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How to Shoot an Indie Film in Japan

Thursday, December 10th, 2015 by

This week we’re highlighting filmmaker Austin Everett, writer-director of the upcoming Secondhand Heart.  Shot in Japan and Utah on a minimal budget and using a spare crew, the film stars Ben Isaacs and Mallory Corrine in a Shakespearean love triangle. With 50% of the film in the can, Austin is currently raising funds to complete the shoot on Kickstarter.  Here Everett offers tips for budding filmmakers on how to shoot a low budget indie  in Japan, not looking like a tourist in a foreign location, and the wonders of Airbnb.

Indiepix: Tell us a little about yourself.
Austin Everett: I was born in Tokyo, Japan. My family and I stayed there until I was 6 years old and then we moved to Utah. I went to film school there for 2 years at Brigham Young University before I decided it wasn’t a good fit for me so I dropped everything and moved to O’ahu, Hawaii. 

IP: What kind of training did you seek out?
AE: Most of my training was observation. Since I was only in film school for a short period, I didn’t have time to get past most of the basic courses. I did however have time to shadow directors and producers which taught me a lot. Once I moved to Hawaii I started working in production and that gave me a really solid background to start producing my own films. After that, it was all trial and error. I learned the most when I started writing on my own and reading books to help rewrite it. Nothing will ever be as good as jumping in feet first. 

IP:  Secondhand Hearts is a character oriented piece. Did you have or did you apply any particular methods when you were working with your cast?
AE: All of my methods of directing happened behind the scenes. I really believe in actors and their intuitions and feelings during a scene — that is if you’ve casted them well in the first place — which I believe I did. It was important that both the actors and I knew what the story was and wasn’t about, what their characters wanted, and lastly what we needed out of each scene. After those things are clear, it was mostly sitting back and watching them unfold the story on camera. One thing that I think helped immensely is that the actors that play the star-crossed roles, Ben and Emily, are actually married in real life. So they already have this natural and obvious chemistry which hopefully adds to the idea that their characters should be together. 

IP: What’s your experience /awareness/knowledge of the distribution landscape & opportunities for indie filmmakers?
AE: Most of my growing up having been in Utah, home of the Sundance Film Festival, independent film was a very prominent thing. I grew up knowing that one day that was the path I would probably take as well. The landscape has, of course, changed dramatically in the last 10 years, but really all for the better. It’s now easier to get your movie watched than ever before, who’s going to complain about that? 

IP: What is your overall plan once the film is finished? 
AE: Secondhand Hearts for me is the first step of many. I have never planned on just doing the one passion film and being done. I have been extremely clear that this is the film that is going to help develop relationships, forge a path, and hopefully create opportunities for the future. So yes to festivals, yes to VOD, yes exploring every nook and cranny we can stick our heads in.  

IP: In creating a story driven by relationships, did you have any themes you wanted to discuss in particular? Which came first – the story or the drive to make a film?
AE: I have become more and more aware of my obsession with destiny. That obsession alone has really permeated this story and the relationships within it. So there are several moments in our film where you have to stop and ask yourself, “Who’s right here?” “Was this supposed to happen or was this a mistake?” And because of that I think it’s impossible for the story not to come first. I can’t imagine a situation where you decide to make a movie and then think about the story to tell. The story finds you first. 

IP: The film is shot partly in Japan.  What were any logistical issues you may have faced when writing a story with an American cast abroad? For example, did you feel the desire to tap into the local film industry , or, did you write the script with certain elements already in place?
AE: I was very specific with the locations I wanted to shoot in Japan, I made a point to travel to all of those places 6 months before just to check it out. Because of that, we were able to contact the regional and local film offices to work with them about getting permits and licenses, etc. We started on that process months and months ahead which all worked like clockwork. The Japanese film industry is very organized and very accommodating. So really, shooting in another country is the same as shooting anywhere else, planning is king. 
IP: How did you meet your producer and production team and what advice can you give a first time filmmaker for putting a team together.
AE: True story: one year ago Connie, my producer, was my boss. We met on a feature film from Hong Kong and I was one of her assistants. After about 4 months of working day and night with her, I gave her the script and asked her to read it. Kudos to her for having enough humility to actually take me seriously, but she read it and jumped on board with me to produce it. I know I got extremely lucky. The rest of the crew were people I went to school with and other that I met in the process of getting to where I am now. Some I’ve known for 6-7 years. Getting a good crew together isn’t something I feel that you do in the month before production, I strongly believe in growing together. Find the people that have the same fire burning inside and make that journey together.  

IP: You’re shooting in Japan and Utah. What does that budget look like?

AE: We shot in Japan for under $7000. It’s usually the first thing people ask after watching our trailer: How did you shoot in Japan at all of those sites? The questions usually double when they hear that we did it for under $7000. There’s no denying the amount of value shooting in a foreign country brings to our picture. It makes our film look really, really expensive. And in a time when making a low budget feature has never been easier, it also has never been more important to stand out amongst the crowd.

IP: You’re based in the US. How did you decide you were going to shoot an indie in a far off location?

AE: First of all, I think it’s very important to understand that I specifically wrote Japan into the story because it’s a second home to me. I’ve lived a third of my life there and I feel that I have a decent idea of how things work there. After this experience, I wouldn’t be nervous to take a crew into a country that was unfamiliar with, but I’m really glad I started in a country I had already spent time in. If you haven’t had a chance to go to another country, pick one (ideally one you’d like to shoot in) and take a week to get to know the people, the culture, and the lay of the land. You’ll be grateful you did when you have other people depending on you.

IP: Talk about the logistics -how’d you put the team together?  How big was the production?

AE: We felt that it was going to be crucial that we didn’t draw attention to ourselves. So we limited ourselves to a crew of 6 people with us in Japan — that’s tiny. But I will say that it’s probably the perfect number. Any more than maybe 8 and you start to draw attention to yourselves. Next we knew that we needed to keep gear to a minimum. This meant that we weren’t going to be able to walk around with a fully rigged RED DRAGON or whatever. Which honestly, thanks to the ever expanding DSLR market was not as big of a problem as I thought it would be. We took a Sony A7rii, two of my favorite Nikon AF primes and two AF-S Nikon zooms. I also had a stripped down Ronin M that I would throw on and run around with. 


IP: What was the response in the locations you were shooting in?

AE: We looked like an amateur photo group. This really helped us get our permits; and it was extremely important that we did. Last thing we wanted was to finish the movie and get into trouble by not having the image rights to national monuments or shrines. But showing up with a small crew and with the camera around my neck reassured the location owners that we weren’t going to cause a ruckus to anyone else touring the area. I try to travel frequently and whenever I do, the last thing I want is to look or act like a tourist. But I had to make a bit of an exception in this case, mostly because I wanted to take advantage of the benefits tourists get. Japan has a rail pass that you can buy for $250 a person and ride the trains for a week as much as you want. So for $1500 we took our entire team all over the country and shot at some of the most beautiful places in Japan.

IP: Sounds like a dream shoot. Any other tips for filmmakers who might want to follow in your footsteps and shoot an indie in a foreign locale?

AE:  I’ll tell you probably the biggest money saver of them all: Airbnb. You may know Airbnb as the website that allows you to stay in people’s homes or spare apartments for a low price, but I know it as my locations catalogue. It’s perfectly set up for indie filmmakers! Airbnb covers the property owners if you accidentally cause damage during your stay, it processes all of the payments through a secure server, and most importantly it doubles as your place to sleep that night. So we rented a 2 million dollar, 37th floor luxury apartment looking over Osaka for 2 days and it cost us $800 total. We came and went when we wanted, we did day and night scenes and when we were done for the day, we picked a bed and slept. I always make sure the owners know we’re going to be filming, but to this day I have never run into an owner that has had a problem with it. As long as they get their payment — they’re happy.

AE: For me, our footage in Japan is worth 20 times the amount that we spent to get it. As indie filmmakers, we need every leg up we can get. It seems daunting, but shooting in another country was the best thing we did for our film. I would not hesitate for a second to do it for my next film. Be brave my friends, go explore! And make sure you take lots of pictures.  


Follow Austin Everett on twitter: @foreverett

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