The Japanese film industry may be the second-biggest in Asia, but to Hollywood it is still an island unto itself, its inner workings little understood. And the knowledge gap goes the both ways too; Japanese filmmakers may mine Hollywood for ideas and inspiration, but few try to make films — let alone a career — there.
Bruce Nachbar is a rarity. This veteran Hollywood producer, whose credits include the historical drama “Free State of Jones” (2016), the hit TV series “Party of Five” (1994-2000) and the Pixar animation “Monsters, Inc.” (2001), has spent the past eight years working in Japan in various capacities. His current project is “To the North” (“Kita no Ho E”), an indie road movie that he wrote, produced and directed with Japanese actors. With help from crowdfunding, he plans to finish post-production and begin submitting the film to festivals next year.
When The Japan Times spoke with Nachbar earlier this month at the offices of Empire, a Tokyo- and New York-based production agency where he works as a director, he was confident about not only his Kickstarter campaign, then still underway, but the ability of the film to recoup.
“I’ve taught a lot of workshops and one thing I always talk about is responsible budgeting,” he says. “Meaning don’t spend money on a film if you don’t think you can make that money back.”
Nachbar believes “To the North,” which he filmed in 15 days on a budget of $72,000, is a test case: “I wanted to show that you can make a Japanese film that will have quality and a great story that people will want to see for the budgets that they have here.”
Budgets that, he notes, are low by Hollywood standards, even for major studio films. The biggest Japanese indie hit of this year, the zombie comedy “One Cut of the Dead,” was made for ¥3 million. By that measure, his film is mid-range.
Nachbar’s approach to production, however, is more Hollywood than Japan: Instead of the 22-hour days and bare-bones group accommodations common on low-budget film shoots here, Nachbar says his cast and crew “worked 12-hour days and had a good place to sleep every night. We treated everyone well and paid everyone except for one person — me. And that’s fine.”
This generosity had practical benefits, Nachbar explains. “(If you’re exhausted) you can’t be creative. You don’t have time to reflect on what you are doing. You’re just busy filming, filming, filming.” The project gets done, Nachbar admits, but, “who cares if it doesn’t show on the screen? People in the audience don’t say, ‘Wow, they must have worked 25 hours straight!’ They just care if it’s good or not.”
The key, he believes, is not just more relaxed shooting schedules, but better planning from script development to post-production. The object is to carve out a safe space where filmmakers can be creative. “Happy accidents happen and you can take advantage of it,” he says. “But you’re not wasting time and energy and missing opportunities because someone forgot the tripod or someone didn’t get the prop that was needed for the scene.
“I’ve lived it over and over and over. It’s not a theory.”
Nachbar’s own interest in films began with a viewing at age 7 of Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in his native Brooklyn. “I walked out of the theater thinking, ‘that’s what I want to do for a living.'”
As a boy he read American Cinematographer magazine and shot films with an 8-mm camera.
After graduating from Fordham University in New York, he was trying to get a job in the film business when, at a catering hall in Queens, he stumbled onto a shoot for “The Cotton Club,” a film Francis Ford Coppola was directing. Nachbar hung out with the crew, hoping to catch on as a third assistant director, when Coppola returned after a one-day absence and, noticing the unfamiliar face, kicked Nachbar off the set. Crestfallen, he entered law school in Washington, D.C., but dropped out after a semester (“I stuck it out to make my Mom happy”) and began working in local production, including a gig filming bios of Bob Hope, Beverly Stills and other celebrities for the Kennedy Center Honors — annual awards for lifetime achievement in the performing arts.
Then, shortly after his producer told him their next assignment would be a documentary about cholesterol (“I thought, ‘There’s my sign’ “), Nachbar loaded his car and drove out to Los Angeles. “By the end of one week I was working,” he says. “And then I just kept on working for 24 years in Hollywood.”
His move to Japan, he says, was prompted by several factors: his marriage to a Japanese woman, the birth of their first child and the fallout from the Great Recession of 2008.
“Fear just enveloped Hollywood,” he says. “Everything contracted and it was just not fun.” Finally, and perhaps most decisively, he had a mid-life desire for “an adventure, some place new, a new challenge.”
“I thought (a move to Japan) would keep me young,” he says. “And maybe I could be of value there as to what I know.”
Nachbar says his approach to work came in part from the late Apple founder Steve Jobs, an early investor in the Pixar Animation Studios — and a hands-on presence when Nachbar was working as a production manager on “Monsters, Inc.” The studio came up with a new program for dynamically animating the fur of a monster named Sulley. When they privately screened a 30-second clip of Sulley dancing, Jobs happened to be in the audience, along with Pixar head John Lasseter and the film’s director, Pete Docter.
“They play the loop a bunch of times and lights go up,” Nachbar says. “Steven gets up, walks to the door, turns to everyone and says, ‘OK, that was good. We don’t do good.’ And he leaves. And the message is, ‘It’s gotta be great.’ I go into every project that I do with that mindset. I’ll say thank you to Steve Jobs for that. I was lucky to have that interaction.”