Every year at the Cannes Film Festival there is a critics’ favorite. Last year, it was Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s Drive My Car, a loose adaptation of three stories from Haruki Murakami’s 2014 compendium Men Without Women, that stars Hidetoshi Nishijima as Yūsuke Kafuku, an actor and theater director dealing with a tragic loss. Two years after the death of his playwright wife, Kafuku is invited by a theater festival to stage a multi-language production of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima, where he is assigned the taciturn chauffeur Misaki and meets the dangerous young actor Takatsuki. Though it only left Cannes with an award for Best Screenplay, Drive My Car went on to be the arthouse bulldozer of 2021, leading to a surprise three nominations—for Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay—outside the expected Foreign Language Film nod. This interview took place shortly after Hamaguchi’s stint as juror at this year’s Berlinale…
DEADLINE: Where were you when you found about the Oscar nominations?
RYÛSUKE HAMAGUCHI: I was on my way to Berlin, and I was on the plane when things were being announced. I had no Wi-Fi there so I didn’t know what was going on in the news. It was when I arrived in Paris, where I was transiting, that I received many messages and I realized what had happened. I was very surprised about what I was reading.
DEADLINE: What inspired you to make a film from the short stories of Haruki Murakami?
HAMAGUCHI: It was actually the suggestion of my producer, and I think that’s a result of there being an interview with Haruki Murakami where he said, “I can give adaptation rights to some of my short stories, but it’s really difficult for me to give those rights for my longer novels.” I think that’s part of the reason why my producer suggested that we try to adapt a short story! But the story that the producer suggested didn’t appeal to me—I just didn’t have the confidence to be able to make it into an interesting film. But I did know of this other short story of his, Drive My Car. I often deal with conversations that happen in cars already in my work, and I’ve always been interested in the theme of performing and performance. I was also very drawn to the characters, so I suggested back to the producer that we try to adapt this story instead—and he accepted.
DEADLINE: Was Murakami involved in any way?
HAMAGUCHI: Other than the fact that we adapted his story, he really didn’t participate in the making of the film in any way. He didn’t really give any ideas or thoughts on the script either. Once he gave us the rights, I was able to work freely on the project.
DEADLINE: How long did that take?
HAMAGUCHI: It was more of a step-by-step process. I definitely skipped around a lot. I think the project really started when it was first suggested to me in 2018, and it was in March 2020 that we really started to shoot, so it was about a year and a half. But then the pandemic happened, and I also had to do some rewrites, and so I think, all in all, it was about two years for the full script to be done. But it doesn’t mean that I was writing for two years constantly. I was working here and there, and working with my producer.
DEADLINE: Kafuku’s red car really is a character in the movie. How did you come to choose it?
HAMAGUCHI: In the original story, the car is a yellow Saab 900, which is also a convertible. I figured the right thing to do was to try to use the same car, but, at the same time, I knew that it would be difficult to use a convertible, because the conversations that happen in cars are very important to this movie— without a roof, it meant that there would be wind noise that we would have to worry about, and it was very important to me to record the sound in sync. But we did see some yellow Saabs. In fact, we had a coordinator who was looking at these cars for us, and one day he came riding up in this red car. And as he was driving towards us, I remember thinking, “Oh, what a cool car.” And then I found out that this car was, in fact, a Saab 900—and it had a roof, so it was perfect. I also very much felt that the color red would pop more brightly within the landscape than yellow.
DEADLINE: How did you shoot the car scenes?
HAMAGUCHI: I decided early on that I wanted the car to be actually driving. It would have been perfectly possible to green-screen the background and have the car situated against that, and it’s possible to do that in a quite natural way with today’s technology. But I felt that to have the actors performing in a car that’s stationary would mean that there would be one more burden for them to have to think about, because they would have to pretend that the car was moving. And so, with those considerations, I decided that I wanted to have the car to drive, so there’d be less burden for the actors.
DEADLINE: Did that add any time to the shooting schedule, or was it like shooting a normal conversation scene in a cafe?
HAMAGUCHI: It’s very different. I think the biggest difference is that the setup takes a long time when you’re shooting with these cars. We had to connect the Saab 900 to a camera car, and that took an hour or two just to do that. To then light the scene took another hour or two. And so—especially with the night shoots—it meant that we were always fighting against time. It also meant that the actors had to maintain concentration for a really long time. Which I’m sure was difficult for them, but they really stood up to the task.
DEADLINE: What were you looking for in the actor you cast as Kafuku?
HAMAGUCHI: First and foremost, I was trying to find actors that were right for the script and right for the characters, and I was really trying to fit all the actors one piece at a time. But the second part that I was looking for is that the actors would have the ability to communicate: what I was really looking for was a sort of sincerity that I could feel from the actors themselves. I do think that sincerity is really important to acting and performing. The characters that are depicted in this film, at some point or other, they have a moment where they’re being very honest to themselves, and I think performing that honesty can be very hard. So, I felt that I needed to cast people who already had that quality, and so, I was choosing actors based on that as well.
DEADLINE: Were you a nervous about having a character in your film who was a director? Did you wonder if people might think you were expressing yourself through him?
HAMAGUCHI: I think to tell a story always means that, to some extent, one is revealing one’s self. For instance, the rehearsal style that Kafuku uses is similar to my own rehearsal style. But I think it’s true of all the characters in my story, especially if I’m writing the script—there’s a part of myself that’s in every character. I just can’t avoid that. But do I worry about the fact that it reveals myself? Not so much, because, at the same time, all of this is fiction, so I always have that way of escape: to be able to say that it’s fiction. But it also means that there’s always a way to also hide parts of myself within the story without people actually knowing. So, at end of the day, there’s something about me that’s in there, but that border of what’s actually myself and what’s not can’t really be known to anybody. In fact, sometimes I don’t really know myself, either.
DEADLINE: Is character of Takatsuki, the angry young actor, based on a real person?
HAMAGUCHI: It’s not based on anybody at all, and I really think that it’s important for me to say that. What this character is going through is quite normal for people in the Japanese entertainment industry, to some extent.
DEADLINE: How important is Chekhov’s play Uncle Vanya to the story of Drive My Car?
HAMAGUCHI: I do think that Uncle Vanya is very important to the film. First of all, it’s in the original story, although it maybe takes up less than a page, so I did expand on that. But through reading it, I realized that Haruki Murakami added Uncle Vanya quite intentionally: Uncle Vanya’s character really reflects Kafuku’s character, and I felt that by having Kafuku say Uncle Vanya’s lines, one could interpret that as actually what Kafuku is really thinking and feeling. Because both Uncle Vanya and Kafuku are people who are leading lives that they didn’t necessarily want for themselves. And I felt that, because Kafuku is a character who doesn’t say too much, having him say Uncle Vanya’s lines would give us the sense that we’re understanding him better. And there’s also a mirroring that is happening between the characters of Misaki and [Uncle Vanya’s niece] Sonya as well, because Misaki starts to learn Sonya’s lines. This mirroring between Vanya and Sonya and Kafuku and Misaki, was already in the original, but I definitely expanded upon that, and I felt that, through this expansion, the original story came out to be better. In some ways I almost see Uncle Vanya as sort of the B-side of the original story.
DEADLINE: One of the actors in Kafuku’s staging of Uncle Vanya is played by Korea’s Park Yu-rim, whose character uses sign language. How did that idea come about?
HAMAGUCHI: There was a time in my life where I became very interested in sign language, and that was when I was invited to a deaf film festival, where everybody there was signing to each other and I was probably the only one there who wasn’t. In that experience, I realized just how beautiful of a physical language sign language is. It wasn’t a language of disability, it was this very beautiful language of its own. And so, in thinking about doing a multi-language play, I knew that I wanted to use sign language as one of the languages. We had auditions in Korea and we put out a call for people who could sign. Park Yu-rim actually didn’t know how to sign when she auditioned, but when we asked her to audition, what we asked her to do was just fake the sign language during the audition—just try it out. But when she did, the expressiveness that she showed in her performance was something that was beyond anything that we had seen. It really made us believe in her, even though what she was doing was fake sign language at that time. But after we offered her the role she found herself a coach and really trained very hard to practice the language. And I think she brought about something wonderful.
DEADLINE: Speaking of which, is it true that Tōko Miura, who plays Misaki the driver, wasn’t actually able to drive when you gave her the part?
HAMAGUCHI: Yes, that’s true, she didn’t have a driver’s license when I first met her. I first came across her when I was casting for Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, my other film [of 2021]. During that, we had about an hour-long conversation, and I really felt that she was just brimming with intelligence and incredibly sincere as a person. At that time, Drive My Car was already in the works, and it was like the moment when I found the red Saab: I felt that in meeting Tōko Miura, I had found my Misaki, and I knew that I really wanted to cast her for the role. During that conversation, I also found out that she didn’t know how to drive, so I went to my producer immediately and said, “Please offer her the role—and then ask her to get a driver’s license.”
DEADLINE: Can she drive now?
HAMAGUCHI: Yes. She’s a very good driver now.
DEADLINE: It’s amazing that you made these two films—Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car—back to back. How do you balance these things in your mind?
HAMAGUCHI: Well, I finished shooting my previous film, Asako I & II, in 2017, and so to think that I made these films in the span of three to four years is actually not so incredible. But for me, Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy and Drive My Car are very related to each other. To me, to make [a film with three short stories] was a preparation to making a feature film. Drive My Car was on a scale that I had never experienced before, so I wanted to try out certain things beforehand. I think you’ll find that the three stories in Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy share some themes with Drive My Car, for example—there’s driving scenes that happen at night, there’s also these sexual conversations. All these things are very much related to Drive My Car. And so, in a sense, it wasn’t a super-difficult task to be working on both of these projects at the same time. I didn’t necessarily feel that my head was all over the place. That all said, even though I did say that Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy was a preparation, I do want to say that, in fact, we had a much longer rehearsal period with that film than maybe we did with Drive My Car, and I think that has resulted in wonderful performances. It’s a much smaller budget film, but I’m not so surprised when I hear people saying that they like it more than Drive My Car.
DEADLINE: You shot some of Drive My Car during lockdown, and yet there’s no mention of it until a scene at the very end. Why did you choose to suddenly bring it in?
HAMAGUCHI: Really, the only issue was that we had to decide whether we were going to shoot that final scene with masks or without masks, and I knew that that decision would change the meaning of the film to some extent. But I also felt that it would be a good way to show that time had passed within the setting of the film. The theater festival happens in 2019, and so I felt that by showing the pandemic at the end, you could see that time has passed. The character Misaki has a scar on her cheek that disappears in the final scene, but I didn’t want to make that necessarily super-obvious. But I did feel that, by bringing in the pandemic, it would express that we are now in a completely different world. To be honest, it really just comes down to something as simple as that. But at the same time, we were filming this film under the pandemic, and yet the setting of the film was showing that the pandemic wasn’t happening. There was this discomfort for us in pretending, and so by having this last scene, we were trying to let go of that.
DEADLINE: You have quite a few films under your belt now. Do you think there are themes you return to?
HAMAGUCHI: Yes, I think there are themes that I keep returning to. And when I do return to them, I think there’s a part of me that thinks that I could deal with this theme better than I did the last time. But I think, fundamentally speaking, the biggest theme that really comes to mind is that I’m always very much interested in what moves people.
DEADLINE: And when did you realize that this film might be moving people?
HAMAGUCHI: Probably during the preview screenings. I received a lot of strong reactions there. I definitely had a strong sense after we had finished shooting, but [the previews] really confirmed to me that this was actually being conveyed through the film itself. In terms of what happened later, I think it really comes down to people reacting to the actors’ performances in the film. I think audiences know, to some extent, how difficult it must be to try to physicalize these characters from a Haruki Murakami novel, because the characters that appear in his world are quite a little bit different from the kinds of characters that you see in reality. And yet, within this film, these actors are able to present these characters as if they truly exist. And it’s been great to be able to see that their performances are being seen across borders.
DEADLINE: Were you surprised that the Academy responded so strongly to your direction and your writing, as well as Drive My Car being a major foreign film candidate?
HAMAGUCHI: First of all, I was very surprised to learn this. But I think I was also surprising myself as I was writing the script, because I had this sensation that I was writing something I had never written before. I know this might sound like I’m pandering to him, but I do really think that, if there’s anything I have learned, it’s the fact that the strength of Haruki Murakami’s writing is universal. Of course, the film is not exactly the same as the novel, but I definitely was trying to depict something that could live within Haruki Murakami’s worldview. I was really trying to achieve something that his novels achieved, and I think that led me to try harder with the script, and led me to be better with my directing, and I think that was the same for the performers as well. I think that knowing that we were working with Haruki Murakami’s story gave us the power to draw out something better from all of us. But I can’t do something the same thing twice, so I need to learn to be able to bring that something out of me, in my own way, from moving forward.
DEADLINE: What’s next? Are you going to take some time off?
HAMAGUCHI: I’m just grateful to be so busy. I’ve never interacted with my own film for so long after it’s released as I am right now. It’s a very precious experience. In terms of what’s next, I’m not entirely sure. There are very small projects that have started to happen, but at the same time, I have no idea what kind of work I’m going to connect to next.
DEADLINE: You seem to enjoy a sense of mystery, and you often leave things open-ended…
HAMAGUCHI: Yes, I am definitely interested in mysteries. In English, people also refer to detective stories as mysteries, and I am actually interested in shooting a mystery or suspense film one day—I’m really interested in that genre, the detective story. But what I always find about mystery genres is that they always need to be resolved, and that always ends up being quite boring. I do still want to try it one day, but I’m really still trying to figure out how to work with that.
DEADLINE: How are you dealing with awards season?
HAMAGUCHI: If there’s anything that I’m really trying to deal with, it’s that I’m really trying to get used to the situation I’m in right now. I never really thought that I would connect in this way with places like Hollywood, this world that always felt much bigger than me. Of course, I watched Hollywood films, but I never thought I’d ever be physically a part of it in this way. So, I’m very honored by the situation, and I’m really trying hard to enjoy it.