When director-writer Edson Oda was twelve years old, his uncle took his own life. And ever since that devastating tragedy, people only saw him as a man who committed suicide, his life suddenly becoming just that moment. With Oda’s directorial debut Nine Days, the copywriter-turned-filmmaker tries to shift his uncle’s story into what matters most: all the things he accomplished while he was alive and all the good, happy memories he left behind.
Part high-concept sci-fi, part heartfelt spiritual drama, Nine Days centers on Will, who lives in a small house distant from reality and is assigned to oversee a group of people on earth to see how they lead their lives. Any time one person dies he must find a replacement for them. A group of candidates will undergo a series of tests from Will to determine whether they’ll be granted the privilege to be born. If they are deemed unsuitable, they will face oblivion.
Will’s whole world will soon get turned upside-down when one of the candidates, Emma, challenges him to rethink his whole idea of life and force him to reckon with his own trauma. It’s through the dynamic between Will and Emma that Oda hammers home the themes he wants to explore in the film: the importance of life’s small and joyful moments.
We recently had the pleasure of speaking with Oda to discuss his inspiration for the story, his admiration for Hirokazu Koreeda, seeing life from a different perspective, and working with Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz.
The Film Stage: Nine Days is your feature directorial debut—I believe inspired by a close relative of yours. What eventually intrigued you to tell this story? And how did everything come about?
Edson Oda: The main inspiration of the movie is something that is very personal. I wrote the main character, Will, based on an uncle of mine. He’s very artistic, very sensitive, and very kind. But when he was fifty, he committed suicide. And at that time, he became just that suicide. I used to see him as someone who wasn’t strong and wasn’t ready to survive in the world—basically just from the impact that his suicide had on my family.
But as I grew older and went through my own struggles and problems, I began to feel connected to him in a way I wasn’t before. I saw parts of him inside me, and that made me empathize with him more. And from that connection I started writing Nine Days to question and explore if there’s such a thing for people to see life and survive the world in a different, more meaningful way.
So in a way, Nine Days is your attempt to understand and reclaim the narrative surrounding your uncle’s life?
Yeah, correct. After the suicide, his life became just that, which was pretty unfair. So with Nine Days I wanted to show that there was more to him and his life than just the suicide.
When I was watching the film, the first thing that came to my mind was how nearly similar it was with Hirokazu Koreeda’s sophomore feature After Life. Can you tell me why you were influenced by his movie?
I’m a huge fan of Koreeda’s works. I always see his films as a big inspiration for me. [Laughs] Even just hearing the name Koreeda in a sentence just makes me super happy. Nine Days, in a way, is like a prequel to After Life. Both films have similar emotions and metaphors within the stories, and they raise some big questions about life and the meaning of our existence. So when I knew what kind of movie Nine Days was going to be, I tried to evoke the same feelings that I had when I was watching After Life while writing the script. I’m glad that you caught that.
I want to circle back a bit to talk about the title. In different cultures, each number has different meanings. My mom is Chinese, and in Chinese culture nine represents eternity. For this film, how did you settle on choosing nine in the title?
It’s interesting—nine is a number that can be interpreted in so many different ways. And like you said, there are so many different meanings behind it. It represents luck in one culture; then in another it represents destiny. Then you have this stuff with pregnancy, where you need nine months to be born. So there’s just so much meaning and energy into it. For this film, I didn’t really pick nine specifically for this or that reason, but I love the idea of people giving meanings in a way that they want to give it to. It’s almost like a question mark that people can answer the way they want. I really like that. I want people to interpret it differently.
The film talks a lot about celebrating the small moments in our lives, as well as about depression and mental health. When you were writing the script, did you build the narrative on those themes or did they come naturally while you were developing the plot?
The themes came first and I purposefully built the script around that. When you are going through your own problems and dealing with mental health struggles, it’s really easy for you to just lose perspective on what is important in your life and what matters about your existence in the world. Your brain becomes foggy because you don’t see anything but those bad parts, and it becomes hard for you to get out of that state.
I wanted to dive into that in my script, but in a way that’s far from dark and heavy. That’s why, instead of focusing on the depressing stuff, I want Nine Days to be about cherishing the small moments in life, as it’s something that’s the least we can do when we feel that everything is not worth it anymore. I think Nine Days is kind of an invitation for us to have a different perspective, and not in the way that it’s limited to just depression but actually more about life in general—because I’m sure, as human beings, we all go through some periods where we immerse ourselves in darkness and struggle to see the little joy in our surroundings.
I’m not saying that we have to always keep a positive mindset that life is beautiful and perfect—that’s not how our reality is. There’s so much pain and suffering in the world, yes, and the movie is not trying to negate that. What it does is remind us that sometimes it’s good to just enjoy and celebrate the small things that are precious in our lives, even when it feels like everything else is hard.
What fascinates me most about Nine Days is how even though it’s basically a high-concept sci-fi, it not only stimulates our brain, but also our heart and soul. How did you make sure that the film always stayed emotionally grounded despite the premise?
That’s a great question. In the beginning, I was a bit concerned that the movie would be a little too sophisticated. It’s very easy for stories that are high-concept or not based on 100% reality to just go somewhere far from something that feels truthful and honest. But I tried to not worry about it too much and just approach the movie by focusing more on the characters and the emotions that I was hoping to capture.
When you go see a play or when you watch a movie, you know that it’s not real and you know that it’s just a set or maybe a costume, but somehow you still immerse yourself in it so deeply that you kinda forget everything that happens around you. So while filming Nine Days, that was the mindset that I had inside my head. I sorta “invited” my actors to forget about everything for a moment and to forget that they’re in this reality and just had them interacting with the other cast in a way that feels true and human. My job as a director is getting those interactions and inserting them into the sci-fi elements of the premise so that it feels resonant.
The center of the story is the dynamic between Will and Emma. And both Winston Duke and Zazie Beetz play these two characters perfectly. What was it about them that made you go, “Oh this is my Will and this is my Emma?”
Zazie is such a fantastic actress and an amazing human being. She’s so in the moment, and that’s something that I want to have from her character. When you talk to her you can feel her maturity, but at the same time there’s also this kind of innocence and child-like curiosity, as if she wants to always know about stuff and everything more deeply. And this amazing combination is why I really want to work with Zazie.
Winston is an amazing, amazing actor. When we first met we talked for about two hours, and it was interesting because we weren’t just discussing the film and why I wanted to make it, but also about life in general and a lot of other stuff too. And just based on that one meeting I could feel that he was the Will that we saw at the end of the movie. I felt like, with Winston, I already had the Will who was unafraid to get in touch with his feelings, the Will who was full of life. So my job when it came to him was mainly to find a way to hide all of that or make it smaller. But when you have a talented actor like Winston, the job doesn’t feel too hard.
If you could program a double feature to watch with Nine Days, what—aside from After Life—would you choose?
Other than After Life? Oh, I think it could be Soul, as both films are questioning our existence in this world. [Laughs] Yeah, Soul would be a good pick.
Nine Days premieres in theaters in New York and Los Angeles on July 30, nationwide on August 6.