From box office hit to the serenity of temples

by Karryn Miller

Vampires and yoga seldom appear in the same sentence — except when talking about Fran Rubel Kuzui.

The New York native is known in Hollywood for her role as director of the hit movie “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and as executive producer of its spinoff TV series, but Kuzui’s current endeavors are gaining her acclaim in Japan as well.

The sprightly 64-year-old has traded in her Hollywood digs for a UNESCO World Heritage site in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, and replaced her director’s chair with a yoga mat.

Escaping Tokyo’s rush, Kuzui and her husband, Kaz Kuzui, divide their time between Tokyo’s fast pace and a much slower one in Nikko. It was in Nikko that they came upon another sacred site, perfect for their company EcoNikko and a yoga studio within an ancient Buddhist temple.

The temple and surrounding grounds had been left in a state of disarray. Rotten floors and a garden engulfed by bramble hid the temple’s charm. But the Kuzuis and business partner Dominica Serigano saw past the mess and decided the location would be perfect for EcoNikko’s vision.

“We started EcoNikko to create a place where people could come and renew and rejuvenate their body, mind, and spirit. I had been looking for something like this myself in Japan. But I could never find the kind of place that was open and free of restrictions.”

Kuzui refers to the venture as her “karma yoga” project, and helps run the business without focusing on making a profit. The yogic undertaking is not entirely out of character. Yoga has played a role in Kuzui’s life since her college days and throughout her career.

The self-proclaimed “city girl” grew up in New York, attended college there, and completed a degree in television and a masters in film at New York University in the late ’60s.

“I graduated at a time when film was coming into its own and the NYU School of the Arts was just forming,” says Kuzui. “Martin Scorsese was just graduating when I entered the school and Francis Ford Coppola was always hanging around.”

Despite the abundance of talent coming out of the school, the role women were to play within the film industry was still not clear. And although Kuzui knew where she wanted to go, getting there was another matter.

“When I was in film school there was never any discussion about female students becoming directors.” Within her graduating class there were only three other women (two became script supervisors and the other became a writer.) “In my heart I always wanted to be a director, but as I’ve said, when I was in school it was never anything that women thought they could do.”

Kuzui got her first break as an undergraduate when a public broadcasting service in New York picked up a script she had written. “I was hired because they bought my script. They immediately assigned me to a project and within three weeks I was an associate producer at the National Education Television station.”

A year later, Kuzui was given the chance to run the New York Film Unit of Encyclopedia Britannica to produce educational films. “I was running the company by the time I was 25,” she says.

“When they closed the unit I met a woman who agreed to train me to be a script supervisor. This was my entry into making feature films and I jumped at it.”

Her new career path eventually led her to her husband, also within the movie business. Their first meeting Kuzui looks back at using the cliche “love at first sight” to describe. “Our story almost sounds like a corny movie.

“Kaz came to New York to make a Japanese film called “Proof of the Man.” I was hired as part of the U.S. film crew and Kaz was the first assistant director.”

They met in the production office, had their first date a week later and have been together ever since. “I always joke that Kaz didn’t speak very good English at that point and by the time his English got better we were already married.”

Her partner was what brought her to her second home, Japan, and was a driving force behind her realizing her director vision.

“One day Kaz brought me to a hotel, checked me in and told me not to come home until I had finished the screenplay I had been dreaming of writing,” recalls Kuzui.

“It was a very long week but I finished ‘Tokyo Pop’ that way. He told me that he didn’t think he could live with me for the rest of my life if I didn’t try to make a film.

“So we made ‘Tokyo Pop’ and I had the career I had always wanted.”

The tale seemed fitting for her at the time — a story about an American woman trying to understand Japanese youth culture and falling in love with a Japanese man.

The critically acclaimed film debuted in 1988, four years prior to her “Buffy” break.

The first film and the others that followed helped her “to earn money by being myself,” something she says she has wanted to do ever since she was a child.

When she came across the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” script she saw the deeper idea of being yourself reflected in its leading character. “It’s very hard to escape from who you are,” Kuzui says, referring to the concept of one’s life path.

“When we’re in high school we have some idea of who we are and what we should be doing, but most kids run away from their hopes and desires. Sticking with that dream is the important thing.”

“Buffy” went from movie to TV series and was aired around the world from 1997-2003. The gutsy blond slayer was a hit with women (though most don’t know that she wasn’t always so tough.)

“The original script of ‘Buffy’ was pretty simple. She was a cheerleader who killed vampires. There were no martial arts and she was a very passive, uninspired girl.” Kuzui recalls.

“At the time I was hanging out with Hong Kong martial arts director John Woo and was very impressed by him. I was also a huge fan of Sailor Moon because she was so empowered.”

Kuzui wanted to bring Sailor Moon’s traits and martial arts skills to the character. “The writer, Joss Whedon, loved the idea, so we set out to rewrite the script.” The movie was picked up by a studio within three weeks of the revised script’s completion.

“Kaz and I were in Hawaii when Joe Wroth at 20th Century Fox called me and said he wanted to make the movie. He asked me to get back to L.A. as soon as possible. When I got on the plane I noticed that the pilot of the big jumbo jet was a woman,” Kuzui remembers.

“It actually entered my head that here I was getting my big break and now I was on a plane with a female pilot, and I hoped we didn’t crash.

“It was a stunning moment when I realized we have all these prejudices . . . It’s a question of overcoming them ourselves.”

Kuzui, then soon to be a well-known woman within the movie business, learned a lot from the experience. “When I find someone treating me differently because I’m a woman — in any situation — I remind myself that it’s only a question of their mind and I need to make room for them to change.”

Kuzui’s career in Japan’s foreign film industry has also progressed over the years. In the 1980s nobody in Japan wanted to release the band Talking Heads’ concert film “Stop Making Sense,” so Kuzui and her partner started Kuzui Enterprises, a Tokyo-based film distribution company.

“We rented a theater and showed the film. It was so successful that people kept asking when the next film would be. I asked my friends in New York if we could distribute their films and Kuzui Enterprises started to flourish.”

The operation allowed Kuzui to show films by directors that she and her husband liked and to bring the directors to Japan and “hang out.” But when things stopped being fun, the duo slowed the business down. “It’s all corporate now and very much bottom-line orientated. We only distribute the films in our library now.”

With extra time Kuzui has come back to parts of her life that during her busy schedule were sometimes put to the side — like her Hatha yoga practice. “I’ve gone years without practicing and then come back to it. If you stop, then muscle memory will always bring you back.”

Kuzui believes, “All yoga brings you close to the truth, whether it’s body alignment, thinking or breathing. So when you stray from it you can always go back to it.”

Kuzui now divides her time between Japan and America and goes wherever her latest project takes her. Her efforts are focused on helping others as she see this time of her life as her time to give back.

“These are very challenging times for everyone. I know I can’t save the world or even make a large difference, but it’s completely possible to make a small difference.”

www.econikko.com