THE AV INTERVIEW: Director Stephen Kijak (WE ARE X)

Jim Laczkowski: I thoroughly enjoyed the documentary. Found it very energetic, enlightening but most importantly, it told a very compelling story about a charismatic musician, good musicians I should say, that deserves more recognition, which you have done before, a number of times including the excellent Scott Walker documentary.  So what drew you to tell the story of this band and this overseas sensation?

Stephen Kijak: Well, it essentially was a job that became an obsession. I had no knowledge of X Japan. I had made a couple films with producer John Battsel and passion Pictures and we were looking for something new to do. He’ll often come to me with music pitches and that’s what happened.

This just looked too good to be true. On the surface, the visual aspect alone looked so promising in terms of the kind of things that it suggested. They were pioneers of visual rock in Japan. It was really intriguing, and  if you scratch just below the surface, there’s this unbelievable drama that appeared scripted. It was so outrageous. Very quickly, you realize there’s a lot of interesting ingredients here that you could use to tell a very compelling story.

I really started from zero with this band.  When you do things from a fan’s perspective, like the film we did about the Stones, you start with a lot of expectations and cultural knowledge. This was a completely unknown. It was exciting. It was a chance to explore and discover something through the creative process.

Jim: As an artist, you want these kind of challenges to come your way. Like you mentioned The Rolling Stones. There is quite a bit, of what you can uncover and obviously, you have been a fan for your whole life of a band like that. Here is the complete opposite. That is a welcome challenge to explore. Like you said the theatrics of their lives, show and some of the psychedelic imagery that they choose to embrace and you have incorporated into the film itself. I think it really stand out and makes it cinematic. It is not just talking or retelling story approach to documentary filmmaking.

Stephen: Of course, we used some classic storytelling tropes. But if you pay attention to this one there is a lot going on the visual plane, there’s a real visual subtext. The visual language of the film is very  rich. We are actually telling quit a lot in that realm that supports, contradicts or comments on the conventional story you think that you may be experiencing.

 

 

Jim: Yes for sure. I think this is a great example of a documentary that I am excited to go back to. Whereas, others in the fast I was like that was entertaining but I do not know if I want to re-watch it. But this was a very different experience, much like the Scott walker documentary. I think like you mentioned just telling the story with subtext, which is very important when it comes to documentary filmmaking. One moment that incorporates David Lynch. That was some sort of interesting, enigmatic ideas that worked and complemented your stylistic abilities. So are you a fan of David Lynch as well.

Stephen:  He is a huge inspiration. You normally do not get to explore those other dimensions when making this kind of films, so to find Lynch, it was a complete accident finding him in thousands and thousands of hours of archive. I knew they had worked together but I couldn’t put my hand on the footage, it literally just showed up one day. It was unlabeled in a series of numbered taped that we were just scrolling through. That opened the door, it was like he was saying “yes you can go there!” . There was Yoshiki nude on the beach, then surrounded by fire in the desert. It was a discovery that informed a lot of other stuff that we did.

Jim:  I think Yoshiki comes off as being this fragile, enigmatic figure, which I am sure he is. What his personality comes across to me too is that he has some strong selfawareness in how we present himself. A sense of showmanship on stage of course. What do you do to kind of bring that out of him and how did you balance that sort of euphoria with playing music alongside with his rather tragic past.

Stephen: He is a kind of performative person, a lot of rock stars are like that. I think it was just about showing up and sticking around and continuing to force him to do interviews. You take them off the pedestal and just treat them like people and keep pounding away at the different barriers, with different modes of questioning that I think someone like him is not used to dealing with. I think there is such a deference towards him in Japan. I do not think he has ever been interviewed quite so directly. It came as a bit of a shock. He felt like after three or four interviews he was going through therapy. Which was nice because it continued to build trust.

It did kind of feel like what we had to do with Scott Walker. You try to hold the human feeling alongside the enigma and yet they both exist simultaneously. I was conscious of the construction, and  the circus that surrounds a star like Yoshiki also gives you many things to play with. If he’s not going to strip the mask off completely, let’s examine the surface and have fun with that.

Jim: Yes, that is really interesting coming to the idea of the whole interview process being therapeutic for your subjects. That is a good approach and a good way to frame it. Because, I have seen so many great rock documentaries like the Wilco documentary in particular. Because being from Chicago and being a fan of that band, that was not a band that was used to having cameras everywhere. Despite the practice phases, they are very secretive and kind of introverted in general. So it was very challenging for them to provide a commentary for that film because they had to go back to relieve particular moments that they were not expecting to be either actually captured on film or expecting to happen in their lives in the moment. Like in the film Gimme Shelter, they were not exactly expecting what happened with that tragedy with the hells angels. We captured that vulnerability and those moments on screen with the songwriter. I think it is like a transactional therapeutic relationship that can work wonders with the subjects because they are able to externalize and have a sense of discovery of things they never had thought about before.

I really appreciate that component of when documentaries go a little deeper including the Metallica documentary. I think it is challenging to go through these journey at times because there is family history, the depression, the suicide. Obviously he talks about how against suicide he is. What he said in the documentary can be considered a little controversial in some cultures. Because, I know mental health is viewed quite differently in Japan?

Stephen: It is like he said, it is a new era. The idea of Japanese ritual suicide is kind of a cliché. It’s no longer the era of Mishima. With Hide, we are dealing with one very specific instance. We learned that it is not ruled a suicide, it is an accidental death. You can’t really call it suicide, it has never been determined.

Jim: That is why I expect all the fans either watching the documentary or going to a live show. I am sure they feel a sense of affirmation about what they have invested so much energy into, in just getting that sense of community which is what great music does. There is a great experience of sitting in your room and listening to it alone and then you get to go out and share it with a bunch of people that feel the same exact passion for that band and you captured that quite well. I was going to ask you about the collaborative process with Yoshiki or the band in the editing stage, what to include and not include. Is that all you decision or do the subjects have a say in what goes and what doesn’t?

Stephen: There was no collaboration. When the record label asked Yoshiki to cut the Last Live DVD it took them 3 years or more, he couldn’t watch a frame of it without breaking down, it was too painful. And I had to get through the whole history. I couldn’t quite believe it because you can get a sense of how in control Yoshiki is. This was one instance where he actually let it go.

A lot of times, the artist has commissioned the movie and that is the deal you make. You deal with endless notes. This was beautiful; we were allowed to work in a bubble so that was a real privilege to get that kind of trust and freedom from an artist I think something quite special.

Jim: Yes, that must be very freeing as an artist. Again, I imagine something like getting shelter because you actually see the Rolling Stones, editing the film. That is something I always thought will be kind of the norm. I think that is a great case of trust on the part of the subject too. To just say, I trust you to make you to make me look god, to put it simply. But is there something on the cutting room floor that you wished you elaborated or you wished had stayed in. or will that be on the inevitable Blu-ray at least hopefully.

Stephen: Yeah, we are working on that at the moment. Just some really fun stuff that we couldn’t include, like an interview with Yuko Yamaguchi, the designer of Hello Kitty.  Yoshiki has his own character Yoshikitty which was designed specifically for him by her in the early 90’s or late 80’s. We had her draw one for us. It’s a cool detour, things like that.

We spent a whole day in Yoshiki’s hometown Tateyama where there is a tiny X Japan museum that he visited with us.

Jim: I think you answered the question of what I was going to ask you about what surprised you the most about making this movie. I think that will pertain to the freedom you got from being able to craft your own vision from this whole experience. But I am curious, as I am getting close to wrapping up things. Which other bands, musicians or artists are you interested in tackling, to make a documentary on, but you just haven’t got around to it. What are your go to, desert island bands I guess.

Stephen: If you don’t think about it too much, the first instinct is always to say Bowie, that will be an hour mini-series. I would kill to do a film with Kate Bush for example. It will probably never happen. I am in an interesting place where a lot of them are coming to me. We will be starting a film for country music television which was totally unexpected, I would never had pursued that. It is going to be really interesting.

Jim: I got to give you credit here to because you do not make extended behind the music expose kind of guy in documentaries.

You really get to the human quality of each subject and as a musician, as a film fan, I think you do that beautifully. I really appreciate that. In particular there are a couple of documentaries that have really stood out to me, if there for you as well. This is sort of the last question here. The ones that really stood out to me because of them being unique because of the approach were; the Amy Winehouse documentary ‘Amy’ and Laurie Anderson put out this great documentary called Heart of a Dog.

Stephen: I love it, I saw it with Laurie doing a Q&A. The film is so personal, such a beautiful statement.

Jim:  Well huge thanks to you. This was a real great talk and I appreciate it. I cannot wait for what you will do next. Thank you for your time today, Stephen!

Stephen: Thank you

 

FIND OUT MORE ABOUT THE FILM HERE:
https://www.facebook.com/wearexfilm/

EDITOR NOTE: If you liked the text interview, check out the audio version coming up at Voices and Visions.

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