Lana Wilson didn’t bring a camera with her to meet Ittetsu Nemoto for the first time. It was the summer of 2013 and Wilson was winding down the promotional work on her previous documentary (with co-director Martha Shane), “After Tiller”, a bracingly intimate profile of the four remaining doctors who performed late-term abortions in the U.S. and the patients who overcome tremendous obstacles to see them, when she came across an article in the New Yorker about the Buddhist priest with a unique story, leaving behind a rebellious youth upon seeing a classified ad in the paper. His particular calling might actually be more unique, tending to a country where suicide has risen steadily and developing a unique exercise for those considering taking their own lives, known as “death simulations” to ward away such ideas by having them write down what they hold dearest and gradually whittle their list down to what’s more important. Taking inventory of her own life, albeit without the same concern for looming over her thoughts, Wilson was inspired to head to the Gifu prefecture where Nemoto has a temple, unsure of exactly where this adventure would take her.
“I just wanted to meet him and to see what was going on and to make sure I wanted to make a film on this, but I also wanted to make clear that I was in this for the long term, [that this] film would happen over time and really go deep into his life,” said Wilson. “I felt like the gesture of making a trip that far with no camera would show my commitment like nothing else would.”
Nemoto was won over by Wilson’s sensitivity, which continues to shine through in “The Departure,” an invigorating portrait of a man who increasingly finds himself subsumed by the grief of others he needs to take on in order to do his job. Still occasionally sneaking off to dance clubs at night and amused by the arrival of his active young son Teppei, Nemoto can find moments of respite amidst a sea of text messages and phone calls urging him for help, but his responsibilities are clearly wearing on him when Wilson does turn the camera on, observing the grace with which he handles extraordinarily delicate situations and balancing how much of himself he must give to his work and reserve to keep his own equilibrium. As with “After Tiller,” Wilson takes a harrowing subject and makes a film that soars, elegantly conveying human compassion at its finest — and in all its complications — while enabling audiences to engage with places and people so often neglected out of fear. Following a premiere earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, “The Departure” begins rolling out into theaters this week and Wilson was kind enough to reflect on how she can bring such challenging stories to the screen with great empathy, the mindmeld with her cinematographer Emily Topper that allowed for such a purity of vision and how she found an exciting workaround for dealing with the pesky necessity of backstory.
You’ve said you were inspired to meet Nemoto after reading an article about him in The New Yorker. Did you see a film immediately in his story?
I was so curious about him. I was curious about what he said to people who came to him for help and I wanted to know so much more. I wanted to be in the room with him as he had these life and death conversations. The other thing I realized is that the article mentioned he does retreats [with these] death simulations of people who come to him for help. That immediately made me think, “death simulation”? That could be something really cinematic. When I got there and got to know Nemoto more, I realized that doing something centered around this retreat called “The Departure” could be a really unique experience for the audience. It could give everyone a chance to play along with it as it happened [where] you’ll be left there in the dark, throwing away in their own minds these things in their life that were valuable to them and then sitting there looking at what’s left. I think thinking about death helps us remember what’s precious about our lives, so I was drawn immediately to it for that reason.
Had “After Tiller” been instructive in approaching such a sensitive subject?
Yeah, definitely. Actually the first time I went [to Japan], I showed [Nemoto] “After Tiller” to give him a sense of what the style of this film would be like and [that] I can film in these real sensitive situations [since] I’ve done it before. We can film with people who come to you for help in a way where they feel really comfortable. With “After Tiller,” I learned so much about setting the stage for the comfort [of] the subject you’re filming with. Like how can I make it as easy as possible for them to participate in this film? How can I be as unobtrusive as possible? I would meet people and express how fascinated I am by what they’re going through, but also that I would approach this in a really gentle, compassionate way and that there are so many people around the world struggling with the same things that they’re struggling with and that it can be really meaningful to share stories that you otherwise wouldn’t talk about, [even] with the people you’re closest to in your life, but designing a vehicle for them to share their stories that could reach other people grappling with the same questions. The same way that in “After Tiller” the patients at the abortion clinic who agreed to be in the film did so because they felt so alone with what they were going through, like it was a secret that they couldn’t talk about, [the subjects in “The Departure”] liked the idea of the film reaching people in similar [circumstances] and shining light on situations where it’s very easy to be judgmental about when you’re on the outside.
One of the most powerful elements of the film for me was to see Nemoto’s phone, where the text messages and calls — both asking for help and giving updates – were incredibly intimate and showed how much weight he had to carry all the time as people came to depend on him. Did you have access to that fairly early?
One thing that’s happened more recently is he tries to meet people in person before he’ll do e-mails and phone calls, but it’s still a huge part of his life and it took time [to gain his trust in that way]. We went there eight times almost over three years, and I wasn’t like immediately, “Let me film your cell phone!” [laughs] But anything we would do, I would explain why I wanted to film it, like I think [the cell phone] could help show what it feels like to be a person seeing stuff like this all the time. Of course, you can’t help but absorb some of that like a sponge. It weighs on you. You worry about [the people sending them]. In some ways, phone messages and e-mail messages are harder than in person because he can’t see them. He doesn’t know if he’s helped them. They’re far away and faceless, so that’s how I explained to him why we wanted to film that, so the audiences could get inside his head and feel what it was like to have this onslaught of need being directed at you and to feel like their lives were in your hands, to feel that responsibility for trying to save someone.
I understand Teppei was a bit of a surprise to both Nemoto and you as a presence in his life – how did that have an impact on filming?
When I met Nemoto, Teppei was six months old and he was this incredible new child who had upset the balance of Nemoto’s life in a lot of ways. He’d wanted for a long time to be a father, and when it happened, I think it pushed him to think about his life in a very different way. What the film captures really is his wrestling with how to be a father, and I could see the tension between his family life and his work life [at the start and how] Teppei was a symbol of why Nemoto should not want to live his life in the most intense way possible and burn out like a flame. But the idea to focus on Teppei as a symbol of life and what there could be if Nemoto could slow down a little and try to balance out his life a little more, that came from my cinematographer and my editor, both of whom have small sons of their own.
When we were shooting, my cinematographer would be drawn to film some of those amazing little tableaus with Teppei because she’s used to filming her son who’s exactly the same age. She’s drawn there and then my editor has one son also and he and I would talk all the time about what being a father means and these internal struggles you have. I’m not a parent, so I couldn’t understand that in the same way that my editor [David Teague] and my cinematographer [Emily Topper], the two biggest collaborators on the film, could and I think that’s where you see their experience as parents really expressed in him as a symbol for life. And one thing I could understand about it, something my editor said to me, is that it isn’t about being happy. Often, the most rewarding things in life, like having a kid, are hard. It’s annoying, it’s stressful. [laughs] The kids can throw tantrums. It’s not always like going to the club and partying – it’s not that kind of happiness. It’s a very different kind of happiness, but a kind that’s deeply rewarding in a way nothing else is.
When we were there filming, I wanted it to have a really clear intention in every shot, every composition and my cinematographer and I would look at the footage every single night and analyze it. It wasn’t just about capturing the stuff, it was about capturing it at the right scale, at the right height, framed in a particular way. I love international art cinema and part of my instincts of where to put the camera and how to frame the shot comes from the movies that I love – I’ve absorbed some elements of the visual style from Romanian directors, Scandinavian directors, many East Asian directors. Then part of it just came from my cinematographer and I analyzing footage every night and [asking ourselves] how does it make you feel when you’re watching this counseling scene and the camera’s here? How does it feel when we’re there?
It was a process. But by the end of shooting, we had such a refined language that I could watch the raw footage for hours and it was like my cinematographer and I became so mentally locked that watching her shoot was like reading my own mind. [laughs] She knows me so well now she knows what direction I would turn on a street. Seriously, one time her cell phone wasn’t working and she knew I went for a walk and she could guess which way I had turned and she just walked into this cafe and was like, “There you are.” [laughs] It was really amazing to have that deep of a bond with someone by the end of making the film.
With the structure of the film, my editor and I talked a lot about the dynamics and his idea was to have this quiet, quiet, quiet, LOUD, quiet, quiet, quiet, LOUD kind of structure, which was totally in keeping with the real rhythms of Nemoto’s life. I knew from the start, when I pitched this movie to people, everyone’s like “That’s really depressing.” But when you see [Nemoto] his life is not depressing. It’s full of joy and these vivid moments – even though he’s a suicide prevention counselor, he has the most beautiful, vibrant experiences as part of his everyday life too. So we wanted to structure the film in a way that for audiences, it was reflective of his life, but to make it an experience that audiences could really engage with where the worst parts of life are next to the best parts – that after the most difficult, painful counseling session, you’d have this light, beautiful, airy moment that’s just silent with Teppei.
You keep the film in the present, even when you bring in Nemoto’s past through him flipping through an old photo album. How did you figure out how to introduce his history in that way and when you do it, towards the end of the film?
[Nemoto] brought us those albums rather late in the shoot and at first, I wasn’t thinking this would be a conventional documentary with photos and everything explaining the backstory, but I thought, “Well, I should look at the photos.” And as soon as he brought out the albums, I thought they were extraordinary as objects because of the paper, the framing…the material that was there I loved and it has such a unique texture, so that’s why we decided to shoot them in that particular way. We weren’t scanning the photos. We were filming them in the book in the context of the pages.
But I also realized seeing those photos that I understood him in a way I hadn’t before, especially his relationship with his wife [Yukiko]. [SPOILERS]When you see her as a nurse in his hospital room after the motorcycle accident, and realize she is still his nurse, sometimes you’re saying, “Man, she’s with him still because there is something about his recklessness, the self-destructiveness that she was drawn to at the beginning.” Their relationship had always been a bit of a mystery to me, and when I saw those photos of them when they were younger, it filled in something for me that I hadn’t fully previously understood, so [I made the decision] “Okay, these photos have to be in here.” Seeing [Nemoto] with long hair, rock ’n’ rolling in Tokyo growing up is also such a contrast to who he is now, externally, anyway, that it was great to see. And then it was my editor’s idea to put them pretty late in the film, which works beautifully I think because you’re curious about him. You’re not given this information too early and the backstory thing is so hard because you don’t want to do too much of it. [Nemoto] has such a fascinating life you could read articles written about him to learn more and we wanted just the bare minimum or what you needed to understand the fundamental structure of his personality.
I was hoping to talk to you at Tribeca and I was told then you were having too much fun taking Nemoto around town. What was it like to premiere it in New York?
Oh my God. We went clubbing, obviously. [laughs] Having him here in New York at Tribeca was amazing. I wanted him to see the film for the first time in a cinema because I just think that’s the way to experience it on the big screen, in the dark with other people, so I did a private screening for him before the festival started, during which Teppei ran around screaming the whole time – any time he did something funny on screen, Teppei would laugh hysterically at his own antics. And Nemoto, I think, was a little worried about what would be in the film and what wouldn’t and he looked relieved when it was over and he saw what it was. He loved it. And Yukiko loved it even more. She watched it multiple times at Tribeca screenings and I think she really appreciated the storytelling, but mostly, it was seeing this side of this guy she had been with so long because she saw him in the counseling sessions in a way she hadn’t before. Also for Nemoto, the other good thing about having him here was he was forced to take a vacation. [laughs] His cell phone wouldn’t work here and he’d just would take Teppei around to playgrounds in New York City. It felt like a family vacation. They came here for eight days and it was like this wonderful, complete break from work with them counting taxis on the street and going to playgrounds. It was really special.