Belgrade International Film Festival
John Williams
director of "Ichiban utsukushii natsu" [Firefly Dreams]
Interview by Radmila Djurica

John Williams at the festival

WV: Where do you live in Japan?

John: Every time I go back to Britain, people ask me which city I live in, assuming that I will say Tokyo. But when I say Nagoya, they have no clue where it is.

WV: How does a Welsh [UK] boy cope with Japanese culture?

John: People often think that Japanese culture is very different from British, but I think that the Japanese are quite like the British. When you are looking at a different culture from outside of Japan, far away things look very different.

My friends in Japan are Japanese, my crew is Japanese, and I'm looking at myself as Japanese in a way. When my film Firefly Dreams has been shown to a Japanese audience, it is announced as Japanese film. Even if I'm not Japanese, part of me is. Of course, there are always people who think that I can not understand Japanese culture if I'm British.

WV: How did you find yourself in Japan?

John: That's a long story. I'd planned to go to Japan only for two years and ended up there for 13 years now. I just wanted to get out of Britain and see the world a bit. Then I met some Japanese film makers. Because of the film, I finally decided to stay and put the pieces of a personal puzzle together.

WV: You studied German and French literature in college; how did you move from German and French literature to the film making business?

John: It all started when I saw a Werner Herzog film, when I realized that film is something that I want to do. In Great Britain, at the time, only one film school existed and they did not accept people over 27, so I couldn't go there for an education. So, instead of film, I studied German and French literature in college. Afterwards I lectured in a high school, trying to write a script and make a movie.

The mid-80s were an extremely hard period for British film. Since I had to pay back my student's hardship and scholarship, I had to work in one Japanese store in London. Then I started to associate with Japanese people, developing more of an interest in Japanese film and literature. Then, I got the idea to go to Japan, for two years, make money there, write a script and come back to London to make a movie. Then, I spent six years in Japan planning to move to the USA, so I could study there to be a film director. Soon enough, I realized that it is more interesting for me to stay in Japan and make Japanese films.

WV: Firefly Dreams is your first feature film. What inspired this story?

John: I decided to make the story about me and my grandpa. I hadn't been sure: is that story ready to be realized, because it is about my personal relations, with no action and no big drama in it. But my friends have told me that my first film should be something important to me. I think that this is good advice. The story is based on my own relationship with Grandpa, in a Japanese version

WV: What British film directors do you like?

John: I like Ken Loach, and his social poetry in his films. There are film directors in Britain that are making films like this one, showing the bare reality of human relations with natural acting. Ken's actors use more natural acting techniques, and that is something that I like to support. I don't like dramatic acting and performances; I like natural acting. In a strange way, Loach has had a big influence on me. I also like Mike Leigh; I think he's very funny and sharp about little strange habits in people.

WV: How do you identify, as Japanese or British now?

John: It is evident that whatever assumption that you get to, if you are spending time in another culture and country, you must get some sort of connection, no matter if the culture looks different, it must be something similar to you personally deep inside.

WV: What documentaries have you made before?

John: I have made only one documentary [Midnight Spin; Japanese and English], about the communist regime in Taiwan and about the complexity of the problem by interviewing politicians, ordinary people and priests.

WV: In Firefly Dreams you deal with teenage problems in modern Japan. Those teenagers have lots of choices in life. With the influence of Western culture, they are perhaps losing a spiritual connection to Japanese tradition. Can you compare the Japanese teenager with the British teenager?

John: In Britain there are teenagers with the same problem as Naomi, but there are also teenagers living in poverty. British teenagers have more material problems than is the case with the Japanese. The majority of Japanese teenagers don't lack material things in life. They are aware that something is missing in their life, but they don't know what it is that is missing. Also Japanese society is very capitalistic and very financially rich.

WV: How about the commercial success of this film in Japan?

John: The commercial success is bigger than we had expected in the first place. We did very well, as this is an art film, this is not the mainstream film to get commercial success. People in Japan don't want a Japanese film and that's full stop. They’d all rather go for a commercial mainstream film, coming from the USA.

WV: Do you feel like you have been working on this film on your own?

John: Fourteen people have worked with me on the crew, all Japanese: technical support and professional actors, and I was the only one who had no experience in film making. There were plenty of people who wanted to participate in the film, and we all lived together in a big house, sleeping in sleeping bags on the floor. Altogether about 40 people. One big happy crowd.

WV: Did you have any disagreements with the Japanese cast, stemming from you being British?

John: I don't think there is any problem with me being British and working with Japanese. It is about being a British film director with not enough experience. The only problem that we had is that the Japanese cast is used to television acting, and I wanted them to act more natural in my film.

WV: Are you happy with your work on Firefly Dreams?

John: Definitely. Still, after I finished the film I still had the impression that I should be doing something more after the film was finished.

WV: How much did Firefly Dreams cost?

John: Approximately about $400,000 US; this is a low budget movie.

WV: Are you pleased with what you have done?

John: At first I believed that I have done everything that I could, but now when I look back, watching the film, circulating at the film festivals, I think that there are some things in the film that could be different.

WV: Are you considering a future film that might engage big budget British actors with a Japanese cast, in order to shoot for commercial success elsewhere?

John: I'm thinking about working on a project about a book about foreign people living in Japan. The budget level of this film will be 10 times higher than my film. The Japanese film financing market is not strong enough to use a commercially unknown Japanese cast outside Japan. Big budget international projects are a gamble and depend a lot on the story.

WV: What kind of story are you thinking of? Sex/violence?

John: When you come to Japanese audiences, you really can't involve sex and violence in the commercial way. The world can get "an exotic" picture of Japan, as it is now. This is the case with other markets outside of Japan. And personally, I'm not interested in making a story that shows Japan as some exotic wild sex story.

WV: If you would make a commercial project, commercial for the American or British market, who you would engage in your project?

John: I'm working on a project that includes successful British actors and Japanese crew in, but everything is happening out of Japan.

WV: Plans about the future?

John: Right now I'm working on three projects and two scripts. I have just finished one, and I don't know which one I'm going to get money for and how much.

WV: Who's Naomi and how did you find a typical Japanese teenage girl?

John: I didn't want to hire a girl who's a professional actress, because in Japan acting looks like over-reacting. I didn't want to work with the television way of acting as is usual in Japan. Television acting is an over-the-top, melodramatic style of acting. I looked for someone who looks and acts natural. At first, we found a school-girl who gave up just before shooting, realizing that it would be hard work for her to do it. So we found another girl who happened to be a trained actress: 21, she is. Naomi is a typical teenage girl in Japan, who does not know the actual direction of her life, without a very clear vision about her future, with so many choices in her life. This girl represents teenage girls everywhere, not only in Japan.

WV: How did you manage to get so deep into the character?

John: I've been working collaboratively with the photographers and actors, just talking to them. The final decisions have been mine. The actresses in the movie have similarities in real life with the characters that they played. All this is an organic process, I guess.

WV: How about music, the film soundtrack?

John: The composer is a British musician, Paul Row. He had been working with lots of Japanese musicians. Of course, he's not the only composer; it is done in the collaboration with other Japanese musicians.

WV: How did the Japanese audience respond to the film?

John: All right. Japanese distribution cut off the last 15 minutes of the film. My version would have been longer.

WV: The prettiest scene in the film was when two teenage girls are running out in the beautiful garden, having fun, where teenage relations are portrayed nicely. Where did you shoot this scene?

John: It was shot in a Japanese spa. This spa is a special place. As soon as we arrived there, everything went off perfect. Nature there was magic, and we had a good time together.

WV: You live in Nagoya, where the football club hired the famous Yugoslav football player, Dragan Stojkovic Pixy?

John: Pixy in Japan has the status of a famous football player, he is the favorite. When I lived in Britain, I hated football. And when I looked for a location for this film, I had to choose a football court that had a football game on. Japan against Jamaica. I've been supporting the Japanese football team, of course.

WV: How do you like Belgrade, Serbia?

John: I love it; I love it. I've spent my spare time walking and talking to people.



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