March 2, 2018
In Theaters

'Ask for Forgiveness Later': How a First-Time Feature Director Made Darkly Hilarious 'OH LUCY!'

Atsuko Hirayanagi's globetrotting stunner 'OH LUCY!' has garnered some notable fans including Executive Producers Will Ferrell and Adam McKay.

A quirky film in which the humor often stems from real pain, Atsuko Hirayanagi's OH LUCY!  brings us into a woman's life steeped in a desire to break free from her rote existence. That woman, Setsuko, a bored, single Tokyo office worker, is one day presented with that opportunity when her niece, Mika, encourages her to finish out her English-language classes taught by an attractive visiting Californian.

English-language lessons? More like an American-immersed, tacky boot camp, the course comes complete with the subsuming of a new name (Setsuko is saddled with the Yankee name "Lucy" by her instructor), a blonde wig, and a lot of hugging. As Setsuko grows infatuated with her teacher, John—hey, the bizarre class gives the woman something to look forward to—it's over in an instant; John (played by Josh Hartnett) and Mika have taken off to the United States as lovers, and dear Aunt Setsuko is left to wonder what happened. Along with her sister (Mika's mother), Setsuko hops on a plane to California to find her niece and to find her John. Sex, broken hearts, and a fish-out-of-water/sibling rivalry plot take hold.

As the film opens theatrically this weekend (and is represented at the Film Independent Spirit Awards as a nominee for Best First Feature and Best Female Lead), No Film School spoke with Hirayanagi about her experience in film school, the challenges of working with multiple international crews over one production, the humor apparent in serious situations, and why she advises fellow first-time feature filmmakers to be ruthless.

No Film School: Disregarding our name for a moment, No Film School is always interested in the experiences filmmakers had while attending film school. You received an MFA in Film Production from NYU's Tisch Asia. What was that experience like?

Atsuko Hirayanagi: I had always wanted to go to film school and yet always procrastinated against it. And then after I gave birth (long story short), I found myself wanting to be more honest, wanting to pursue the things I really wanted to pursue. I decided to apply to film school and I got into Tisch Asia with a full scholarship. It was then a no-brainer for me to go there, you know? I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and even if the school was across the ocean, my family would move with me, and we did. 

I had one of the best times of my life in film school, immersing myself in a little bubble with a small group of comrades. We were only doing filmmaking and were able to film in all of these interesting places in Asia; it’s probably the reason why I was able to film in Japan so easily. Everything was more accessible to us.

NFS: You moved there from Los Angeles? Was an interest in film production what brought you to L.A. originally?

Hirayanagi: Well, I had been interested in acting before attending film school. For some reason, when you're young, you just think of it as a challenge for yourself. And so I first got a degree in Theatre Arts, and as a four-year student, you pay a lot of money to attend a university in the United States. My parents supported me for that, and so I felt like I had to make my parents somehow think the investment was worth it. It's so hard to make it as an actor. And to be a Japanese person in Hollywood doesn't really help you either, you know?

"Tisch Asia doesn't even exist anymore and so I have this degree from New York University that doesn't say Tisch Asia on it. I feel kind of sad that it's gone."

NFS: What school did you attend for acting?

Hirayanagi: I went to San Francisco State University for Theatre Arts and received my Bachelor's degree in theatre. After that, I was a struggling actor in L.A. That's how I know what it's like to be an actor. The whole experience really helped me understand and work with actors—to not be intimidated by them—and to be a great collaborator.  

NFS: Did your film school experience lead to the creation of OH LUCY! the short?

Hirayanagi: Yes, the short was a thesis film for my MFA. It's funny because Tisch Asia doesn't even exist anymore and so I have this degree from New York University that doesn't say Tisch Asia on it. I feel kind of sad that it's gone. 

Anyways, that was my thesis project and the idea came from a “feature-writing” class in school. We had a specific activity where we had to come up with 75 ideas in three weeks, and so every day we were supposed to write down five ideas. The teacher would then tell us to, for example, write a story about a dinosaur, or write a musical, and on one particular day, the task was to write about "someone you know.” I wrote about five different people. 

A year later, it was time to write my thesis script and so I went back to my 75 ideas and, for whatever reason, that one particular subject spoke to me. I felt like I could write this. That’s where "OH LUCY!" came from. It was a feature idea, but it became a short, my thesis short. 

Atsuko Hirayanagi's 'OH LUCY!,' courtesy of Film Movement.

NFS: After the short had its strong festival run, was it always your intention to adapt it into a feature? 

Hirayanagi: I had two basic goals in mind, one of which was to have a feature script ready for when I graduated (at least like a draft or whatever) and to finish my thesis short. Because of this, I already have the script for the [OH LUCY!] feature by the time I had finished production on the [OH LUCY!] short. It wasn’t a case of me writing the feature version after the success of the short. I already had in my mind that I was going to make the feature version. But obviously, the success of the short helped a lot to get the feature off the ground faster than I initially thought. 

"When you witness a fight taking place and you’re not involved, it's funny, don't you think?"

NFS: While the film is often extremely funny, the humorous moments are either pre-or-proceeded by a moment of real pain. This is made clear from the beginning of the film where a man jumps off the subway platform and into an oncoming train (the high suicide rate among Japanese citizens does not go ignored here). It's a dark moment! When you’re making a film that has comedic moments, what’s the fine line between balancing this material with the more “serious” issues?

Hirayanagi: We often get too caught up in taking ourselves too seriously. When I see people doing that, I laugh. I always laugh at funerals for some reason. Partly it's due to nervousness, but partly it’s because we’re so caught up in trying to act a certain way, to be perceived a certain way, and to follow the social norms. We’re supposed to act a certain way, and yet we have these impulses and you can’t ignore your emotions. 

For example, if somebody farts at a funeral, it’s funny, but because of the pressure not to laugh at a funeral, we don't. But those things happen and I think we shouldn't take ourselves so seriously. What's wrong with laughing about it?  For me, there's always a funny moment [nearby] when we are being too serious. The moments that are funny are ones we tend to dismiss, but it lets you see life from a bird's eye view. We can pull back and ask, “why are we all taking our lives so seriously?” We all die anyway, you know?

NFS: For your film, did you find the humor to arrive organically out of the more serious moments? I’m reminded of the scene in which a karaoke retirement party for a beloved secretary goes sour thanks to Setsuko ’s hysterics.  

Hirayanagi: Oh yeah. When you witness a fight taking place and you’re not involved, it's funny, don't you think? [laughs] When you get caught up in your own emotions, you find yourself very serious and upset. When I’m looking at my kid getting so serious, so upset about such a small thing, I tend to laugh because they’re so cute and they’re so emotional. The humor in my film is kind of like that in a way.

Atsuko Hirayanagi's 'OH LUCY!,' courtesy of Film Movement.

NFS: While the first half of the film follows Setsuko's humdrum, emotionally-muted life in Japan (Tokyo), the second half in the United States (California) features a brighter visual texture. How did your team develop a visual strategy for shooting the two countries?

Hirayanagi: We consciously made Tokyo’s color palette more muted and more monotonic. It’s blue and gray, like the color of Tokyo in a way. That’s how it looks in the office scenes and for our exteriors of Tokyo. But when Setsuko goes to her English-language class, it's more saturated, a more vibrant red and pink, and we have all of these neon lights and stuff to contrast the dull tones of Setsuko’s everyday, routine life. 

When the characters arrive in the United States, however, it’s a funny thing, because it's not all “sunny skies” like we expect to see from Mika’s postcards. That was partially by accident and partially intentional: Even if you go to America and romanticize that everything is going to be perfect, problems will follow you if you don't first solve them within yourself. The visual style does change though, as we went with much more wider shots and a more visual openness for the scenes in the States. 

"I wanted to show how Japanese tourists tend to wear their imitation of a so-called 'American look', like jeans and plaid shirts, and stuff like that."

NFS: Once in Los Angeles, Setsuko and John act differently and look differently as well. Their clothes are brighter (Setsuko 's sweaters are a high contrast to what she wears in Japan and John’s hair is much more “model-like”), their features more defined. How did you work with your costume designer to note those subtle cultural difference through dress?   

Hirayanagi: Yeah, that was intentional. I wanted to show how Japanese tourists tend to wear their imitation of a so-called “American look”, like jeans and plaid shirts, and stuff like that. They tend to wear stuff that they wouldn’t normally wear [to blend into the United States].  

Josh Hartnett (who plays John)'s hairstyle was something he and I talked about too. We eliminated a character trait during the edit: the character is supposed to be a struggling actor in Los Angeles, and so he's trying to go for a semi-Justin Bieber-kind-of-look; it’s a look that all Hollywood actors have. That was the look we were going for, and yet we had to eliminate dialogue that indicated his profession so that we could make the cut faster and smoother. We had to eliminate that subtext.

NFS: And when he's in Tokyo, he's going for a more professorial vibe.

Hirayanagi: Yeah, with those glasses…That's his [character putting on an act]. He’s acting like a serious teacher. 

Atsuko Hirayanagi's 'OH LUCY!,' courtesy of Film Movement.

NFS: Having grown up in the era where this was a huge hit, the playing of Vanessa Carlton's A Thousand Miles as John sings along on the car radio served as a comical scene transition for me. Were there other American pop influences that sprung up for you while in production?

Hirayanagi: Oh definitely, and if we had the budget, you know, say three million dollars more…Honestly, we couldn't afford to get all of the nice music like one would hear in Ladybird. It was a different experience for us. For my next movie, I definitely want a lot of that music, but we could hardly afford to put the Vanessa Carlton song in our no-budget film!

NFS: Was that song something you always had in mind for the scene of them driving?

Hirayanagi: Definitely, and it’s so funny: “I’d walk a thousand miles if I could just see you.” It was just such a vulnerable moment to hear Josh singing, to feel smitten by him, to hear his voice as he sings and he becomes like….a high school girl. I thought that the Vanessa Carlton song was kind of perfect. Maybe it was a bit cheesy and on the nose!

NFS: Were there language barriers amongst the actors?

Hirayanagi: Luckily, most of them spoke English, more or less. Shinobu Terajima, who plays Setsuko, speaks a little bit of English, although her French is even better (her husband is French). And Kaho Minami [who plays Mika's mother, Ayako] can also speak English. She’s actually the wife of Ken Watanabe, and so she’s lived in the States and can speak English fluently. Shioli Kutsuna, who plays Mika, is fluent in English as she was born in Australia. Josh Hartnett probably didn’t know what the hell my Japanese crew was saying, but he only had one day of shooting in Tokyo, and so it was no problem. 

"Sometimes I felt like I was too polite and concerned about certain issues, but when you want something, you should just go for it and ask for forgiveness later."

NFS: Did you experience any challenges with the crew depending on the country you were shooting in?

Hirayanagi: Somewhat. My DP Paula Huidobro, for example, is a Mexican female cinematographer who’s based in Hollywood, and so she speaks English. However, she doesn't speak Japanese and so, on the set in Japan (she shot the Japan sequences too), she and I were speaking in English. I became a translator on set, and it was a little tiring for me on the Japanese set because I had to keep switching back-and-forth between Japanese and English. But then when we came to the States, it was no problem, as everything was in English.

NFS: Did you have to readjust in any way as you switched from a Japanese crew to a U.S. crew?

Hirayanagi: I don’t know. Both crews were great, but I think in Japan, they may have had a hard time understanding the way of shooting in the States, especially when it comes to coverage. People aren't used to that [there]. Our Japanese actors, for example, weren't used to coverage (in Japan, we don't do much of it). Terajima was especially getting tired of doing the same thing for so many takes, and so we usually kept it to one or two takes for her.

In her scenes with Josh, I would usually shoot Terajima first while Josh would be getting warmed up. Terajima couldn’t do the same emotional scene for too many takes, and so I’d usually shoot her first and then let her relax for the rest of the takes. When we were on Josh, I would tell Terajima, “you don't need to do your “full performance” because [the camera] is on Josh now.” I tried to accommodate the Japanese actors in moments like that. 

NFS: With your first feature completed and set for a theatrical run, is there anything you look back on and wish you had done differently? Do you have advice for first-time feature filmmakers?

Hirayanagi: Well, I think you could even be more ruthless. You should try to push for what you want! You should assert yourself to get what you want. Sometimes I felt like I was too polite and concerned about certain issues, but when you want something, you should go for it and ask for forgiveness later. That being said, it’s really hard to do that as first-time [filmmakers]… People treat you as a first-time newbie, and so it's really hard. But if you know what you want, you just have to go for it.      

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