John Jeffcoat's new feature film Big in Japan is funny because it's true. Kinda.
After muddling through an indifferent Seattle music scene, the band Tennis Pro makes a desperate attempt at stardom in Tokyo with the help of a grunge B-lister. That much of the story isn't debatable. But when Jeffcoat and a two-man crew traveled to Japan with Tennis Pro in 2012 and 2013, they blended fact and fiction, travelogue and concert film, to create a deeply sincere story about the lengths obsessed artists will go to pursue their art. Big in Japan is a modern-day fairy tale set to awesome music.
After making a splash this spring at SXSW, Big In Japan premieres in Seattle tonight as part of SIFF's programming at the Egyptian Theater. We talked with Jeffcoat as he rode the ferry to Seattle from his Vashon Island home.
City Arts: How did this thing come about? What's your relationship to Tennis Pro?
After Outsourced [Jeffcoat's first narrative feature], I spent some time adapting it to television with George Wang and it became an NBC TV series. In the process I was doing a lot of writing and not production, but I worked with Lynn Shelton on $5 Cover. I was shooting a lot of little documentaries about local bands, using a Canon 5D camera and I was excited about the way it works. I thought it would be fun to take this camera and crew size into the narrative world. I thought it would be fun to do a rock n' roll road movie. I met a producer on $5 Cover who suggested I talk to Tennis Pro; Phil [Peterson} was the lead singer and they'd been frustrated with the situation in Seattle and thought Japan might appreciate their brand of music, kinda poppy rock with punk flavor
They were interested in going to Tokyo and thinking about documenting their time trying to get over there. At this point they were four or five albums deep and hadn’t really made it. When I met them I wasn’t interested in doing a documentary but rather an experimental feature, in that we could do some improv and mix it with scripted work and live footage and go over there and create a rock n' roll comedy. The band and I hit it off and decided to try a Kickstarter and we got the money, enough to get us all to Japan.
We went over there and shot for a couple weeks while the band played nine shows. And went from there to making the movie. It was two separate trips to Japan. The first we were doing casting, shooting live shows, doing location scouting and doing as many scenes as we could. I cut that into the teaser for the movie and we used that to bring in the financing for the second trip, which was fully scripted. And the final trip was two years later from the first trip. It was tricky but it all worked out.
Since we had no professional actors in the movie I wanted to keep things based in reality in a sense and not have the guys have to worry too much about serious acting. None of us had been to Japan before other than Alex [Vincent, former drummer of Green River who plays himself as the band's manager]. I didn’t wanna write as script about a place I'd never been to. That’s what led us to try improv. I knew a skeleton outline of how I wanted to explore band dynamics, situations I wanted to put them into. We had dinner at night and talked about experiences in Tokyo and about scenes we could shoot the next day. Life imitating art imitating life—and it continued like that for a long time.
When we came back I put the footage together and tried to figure out how to tie all these scenarios together and from there work on the storyline. Now that we'd been there it was easier to script movie. And I realized if I had a scripted scene the band would respond better. That was another reason to get a script together, as well as for investors. Without a script it was hard to get their attention. Once I showed them a script and showed them pieces we already shot it was easier to get them to fund the movie.
You get pretty deep into the minds and motivations of each of the characters. Do you have personal experience being in bands?
I've been in bands, I play guitar and also saxophone. I had a band in high school and in college I had a guy I that composed music with for my student films. I dabbled in bands when I first came to Seattle. When I started doing documentaries about the bands in $5 Cover it reminded me of my passion for music. I started playing more and got more involved as I picked up more friends who are musicians. When it came time to score my films and work with a composer, that was my chance to get back in the music scene again.
I knew what it's like to have that passion as well as experience first hand how band dynamics work. That’s something I was excited to explore in the movie. Another thing was balancing responsibility with passion. How far are you willing to go to follow your dreams and how irresponsible can you allow yourself to be pursuing those dreams? Phil has a family and kids but he still needs to be who he is and pursue music. It think that’s something a lot of people can relate to, balancing creative life with corporate life.
We showed this movie to a lot of musicians who really clicked with it, more so than people who have never been involved in music.
That sense of joyful resignation and general ambivalence felt very real, but having each character represent an archetype—married musician, musician with girlfriend, single musician—also pushed it into a kind of fairytale realm.
We took it into the more fiction realm. I didn't want it to be a mockumentary, I didn't wanna attempt Spinal Tap. I wanted to find something different from what I've seen before. If you watch Outsourced, I love taking people and throwing them into foreign environments. It provides a perfect backdrop. So having these small cameras to follow people into Tokyo, being the subways and parks and bars, stuff we wouldn't be able to do with a big crew—it was great to create this other character of Tokyo embracing this band.
Tokyo is huge. Was there a particular neighborhood you guys dug into?
We were all over but there was one area that we made our homebase, which was Shimokitazawa. That’s where most of the shows were and where we gravitated to.
Ah, right. And Phil's wife makes the comment about the neighborhood being bulldozed.
It's an inside-Tokyo comment but Shimokitazawa is like the old Fremont, the old artistic community that’s on the brink of being overrun with condos. After our first trip there Tennis Pro wrote that album Shimokitazawa is Dead. They were selling that t-shirt at one of the bars and it was a group trying to save the neighborhood and we bought one. We were wondering if we should bother explaining it in the movie but we let it go as an inside joke.
The other thing that was fun and exiting about this movie was that where Outsourced was tightly scripted with a bigger budget, but this thing was loosey-goosey anything goes. Let's just try it. I wanted to be sure to go on tangents. The editing is paced well enough that people weren’t gonna get bored. But so much of exploring a new culture is going on tangents, trying the ice cream hot dog. Even though this stuff didn’t help with the story it filled out the experience. It was fun to play with that but not in a way that would detract from the character or the movie.
Big in Japan premieres in Seattle tonight at 7 PM at the Egyptian Theater. Jeffcoat and the members of Tennis Pro will be in attendance. After the film Tennis Pro plays a live set at Chop Suey. Check out a clip below.