ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: Identity and authenticity in ‘Man from Reno’

Since making his foray into the filmmaking scene in 2006 with “Big Dreams Little Tokyo,” director Dave Boyle has featured and collaborated with a host of Asian American actors.

Boyle’s new film “A Man From Reno,” a Japanese crime novelist (Ayako Fujitani) and a small town sheriff are “lured into the same strange murder mystery in this idiosyncratic and engrossing neo-noir,” said the film’s Website. “Feeling lonely and vulnerable, she begins a romantic affair with a mysterious Japanese traveler from Reno (Kazuki Kitamura).”

Boyle, whose credits include writer and actor,  shared some insights on his creative process with the Nichi Bei Weekly.

Nichi Bei Weekly: You’re a director who is not of Asian descent, but you cast primarily Asian American and Asian people in your lead roles. That’s a pretty rare thing. There are many films that feature aspects of Asian culture prominently (martial arts, food, historical events, etc.) but don’t have Asian protagonists, (and others use Asia as a backdrop for a story about people who are not Asian). Your works are a sharp contrast and you work with and are a valued member of the Asian American arts community. How did that come to be? In particular, you have a strong relationship with Goh Nakamura and Rich Wong (and H.P. [Mendoza] maybe?). How did those relationships develop?
Dave Boyle: Although I didn’t always have the vocabulary to describe it, I think that cultural appropriation has made me uncomfortable as a viewer for a long time. My first film (“Big Dreams Little Tokyo”) was an attempt to satirize the entire “Dances with Wolves”/”Last Samurai” genre of a white guy entering another culture and beating them at their own game. But beyond that, there was no real game plan. My friendships and artistic collaborations with Goh, Rich and H.P. all came about because Chi-Hui Yang programmed one of my films at CAAMFest (at that time SFIAAFF) and we all became friends and colleagues over the years since.
 
NBW: “Man From Reno” is concerned with questions of identity and authenticity. In a way, these are themes that should resonate with writers who do any work that’s not strictly autobiographical. As someone who writes characters of Asian descent and nationality, do these themes have more specific resonance for you?
DB: Absolutely. While the movie is primarily meant as entertainment, I did want to include a rich subtext that would be fun for audience members to dissect. Identity is one of those themes that seems to organically emerge from almost any crime story, and we wanted to include some allegorical undercurrents about immigration and the American dream in our story. All that said, it’s primarily a fun mystery and all of that other stuff is only for the hard core multiple-time viewers!

NBW: In thinking about this interview, I looked up other interviews you did for this film. In one, you mentioned that, if you had attempted to do a thriller earlier in your career, it would not have been as good as “Man from Reno” turned out. What lessons did you take from your previous work in very different genres that you brought into this film? Are there any genres you’d want to tackle going forth that you feel like you’re not yet ready for (or are maybe just starting to be ready for)? Genre aside, are there any kinds of stories, themes, etc. that you’re itching to explore?
 DB: I think that strong storytelling requires confidence and discipline, both of which I had to learn on my earlier films. They are more in the mode of a “slice of life,” but I think that’s a chapter that’s pretty much closed for me. I feel like I need the strong engine of a plot to keep me away from my more self-destructive tendencies. I’ve been accused of putting too much plot in, but I’m not sure I agree with that analysis. The main thing I learned from my previous films is just how to identify the building blocks of a story — at least the building blocks that work for me. I know how to work with collaborators better and how to keep myself organized inside a much more complicated linear plot as opposed to my more episodic past films.

NBW: You mentioned David Lynch’s work and “Rosemary’s Baby” as influential for this film, are there other films or filmmakers that inspired you or informed your approach on this film?
DB: I think the work of John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The Asphalt Jungle”) was huge. He’s such a muscular, direct filmmaker and I really admire how confident his storytelling is. We tried to keep our visual approach as straightforward as an older movie like he might direct. Alan J. Pakula is another director I really admire. He is a master of creating atmosphere and at the same time imparting massive amounts of exposition and information!

NBW: I’m a big fan of Rich and Patrick (H.P.), as well as you. Because of that, I can kind of speculate on what you guys connected over, artistically. However, I’d still like to ask you a bit about what your commonalities and differences are in terms of your interests and sensibilities.
DB: I think our biggest commonality is our love of good filmmaking in a variety of genres. H.P. and Rich are both guys I look up to enormously — they are wizards of their craft. I learned a lot watching Rich direct on “Yes We’re Open” and then to work together again on “Man from Reno” was yet another masterclass. I think H.P.’s “I Am a Ghost” is one of the most interesting horror films of the last few years. Anyway, long story short there is a lot of mutual appreciation in our little group. They’ve both been very generous in helping me in so many ways — H.P. even moderated our Q&As at the (Sundance) Kabuki (Cinemas) on opening weekend!

NBW: What were the challenges managing an international co-production? What were the big affordances/advantages? What about working with actors who are not native English speakers?
DB: There are certainly differences in business practices and even in how a set is run that made for some nerve wracking times. But it honestly felt no different than the usual low budget indie — except for the massive amount of material we had to cover at an equally massive number of locations. The big plus was that we actually got to make the movie — this would not have happened without our partners in Japan and without the casting of superstar Kazuki Kitamura. The rough part is that the finished movie is now a foreign film in pretty much any territory it opens! But we’ve made something I’m proud of and it’s getting some traction in both the U.S. and Japan.
I speak Japanese decently well enough to direct in Japanese when necessary. Ayako is perfectly bilingual so we would just speak in English, but with some of the other actors I’d offer notes in Japanese. It didn’t seem to hinder us too much.

NBW: What’s next for you? I think you mentioned in another interview that your next film will be set in S.F. as well?
DB: I’m working on a couple of things and yes my next script is set in San Francisco. We’ll see if it works out that way in the end!

For more information about the film, including screenings, visit http://www.manfromrenomovie.com.

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