The intersection of film and theatre has always been interesting to me as both mediums have had major impacts on my own life. This is what initially drew me to Drive My Car, the new film written and directed by Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, adapted from Haruki Murakami’s short stories, “Men Without Women.”
Little did I know that I was in for one of the best films of the year, clocking in at a perfect 3 hours, managing to be both theatrical and cinematic in its exploration of character and themes.
I had the great pleasure of speaking with writer and director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi the day after the film won the Gotham Award for Best International Feature after already having a successful showing at Cannes, winning Best Screenplay. Since my interview, the film was also named Best Picture by the New York Film Critics Circle.
When did you first encounter the short stories, “Men Without Women,” and when did you know you wanted to adapt Drive My Car into a film?
Before it was compiled into the collection of short stories I encountered [Drive My Car] in a magazine in 2013. The reason I did was because an acquaintance of mine said it was something that I might be interested in, and that I should check out. Once I did, I really liked it. I was doing a performing workshop at the time, and this was something I actually introduced to my performers. I had them read the text. I showed them the text, and it actually involved a lot of themes that I had been thinking about or wanting to work on – performance being one of them. Another one, one that I actually use in a lot of my films, is the idea of conversations in cars.
However, at the time I was a very, very independent filmmaker so the thought of translating a short story into a film was fairly unreal to me at the time. It just didn’t seem something in the realm of possibility, but in the back of my mind I thought – at some point it’s something that I can do.
And then in 2018, when I made Asako I & II, in regard to the short story, one of my producers said – is that something that you might want to consider doing? And I thought it might be difficult, but if I were to do it, Drive My Car would be a viable option….and I actually had in mind the actor who ended up playing Kafuku, Hidetoshi Nishijima.
In the short story, everything takes place in the car. Did you ever think that you might set the entire film in the car, or did you know early on that you wanted to open it up? Also, did you use any elements from the other stories in the series for the film?
In terms of the actual short story itself, the source was only 40 pages, so any way you think about it, to make this into a 2 hour feature film would be difficult, so it was clear from the beginning that I would have to open things up and expand them if I was going to make a feature film.
For that purpose I would have to think about Kafuku’s life, meaning his past, his present and his future.I would really have to give a thorough consideration of those aspects.
When we were talking about his past, there was not that much in the original short story in terms of his relationship with his wife, his work, things like that. In terms of the future – the short story itself – my impression is that it ended rather abruptly. It didn’t really have a conclusion per say, so I thought that if I were going to make a film it would need to have some sort of proper ending which was not there in the source material.
However, Haruki Murakami’s world is quite unique, and I really felt that I couldn’t just do what I wanted with it. I had to be thoughtful in terms of that, so I looked to other short stories in the “Men Without Women” collection.
To further develop Kafuku’s past I looked to “Scheherazade.” This short story talked about a woman who would tell stories when she was having sex. This is an element I incorporated into the character of his wife. In terms of the future, I took those elements from a short story called “Kino.” Kafuku shares a characteristic that the main character in this story shares also. His wife was not faithful to him, and I thought that Kafuku should get to the place, to the psychological state that this main character from the short story “Kino” had been in.
Your approach to showing theatre in the film is quite cinematic. Could you talk about how you chose to portray theatre on film?
I think that when we talk about theatre within film there is the potential for this not to be depicted as well because there is a tendency when we talk about theatre for over performing or overacting, and in this case it really does not work when you make this conversion to film. This is something, for that reason, I chose to make (“Uncle Vanya”) a multilingual production in the film. I thought that would be a way to avoid that. The reason being is that the actors have to really give extra care to the actors amongst them. Their performances – they really have to look and listen to what the other actors are doing in order for their own performance to come to fruition, and I thought this would be a way to suppress the tendency for overacting or over performing.
Tell me about some of the supporting characters. The multilingual production, the sign language in particular, brought tears to my eyes. I thought that was an incredible addition and something I personally love to see in theatre. How did you go about creating and writing those characters?
This is something that the film production studios – it’s not something that they always want to focus on or put a lot of emphasis on – but this is something that you really need to create the world of the film. You need these supporting roles. The amount or the attention that you give to these roles really creates the essence of the film, but this is something that is not easy to do.
So for me, as much as I could, I tried to provide details for these supporting characters, details that wouldn’t necessarily show up in the film, but I had written down that I could share with the actors, that they would have this knowledge about their characters. And in terms of the rehearsals, I tried to spend as much time on the supporting characters as I did on the main characters.
Within the process of creating the performance, the play, within the film, this was very important, and within depicting this, I think all the characters, whether big or small, they thought that their importance was the same. It was important for me to create this kind of environment so that each person would understand their role, and this was really a source of strength for the film.
Drive My Car is Japan’s Official Entry for Best International Feature Film at the 94th Academy Awards and is currently in limited release in the U.S.
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