A conversation with John Jeffcoat

Film Forum program director Courtney Sheehan is back from Austin’s 2014 SXSW extravaganza, where she sat down at the festival with Seattle filmmaker John Jeffcoat to talk about his new film, Big in Japan, which features Seattle rock band Tennis Pro.

The cast and crew of BIG IN JAPAN take audience questions at South by Southwest 2014.

How did you meet the band and have the idea to make the film?

It started when I was shooting documentaries for MTV for 5 Dollar Cover. I was shooting one where they were filming in Phil Peterson’s basement. Phil plays bass and sings for Tennis Pro, so that’s how I first met him. But it was James Charles, who’s a producer on the show, who had spoken to Sean Lowry and the rest of the band about doing some kind of reality show. They had been thinking about going to Tokyo because they felt like their music might be appreciated over there, and they thought it would be fun to film their exploits.

I was not interested in doing a documentary or a reality show, I wanted to do something that was a rock ‘n’ roll road movie, a comedy. I met the band and we kinda hit it off. I wondered, “am I going to be able to work with these guys, are they people I can hang out with under a difficult situation?” and then, “do I like the music at all?” Luckily, they gave me all their albums, I listened to them and found a lot of music I really liked, and then we had a lot of fun together. We put together a Kickstarter campaign to go to Tokyo. We had two different trips; that first one was essentially to location scout, cast other bands, and try to figure out where we were gonna shoot and do some improvisation. We had a basic, raw bones idea of what the movie was gonna be. So we did all the live performance stuff, that was the first stage.

When did that start?
That was 2010.

And then you wrapped post…?
Recently, maybe 5 months ago. We just showed a digital print [for the world premiere at SXSW] that’s like, a week old. I hadn’t seen it when we premiered it, that was the first time I saw it!

What was the process like of putting together the crew in terms of working with people in Japan and in Seattle?

It all stemmed from my work on 5 Dollar Cover documentaries. It was all me: shooting, directing, editing, doing audio. Using the Canon 5D Mark II as my camera and using really fast lenses, because I didn’t have time to light. I was really impressed with the camera’s ability, and I met Ryan McMackin, and he became the second camera, then I shared cinematography credits with him.

From shooting those small little docs and thinking “the quality we’re getting is so great, what if we did this in a narrative format?” Maybe something a little more stylized, less of a documentary feel, even though I knew parts of it were going to feel sort of like a documentary. The idea was: how small can crew be without sacrificing production value? And that was part of the experiment with this whole project. I knew that was low budget, we needed to keep the budget down. Even more important was to have a small footprint in Tokyo.

When I shot my last film, Outsourced, in India, we were shooting 35mm and had a crew of 100 people at times, so when we tried to shoot in the street in Mumbai, we would be mobbed by gawkers, and it would just be really hectic trying to control things and stay small and stay natural. With this project, we had cameras that looked like still cameras, and we could just run into any street and start shooting. it was really freeing and really exciting to just kind of be able to go to Tokyo and shoot all over in the subways, in these basement bar clubs, and really push the limits of how dark a situation we could shoot in.

Speaking of Outsourced, another film that has a transnational story and focus, is that something that you’re intrinsically drawn to? Is it a coincidence that Big in Japan is also international in scope?
I love travel, and it’s definitely become a theme in the projects that i’m attracted toward creating. I’m happy to be pigeon-holed as a guy who makes international films, and I do have another project lined up with George Wing [co-writer of Outsourced), who's written a script, and it's going to take us to Central America and Vietnam, and is another travel movie. I think the opportunities now with the technology coming to where it is, there's the potential for bringing the audience to a really intimate experience in these countries, so it's an exciting time to be doing that kind of thing.

How has the process of making an international film changed since you did Outsourced?
When we were planning Outsourced it was crazy, because if I wanted to shoot in a local street we had to actually rebuild the street in a studio, and that was frustrating for me-so I didn't want that to happen with Big in Japan. Ryan and I had our cameras ready to use 24/7. We would basically go to the hotel and I said, "okay, we're gonna use this lens and that lens, and leave the other stuff here today." We'd choose our set for the day, and that's all we were allowed to use. What that did was force us to be creative, because we couldn't carry all our gear all the time. It was really just what we had on our backs. It allowed us to make decisions even quicker. Maybe not the perfect situation, but it helped us build a cool creative look to the film.

The film is a mixture of improvisation and scripted martial. How did you approach incorporating those two different elements?
It was a growing process as we learned to work with each other. Initially, I really wanted this film to be an experiment in production style and narrative creation, in the writing process. None of us had been to Japan, so the idea of writing the script before going to Japan just didn't seem right to me. The first trip was really about exploring the story and finding the nuggets that we liked, and sharing the experience of traveling there and being on the road. So we all got to be on the road before we wrote the script.
There are no actors in the film, they're all playing themselves or variations of themselves. Improvisation was tricky at times, because they'd never done it before. As we played around more, we found that when I did write a scene and they had that to play off, their performances were better, and so the more we realized that, the more I started writing.

By the time we went back the second time, we had a complete script that allowed us to be incredibly productive and structured in our attack, as opposed to the first trip which was very loose and very much letting Tokyo take us where it wanted to take us. There were literally days when something would happen to us ,and at dinner we'd talk about it and write a scene about it for the next day. Then we were with Alex [Vincent], who had spent a lot of time in Tokyo with bands and had a lot of stories of adventures. Some of the stories that Mans and Phil go on are directly inspired by things that Alex had witnessed.

So it slowly started from an improvised thing to a completely scripted film, by the end. As far as fiction vs reality: the band themselves were such unique characters (in that the drummer was a hair stylist, the bass player was a professional cellist and the guitarist was a professional blackjack player). We said, “let’s mine the stories that all of them have and they’re gonna be really rich characters.” It was easier for them to have all that experience to draw on, which made me more confident to direct them, as opposed to giving them a whole new character, and that seemed to work pretty well. So we cast Phil’s wife as his wife and Sean’s wife as his girlfriend and I wanted to have a single guy to explore what happens when you go on the road. We took a lot from reality, and the band themselves had been thinking about traveling to Japan and trying to break into the music industry.

After the first trip the band went back to do a tour, and then a month before they were gonna go there, was the huge earthquake and tsunami. Then they were up against, “what do we do, do we go? There’s all this fallout.” They decided to go back, and there were still aftershocks happening, and the tone was very different. They came back with all these stories that we weaved into the movie.

So the two trips to Japan represent that balance of improv and script. . .
The first trip was boot camp for the guys to get used to acting. That first trip there was a lot of liquid courage, a lot of everyone getting wasted to relax. But by the end we built up a trust, so a lot of that wasn’t necessary by the second trip, when the guys realized they were much better actors sober than drunk. One night on the first trip, we were having a dinner and everyone was drinking and getting to know each other in this really cool dive restaurant. And Adam [Powers], who’d had a few beers, started doing this accent and going on these monologues, and had us in stitches we were laughing so hard, and that night we developed this character of this Mans guy whose completely lost his identity from all this traveling he’s done, this soul who in a sense is a wise man whose love for everyone is equal. People are like “is he gay, is he straight?” Mans just loves everyone. We built the character that night and the next day decided to do some improv on this bench at this temple and just see what happened. Ryan and I while we were shooting it were trying so hard to maintain our composure because it was so funny.
What about playing a character yourself?

That was another funny situation. It was almost like a fraternity hazing situation where we shot that whole scene with another actor from Japan. When we got it, it wasn’t what I’d hoped. When we were editing we had to make some more changes…and we did some overdubs with my voice in the edit suite. I think people just got used to hearing my voice and someone said why don’t you just do it? I was like ok, just to keep it in the family.

And Tennis Pro’s music has developed a fan base in Japan?
I got to curate their music and act as a manager in a sense and help promoting them and getting them out there. It was really neat to see. There are so many bands out there that are many albums deep but have never caught on. It was great to go through and make my Tennis Pro greatest hits and put them in this movie. Not only that but Phil, the bass player and one of the songwriters is this amazing cellist, so he was able to work with me on instrumental versions of their songs and little intros to help build out a really cool soundtrack that wasn’t all pop songs but had undertones of cello and orchestration of strings.
What were the origins of the animated music video in the film?

We knew we wanted to have a dream sequence. We wanted to explore a lot of different experiences that bands have and a musical story that I always remembered was that Paul McCartney would dream these songs, you know, “Yesterday” came to him a dream. And I thought, well, Phil has writer’s block and Mans is becoming his muse and it would be great if he had this breakthrough in this psychedelic dream. It all seemed to fit together and it was an opportunity to do something wacky.

I’d never done green screen before. Two of the companies I work with when I do corporate commercial stuff are the New Blank, who did our amazing titles sequence, and World Famous, who did the animations. I basically went to them with the concept and gave them the song. I’d already cut together a version of it with things that I pulled off the web and a few things that I’d shot. The animators watched the movie and came back with all kinds of elements integrated that referenced the movie. Our budget is pretty low and we could never afford what they did so I wanted to make sure they were doing something that excited them. So I said, “what kind of animation would you be excited about that you want to explore that would break you out of your day job?” It brought a really nice element to the movie.

My advice to any filmmaker is: if you need something that’s beyond your budget, go check out some of these bigger houses in town who might be feeling a little creatively stifled and try to bring them on, because you never know what people might be interested in doing.

Speaking of advice for independent filmmakers, for the Film Forum community and independent filmmakers in Seattle, anything you would say to them about how to balance commercial work in order to support your creative work? And can you talk about working in Seattle?
I’ve been here since ’94 and I was one of the founders of the Northwest Film Forum so I’ve watched it grow. When I was initially here, it was a really transient community. We made these movies and then a lot of people moved to LA; I was one of the few who stayed. It’s really me and Lynn [Shelton] and Megan [Griffiths] and there’s a handful of us who stuck around, but so many people we saw come and go.  It’s not until the past 4 or 5 years that people are really sticking around more and you can kind of feel the groundswell happening. It’s really nice to see that. I was kind of removed from the production world.

After Outsourced, I started doing development on this TV show of Outsourced, and was moved away from production and into writing. That was one reason why I wanted to do Big in Japan. It was a chance for me to get really down and dirty, and I wanted to go back and do something in a production style that was more like what I might’ve done in college, but knowing what I know now so that I could bring some production value to it. So that was kind of exciting, and the potential for people do that now is just amazing. With the mini DV came around, people were like “you can really make a movie for nothing.” And it was kinda true, but it still looked like crap. It wasn’t until the 5D came out and you could shoot with a 35mm sensor and lenses, and the wealth of lenses you could choose from really made me get excited about cinematography again.

I’d been a cinematographer for a while but sort of left it because there were so many DPs in Seattle. I moved on to editing, because I didn’t have to travel as much. But Big in Japan was really an opportunity for me to come back and explore and experiment with cinematography again, and that was really exciting. As far as young aspiring filmmakers coming to the community, it’s like, “if you’re living in Seattle you gotta support yourself.”  There’s  a lot of corporate work. I’ve lived off corporate, documentary work, commercial work, editing, DP, directing. What’s kept me afloat has been the ability to shift to all these different positions, although it’s wearing me out a little bit, and I’d like to be able to focus a little bit, but you have to be somewhat flexible. Especially now, everyone’s got their own editing systems, everyone’s got their own camera, people are expecting you to be able to come on board and do everything. That’s tough, and it means you might not be getting paid what you should be getting paid.

The thing is: there’s a lot you can do with very little these days. Try to balance out that corporate work with the creative work and don’t be afraid to. It is interesting though, because there do seem to be specific communities: there’s the indie film world, the commercial world, the corporate world, and there’s not necessarily a lot of cross over between them. I feel like I’m one of the few people who has jumped around a bit in those different worlds. I don’t have a choice, I have to support a family of four and I can’t go couch surfing in LA anymore, I have to have money coming in. A lot of time when you’re doing independent film it’s like doing a long vacation without pay. I’ve been lucky to find a couple of producers who keep me on their roster, so when I have time I give them a call and they set me up with work, whether it’s at Microsoft or a non-profit.

There are these kind of discrete sections of the industry in Seattle, but it does seem like so many people did come together in a really encouraging way around all the changes in the Mayor’s Office.
I think what James Keblas just started doing (and it was very prevalent that it was working) was kind of merge not only the different corporate, commercial, and independent film communities, but bringing music into it as well. I think that was brilliant, and his ability to do that really helped ground and base the film and music community in Seattle, and I hope it continues to be that way, because I think that’s what’s necessary to keep Seattle as a growing industry. And the fact that we need a TV show based here. Films are great, but they only last a couple months, and they’re gone. We need something that’s ongoing.

Got anything in mind?
I do, I have a few things. Something that George [Wing] and I are working on. I’ve taken some time off and now I’m ready to keep in the game. I’ve never been a TV watcher, but when George and I got the job to create a pilot for a major network, we both immediately went to Netflix and Hulu and started watching pilots, because we don’t watch TV, so we didn’t know what was out there. And what I discovered was some pretty amazing TV, like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones. It got me excited about exploring that more. I found that TV was way more lucrative than film as well.

What’s next for the life of the film?
Next we’ll be going to Sarasota Film Festival and then hopefully to Seattle soon. We’ve sent it out to tons of festival and I hope we’ll see the film and the band come to Seattle very soon.

John Jeffcoat is the founder of Strangelife Productions, a Seattle based film and video production company. Since graduating from Denison University in 1994, John Jeffcoat has worked in the film industry as a writer, director, producer, cinematographer, and editor. After years of working on commercials and industrials, Jeffcoat co-wrote the feature film Outsourced with George Wing (50 First Dates), loosely based on Jeffcoat’s travels in Nepal and India. Jeffcoat went on to direct Outsourced, winning numerous awards including the 2007 Golden Space Needle Award for Best Film at the Seattle International Film Festival, the John Schlesinger Award for Outstanding First Feature at the Palm Springs International Film Festival as well as critical praise from the New York Times, Variety, Roger Ebert and a host of others. While Outsourced continued its US release, Jeffcoat and Wing sold a pitch NBC to adapt the film for a half-hour comedy show. Outsourced (TV) premiered on NBC Thursday night after The Office and ran a full season. Jeffcoat is a co-creator and consulting producer on the series and co-writer of the pilot episode. Jeffcoat is now writing a new script and developing other projects with Wing.

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