Relatively speaking, Ryûsuke Hamaguchi is having a good 2021. Less than six months on from picking up the Silver Bear in Berlin for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, just last weekend Spike Lee’s jury awarded the Japanese filmmaker with Best Screenplay for Drive My Car, a three-hour epic adapted from the Haruki Murakami short of the same name. A case could be made for either film as the best of the year.

After Drive My Car‘s premiere last week, Hamaguchi spoke to us about silence, Murakami and Chekov, and filmmaking in the time of COVID. Check out the conversation below, condensed and edited for clarity.

The Film Stage: It’s only been a few months since Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy played in Berlin. How have you been able to get these films out in such quick succession?

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi: It was pretty much a simultaneous work, but it was more a COVID coincidence. Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy is an independent work, so I knew from the start that I would just be shooting whenever I had time, and at my own pace, whereas with Drive My Car I had a fixed schedule. Fortunately I started shooting the first and second story in 2019. Drive My Car was scheduled for 2020 but got interrupted for 8 months because of the crisis. Seeing as I had little to do, that’s when I decided I could shoot the third story of Fortune. Afterward I got back on track with Drive My Car, so it was just a coincidence that these two movies were wrapped up at the same time.

I’m interested in how you first came to Murakami’s text. What was it about the book that first captured your imagination?

I first came to know this short story because when it came out in 2013, a friend of mine said that it was quite close to what I do in my work. And it was true: the fact that there was a car moving around and that you could have these intimate conversations coming up slowly in this closed-off space. And the fact that there was also the acting theme that was in the novel—it helped me to have an easier approach to the story. But I think that the main interest for me was these strong characters, Kafuku and Misaki. They are very interesting. They are people that don’t really reveal a lot of themselves and only slowly come up to talk about themselves.

The casting seems especially important in this respect. While the film is so much about conversation, it is also about the silence between them. How did you go about casting Kafuku and Misaki?

When I cast actors, the most important thing for me is that the mentality of the character should match the kind of human being that this actor is. For Kafuku, for example, he’s not someone that reveals much of himself. And in the story he’s very passive—he isn’t someone who drives his own car, he’s just sitting in the car and driving to lots of places. And this passive part kind of matched Hidetoshi Nishijima, who is an actor I’d seen in a lot of independent movies, starting when I was in my twenties. And I always felt that he was the kind of actor that didn’t need to do much just to make it happen. He had this power of just being present, and once he’s given something he will react very well to it, but he doesn’t try to do something. And this style of acting matched very well to Kafuku’s personality.

As for Misaki, she is a young driver, it’s very physical work, and yet she is someone that is very intelligent. She is able to match Kafuku’s intellect, though she is a driver, and this is a very interesting part of Misaki. I first met Tōko Miura for the Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy casting, and the first impression I had it that she’s a very intelligent actor. She has been acting for a long time, because she started as a child actor, and she’s able to quickly grasp the core of situations and what people are thinking. She does that not in an aggressive way, but more in a helpful way, where she is able to simply make people talk. This intelligence matched very well with Misaki’s.

This is the most important part, but I will not deny that the physical appearance is also important. You have to be able to watch, and want to watch, the faces of these actors, especially because there are long silences. Of course if there is just the silence and nothing more, the audience won’t bear it, so it has to be incorporated in the whole structure of the story. You can bear the silence because you know there is a deep understanding going on between them, and that the silence is logical at that moment.

What role does silence play in the film? 

I don’t think I assigned a specific role for silence. To me silence is just another variation of sound but a lot of people have asked me questions about silence, so I’m realizing that it did have an important place in the movie in the end. Silence has to be understood as another form of communication. At the beginning of the movie, when you have these silences, it’s just that there is no connection at that moment between the two characters. Later in the movie, when there is some silence, it is now a different silence. It’s become another way of communicating.

In the film, Kafuku is putting together a production of Chekov’s Uncle Vanya. Do you feel that the story of the play overlaps with the story of Drive My Car?

Uncle Vanya is featured in the original short story as one of Kafuku’s roles but it is a very short part of the story. I wanted to expand on what kind of work Kafuku does, and I decided I would read Uncle Vanya again. While reading the story I felt how much there was this connection between the world of Kafuku and the story of Uncle Vanya. Uncle Vanya has a lot of important lines that are very universally true. Since Kafuku isn’t someone that reveals a lot of himself, in the original story at least, it’s difficult for the audience to understand him. The universality of the lines of Vanya usually helps actors to reveal what they are made of.

This is the unchanging quality of 150 years of Chekov’s works. I thought that it would be nice to incorporate this so that people would understand Kafuku better. And also to bring some meaning to the end of the movie, where you have this deep despair. People have to survive in this deep despair, and the solution for that is working for others.

Drive My Car premiered at the Cannes Film Festival.

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