After a whirlwind tour of Japan with his band Tennis Pro, Sean Lowry was determined to return to his home of Seattle with some ink on his chest as a reminder of the experience he had.
“I thought that would be the greatest souvenir I could bring back,” says Lowry.
However, as it stands, the tattoo might have to settle for second place, though it’s recorded for posterity in what should be considered the first, “Big in Japan,” a rollicking comic romp through Tokyo which sees Lowry along with his bandmates David Drury and Phillip Peterson squeezing into the cramped quarters of seedy nightclubs to play and Korean brothels to rest as the band attempts to find a foreign fan following when their career stalls in the U.S.
While a little creative license may have been taken with the impetus to go abroad, given how infectious Tennis Pro’s brand of power pop is, the film uses the real-life band’s tour in the land of the Rising Sun to exploit all the comic possibilities of an American band discovering their quirks actually work for them in another country as they deal with all the quirks they begin to enjoy about Japanese culture, whether it’s discovering the pleasures of eating ice cream served in a hot dog bun or getting a bubble bath at a place called Soapland.
All of this was captured by a crew of just three, led by director John Jeffcoat, an ideal creative partner for the band after he previously traveled to India for the 2006 culture clash comedy “Outsourced,” and although resources may have been limited, there’s a level of exuberance that surges through “Big in Japan” that couldn’t possibly be bought. Shortly after the film’s premiere at SXSW, Jeffcoat, Lowry and Drury reflected on the run-and-gun production and all the freedom that came with it, as well as putting together the film’s eclectic and resonant soundtrack and the unusual road to making it.
David Drury: No, it was vice versa. As a band, we wanted to get to Japan and that sentiment in the movie [where it was like], Man, if we can just get over there, we can do it — that was real. We had done some peripheral work with an MTV series and I pitched a concept to a friend of ours for an unscripted reality show featuring Tennis Pro going to Japan and struggling. They really liked that but then at a certain point, MTV passed on it and they brought us together with John Jeffcoat. John was like, “Let’s make a movie,” and we were like, “Okay, if we must.”
What was the idea for the TV series?
Sean Lowry: When we first started, David was a professional card counter in real life, I’m a hairstylist and then Phil is a cellist. So wanted it to be this culture clash of going over [to Japan] cold, not knowing anyone and trying to network and fall in with the radio stations and other bands. In the meantime, I had done some performance art with my hair, like cutting on sidewalks and street performance stuff and there was the thought that maybe David could parlay his card counting into some money-winning gambling scenario and Phil could be busking with his cello, and we would sleep anywhere. When we played in CMJ Festival in New York, we slept in vacant churches and we’d sleep on a park bench if it comes to it, so the original concept was a desperate last-ditch chance at making the dream.
DD: Since we’d lived these experiences, we thought they were really funny.
SL: [The film] was a little crazy early on for a couple of reasons. We made two trips to Japan. The first was in 2010 and we did a Kickstarter campaign, and it was just three crew members, three band members and we were like, “Let’s go over there and we’ll start filming.” So we were off and running with no script and a lot of misdirection because we’re in a new country, not knowing where we should begin and then the fact that we were learning to act on the set and dreaming up scenes and trying to find the courage to say the lines. We were having a blast doing that, but it was probably a little bit difficult going in the early stages.
John Jeffcoat: It was a bit of a crazy ride, but it was a lot of fun, luckily. I don’t know that I’ll ever make a film quite this way again because the only way we were not irresponsible was because we kept the budget and the crew so small, we were able to take so many chances and experiment. If I had the crew that I had on “Outsourced,” it would be millions and millions of dollars over budget because of the chances we took. That was the idea of going into this. I’d just come from working on a television [show, an adaptation of “Outsourced”] and it was just this cycle of executives being fired and rehired, and then having to reword things. It was very frustrating creatively, and I just wanted to have a project that was going to be fun to make and fun for people to watch.
I was was inspired by everything from “Leningrad Cowboys Go America” to the Beatles’ movies, to “Repo Man,” something that was kind of a little bit different, carefree and fun and I wanted to really experiment. How small a crew could we have and realistically maintain a decent production value? That was our big challenge, as well as working with non-actors and creating that comfortable environment where these guys were going to trust me and to be vulnerable. A lot of times, they weren’t sure where I was going or how to develop that trust, but it was an adventure.
John, are you actually drawn to culture clash films or is it pure coincidence that again you find Americans in a foreign locale?
JJ: I’m definitely drawn to culture clash travel films, there’s no doubt. Any chance that I have to go to a country that haven’t been to before is exciting. I really love exploring and sharing my experience in other countries, and I think it makes for great content and conflict. Getting an entertaining story with a beautiful backdrop is not a bad thing. I also felt like we’ve been growing up with the idea that independent film will take place all in one house, or all in one little area, and it will be really talky. I wanted to do something that wasn’t like that. The next film that I’m planning on doing would draw back on that. My screenwriter from “Outsourced,” George Wing, wrote a script that takes place in Central America and Vietnam, and if I’m going to be pigeonholed as a director, I absolutely don’t mind being pigeonholed as sort of an international adventure comedy director. There are worse places to be.
Was there a language barrier in Japan?
DD: Much less than we expected. It was easy to have some kind of conversation with almost anybody.
SL: Some of my dear friends now speak barely any English and it’s just profound how you can have this connection to somebody. I guess drinking is the universal language for us, so it ended up working out.
As is music, I would guess, though performing in public must have been different.
SL: It was different, but it was predicated on the fact that the Japanese people are really wonderful. They really like Western music, they’re really comfortable with technology such as cameras, and they are performance artists themselves, so they have a curiosity and [an attitude that’s like], “We’ll take a look at anything that’s happening and give it a chance.”
DD: Also, Tokyo is a huge city like New York is, so there’s nothing that really shocks them and unlike New Yorkers, they tend to be a bit friendlier, so some of the curious will stop and not throw things at us.
This shoot sounds like quite the logistical challenge if it was spread out across a shoot in 2010 and another in 2012. What was the reasoning behind it?
JJ: Part of it was pie in the sky. We just had no idea whether it was going to work or not, and it was like, okay, if we can get the money from Kickstarter to do this first trip, we’ll see. Worst case scenario, we’ll end up with a concert movie. Best case scenario, we end up with what we intend to do, a rock ‘n’ roll road movie comedy.
Originally, the idea was improvisation, and there was a lot of liquid courage and none of us really knew each other that well. All of a sudden, we’re sharing rooms in these Korean brothels in Tokyo. It was pretty intense. Once we got past that, we all really started to form a rapport and we could play a little bit more with the drama and working in scenes. Everyone was real nervous at first, but we slowly worked up to it and by the time the second trip happened, the band had just realized that there was a comfort level where [it felt like] “I’m not going to drink today, let’s just see if we can do it.” I’d hand out scripts for the scenes that I’d written, and it just flowed much better. We found that we could actually get these dramatic moments, which allowed me to have a little bit more flexibility in the script. Since I was aware that I’m working with non-actors, I didn’t want to create a story that was going to fall flat because they couldn’t handle it. We slowly worked our way into scenes that were a little more serious and required a little bit more acting on their part. When we were shooting in Seattle, I tested some of that narrative, and that gave me a sense of where we could go and then base the rest off that.
But so much of the film were scenes based on incidents that maybe happened to us the next day, or something that happened to these guys earlier in their lives. It was about the dinner conversations at night, and everyone’s sharing stories, and so much of that worked its way in. And Ryan [McMackin, the cinematographer] and I had cameras on ourselves 24 hours a day, so if an ice cream truck pulled up, we could jump out and film the guys getting an ice cream hotdog, and then figure out how that would fit in the film.
It was really fun and freeing process that allowed us to play around, whereas with “Outsourced,” the script was so tight and interwoven. We had 30 days to shoot it, we had to get everything in that time, and we knew exactly what we needed to do. Here, Jannat [Gargi], and my wife Deryn [Williams], who was a co-producer in the film, also helped get us our schedule organized so that we could be as efficient as possible, but it was in Tokyo, we have nine live shows, we didn’t know what bands [would be around] and it just totally open, which was a little scary, but it was also really exciting. At times, it was very difficult because we just had so little time, and we were traveling by train and bus with all our gear on our back, so it was exhausting physically and intellectually.
Was it interesting to play a version of yourselves?
DD: It was a little tricky because I feel like my character is a bit of a disparity from who I am, but a lot of those feelings that I display were easy to produce on screen. Still, It felt weird because I got people to think I’m this grumpy jerk all the time, and maybe I am, I don’t know.
SL: A lot of the stuff that we were doing was so close to things that had happened to us or that we were actually experiencing while we were filming. The scene with Phil playing the cello on the street and all the things leading up to that was a very moving moment to be a part of live because it was happening live. It didn’t feel constructed, so it was easy to be in that moment to feel it.
How much of yourselves did you want to include in the film versus how much you wanted to make this fictionalized?
SL: Our dynamic in the band and our feelings about the band and what we’re experiencing, we wanted that to come through. There’s genuine frustration in our band and there’s been experiences that we’ve shared, so while we deliberately hit anything, as far as our personalities, that’s the real us coming through.We had a script that we stuck with a lot of the time, and a lot of the time we had to manufacture things that maybe we didn’t really feel.
DD: On the other side of it, it was John’s call to say and put his foot on the ground and say this is going to be a scripted movie, and I think that was the right call. A documentary about a band might get lost in the mix and maybe the same thing would happen to a reality show. But I think we got the balance just right with making a scripted thing that really kept close contact with all of the real working elements of the band.
Was it nice to let reality seep into the film?
JJ: It was great. One of my biggest regrets in “Outsourced” was not being able to go onto the streets in Mumbai and shoot a scene because our crew was too big and we’d attract too much attention. In Tokyo, we could go out, and people just thought we were tourists taking pictures of each other. Whenever we were stuck [wondering] “Where should we shoot the scene?” It was like, “Let’s go on the street,” because when you get on the street in Tokyo, the neon lights and the cars all just become part of the production value. We didn’t have gaffers or lighting set ups, so just finding some lighting on the street and putting the people there, we could create an atmosphere and vibe just would have been very difficult to try to create with a bigger crew. That was really exciting.
JJ: If we had any more than three people, the camaraderie that was created between our really tight unit would have been lost. I think the only way that Phil was willing to get naked and to be in his underwear as much as he was, and to get that kind of exposure emotionally was because we all became such good friends, and we’d lived through so much [together].
Did the band ever get in on the filming?
DD: Oh yeah. Our sound guy [Adam Powers] is Mans in the movie. He was borne out of the fact that the first time we went over there to shoot, he would speak to us in that voice and he would just say the ludicrous things. We’d just start laughing in between takes, so eventually we were John [said], “We have to make this Mans a character in the film,” so he wrote him into the script.
SL: Any time he’s on screen, either he’s like pushing the sound buttons before the scene starts or one of us is holding a boom mic, so yeah there was a lot of shared work.
Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting?
JJ: There were quite a few, but one of my most bizarre experiences was the Soapland scene where Phil gets the rubdown. The other guys, I think, felt a little bit left out, because all it was was me and Phil, Mans, Ryan, and then our fixer, who was somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing. It was coordinating these two women who turned out to be ex-Japanese porn stars, which we didn’t know at the time, and we had to get in there after the clients had left, so we had to shoot that scene from two in the morning till four. Then when we got there, we had to wait for the last guy in the building to leave, and it was taking awhile. It was really awkward hanging out in lobby of this Soapland place, with the pictures of the girls that worked there all along the ceiling, and then right across from these two women who don’t really speak any English.
Ryan and I were taken through a tour of these rooms, and they were all so awkward-looking. We didn’t know what they were going to look like until 2:30 in the morning, and then we finally got there and it was like, “Oh my god, how the hell are we going to do that?” We had two hours to do it. It was a pretty important scene to get right in a comedy, and we were so tired. The funniest moment was when we were trying to give directions to the two women who had to work with the guy, and one of them starts talking in Japanese, and the next thing you know, she brings the other girl down to her knees and starts like faking making out and rubbing all over her. Everyone’s jaw just dropped, like it was a lesbian action sequence all of a sudden. Our fixer turned bright red, she was so embarrassed. She says, “Do you want her to be sexy like a porn star? Or like a mother treats a baby?” I was like, “Like a mother treats a baby,” and almost everyone was gasping. It was pretty hysterical at the time.
One of my favorite things about the film is how the music of the band is so nicely complemented by the film’s classical score, which isn’t surprising given that Phil Peterson was involved in both. But what was it like as a filmmaker to use music this much in a movie?
JJ: I love it. I was in bands in high school and college and I scored some of my early films myself. I play guitar, and I used to play saxophone and when I started doing film, it was kind of like, “Do I want to do film or do I want to do music?” I basically decided film, and walked away from the music, but when it comes time to score the movie, it’s my chance to be in band again. I became the fourth member of Tennis Pro in the way, where I’d work with Phil on how to reconstruct their songs, or deconstruct their songs depending on the scenes. it was amazing to have so many albums [of Tennis Pro’s] to go through and pick all my favorite songs and the idea was really to take the fun party vibe of Tennis Pro music, and continue that into the movie. Of course, Phil being a cellist, and having that ability to weave that in as well, to counter [the band’s sound] in our more dramatic moments, as well as the happiness, blew me away because he could do everything from Japanese pop songs to an orchestral piece to a power pop ballad.
It was really fun to test his boundaries. I’d mention something, and in a couple of hours, he’d give me a track — it was insane. I started feeling bad because he was so excited about the project, he’d drop everything and get me whatever I needed. One time I called him, and I was editing the Maid Bar scene, and I was thinking, “God, it would be really nice to have a Japanese pop song.” I sent him an email [just asking], “Do you think it’s possible? In the morning, I wake up and there was an mp3 attached to of this “Mue Mue Shaka Shaka” song, and I was like, “How the hell did you get a Japanese singer, there’s like Japanese vocals in this, how did you do that?” He’s like, “Oh, that’s Robyn, my wife,” who plays his wife in the movie.
DD: Phil did a lot of the music in there that’s just I think a lot of people wouldn’t recognize, like the scene with the dancing Elvises in the park where they’ve got their boom box, or some of the flash mob people dancing. He scored the whole thing, so he took some of our songs and put them in minor chords, so they’re sad. The song “Kimberly,” which is in the animated sequence, you’ll hear sad Kimberly on the strings throughout the movie. And then John has really strong opinions about music too, so John and Phil collaborated really closely on highlighting certain songs.
Did you actually become friends with the Japanese bands you play alongside in the film?
SL: Oh, yes. We’re still really good friends. Like the guys in the bar Big Time, we wandered in this kind of seedy, dark place one night because [we wondered] what are they playing? Tom Waits. We went down there and ended up getting to be very, very good friends with those guys and then the bands as well. There’s actually a lot of people over there right now that really want to see the movie so we’re hoping to get back and show it to them.
So you’ve already accomplished what you set out to.
SL: We’re hoping for some self-fulfilling prophecy.