Sundance 2016 Interview: WE ARE X Director Stephen Kijak Chats Japanese Rockstars
I had a chance to interview Stephen Kijak at the Sundance Film Festival about his film We Are X. The interview follows:
Alex Koehne: Yoshiki is an incredibly compelling character. I would watch a movie about him whether he was the biggest rock star in Japan or if he was a plumber. Is that what drew you to the project? Were you a fan the band beforehand or did this project come to you?
Stephen Kijak: I was approached. This was a project that came to me from my relationship with John Battsek. He's a great documentary producer who did Searching for Sugar Man, he came here [to Sundance] last year with Listen to Me Marlon and he did Stone Drunk Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon... he also had the Chuck Norris documentary - he's a powerhouse. He's had a film here every year for the past ten years. He's really great. We did Stones in Exile together and the Jaco Pastorius movie and we were looking for something to do together and he's always feeding me the music pitches. And he told me to Google image search X Japan and, "yes or no?" and I did and it was like, "Bing! Uh, yes please!"
I'd never heard of the band, was not really much of a speed metal freak, and I wasn't really that tuned into Japanese culture and yet it was very attractive on many levels. For me, it's all a discovery project... until you meet Yoshiki and something else altogether happens and it's like, "What is he? Who is he? But what is he? You know what I mean?" He's such a mercurial, ethereal character who in person can seem very down to earth. Chummy and pretty normal but then the more you dig into that public persona, then the masks come on and he shifts and changes. I'd never really seen a rock star like that. With Jagger, you kind of get the same Jagger in multiple circumstances. Yoshiki is something altogether different. On so many levels, the project was just very intriguing for me.
Even the first moments of the documentary show that so clearly. The slow motion shots of Yoshiki playing the drums with the mask...
It's the mask, it's the sunglasses. It was like the first rehearsals, on the first day... we had no preproduction really, before the Madison Square Garden shoot. Props to Diane Becker our poor line producer who pulled that together. I went to Yokohama as a little research portion. They wanted me to see their warm up shows. Their warm up shows for Madison Square Garden were two 18,000 seat arena shows, with all of the pyro and everything. I was like, "holy fucking shit!" I'd never seen anything like it. The show and the band...
These Japanese musicians who are really thin. Like the bass player who is almost birdlike - they all looked like they just landed from Mars. It was this crazy alien sort of visage. And to start with that... I couldn't think of a better image. It's the ultimate mask, it's like saying, "you don't know who I am or where I'm from." He even says in the film, "After all of these years, I don't even know who we are.
Yoshiki opens up to you in the interviews and discusses the troubling things from his dark past. Was that something that was challenging to get out of him or does he speak about it openly?
He does talk about it and like any rock star I've talked to, they have a repeating narrative. They just have their grab bag of tricks and they'll keep throwing the same stories out at you. Obviously the foundation of tragedy in his life is part of his persona and it is part of what makes him tick, it's part of the costume. He told me about his father's death on the first interview we did. But then, I was trying to press him for how he felt and I asked a question about if he thought his father would've been proud of him and that kind of threw him.
In Japan he is so revered and it is such a culture of politeness and respect that I don't think he was used to direct questions about it. He was always willing to talk about it because let's be honest, it's great dramatic fodder, but it was the way I pressed him. And during the five interviews we did over a year, we just kept chipping away at that. I don't think he was ever talked to like that - very directly. I approached it like he was just my pal Yoshiki and we're having a chat and I think it's just that cultural clash and discourse that opened him up. Eventually the emotion just came, wave after wave. We visit Hide in these different ways and I think he was kind of surprised at his own reaction too.
Along those lines with Hide and his father, there is a repeated theme of dealing with suicide. He talks about how against suicide he is, which seems like a no-brainer in Western culture, but in Japan, suicide is traditionally viewed differently. Would what he said in the documentary be considered controversial in Japan?
No, it wouldn't be controversial over there because he talks about it. He embraces the contradiction. It's part of his personality to be the guy who is a musician with a death with. "I play every show like it's my last," and "I should've been the one to leave this world first. And yet all of these people are dying around me and it should be me." But then on the flipside, he was so changed and damaged by his dad's suicide. It causes him so much pain but he transmutes that and uses it for his music, he writes about suicide... and as an artist, I think it's his right and his privilege to process this sort of stuff publicly. But, he's very clear, especially in the shadow of Hide's death, because there were copy cat suicides. I think that gets to the point of contention of Japanese cultural suicide like hara-kiri, which is supposed to be out of honor and that's a cultural expression, where as what has happened to people around him, these weren't honorable suicides. There was nothing honorable about them and they are deeply tragic. I think the culture is shifting away from this though. It's from a different era and it's not this generation.
Another aspect of their darkly spiritual, occult, band-with-a-death-wish vibe, is the saga of Toshi joining a cult. I found this fascinating in the documentary and was hoping you can elaborate on it even further.
We could've done a mini-series on Toshi. He actually recently wrote a memoir. It was something like "My Ten Years in Hell" and he details the whole thing. He is very open about it. It was pretty tricky research because a lot of it is in Japanese, but you can go on YouTube and find press conferences where Toshi is on TV, with the cult leader whose name is Masaya, not like a messiah like Jesus but that's his actual name, which is fucking weird. And they are trying to explain their organization, trying to defend it.
[Toshi] has since sued them. They are kind of like Scientology or something, but without the grand narrative. They are these self help cults which seem to be slightly prevalent in Japan. Small groups, powerful leader, control through abuse. Hey find someone who is relatively vulnerable, in this case, a rock star who is questioning everything about his life and they start breaking him down.
He said that he would be put in a small room with a mattress and a knife and they would tell him, "That mattress is your family and they are causing you all of your problems and we are going to lock you in this room for the next ten hours and you are going to kill your family." The lights go out, click, and he has to sit there in the dark and stab his "family" to death and scream and if he didn't do it, they'd come in and hit him until he did it. It's all in the name of social therapy. It went on an on to the point that he was being used by the leader of the cult to travel Japan, singing "healing, earth music" that the cult leader wrote and made Toshi sing and they did these gigs and sold albums, all to benefit the cult. He was brainwashed. It's unbelievable.
It really is. Did it make you nervous to take on this subject matter?
We had to be really careful to balance it. Toshi, as open as he is to talk about it, it's still a sensitive topic. We had these clips of him with the cult leader and it was like, "no way!" You can't show him images like this, of his wife for instance. It's too emotional and it's still very contentious. He was in hiding... I mean, it is recent history.
Yeah, it sounds like you really should make a mini-series out of it.
I swear. There is so much more there to it. What I felt like I wanted to get out of it for this film was to at least let him express the reality of it and to show why he left and came back to the band. Since the documentary is more from Yoshiki's perspective, it was more about their friendship. I mean, Yoshiki didn't even know exactly what had been going on. Even as we were making the movie, he told me he only just read Toshi's book for the first time. That conversation they had in the movie about, "were you still brainwashed when you came to see me?" and he was like, "oh yeah, yeah, yeah." They were actually talking about it for the first time and it was on camera. It was hard to get my head around because it was so bizarre and yet it was so real.
The impression I got is that the documentary was shot relatively quickly. It's built around the MSG show and a handful of interviews as well as a lot of archival footage. Yet I doubt the editorial process was nearly as efficient.
Yeah, as I mentioned, we only have three days of preproduction and then we kind of had to just make it up on the fly. We pulled the trigger immediately and then a lot unraveled in front of us at MSG and that became the foundation. The countdown to the concert, while perhaps a superficial structuring device, there isn't really a proper payoff of the concert It's like Hide said at the end, "I don't see our band having a beginning or end, that's kind of irrelevant." I found that clip early and I was always intrigued by that notion. It gave us license to just fold time and we kept making these ellipsis. It's kind of just a big Mobius Strip because at the end, we see them getting ready to step up on stage but then we see the way everything explodes which is the way the concert actually ends and then the movie ends with more of an idea; an idea about pain, about the spirit of the band and their fans.
So yeah, it was put together quickly at first but it wasn't a fast process. I mean, we were cutting right up until we color timed and mixed before coming here. It was a really long editorial process and really laborious. I do a lot of my own archival digging. I like getting really familiar with my own archive and it was brilliant to have it all because [Yoshiki] has most of it in LA so I could just review it and watch hours and hours of stuff. But yeah, after the initial shoot, it was very complex, trying to tell the different strands of the story in a unique way than a standard rock doc. It was 40 weeks of editorial.
I guess you would call it a rock doc. It's not a concert doc even though there is plenty of music...
Yeah, I actually try and stay away from using that term with this, especially because rock docs are something I've done, but collectively we are trying to kick that habit. Yoshiki especially, he's like, "this isn't a music film, it's a dramatic, philosophical expression."
You can almost apply the hero's journey to it. Yoshiki's father's suicide is the call to action, Gene Simmons is the mentor, which is a weird thing to think...
So having done several documentaries with musical subjects, how has your philosophy evolved about making these types of movies?
I guess it's just film by film. There was a moment where I just wanted to stop making them I was like, "Oh god, is this all I am every going to do?" But then a new, interesting opportunity would come my way that would push me in a new direction. Case in point, The Backstreet Boys. Why the fuck did I do a film about the Backstreet Boys? Yet, at the end of the day, I am so proud of that film. I had the most fun making that of everything I've done. And then this. Really it's all just built around great creative relationships. Like these producers and the below the line crew that I work with, I feel like we can make something great about any subject. It has become a lot about the collaboration. I'm always striving to shift the form of each one and not have them feel too much like that rock doc formula. I try and find some sort of stylistic clue from the music and the musicians themselves that will inform the way we shoot, the way we cut... I am always very aware of the stylistic choices we make. It's like, the band's slogan is, "Psychedelic violence, crime, visual shock." I was like, "yeah! That is our guiding principal: Psychedelic violence, crime, documentary shock." And that is We Are X.