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Japanese story - Toni Collette, Gotaro Tsunashima, Matthew Dyktynski, Sue Brooks

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Movie propaganda

Sandy (Toni Collette) wants to go places. Fast. And she does, but not exactly the places she intended. She's a geologist and she's started a software company with Baird (Matthew Dyktynski). It takes a long time to develop software and they need a sale. Hiromitsu (Gotaro Tsunashima) just might be it. But Baird decides at the last minute he can't go. Sandy will have to be the one to show Hiromitsu around. There's only one catch. Hiromitsu wants to see quite a lot and a lot of it is a long way away.

Hiromitsu has his own reasons for being in Australia. He's happy to talk to them but first he wants to go on a field trip to the steel works and the Pilbara ore fields. It's not Sandy's idea of fun. And that's just for starters. Hiromitsu turns out to be rude, uncommunicative and quintessentially sexist - as far as Sandy is concerned. Hiromitsu is not too pleased with Sandy either. She is loud, rude and aggressive, the typically unattractive Western woman - as far as he's concerned. He insists that she drive him out to an abandoned iron ore mine. They head off into the Australian desert down little more than a dirt track. Inevitably, they get bogged. They are stranded in the desert in a potentially life or death situation. No two-way radio. Miles from anywhere. And no-one knows where they are.

As they journey further and further into the desert, they leave more and more of what they know behind. Sandy is entirely off the map of her own known world. She is forced to face things she has never contemplated before. The familiar map of her own universe is no longer adequate. Against the background of the elemental Australian landscape, so much space and so few people, Sandy and Hiromitsu play out a story of human inconsequence in the face of the blistering universe.

Persons of interest

  • Toni Collette .... Sandy Edwards
  • Gotaro Tsunashima .... 'Tachibana Hiromitsu
  • Matthew Dyktynski .... Billy Baird
  • Lynette Curran .... Mum
  • Yumiko Tanaka .... Yukiko
  • Kate Atkinson .... Jackie
  • John Howard .... Richards
  • Bill Young .... Jimmy Smithers
  • George Shevtsov .... James
  • Justine Clarke .... Jane
  • Alison Tilson .... Screenwriter
  • Sue Brooks .... Director

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Intelligence analyst

Special Agent Matti

Theatrical report

Girl meets boy. Girl hates boy. Boy hates girl. Girl and boy go through life-altering experience. Girl gets boy. Boy dies. Girl lives.

Anywhere else this would be a romantic tragedy. In Australia, it's a comedy. Ye gods, I love this sunburnt country.

Great soundtrack, too.

Security censorship classification

M (Adult themes, low level sex scene, low level coarse language)

Surveillance time

106 minutes (1:46 hours)

Not for public release in Australia before date

Film: 25 September 2003

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Production notes

In the beginning...

The encounter between Sandy, a geologist, and Hiromitsu, a Japanese businessman, might never have sprung to life but for a meeting several years ago in a Melbourne café.

Recalled writer Alison Tilson, "I met with Sharon Connolly from Film Australia who asked if I'd be interested in writing a script about a Japanese man and an Australian woman. Sharon had recently spent time working in Japan and was keen to have somebody explore the many tensions that such a relationship might ignite. It didn't seem right for me, so we just had a very nice lunch and chatted about the meaning of life and everything else. But as we were parting she said, 'Well, it's a pity you didn't want to write it because I just had this amazing vision of a Japanese guy driving alone through the desert. Just imagine - you'd be wondering why he was there and what he was doing!' I was so struck by this fabulous image that I changed my mind." And so began Japanese story.

Film Australia commissioned the initial two drafts, but along the way their charter changed, precluding them from making feature films.

By this stage producer Sue Maslin was on-board. Maslin, Brooks and Tilson first worked together in the late eighties and went on to make Road to Nhill (1997), an endearing comedy that universally won hearts and accolades.

By this stage Tilson had written several more drafts so an arrangement was negotiated whereby she and her associates, director Sue Brooks and producer Sue Maslin optioned the project, now known as Japanese story.

Throughout Japanese story several themes reverberate. "For me," noted Maslin, "surfaces, and what lies beneath them, is a key theme. The fact that Sandy is a geologist is intricately linked in a thematic sense to her story as she lives a life of surfaces. But through this adventure and the extreme landscape encircling her, she stops just looking and starts to really see. And it's interesting that it happens amidst that landscape because that very landscape is renowned for the richness of its depths. Even though you're surrounded by desert, you might be standing above a massive sub-artesian water basin, so there's always this incredible complexity just below the surface."

"It's bizarre," mused Brooks. "We walk across this earth without stopping to think what's underneath and the same applies to the people in this film. But really Sandy's no more closed than any one of us. We're all engrossed in our hectic lives and in filling those lives with activity and, to a degree, self-importance. We rarely take stock. But in the end, we're all just souls. There's a moment in Japanese story where Sandy and Hiromitsu are exposed, a moment where it's just them and the universe and that's the moment where they make a connection. But I think for most of us such a moment rarely happens because the daily grind is safer."

Added Tilson, "Initially neither Sandy nor Hiromitsu look beyond their cultural differences or outward personas to try and 'connect'. But of course the ultimate connection is the realisation that we're just part of a much larger world, and not the centre of the universe. Hopefully once we understand that we can interact on a deeper level.

Casting

"Sandy is like all of us. She lives her life as if she is immortal. She is busy. She is blind. She is sharp. Unsentimental. Ambitious. She is getting on with it. She doesn't waste time. She makes the most of every moment in her life. She is quick. Intelligent. Sharp as a tack. Capable. But she is not wise." - Extract from Sue Brooks' directing notes for Japanese story.

From the outset Oscar®-nominated actor Toni Collette was the first choice to play Sandy, but given her international profile and the subsequent number of scripts sent her way, securing her for the role seemed unlikely.

Maslin continued. "Normally you send a script and probably wouldn't hear anything for three weeks, phoning at least ten times in the process, until you're finally told that the actor has been sent the script - but then you may not hear for another couple of months... and on it goes. But in this instance - literally within a few days of that script leaving our hands - we received a call advising that Toni had read it and wanted to meet us, so Sue Brooks and I caught the next plane to Sydney. Generally, you'd expect to spend such a meeting pitching the story and explaining to the actor why they should be interested in the project but Toni spent the first hour telling us scene by scene what she loved about the script so we just sat and shut up! From that point we knew that in Toni we had an actor who understood both the script and the part and wanted to come on the journey with us - and that was a wonderful experience."

With a diverse slate of international roles to her credit, Collette was keen to play an Australian character and was attracted by the script's depth. "The story is very beautiful and real and subtle and kind of uncomfortable," she mused. "I found all of those elements stimulating.

Finding the right actor to portray Hiromitsu, the Japanese businessman who confronts destiny in an alien landscape, was, to quote Sue Brooks, "an extraordinary journey." All three filmmakers had been living with their own vision of Hiromitsu for several years and subsequently felt a strong connection to him.

"Hiromitsu has lost his capacity for joy," explained writer Tilson. "He's the kind of person who takes his responsibilities very seriously, but somewhere along the way he's foundered and probably comes to Australia because it's so different and, in the strangeness of a new place, hopes to rediscover something of himself."

"I think Hiromitsu is like most of us," observed Maslin. "His childlike innocence is simply that capacity to see and experience things that we can't in our everyday lives. He's made the decision to step outside the noise and routine of his life and to travel, ostensibly for business, but he's actually made a choice to take time out to assess what he's left behind. For his part it's probably not even a conscious decision, but it has a profound effect upon him."

"Personally I don't know and I don't want to know what Hiromitsu's searching for," reflected Brooks. "I quite like the fact that it's unclear. I think that when any of us are looking for something we only know many years later what it was that we might have been searching for. Maybe he has a good chance of finding it, maybe not. But I don't think that he knows what it is - so I certainly don't need to."

In the search for Hiromitsu, several trips to Japan ensued. "We watched so many films," reminisced Brooks, "we just pored over them. We had a casting agent in Japan who scrutinised their books and sent us tapes. After a while we had boxes of videos and eventually made a short list. But for a long time I was convinced that Hiromitsu should be played by somebody older as I was interested in the tension an age difference would offer - I felt it would provide an extra dramatic journey between Hiromitsu and Sandy. But then we met Gotaro Tsunashima and thought he was absolutely wonderful. He'd also been in Changi, which a friend of mine, Kate Woods, had directed. Kate said he was terrific so I felt extremely confident in his acting ability and also certain that he understood the role. But for a while part of me was still hanging onto this notion that he should be older. But eventually I decided, 'No, this is the right way to go.' Now I can't even imagine that I once thought he should have been older. Gotaro is the only actor I can see playing the part and I just think, 'Yeah he is Hiromitsu.'"

"In meeting Gotaro," added Maslin, "we also realised that he was a consummate professional. He had prepared enormously both for the meeting and the screen-test and understood Hiromitsu very, very quickly. In fact he spent time illuminating Hiromitsu's character and telling us how he might respond to particular situations. Alison had already done an immense amount of research and that research continued once Gotaro became involved, covering everything from presenting business cards, to how he might talk on the mobile phone to colleagues, to his reactions to the landscape itself. He's brought a richness to the character that has been a vital part of the process."

"I had a very clear picture of Hiromitsu," said Tilson, "and felt I knew him deeply through a whole series of things, many of which were only hinted at on the page. When we cast Gotaro I thought, 'he's not like Hiromitsu, but he's going to be fabulous.' But working with him, something extraordinary happened - a sort of magic that only good actors weave. When I saw the first rushes, there was the same Hiromitsu who had been in my head for years but who had, somewhere along the way, disappeared. Gotaro had brought him to life." In the course of the story, events lead Yukiko, wife of Hiromitsu, to visit Australia. Although both Yukiko's on-screen time and dialogue are minimal, her presence is not. "Yukiko is a person who sees much but says very little," observed Tilson, "whereas Sandy is the complete opposite. But by the time they meet, and particularly through their interaction, Sandy finally begins to see things around her, so their eventual exchange, although largely unspoken, is nonetheless incredibly powerful."

"We met with a number of Japanese actresses and were in awe of the serenity and composure that they displayed," remembered Maslin on the casting of Yukiko, whom we eventually cast, She brought a crucial quality to the role. It wasn't something she expressed verbally but through facial expression, gesture and sheer presence, and this enabled her to convey a depth of communication with Sandy in a non-verbal sense. We were very impressed." Renowned character actor Lynette Curran, who starred in the filmmaking trio's previous feature Road to Nhill, plays Sandy's pragmatic mother.

The on-screen relationship between Curran and Collette was given extra depth thanks to the rapport they developed when working on The boys. "Toni's such a Scorpio," laughed Curran. "She got such depth. When we met on The boys we hit it off immediately. We understand each other. And she's a dream to work with because emotionally she's right there, and if you're not she transports you and visa versa."

Matthew Dyktynski and Justine Clarke complete the principal cast - Clark as Sandy's best friend, Jane and Dyktynski as Baird, Sandy's business partner and frequent recipient of her ire. Dyktynski describes Baird as, "a man who has let the little nuts and bolts of life wear him down." Dyktynski and Collette also knew each other from their days at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).

Filming

"The Pilbara is one of the oldest places on our planet. You just feel that it's incredibly precious earth to be on and that you're very blessed to be there." - Sue Brooks (Director)

Within Japanese story there are three main characters, Sandy, Hiromitsu... and the Pilbara. "The Pilbara was an enormously ambitious undertaking," reflected Sue Brooks, "and occasionally we thought we'd bitten off more than we could chew. Initially we were advised to film in South Australia as it was considered more achievable. But, by then we'd fallen in love with the Pilbara - having visited four or five times - and knew all of the water holes, all of the mines and all of the roads."

A pivotal scene within Japanese story takes place alongside a water hole, so finding the right one was paramount. "It was hard work," recalled Brooks of their search. "We looked at all the water holes in Karijini and in Millstream. We visited Aboriginal elders and asked them to show us their special water holes and then traipsed all over their country and found one that we thought would be OK but not ideal. Then we were told about one that was supposedly fantastic but hard to access, but we headed off anyway - and it was perfect!

But the water hole saga was only part of a mammoth endeavour. "We literally drove thousands of kilometres," said Maslin, "searching for locations that could be accessed from a township as we could only film where there was an existing infrastructure that could support our travelling circus of sixty cast and crew. Even securing site permits was quite complex and ranged from obtaining permission to shoot at BHP's iron ore mine at Newman (the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere) to filming on land subject to native title claim. And when working with the Aboriginal community, Sue, Alison and I have a policy that despite what may have gone before it's still their land. So for us, their consent was essential. We spoke at length with the Nyamal people, who are just out of Port Hedland, and made several visits, usually dealing with their elder, Peter Coppin. The first day that I visited Peter was very hot. As he doesn't feel the heat, he was rugged up and didn't want to sit in the shade, so we sat in the sun and I was just dying, absolutely dying as this very long and involved conversation took place that ultimately led to his consent. But gaining his approval was a great, great privilege and once we completed filming, a number of the local Aboriginal community put on a corroboree under the stars for us which was just wonderful."

"As for BHP," continued Maslin, "I think they were slightly bemused when three middle-aged women rolled up one day and said, 'We'd like to make a feature film at your mine.' They're accustomed to corporate videos being shot on site but not full-length movies. Anyway, we visited a number of times and had a tremendous liaison person at BHP Newman, until it finally dawned upon them that we really were coming back with sixty people for a major location shoot. It took a while to co-ordinate and one of the biggest issues was safety because it is a working mine. The scale is absolutely extraordinary - it's a five and a half kilometres long, one and a half kilometres wide, hole in the ground - operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days of the year - with literally millions of dollars being processed every hour, so there was no way that we could interfere with that production. But eventually we brought our crew in and BHP even put on a spectacular blast for us.

BHP also consulted on the software that would be used by a geologist like Sandy and recommended the services of Perth-based company Maptech. Subsequently Maptech provided their software for use during filming and gave Toni Collette a crash course in its application. Melbourne geologist Doctor Jenny Baird (for whom 'Baird' was named) was also a technical advisor. In contrast to shooting amongst the glass towers of Perth's CBD for the city-based scenes, taking a largely urban crew to one of the hottest and dustiest parts of Australia took massive preparation... and guts. Dehydration, not helped by the bug-infested local water was also a potential hazard, so all crew were issued with a personalised, filtered water bottle. Director of Photography Ian Baker, renowned for lensing such films as It runs in the family, Six degrees of separation, The Russia house, Plenty and The chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, was drawn by the visual potential Japanese story afforded.

As Sandy finds herself Hiromitsu's unofficial chauffeur, much of the film's action takes place within their four-wheel drive - a challenge for production designer Paddy Reardon. "In some ways Japanese story is reminiscent of a road movie so we needed three vehicles to portray the 'hero' vehicle," explained Reardon.

Some eight weeks after principal photography commenced on 24 July, shooting concluded on 17 September 2002, finally allowing Brooks, Tilson and Maslin to reflect on their own not inconsiderable journey.

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