Lost in Translation: Making Movies with “The Duddy Kravitz of Tokyo”

It all started with a voice mail message left by a then-unknown cell phone caller on my phone at home.

It sounded something like this: “Hurro…Rod…this is Haru. (Long pause…) Please call me at 333-…” After that, my ability to decipher went downhill faster than the ratings of a CBC television comedy.

It turns out Haru is a guy who normally lives in Tokyo where he directs segments for an independent television production company (or as near as I could glean from his explanation on the phone). Turns out I have a camera he likes to use. Turns out I said he could use it. Turns out his message was the start of the closest thing I’ve done to real film making in a long time.

Haru is a skinny short guy. Well, shorter than I, and that’s pretty short. He sports a Fu-Manchu moustache with a soul patch. He told me he decided to come to Canada to produce some dramatic films and learn some English.

Enterprising fellow that he is, last year about this time, he got a one-year work permit. Haru came over to Vancouver and shot two short films … in English. And he wrote the scripts himself. Then he went to Calgary and shot another film, same approach.

So a 28-year-old Japanese guy comes to Canada with one camera, a very small budget and an English vocabulary slightly larger than Jean Chrétien’s. That’s what I call chutzpah. I asked him why he came to Canada to shoot, when he could have stayed in the country of Kurosawa and saved a bundle on plane fares. “Vancouver is like Hollywood North,” he said. “And,” he added, “I wanted to learn more English.” To which I had no response. But Haru is like the Duddy Kravitz of Tokyo. And people like me find it hard to say “no” to well-meaning ambition.

The next thing I know I’m standing out near Marsh Lake in a windstorm with a bunch of people I barely know, tripping over cords, up to my tookus in snow, and waiting, waiting, waiting while the shots get set up and we translate the dialogue in Haru’s script into an English that doesn’t sound like something that was cribbed from the instruction manual for a Korean power drill.

I learned some things about filmmaking while working with Haru. First, before you get frills such as a camera or a microphone or friends who will work for free, invest in a quality cell phone. I thought they were just for those stressed-out urbanites you see when you get out at the regional gate at Vancouver International. “But nooooo,” as Steve Martin so aptly put it. You can use them for all sorts of things. Your spouse can call you on the cell phone to remind you that you haven’t been home from the shoot in almost two days and if you don’t come home tonight, you will no longer be considered “a spouse”. You can use it to find the crew if you fall asleep somewhere and they just up and leave you. (Which I have, most vehemently, never done.) Go ahead, make my day. Phone the director. He/she will be particularly pleased to hear from you if they’re in the middle of a shot. And I once again must protesteth too much: I do not know this from experience.

And, when you’re making a film, there’s apparently always somebody to be picked up at the airport. And they are coming in on flights you probably never knew existed. At weird hours of the night. From countries you’ve never visited. Like Switzerland. And if you don’t have crucial skills such as focusing a camera or acting, it’s probably you who will be picking up those visitors.

Rod’s new rules of film and money: a) There’s good money to be made in film. That is, there’s good money to be made in film if you’re so rich that you need a tax write-off. b) There’s good money to be made in film…just not in this country. c) Film and money go together like the birds and the bees. Or more precisely, film and spending money go together like the birds and the bees.

I also learned that somewhere in the world, at all times, there is somebody throwing a hissy fit on a film shoot about some petty aspect of that production. You think about all those movies being made in Hollywood. All the ones being made in Bollywood. All those Japanese ones with monsters that crush cities. All those Canadian ones about darkness and weird sex and car crashes. And bus crashes. (And those are the comedies.) Yup, if you sum total all the known movies currently in production, somebody somewhere in this wide, cruel world is throwing a hissy fit at this very moment about some actor’s line, or some camera angle, or some payment being late. And somewhere some cinematographer is practising the pull focus on a great shot, and some screenwriter is revising the dialogue that will slay the critics of a great nation, and some actor is hitting the line just right.

One of these days, Haru will call back: “Herro…Rod. It’s Haru…(rest of message still less than fully decipherable)” and he’s going to have another idea, and a stilted script, but this time he’ll have Tokyo money to spend. And he’s going to put our scenery and our people and our stories in every theatre in Japan. And this time we’ll be getting paid to help rewrite the script the 47th time while our cameras and our fingers and our brains are freezing up out there on the set that God built — the Yukon landscape.

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