Pepe Serna in "Man From Reno"

When Dave Boyle was growing up, he started a detective agency with a friend. An avid reader of Encyclopedia Brown, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, he began to pick up Dashiell Hammett well before he could fully comprehend “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Glass Key,” so it was no surprise that with similar gusto, he began offering his services for 25 cents, eventually solving the case of the graffiti on the wall of his neighbor’s house.

“The other kid that I was doing it with got caught sneaking into somebody’s house and was looking at someone in the shower or something,” Boyle laughs now about his short career as a private investigator. “So I learned early on, although I had a fascination with detective stuff, I didn’t really have a talent for it.”

Thankfully, for Boyle and the rest of us, the writer/director found his métier in filmmaking instead, crafting delicate and often melancholy comedies out of stories of men trying to trying to find their proper fit in the world or the moment they get a nudge when they become too comfortable in malaise. Beginning with his directorial debut “Big Dreams Little Tokyo” about an American and Japanese-American who take off to Tokyo with the hopes of pursuing their goals of being a businessman and sumo wrestler, respectively, through his collaboration with musician Goh Nakamura on a pair of romantic comedies following the troubadour’s misadventures on the road – “Daylight Savings” and “Surrogate Valentine” – Boyle has brought a deft touch to these loose-limbed endeavors, clearly crafting them with care. So it is only with some surprise that he has dramatically changed directions with his latest, “Man from Reno,” a potboiler set in San Francisco that may be quite unsettling because of the pervasive uncertainty that’s in the air for its characters but exudes a confidence from a filmmaker who clearly knows what he’s doing.

As it turns out, even if Boyle wouldn’t make a super sleuth, he is damn good at constructing a mystery, setting up the parallel stories of Aki (Ayako Fujitani), a famous Japanese author whose “Inspector Takabe” series has brought her to the Bay Area as part of a book tour, and Sheriff Paul Del Moral (Pepe Serna), who is looking into finding out the identity of a man he accidentally hit on the road. Eventually, the two are brought together by an enigmatic stranger named Akira (Kazuki Kitamura), whose disappearance leads them down a dangerous path to find out who he really is before the other parties looking for him find them. With appropriately crisp, chilly cinematography by Richard Wong and a sumptuous classical score with a distinctly contemporary bent from Micah Dahl, the film has the feel of a good old fashioned thriller while offering something refreshing and new, recasting such a familiar face as longtime character actor Serna in a rare leading role and serving up one tantalizing clue off the beaten path after another to add up to something you enjoy never quite being able to figure out.

Although Boyle wisely doesn’t want to divulge too many of the film’s secrets, he was kind enough to sit down recently and answer a few questions about making “Man From Reno,” his attention to detail right down to Aki’s mystery novels, and doing something different.

Kazuki Kitamura in "Man From Reno"Was this something that had been in the back of your mind as a filmmaker?

Oh yeah. I don’t know why it took such a long time to get around to it, but something one day just clicked that I hadn’t yet made something in the genre that was my passion. To a certain extent, it was by design because I’m very pragmatic. I take the opportunities that are there and every film I’ve made thus far was an opportunity or a reaction to an opportunity, like I made “White on Rice” in 2009, and then “Surrogate Valentine” was a reaction to that. Then I reached the point where I could build something from the ground up, and I was like, why not a mystery?

Was doing something as classical as “Man From Reno” a reaction to your previous work, which was pretty loose-knit, at least in style? It seems like you could experiment there whereas this is very tightly constructed.

All those skills that I’ve learned through each of those experiments were invaluable when it came to “Man From Reno.” [I would think] Maybe I need to work on my character-building and something that’s really stripped down and see if I can keep a story really minimalistic but still make a compelling narrative. If I had jumped into something this complicated on my first movie, it just wouldn’t have worked.

There’s a wonderful recurring visual motif in the film that comes to mind – the door to Akira’s hotel room is often open just a crack, locked by a chain, so you can see the person standing outside. I couldn’t imagine you doing that on your first film.

Yeah, we talked about a lot about that doorway because there’s this whole motif about somebody showing up at your door and you don’t know who it is, which to me, is really scary when you’re not expecting anybody. What really excited me and is more what I wanted to explore was just having a narrative that has a lot of construction to it, a movie that’s a little bit of a puzzle in and of itself. The movies I rewatch over and over, whether it’s “Chinatown” or “L.A. Confidential,” all have this aspect of them where you can never quite remember how everything fits together. You may not pick it up on the first time, but the journey is fun and compelling enough that you want to revisit it. That’s the goal that I had when I made this movie.

You’ve said before that you wanted the film to operate on two parallel tracks – Aki in the city and Sherriff Paul Del Moral in the boonies – that would ultimately come together. Did you actually build those stories separate from one another at first?

No, from the very beginning there was always this idea of twin disappearances, then a body shows up and you’re not sure what the connection is between the two characters. In both cases, you have a Japanese guy who goes missing. I didn’t even want people to know if whether they were in the past or the present. I wanted there to be a great deal of uncertainty there and for the stories to converge in a magical way. Like in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” those two stories don’t connect until the very last scene and I didn’t want to go that far, but I wanted to let them live and breathe on their own and be very different stories, like her story could be more like a romantic comedy, like one of my other movies whereas his is like “Law and Order,” more procedural.

This is actually something I’ve felt I’ve picked up on in your other films, but it seemed particularly stark here – is there actually a tension between the city and the outskirts for you? Is it something you think about?

It is. I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, which is not a large city and I’ve lived all over the place — Sydney, Australia, New York City, seven years on and off in Provo, Utah, which isn’t tiny, but it has a small-town feel. I’ve always this weird tension when going back and forth and Richard Wong, my [director of photography] is always talking about how small towns scare him because he’s like “Anything could happen and nobody would know about it.” He was born and raised in San Francisco. I feel reasonably comfortable in either place, but there is something scary about both of them and that dichotomy has always interested me.

What was it like to work with Richard? He’s like the king of shooting in San Francisco, given his collaboration with Wayne Wang.

I had such a great time. We’ve worked together before in different capacities, but this is our first time [as director-cinematographer]. We had been talking about working together forever, but this one just really really made sense and he really made the movie happen. The reason that the movie feels like as big of a movie as it does is because of him. He’s got this amazing ability to file things down and keep the whole movie in his head all at once. He talked about design a lot and making sure the shots have a designed feel to them. We had to keep things simple because of necessity, but it was also part of the design. We didn’t try to over cover [scenes] and where ever possible we kept the scenes down to just one or two shots. I definitely learned a lot from working with him.

Let me ask about your other collaborators. Are you actually ever in the same room as your co-writers Joel Clark and Michael Lerman? I know at least Lerman is always traveling to different festivals as a programmer.

Mike actually wrote most of his scenes during Cannes in 2012 in his hotel room. Usually, it’s like a relay race. We each know who’s good at what kind of thing, so we get to a certain point [where it’s like], “Oh, give it to Joel, he’s the funny guy.” It’s all very pragmatic. Joel and I sometimes are in the room together, but very rarely, and Lerman’s so busy, he’s always working on it remotely.

Ayako Fujitani in "Man From Reno"Ayako’s actually a writer too – not on the film, of course, but a published author in real life, as she plays in the film. Was an influence in casting her to play Aki?

It was just one more point in her favor where it was like “Oh, she’s perfect for this.” She seems like a writer.  When you meet her, she doesn’t have that actorly exuberance or ruthlessness. She’s an observer. Her books are very very different from her character’s books, as you can probably imagine, but the way she internalizes things felt very appropriate to a writer.

Was it fun to have Pepe Serna in a lead role?

Oh yeah. That was a blast. You watch Pepe’s reel and you see him in movie after movie where he’s unrecognizable…well, he is recognizable, but always playing these over the top, colorful characters and that’s what I had him do in the two movies I’ve worked with him on. But I always had this feeling in the back of my mind that he has that gravitas and leading man ability to play the kind of roles that usually go to Robert Duvall or Tommy Lee Jones, so we talked a lot about that – that he doesn’t need to grab for that attention because he’s going to have it, just by virtue of being there. He really took to that like a duck to water. I had a great time watching him relax and settle into a full character from beginning to end. There’s something about the vulnerability [of the two characters] I felt like brought out the best in both Pepe and Ayako. I really felt as a director I was lucky to have them. They bailed me out at every corner.

Did you get to work with the cast a lot before shooting?

We did meet up a lot before we started shooting because from the beginning of the first draft to actually shooting, there was a year gap. But I had already cast them, so we got together pretty frequently and read through things and then I rewrite [the script]. We wrote the script in English and we had several great translators just do the whole script for everybody’s sake so they could have it all in Japanese, but both Ayako and Kazuki had a lot of influence over the Japanese dialogue and tweaking it so that it was a little less like a direct translation and had the right flow to it, but also keep that heightened film noir feel. When [Kazuki] came in, he and Ayako, the producers and I just sat in a hotel conference room for an entire day and went over their scenes and worked things out to try and make their Japanese scenes together have the same feel that they had on the page.

The books are quite ornately designed. Did you actually go as far as to figure out what was inside them as far as stories?

I did originally. The original draft of the script went a whole lot further with the whole meta “it’s happening in the book, it’s happening in real life’ thing, but it’s something got away from because it’s been done so often and very well in other cases. There was this thread originally were every one of the Inspector Takabe Books has a very bizarre death – [for example,] somebody is murdered and the murder weapon was an earring – and people are always criticizing Aki that it’s totally unrealistic, then in the movie, she ends up taking out the bad guy with an earring. It was one of those things that, in the writing process, eventually melted away. But the books are still there and I wanted to have the cover designs give people the idea that the books are not necessarily great literature, but they’re probably great fun.

Did you have an idea of the book covers before you even went into production?

I did. We talked to this artist in Japan who did all the Japanese covers and I sent him a visual description of what inspector Takabe was supposed to look like. We imagined him as a Poirot knock-off with a brushy mustache, umbrella and coat. The other idea was that every book takes place in a different city. The books are not on screen that long, but if you look at each one of them, the background is some famous city and then a cartoon detective. Mystery books in Japan often these cutesy covers, then the ones that make it over here and translated into English, the publishers market it as something extremely dark here.

Was it fun for you to come up with clues? I don’t want to give away the plot, but there are a bunch of random elements, like the sudden appearance of turtles, that really can throw an audience for a loop.

It’s both fun and torture in a way. When I started writing, I didn’t have the turtles. That came later. In fact, the script didn’t really snap into focus until I found a newspaper article about the MacGuffin that we used for the reader’s sake. From there, all of a sudden, a lot of the clues that I had thought about suddenly made sense. We had the idea of ‘What’s the creepiest thing you can find in somebody’s suitcase?’ That part of it is so much fun. It’s like doing Sudoku or a crossword puzzle.

You have a couple really great set pieces here, including this scene out at a mansion out in the middle of nowhere. How did you find that place?

It was actually my girlfriend Maya Hong, who was the casting director for the US side and she also ran the Kickstarter. Originally, we were going to shoot that whole scene in L.A. and the dying billionaire guy was gonna be in a greenhouse, going through this weird greenhouse therapy, so he’s basically just there in a robe and Del Moral’s sweating it out. But we got close to the date, and everything about that whole sequence just felt wrong to me. The guy I cast was a good actor, but I just felt like it wasn’t working. The location was just wrong. It just didn’t feel like the right kind of greenhouse, so the night before we were supposed to shoot that scene, I called everybody and said, “Let’s just cancel tomorrow.”

Nobody was really happy about it, but we canceled the day’s shooting and then Maya went to work trying to find a different location. I think she found that place on AirBnB. It was up in Petaluma where “American Graffiti” was shot, a winery that looked perfect for what we needed.  With our apologies, we let the original actor go, and then we found Derrick O’Connor, who happened to live up in the Bay Area and like Pepe, I had seen in dozens of movies. Fortunately, he was around and available to do it and I think he did it just to have a bit of fun and do something interesting, so we shot him out in a day and we wrapped.

The other thing that was weighing heavily on my mind was we have that whole opening scene with the driving through the fog and we had like a stunt team coming in, so we needed one more day of prep for all of that. We spent two days shooting that. One full day [where] we had to keep fogged up, then the next when we went out to Griffith Park and had a small team of fog guys keeping it fogged up when we shot the stunt. That was just nuts. Everybody was so tired. But all the crew really put everything they had into it. We wrapped at four in the morning and we had to get the park ranger to let us out the park. They were late, so there were 20 cars lined up trying to get home and we couldn’t wrap because we were just walking through Griffith Park.

Pepe Serna and Elisha Skorman in "Man From Reno"Since when you’re not directing, you’re primarily an editor, is it difficult to edit your own films?

It is. That’s why I usually don’t do it alone. This one, I was lucky. I had two other guys work on it with me — Sean Gillane and Yasu Inoue, one in San Francisco and one in New York. Believe it or not, this is the first time I’ve ever had this luxury, but we’d send the footage to Sean every night and then he’d cut it over night. The next day we didn’t just have dailies. We could watch the [full] scenes we did the day before. That was huge. With “White On Rice,” since that was shot on film, we didn’t even get dailies. We got all our dailies back at the end of the movie. [For “Man From Reno,”] we were able to see what was working and what needed an adjustment and here and there, we’d grab a few pick-up shots that were needed. As small as the movie was, it really is sprawling narrative-wise, so being able to keep oriented like that was just enormous.

Part of the bigness of this film is also its classical thriller score. Was that exciting to figure out?

It was. Micah Dahl did the score and he’s worked on almost all my movies. He even did the foley [sounds] for “Surrogate Valentine,” so he’d either work on the music or in assisting on the sound in some way and I’d always told him that we had to work together on a full score at some point. We always joked that this was like a perfect project because he’s actually from Reno.

That’s who the man from Reno is!

Yeah. And he did a great job in making sure the movie felt big, but ironically most of the score is just him. He invented this violin and took the body off and replaced it with a pan full of water, so that creates the kind of eerie violin sound that you hear in the movie. He built all kinds of weird stuff for it. My sister does the cello, so she came in and played on the score too.

So what’s it’s been like to take this on the road?

It’s been great. I love sitting down and watching the first 10 minutes of the movie with people and watching their reaction. It’s different from my other movies in that it’s a ride, so being able to share that roller coaster with people has been really fun.

There were legendary stories about Pepe taking the stage to rap in Austin at Fantastic Fest.

That was the highlight of the festival for many people. We’re doing the theatrical release [now] and it’s funny how many of the theatrical bookers know about the movie because they remember Pepe rapping at the Fantastic Fest contest. So that was great.

“Man From Reno” opens on March 27th in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Royal and Pasadena Playhouse 7, Philadelphia at the Roxy and New York at the Regal E-Walk 13 before expanding in the coming weeks. A full schedule of theaters and dates can be found here.