Phil Burgers in "The Passage"

L.A. Film Fest ’18 Interview: Kitao Sakurai on Making a Meal Out of “The Passage”

You don’t know where Phil (Phil Burgers), the silent hero of “The Passage,” is going to land, especially after he’s the last one remaining on a small prop jet that even the pilot abandons at the start of Kitao Sakurai’s surreal short. As it turns out, he ends up in Los Angeles, a relief beyond preserving his own well-being since he appreciates a good burrito, but Phil is never in one part of the city for too long, finding himself in a Korean spa and the home of an African family as he’s being chased by a pair of men for unspecified reasons. While his identity remains largely shrouded in mystery, the cultural specificity allows something truly beautiful to blossom in Sakurai’s reinvention of the silent film where no English is spoken, but a cacophony of foreign languages and Phil’s willingness to try new things blends into a city symphony to get lost in, allowing for one memorable experience after another.

Naturally, “The Passage” has been a hit at the places it’s traveled in recent months, premiering earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and winning the Grand Jury Prize at the Nashville Film Festival, Best Comedy and the Aspen Shortsfest and just this week Best Short at Fantastic Fest in Austin. With the film finally coming home to the City of Angels as part of the L.A. Film Festival, Sakurai spoke about how his experience as the in-house director for “The Eric Andre Show” on Adult Swim made him an ideal partner to team with the irreverent comedian Burgers, deciding to film aboard a real airplane 10,000 feet above the ground and finding cultural collisions that make for perfect harmony.

Phil Burgers in "The Passage"What was it like working with Phil and is it a different thing to build something around a comic sensibility or a person as opposed to a narrative?

That’s what I love doing most of all. Phil and Eric [Andre] are super different people in the way they work, but they’re both singular voices and have idiosyncratic perspectives on comedy and life. And what I gain satisfaction out of as a filmmaker is to be able to work with somebody who might not be able to be understood by everybody, but there’s some kind of special symbiosis or collaboration that happens that can bring about something that is much larger than some of the parts. I think no matter who I work with in this comedy or idiosyncratic creator/performer space, what I really try and do is listen to that performer and sense what that person needs to crack into a new space or a different plane of creative expression. That’s the space I try and hold for people like that, to push the project into a different realm.

Working with Phil, what I tried to push for was a certain cinematic quality I hadn’t seen so much in his work before, but that I knew was there. That’s reductive, but [there’s something] Phil is always trying to psychically say with his work that you get from the live shows that he does, but I don’t think [the film work has] completely fully realized, almost like a dream state [where] that was the logic in pushing the filmmaking so hard and being very rigorous about the kind of aesthetic considerations and how we went about it as opposed to just trying to make jokes.

When you and Phil first talk, did he have a pretty specific idea in mind of what the journey of this character would be or was there room to figure this out?

There was room to figure it out. Phil came with images, bits and pieces and little stories and little kinds of things. One of the things that was kept from Phil’s original ideas was Chad and Juzo, who are the people that [chase] after Phil. That idea that hooked us and had this throughline, but the thrust of what we were after came from development and the rehearsal process.

Were the locations in mind from the start?

All the ideas that we came up with, place is always a huge part of it as well as the people that populate those spaces. That’s how we thought about everything — in terms of where it’s happening and the vibe and energy around that place. Phil as a performer is not saying anything, so he really has to use the space around him in dynamic ways, [leaving us with] this spiritual goal of differentiating the spaces and traversing this bewildering maze of space after space, which is something that I’m really drawn to in my own work. This idea of this labyrinth space, whether it’s metaphorical or not, was a touchstone, but the joy is seeing this character traversing these different spaces and we really spent a lot of time and energy really nailing each location and having each location sing on its own before any action happened in there.

Was finding all these international actors a challenge on a production of this size?

That’s the beautiful thing about L.A. is there were actually a lot of people to draw from of all sorts of different backgrounds and cultures and skill-sets. The film isn’t exactly a love letter to L.A. in the sense that other films are, but certainly the feeling of L.A. was very deep within us, [that it’s] such a melting pot of so many cultures. And the theme of “The Passage” was that we weren’t just trying to be clear cut like, “This is a Korean spa and this is an African household.” We were interested when cultures come together in a new way and there’s new combinations and new arrangements and new gray areas that form when cultural pockets collide. Those cultural gray areas and liminal spaces are what Phil is traversing through as well. [Music] was also inspiring and some of what you hear in “The Passage” is what we were listening to as we were writing and rehearsing [because music] is transcendent and exists beyond the context of language. You hear good music and it moves people and it unites you and having that power to bring people together is something that we wanted to bring to the film as well.

Phil Burgers in "The Passage"Very little is known about Phil’s character, but it becomes evident he loves burritos. How did that detail come in?

We were always interested in using food, [because] as with music, it’s something that is so universal. When you see somebody hungry or enjoying food, there’s something so deeply connective about that – to life, to other people, to community. We [also] used soup as this metaphor for when people accept you or welcome you [because] there’s something about soup that’s very grounded and comforting and speaks of family and home and acceptance, or at least those are the connotations that Phil and I have. I think burritos are just comedic intrinsically and that’s the last thing you expect to happen in that [opening] scene [on a helicopter] and I love also the specificity of bringing the hot sauce, which is an L.A. thing. I love food. I don’t think we talk enough about it in life, and I think if we did, things would be better.

Agreed. Since this will be going out into the world as a short, but it was envisioned as a series – did that affect how defined you wanted it to be?

That’s a tricky question [because] we were trying to thread the needle between something that could keep on going, but also something that existed as just a singular statement in and of itself. Super Deluxe wonderfully gave us the platform to be able to really let us explore to the 110th percentile what we were trying to say, and I don’t think we exactly knew what it was as we were heading into it. As we were producing it, rehearsing it and prepping it, it became this thing that had its own logic, which is the quality that all good projects take on where it feels like it’s something that’s larger than you. Obviously, we didn’t want to close the story at the end in terms of never being able to tell one of these again, but it was important for us to make a singular statement, and the approach was to let it be what it wants to be and just try and be in service of whatever it wanted to be. Pretty early on, it took on its own very strong voice.

Was there a particularly crazy day of shooting on this?

The craziest had to be the airplane day. I’ve never been skydiving before. Neither had Phil. And the opening scene of “The Passage,” we actually shot it for real, which is what gives it that special quality. This airplane scene came out of rehearsal and Phil just came in one day and said, “I had this dream or some kind of inspiration about all these people jumping out of this airplane and speaking different languages.” To me, it evoked this sort of Tower of Babel and this mythic comedy feel. It really resonated with me and we kept on talking about that and we were like, “Okay, how are we going to do this? Is it greenscreen or a backdrop?” And one day I was like, “We need to do this for real. Just go up in an airplane with all these skydivers who speak five different languages and just do it all in one handheld take on an airplane. We’ll strap Phil in and make sure that we’ll get skydivers who can actually speak Russian and Tagalog and German and just do it.”

We did three takes of that. The first take of that didn’t work out well because Phil and I were just terrified – we had never done anything like that, just sitting right beside the doors open [in the sky] and you suddenly see the expanse of the globe beneath you and they’re jumping out of the plane. Your physical instinct is just, “Oh my God,” so we had to get that take out of the way. Then the second take is the one you see in the movie. It’s all one take and we had to rig the control specially so that there was a secret pilot flying the plane, so the person you see coming out of the pilot’s cockpit is not the actual pilot, but a stunt performer. It [ended up being] so fun. It was so a way of working that I just love [where you’re] working really hard and diligently to set up all these actors who are inspiring and then just letting the fun happen as opposed to trying to manufacture this [by] doing it on the stage and getting it right. You can get it really precise, but as an audience, you feel the difference [of] one being crazy and outrageous versus something that’s more controlled and very rigorous on a stage.

It totally comes through – I’m glad you survived it. And let me just ask, what’s it been like putting it out there?

It’s so awesome to have this project resonate with so many people. I think when you do something that’s different or special, I have this feeling that there’s something gripping [or a] guiding light that’s very deeply felt and I recognize that while I’m making it, [where] I say to myself if everybody hates this, it doesn’t matter because we did what we wanted to do, how we wanted to do it and we said what we wanted to say. So the satisfaction is just in that, but then when you see it resonate with people in the way that my own personal feelings were in the moment of making it, it’s so satisfying because it means that you’re tapping into something much bigger and broader. Obviously, the film ties into a lot of the thoughts and feelings of what’s happening in this country in terms of immigration and the rise of nationalism and a lot of the ugly trends that are rearing their head in our [current] sociopolitical landscape. But I think this film serves as a way to address it without addressing it because I don’t really like comedy that’s so on the nose about politics.

Comedy is in many ways the best way to address the darker of the issues of the time, and one of reasons it’s resonating is because it’s trying to show the humanity within all of us, and the things that connect us as opposed to put wedges between us. It’s about the fact that there are differences between us and those differences don’t need to be shied away from. They should be celebrated. We’re all different people, but we’re all the same as well. and that’s one of the reasons why the film has a special bite to it. But we just wanted to make something that we like and is interesting and is funny and as a director, for me, it was a way to really make something really special with this really special performer and giving the platform for that new voice which I don’t think has been seen in this way before.

“The Passage” will be playing at the L.A. Film Festival as part of Shorts Program 3 and will premiere on Super Deluxe on November 3rd.

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