Monster-film maker tackles other big menace

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Norman England is the world’s leading non-Japanese expert on all things Godzilla, if hours logged on the set are any measure. From 1999 to 2004, he spent, by his own estimate, 150 days at Toho Studios watching the king of kaiju (monsters) come to life in film after film, culminating with Ryuhei Kitamura’s “Godzilla: Final Wars” (2004).

A former New Yorker who moved to Japan in 1993, England was then the Japan correspondent for Fangoria, a U.S. magazine devoted to horror, splatter and exploitation movies, but his going far beyond the call of journalistic duty by spending so much time on the set spoke of a larger obsession — and ambition.

Besides writing for other publications, including a monthly column for the Eiga Hiho film magazine, England has since expanded his resume to include set photographer, subtitler, actor and filmmaker. His new short feature, the erotic shocker “New Neighbor,” has been selected for festivals in Hamburg and Montreal, and will screen at the Uplink theater in Shibuya from Oct. 5-11.

When I met him, however, England was back in his photographer’s guise on the set of “How to ‘Undead’ Sex,” a segment of the straight-to-DVD omnibus project “Zombie TV!!” As director Yoshihiro Nishimura and his action coordinator filmed three male zombies tussling in a pro-wrestling ring, England moved about nimbly snapping shots, taking care not to get in the way of the tumbling and grunting actors. “If you get three seconds, you’re lucky,” he told me, his forehead beaded with sweat. “You’ve got to get in and out.”

Despite the downsides to his work, such as the long hours (with all-night shoots not uncommon) and Spartan conditions (a hot lunch is considered a luxury), England says he gets many emails from envious Japanese-movie fans from overseas eager to do what he does. “What do they have to contribute?” he asks rhetorically. “Usually they want to remake something Japanese they’ve seen and liked, but what’s the point of that? It’s been done.”

England himself learned all of his various trades on the job, with his teachers including Nishimura, a special-effects artist who directed the splatter horror “Helldriver” (2011), and Shusuke Kaneko, who made episodes in the “Godzilla” and “Gamera” kaiju series and is England’s long-time friend.

Among his more important lessons is that directors here, especially makers of low-budget shockers, have to work quickly (“you can’t keep people waiting”), keep their energy levels up (“the director sets the tone for everyone else”) and know how to give actors feedback. “Japanese actors are used to being told what to do by the director,” he explains. “In a sense, they’re the director’s marionettes.”

And if you are a gaikokujin (foreigner) on an all-Japanese set, “you have to integrate yourself,” England observes, which is something most non-Japanese actors, chauffeured in for a scene or two, never manage to do. “They have no idea what’s going on,” he says.

Given his often-stated dislike of overseas fanboys in general (he even mentions his “fanboy allergy” in his Twitter profile), as well as their retreads of Japanese genre films, it’s somewhat surprising to hear England rave about “Pacific Rim,” whose director Guillermo del Toro is a self-confessed kaiju movie freak. “It’s a great film — I have no complaints about it,” he says. He contrasts it with Michael Bay’s 2007 hit “Transformers,” which he says he hates: “(‘Pacific Rim’) doesn’t have the hyper editing you find in something like ‘Transformers,’ ” he says. “You can actually tell what’s going on.”

What is going on in England’s own life? At age 54, which makes him older than almost everyone on the indie film sets he visits, he seems to be getting busier by the week. That is, all those hours of watching in the shadows are finally paying off. He also admits that, physically, it isn’t getting any easier. “I sometimes ask myself why I’m doing this,” he says. “My feet ache and I’m tired. But I can’t just walk out, can I?”