When Atsuko Hirayanagi got an assignment to write a script in graduate school based on someone that she knew, it was her natural impulse to write about a relative who she assumed others in her class might not know, and who she thought might not even necessarily know herself. This desire to avoid the obvious is laced throughout “Oh Lucy,” the mischievous feature script that emerged from the exercise as Hirayanagi and co-writer Boris Frumin fashion an unforgettable character with Setsuko (Shinobu Terajima), a Japanese office worker on the cusp of middle age who wonders what more life has to offer, after witnessing a suicide attempt on her way to work one morning and seeing a colleague fear impending retirement when her job seems dispiriting enough already.
Opportunity knocks in an unusual way when her niece Mika pleads with her to use up the remaining hours that she’s paid for with an English teacher named John (Josh Hartnett), but learns that the reason Mika can’t use the classes herself is because she’s off to America, much to the chagrin of her mother Ayako (Kaho Minami) who has an equally strained relationship with Setsuko. After being rechristened as Lucy by John in order to feel more comfortable speaking English, Setsuko is emboldened to take advantage of her unused vacation days with Ayako reluctantly in tow to find Mika somewhere in Southern California, using the opportunity of being enmeshed in another culture to get a better sense of herself apart from the only society she knows.
In charting Setsuko’s self-discovery, Hirayanagi arrives with distinctive sensibilities that are fully formed, crafting a funny yet ennui-filled multigenerational portrait of women fighting against the roles the culture has set out for them and deftly maneuvers a cross-continental shoot where the observations of America are as sharp as in her native Japan. As the film rolls out in the U.S. following Spirit Award nominations for its star Terajima and for Best First Feature, Hirayanagi shared how she convened an international shoot on a tight schedule, why she considered it easier to make a feature than a short and how working with actors helped shape the final product.
Since I understand you wrote the feature before the short, did the reaction to the short change your ideas about the feature at all?
The draft became a little different, but basically the spine of it is exactly the same as the first draft, and the reaction didn’t change the course of the feature. When I was writing the feature, I had another feature script in mind about this office lady, a temp worker in Japan who traveled to the Grand Canyon alone and [went] missing and then was found dead at the bottom of a fault in the Grand Canyon. I was writing the Oh Lucy! short [at the time] and somehow I wanted to combine these idea together because I felt similarities between this Oh Lucy! office lady and this woman who kind of tried to escape to America to feel free in nature. That’s why after the short, I wanted [Setsuko] to go to America to seek out who she is or what this Lucy means to her.
Was it difficult to set up a cross-continental shoot?
It was hard for me to be away from [my] kids, but in terms of actual filmmaking, we mixed it in Singapore and Japan and America during the short already, so it wasn’t so much of a stretch of us. When the short won Sundance in 2015, I was approached by my current agent, and she sent the feature script to Jessica Elbaum [at Gary Sanchez Productions] and that’s how it started. She really loved the script and wanted to get involved in the film, and then Will Ferrell and Adam McKay came along because wanted get involved in this film and support a first-time filmmaker.
You’ve said Shinobu was your only choice to play Setsuko – after the short, once she owned the character to some degree, did you make adjustments to the character, realizing what she was capable of?
I really respect what the actors bring on set and what she brought is who she is and that’s why she’s great. She became the character and the character became her and what she brought became different than if Lucy probably [had been] if she played by someone else or [if it was strictly] based on the script itself. I believe that there’s always this metamorphosis in filmmaking, when you have inspiration to write about someone and then you write it and that’s already no longer that person anymore – your experience and comes into the script. And then when the actors play, their experience in life comes through the character and then it becomes another character. When you’re editing and you see the bigger picture, it becomes the final Lucy.
He was a great collaborator. He dug deep into the character, and he asked me so many questions that made me think a lot about the character, which gave the character more layers and depth. [The idea] that he’s actually a struggling actor in Hollywood, that was [alluded to] in the dialogue, but that’s also another layer [that Hartnett brought], so we could make it part of the background.
It looked like you used a lot of real locations and this film expresses a lot emotionally through the colors you use in the scenery. What it was to scout places with that in mind?
We couldn’t afford to build a set, so that’s why we had to find the right locations. In Japan especially, we cannot recreate the entire office like that, so it took awhile to find the right office and we also had a hard time finding the [train] platform [for the first scene in the film], that suicide scene, because in Japan no station would allow us to shoot that scene. They don’t want to be associated with anything to do with suicide, so we actually ended up shooting at a monorail station. But we did consciously make a [distinction] between subdued and monotonous muted color in office world versus the underworld of nightlife – Lucy’s world. Then there’s the wide open space in Los Angeles and different color palette changes, but certain things like neon lights [create] some subtext, like from the world of English class to the tattoos on her.
There’s a great overhead shot you use as she’s standing in front of the building she takes her first English class at night and the exact same shot takes one a different meaning when arrives to find out John’s no longer around to teach. How did that bird’s eye view come about?
It was actually the cinematographer’s idea also. We were always looking around for different angle, location scouting [saying] “Let’s [go to] the top and then see how it looks.” And it looks interesting and at the same time you use it for that to locate where [the characters] are. We needed that kind of shot for [the characters to] locate themselves and then [serve the story like], “Oh yeah, she’s coming back to English school.”
It was surprising how it wasn’t as crazy or as hard as I thought it was going to be because I realized shorts with really no budget that you make in film school are way crazier. Those films prepped me to do this. I felt a little spoiled even to have someone find a location for me, you know? [laughs] I don’t have to worry about that, it’s not my problem.
I do worry about it, but then like the stress level is so different, when you’re not the one looking for that key location until midnight of the day before the shoot. That was my case for the shorts. I was always under stress. Everything [on the feature] was like we are running out of time, on our toes, and then one-two takes and then move on – and we were so proud of ourselves that we are able to finish everything on the shot list. That [last] scene [between Shinobu and Koji] was a one-take wonder. We have to do it because we didn’t have time to dry the clothes and do it again. But compared to when you’re doing multiple things and you [have to find] the location the day of, I’m so grateful with to phenomenal crews from Japan and U.S. to make it easier.
“Oh Lucy!” is now playing in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7, San Diego at the Ken Cinema, Washington DC at the E Street Cinema and Boston at the Landmark Kendall Square. A full schedule of cities and dates is here.