Out of the comfort zone: Atsuko Hirayanagi about her award-winning short Oh Lucy! #VIWIFF2015

Kaori Momoi as Setsuko in Oh Lucy!

Kaori Momoi as Setsuko in Oh Lucy!

I believe everybody fantasizes about becoming somebody else and exploring a new world. Oh Lucy! depicts Setsuko’s secret and personal dream.

Setsuko is a reserved 55-year-old office employee in Tokyo, who doesn’t make friends easily. Her life is a repetitive routine without romance. One day, she attends an English conversation class with an unconventional young English teacher who gives her a new identity, Lucy. She meets Tom, a middle-aged Japanese businessman, who attends to the same class.

Oh Lucy! is a film about Setsuko’s self-discovery, which reflects modern chaotic Tokyo culture. 

Kaori Momoi, who plays Setsuko, is an A-list actress in Japan. She currently lives in Los Angeles and she has been welcomed to Hollywood audiences as she appears in Memoirs of Geisha. She started her career as an actress since 1971 and appeared Kagemusha by Akira Kurosawa, Eijanaika by Shohei Imamura and many other Japanese films. Being a successful actor does not, stop her from challenging herself to appear in unknown directors’ films and from encouraging female filmmakers.

“She [Momoi] is a phenomenal talent, and we were lucky to have her. Having no rehearsal was one of her requirements to participate in this project,” says the director, Atsuko Hirayanagi an email interview with VIWFF.

“She really liked to improvise and keep everything very fresh as it happens, which I respect. So I tried my best to give her that freedom. There were tradeoffs and challenges sometimes with this approach, as we had very limited time and budget. We were always on our toes, but at the end, that process really took the film to the next level. The entire student production team (my classmates) felt that we grew tremendously as filmmakers. We learned a lot from her.”

Hirayanagi_Atsuko_Director

Director Atsuko Hirayanagi

Atsuko Hirayanagi was born in Nagano and raised in Chiba, Japan. She is a recent graduate of NYU Tisch School of The Arts, Asia, with an MFA in Film Production, where she received the Cathay Scholarship, a three year full-merit scholarship from Singapore’s Cathay Organization.

VIWIFF: What was the inspiration for Oh Lucy!?
Atsuko Hirayanagi: The idea sprung out of a class exercise at film school, where I had to write 100 story ideas (loglines) in four weeks. Every day the teacher would give us a subject like, write a rom-com, buddy film, musical, action, or dinosaur movie, etc. The idea for Oh Lucy! came from the topic of writing about ‘someone you know’. So I wrote about someone I know. I wanted to explore what would happen if that someone says all the things she normally wouldn’t say. What would make her say it? How would her life change?

V: What was most challenging about making this film?
A: Having an A-list actress from Japan on the set, as well as working with a cast from three different countries, was very challenging. We also shot in two countries (Singapore / Japan), and on top of it, a cast member had to have a sudden appendix surgery during the shoot. We really had to improvise to get the film finished. It was one unexpected event after another. In hindsight, it made the experience special, and we pulled it off because the team bonded and it became a very collaborative effort.

V: How was the film received in Japan and worldwide?
A: French people seem to like Oh Lucy! After Cannes, we kept getting a lot of requests from film festivals in France for submission. So far, the audience at Sundance had the best reaction. They were laughing throughout, and I was really surprised. I haven’t been able to attend a Japanese festival for a screening, but I heard from my Japanese producer that the reaction has been great when it was shown at last year’s Short Shorts Film Festival in Tokyo. Same with Australia, Sao Paulo, and Toronto.

V: When and how was the film financed and produced?
A: I mostly used prize money (thesis-script competition, prize won from a previous film), donations, sponsorship by an airline, and a personal loan. The film was produced by Singapore based producers, including myself, and Japanese producers for the Japan shoot.

V: Do you see any challenges for making films as a female director? If so, what is it?
A: I haven’t faced challenges as a female director per se, maybe because I’ve only made shorts. I could imagine facing some kind of sexism, when I deal with features or bigger budget films one day. On Oh Lucy!, I faced challenges any filmmaker would face. I did and do face challenges as a mother director though. Since directing involves unlimited amount of time from the pre-production phase, balancing between motherhood and filmmaking is the hardest challenge for me, especially since our kids are still small. I still haven’t found the right rhythm to that, if there ever is one!

At the end of the interview, I asked her about her next project.

Hirayanagi says she is mainly focused on the feature version of Oh Lucy! And she is developing two early ideas in Japan and the U.S.

“I love filmmaking. I love the collaboration part of filmmaking, how everyone pitches in with their own expertise and passion, to make the movie much better than one can envision on their own. Every little thing counts at the end,” Hirayanagi says.

She sounds like a very powerful and energetic filmmaker as well as a great mother of two. I am sure that her next projects will be successful.

Here is the amazing list of awards/nominations for Oh Lucy!

ohlucy-filmposter-UNIJAPAN・2014 Cannes International Film Festival – Cinéfondation selection (World Premier) – 2nd Place (First Japanese filmmaker to win an award in the category)

  • Honorable Mention – Toronto International Film Festival
  • NYU First Run Film Festival 2014 – 1st Prize Wasserman Award, and the overall NYU NY and Singapore Audience Award (The Haig P. Manoogian DGA Screenings )
  • 2014 Tisch Asia Thesis Post-Production Award.
  • 1st prize at NYU’s ’12 Fusion Film Festival in the Graduate Film Short Screenplay category across the NYU New York and Singapore graduate filmmaking programs
  • 1st prize and partial funding at NYU Tisch Asia’s ’11 thesis script competition.
  • Invited as one of fifteen filmmakers to attend the first Berlinale Talent Campus Tokyo, to develop the feature length version of “Oh Lucy”.
  • Chosen as one of three scripts to be nominated to SUNDANCE LAB and SUNDANCE INSTITUTE / NHK AWARD by NHK.
  • The Short Jury Award: International Fiction at Sundance 2015

  • Best International Short Award at Flickerfest 2015 in Australia.

  •  Oscars 2016 qualification.

By Akiko Sakai

Akiko Sakai has a background in film studies and worked at the 2013 Tokyo International Film Festival. She is a member of the #VIWIFF2015 community outreach team

You can see Oh Lucy! at #VIWIFF2015 at the “Around the World in Eight Shorts” section on Saturday, March 7th at 7 PM. 

Purchase Tickets here – but hurry up, as sales for this slot are going fast.

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