I became a film maker.

Here I was at the pinnacle of my creative universe.  In Tokyo, a city raised from the ashes time and time again from Godzilla’s and Mothra’s constant trysts, standing across from the man who should have never been an actor and ended up a legend.

Or at least something that looked like him.  But not a bad likeness staring out at me through the Toys McCoy Window in Ebisu, Japan.  The streets here are a little rough for the uninitiated as many of the smaller ones have no names.  Just addresses.  Hard to say exactly where this store was but it was near the train station on the bank of a small river running past the street.  Inside there was a plethora of 1950 and 1960s Americana themed clothing, particularly of the raising kind.  helmets, dirt bike shirts, etc.  And then there was the Mcqueen stuff.  A window display of the out of print action figures was situated to the right as you walked in.  Detailed mini-McQueen’s of Josh Randall from Wanted Dead Or Alive, Virgil Hilts from The Great Escape, “Papa” Thorson from Mcqueen’s last film “The Hunter and Junior Bonner from, of course, Junior Bonner.

But the Mcqueen stuff got larger.  Literally.  Replica clothing, manufactured to the exact detail of his wardrobe in The Great Escape, The Hunter and The War Lover.  Jeans, sweat shirts and jackets.  But just to give you an idea of the dent in your pocket book; the blue sweat shirt worn by Virgil Hilts in the famous motorcycle chase of The Great Escape will sent you back about $160.

And that was the cheapest one.

So I walked out with a t-shirt that would have probably paid for a flight to Korea and went on my way.

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The next day the film makers were given a tour of the Skip City facility where our films were being shown.  The first stop was the amazing projection room that gave such vibrant life to all the films there.  The soda machine sized projector was controlled by a series of laptops that would control the 4K image shone on the screen.  No longer the spinning hub cap sized film reels but a sole hard drive containing each film was the source of the material.

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After this we were shown the mixing rooms, the editing rooms and the digital effects room.  All state of the art equipment used to give the final touches to the films that come through here.

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And then we were taken through the history museum.  Immediately on the left were some original storyboard drawings by Akira Kurosawa for the film he was ultimately replaced on, Tora, Tora, Tora.  Looking through the glass case I was in awe.  That kind of filmmaker-fan giddy about seeing something that was touched and created by someone you have spent years reading about and being Jap41inspired by.  Kurosawa was almost as well known for his art as for his filmmaking so it was really fricken-cool to see these.

A close second I have to admit was the original Godzilla drawings on the other side.  I grew up watching these films (I’ll always remember seeing Godzilla for the first time in Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster paired up with the short of Bambi Meets Godzilla) and there was always something about those rubber suits and sometime crude animation that you just have to keep coming back to.  Godzilla has certain Jap42grown over the years with Rodan and the rest of them, but that Hiroshima metaphor that destroyed Tokyo for the first time in 1955 was still going strong here.

The Tea Ceremony that the staff of Skip City treated us to was something else entirely.  The bus picked us up from Kawaguchi and took the 30 minute or so trek to Tokyo where behind the National Museum we were ushered into a nearly 200 year old home that had been preserved and moved here for just this purpose.

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After the filmmakers were all seated in a circle on the tatami, the host explained the history and benefits of the Japanese Tea Ceremony (Chanoyu) to the quickly fidgeting crowd.  Fidgeting because most attempted to emulate the kneeling position of the host but soon abandoned it for more comfortable jap60sitting positions.  The tea ceremony began and you soon realized it was much more an exercise in meditation than an opportunity to have something to drink.  Each movement was designed and practiced from the 9th century on.  The placement of the utensils to the actual stirring of the tea was a slow and detailed process.  No tea bags here.  It was a nearly fluorescent green powder that was mixed in with hot water.  A strong and heavy tea that is fairly different than what one gets in the states.

Then each guest was given a chance to mix it themselves.  You had to use a special tool and stir it quick enough to get bubbles at the top of the bowl.  My forearms have seen their fair share of hammer curls but they were starting to lock up trying to get the tea right.  And though my own cup wasn’t quite as good as they one they gave me, they still gave me the thumbs up for my attempt.

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As we left, the host politely implored that we express and share the benefits of their tea to the rest of the world, as it was their belief that this was part of the longevity of their countries people.  A few of us, judging by the looks on their faces after drinking it, were not going to espouse the virtues of this tea but I am sure either way, they were walking away from it pretty impressed with what went into what went into their stomachs.

The bus picked us up out front of the museum and carried us through the rush hour traffic jam back to Kawaguchi.  I had another film to catch late that afternoon.  The falling sun was framed by Tokyo passing us by in the window.   The faces in the bus around me all focused on the image.  The kind you see in the last shot of a film.  Especially an indi film with all these silent contemplative faces and the the next thing you know….

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Not Lost In Translation

The internal clock went off at 6:30 am.  I was getting better.  No more 4:45.

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Instead of trying to force some more restful sleep into my system I decided that being Sunday morning, this would be the best time for a run through the City of Uwara as there would be less pedestrian traffic to dodge through.  As always with these foreign country runs, I start off thinking I am going to do two or three miles and find by the end of my sight seeing I have done closer to six.  I was quickly reminded that the danger was not the pedestrians but rather the cars when you keep forgetting which side of the street is the on coming traffic.

God’s Ears was going to screen this afternoon, and I had to leave a bit early to do the film check where I make sure the colors/contrast/etc. was the way we intended it to look during the projection.  You would be surprised sometimes seeing your film for the first time on this kind of clarity what might pop up in terms of image.   Unfortunately, my film check fell on not only the same day, but the exact hour of the biggest mixed martial arts fight of the year.  Frank Mir and Brock Lesnar would be starting their heavy weight staredown right about the time my film check was going on.  I was more concerned about missing the fight before between Georges St. Pierre and Thiago Alves.  But, I just reasoned the amazing timing meant a meteor was going to crash through my hotel at that moment so I would be safely at the film festival when it happened.  As it worked out, I had one foot out the door during the last round of the GSP fight (caught on a local TV feed) and then sprinted out the door to the train station.  No meteor.

Once again I moved through the busy JR train station.  When I arrived at the festival I had them run a few scenes from the film.  As many Jap30times as I have seen it, I suddenly did not want them to stop.  The image and clarity projected in 4K was completely striking!  The best I had ever seen this film look.  When checking with their tech specs on the projection prior to leaving the United States, my post house called me back and told me they did not even know a projector like this was invented yet.

After the check, one of the workers came over to me to tell me how much he enjoyed the look and shooting style of the film and I was beginning to think I agreed with him.  If only every film festival was up to this technology I think the filmmakers would become even more aware of their framing and lighting choices as every detail was so heightened.  The audience which had built up to an impressive number outside finally filed in.  I had to give a brief intro and then moved to the waiting room.  I stuck around for the first few minutes just to watch the subtitles appear underneath the characters.  Kind of cool.

As I sat waiting for the film to wrap up I began to wonder how the film would translate to another culture.  Some things you can’t miss.  A car blows up, a punch is thrown or in this case I fall on a bicycle.  But much of the film is built on subtle themes and struggles of understanding and communication, love and friendship.  Maybe universal traits, but was this film going to effectively convey that?  Would the humor make sense or send the room flat?

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I was called down to the screening a few minutes before the end.  I stood and watched the credits roll as the room remained silent.  In the US, the start of the credits will at least draw a courteous applause but here their hands remained idle.

And then the credits finished, the lights came on and the applause filled the room.

Okay, that was pretty courteous.

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I stepped up to the stage and stood between the festival director and the translator.  After a few nice compliments from the director on the film, he turned to the audience.

No hands.  Uh oh.  When you don’t get something you can’t really comment on it.  He asked again.  Nothing.

And then a hand went up.

The young man spoke in Japanese and a few beats later a bit of laughter filled the room.  The translator smiled and relayed the comment: “I felt I wanted to make a comment on the film and how I liked it but thought it would be silly compared to more important questions.  But in the film, your character of Noah did some brave things so it made me want to be brave and say so”.

If no other question came I was the happiest director on earth.

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But they did.  And the questions were not what I was expecting.  What kind of camera did you use?  What was the budget?  How long did you shoot?  No, that would have been too easy for Michael Worth.

“The buddha near the end, was that there intentionally to represent……”

“Was the nakedness of both characters professions, boxing and stripping, more than coincidence…..”

“The flower you chose was not a traditional rose.  Was there a reason….”

“There was a common struggle that all the characters shared, was this….”

Holy crap.  Translate?  I was starting to learn more about my own film from the audience here.  The thought that went beyond the story, something in itself I was concerned would make sense, was astounding.  And reinforcing.  Reinforcing in my instincts of how I like to work.  Which is when I tell a story, I find I can be clearer with myself about it when I dig deeper and tell the same story, and even a few others subtler ones, through the other means at my exposure as an “artist”.   My compositions, my metaphors and even as simple as the lighting.  This has always helped me stay on track while working.  Reminding myself what each scene, and the whole story, was all about by adorning the moment with meaning but at the same time making sure that those “techniques” were never brighter than the actual moment, drawing attention to themselves.

As I moved from the hall, the the questions and handshakes continued in the broken English of many, trying to express their feelings about what they saw.  I was given flowers and cookies and even in one case, a Japanese press kit for Batman Forever in which I had a small fight scene that lasted all about five seconds.

One of the workers commented on how many of these people knew only a handful of English words and were using them as best they could to express to me how much they enjoyed the film.

I smiled.  Translation?

Some things everyone understands.

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“God’s” and Kurosawa

Japan hit me like a warm wet rag.

But in a good way.

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The heat and humidity was more than I was expecting.  Not too much different than the weather in Hawaii recently where I was under similar circumstances.  Once again, my film God’s Ears had carried me across the sea on some new adventure.  For all I put into the film, it has certainly been paying it back in the frequent travel miles.

Skip City is about a 30 minute train ride from Tokyo.  You can practically see it from Tokyo as well since there is little in the way of mountains or hills to prevent the view.  Like much of the area, you can find yourself walking through a Vegas-like array of activity and lights and then several blocks later be in a narrow alley way of small sushi restaurants and bars right out of Ozu’s Tokyo Story.

Right away, stepping off the train, I knew the Skip City D-Cinema Film Festival was something special.  Or at the very least, something very well oiled.  There is a reason Variety included it in the “50 unmissable film festivals”.  Part of the reason I would imagine is the attention to detail as various festival volunteers waved potential guests from the train to the awaiting bus (on time like clockwork every 20 minutes) taking them to the festival.  But the other reasons according to variety: “Japan offers one of the most dynamic new showcases for digital cinema with this fest. The money, nearly $200,000 in competition prize cash, comes courtesy of key sponsor Sony, but that’s only part of the fest’s cutting-edge appeal. All the movies are shown using the latest 4K digital cinema projector, which is then projected on a huge screen.”

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Awaiting us at the front of the building was something exciting me as much as my own film being shown on that Holy Grail projector; the poster for Kurosawa’s restored print of Rashomon.  The film that introduced Kurosawa to the western world (and the Oscars) was digitally repaired last year and being screened here in 4K on the very screen God’s Ears would be in the next couple days.

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But prior to that, after passing the five foot Godzilla near the entrance, the staff took us into a waiting room where we were fed sushi and green tea.  Being the only American there I was hardly the only foreigner as filmmakers from places like France, Poland and South America were also seated around the tables, trying out the locally famous food.  We were then all led into the screening auditorium past a huge line of waiting press and ticket holders to hear the directors introduce the filmmakers but more importantly, I am sure, catch a look at the Kurosawa film in probably its best physical state ever.

The screen was impressive before I even saw a frame projected.  The sole Skip City Cinema logo projected above was almost in 3-D clarity!  We were handed small transceivers so we could have the speakers translated into English.  Of course I could decipher the “Michael Worth” without the use of it, but helped all the same.  One by one we were asked up onto the stage after our names were called.  The press snapped away as the 15 feature film representatives and the other half dozen short filmmakers stood with the program directors.  I looked around wondering if anyone else was equally grateful to have been in this small group chosen out of over 1,000 film submissions.  I hoped so.  Probably wasn’t going to happen that many more times in your lifetime.

Most of the visiting filmmakers were still freshly stuck in the mire of jet lag and did not return to the screening of Rashomon, but you were almost more likely to get me to miss my own film than this.  After a ten minute demonstration of the work done to the film, the 1000s of instances of scratches and dirt removed for this print, the film was then finally started.  Jap9

I was very impressed with the look of it.  Everything from Toshiro Mifune’s teeth to the rain drops falling on the old temple leaped out at you.  Facial expressions that once were not so pronounced were suddenly as clear as day.  The image was as sharp as it could have ever looked, even back in 1950 when it was made.  Once the film ended, I couldn’t help but wish it was doubled billed with The Seven Samurai.  Well, there was always next year.

They ended the night with a giant buffet that included several hundred people and several hundred rolls of sushi.  Before the food bell rang, the traditional Kagami-biraki ceremony of breaking the lid of a sake barrel was performed and then the sake was served to everyone.  I had my replacement orange juice but that sushi did not pass me up.

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I found a way to fit almost three plates into me.  It always taste better when its free for some reason.  I was lucky enough to talk to some of the local filmmakers that wanted to know about film making in America.  I don’t think some of them realized that even in America you have to hunt and kill at times to get your money raised.  But their passion for film making was no less than anything we experience back home, that is for sure.  In fact, if this festival was any indication of it, it is even more so.

As I hopped on the bus to head back to the train, I couldn’t help but realize just in this first day that Skip City was going to be one of the best run film festivals I had been to.  And I have been to a few amazing ones in the past year including Sedona International, The Big Island and Visionfest.  So as I looked to the lights of Tokyo from the train window, I gave a slight bow to the spirits of Ozu, Kurosawa and Mizoguchi and counted my blessings that a film that I was lucky enough to be a part of, was going to shine up on a 4K screen for a brief moment in a land of giant filmmakers.Jap7

“God’s Ears” Heads To Japan

Skip City D-Cinema Film Festival has chosen Grizzly Peak Films’ “God’s Ears” to represent the United States in the feature film category.  Director/actor Michael Worth will be attending the festival which is July 10 through July 20.  The opening ceremony will screen Kurosawa’s classic “Rashomon” in a unique 4K projection.  Worth has credited Kurosawa as being one of his biggest influences as a director, “The Seven Samurai” being his favorite film.

Worth will update the current blog through the course of the festival.

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“God’s Ears” has just come off a long stretch of film festival appearances including The Las Vegas Film Festival (where Worth won “Best Director”) and The Big Island Film Festival (where the film won “Audience Choice Best Feature”) and now will screen with 14 other films out of over 700 submissions.  The press release can be accessed below.

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