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Director Dave Boyle and actors Hiroshi Watanabe and Lynn Chen overcame script overhauls, fictional divorce, and heat stroke in order to create the winning comedy, White on Rice.
White on Rice, the follow-up to director Dave Boyle's debut film Big Dreams, Little Tokyo, follows a 40-year-old Japanese man who has just moved to the US, following a devastating divorce. Played by Hiroshi Watanabe (Letters from Iwo Jima), the awkward but loveably endearing Jimmy hopes to find a new love interest that will appreciate his passion for geology.
The comedy, which is currently in the midst of its festival run (next stop: New York Asian American International Film Festival on July 25th), earned Boyle and his co-writer Joel Clark the award for Best Screenplay at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Actor Justin Kwong was also highlighted with a "New Talent to Watch" award for his performance as Jimmy's ten-year-old nephew Bob -- with whom Jimmy is sharing a bunk bed while crashing at his sister's house. And Hiroshi Watanabe won both critical praise, for his "funny and charming" performance, and our hearts, for the scene in which Jimmy's unwanted chivalry is thwarted even further by a car alarm ("Like a stone! You don't have stone?!?").
Lynn Chen (Saving Face) plays Ramona, the potential love interest; James Kyson Lee (Heroes) plays Ramona's high school sweetheart and Jimmy's foil; Japanese Academy Award-winning Nae plays Jimmy's sister; and comic actor Mio Takada plays the brother-in-law who gives Jimmy a hard time.
APA speaks with director/writer Dave Boyle and actors Hiroshi Watanabe and Lynn Chen about filming White on Rice.
Interview with Dave Boyle, Hiroshi Watanabe, and Lynn Chen
May 1, 2009
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Camera by Warren Kenji Berkey and Oliver Chien
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
Asia Pacific Arts: What inspired the film White on Rice?
Dave Boyle (director): I met Hiroshi Watanabe on my first film [Big Dreams, Little Tokyo], and then I took one of my old scripts and tailored it to him for the leading role -- because I wanted to make a Hiroshi vehicle I guess. I thought he had the charisma and talent to carry a whole movie.
APA: What about Hiroshi's performance in Big Dreams, Little Tokyo made you want to create a starring vehicle for him?
Dave: He was just in one scene, and it was probably the most memorable scene in the movie. I actually acted in that movie, and we had a scene together, so while we were doing the scene, I just kept thinking -- Wow, this guy should be the main character and not me. He's just got a lot talent, a lot of charisma. And then when I watched the footage later... some people just popped off the screen more than others, and he's just one of those people.
Hiroshi Watanabe (Jimmy): Thank you very much. One day Dave called me and asked him to do his next project. And it was comedy, and I really wanted to do a comedy. I worked with him on his first film, so I know that he writes really funny stuff, and I decided to do it right away.
Dave: I like comedy, and I like universal stories about family, and that's very much what this is. I'd like to think it's funny but it's also heart-warming.
APA: Can you talk more about what your original script was like and how you tailored it to him?
Dave: My original script White on Rice was just about a guy who was down on his luck, and I wrote it at a time when I was feeling down on my luck. And then the way I tailored it was -- I changed the main character into a Japanese guy who was new to the US, and that created a little bit of a different dynamic, but not really. I actually worked with Hiroshi quite a bit on the script and with my writing partner, Joel Clark. The script was written in English, and [for] the parts that are now in Japanese, the actors just made up their own versions of my lines.
Hiroshi: When I worked with David in his first film. Big Dreams Little Tokyo -- [in the scene,] he was selling books in the bookstore, and he spoke Japanese to me, and I was really surprised because his Japanese was really good! I think my reaction was real, and he liked my reaction.
Dave: I speak broken Japanese.
Hiroshi: His Japanese is perfect.
APA: Where did you learn Japanese?
Dave: I learned it as a Mormon missionary in Australia. I'd never been to Japan, but I was assigned to work in a Japanese community, so I had to learn it there. So Big Dreams, Little Tokyo was based on that experience of trying to learn a foreign language while being in a country where that's not the national language. It's about a Caucasian guy who really wants to succeed in Japanese business, and he's trying to learn Japanese and fit in with Japanese business culture. It was a movie that was specifically about culture and language and the difference between the two. Whereas this story is more of a universal story with a romantic comedy feel, where the main character happens to be Japanese.
APA: [to the actors] Can you tell me about the characters you play?
Hiroshi: The character I play is Jimmy. His wife left him in Japan, and he got really shocked and very depressed, and to get over the sadness, he comes to the United States to stay with his sister's family. And he tries to find a new wife in the United States.
Lynn Chen (Ramona): The character I play is Ramona and she's a graduate student. She goes to her uncle's house to live while she is finishing up grad school. When she arrives, she sees Jimmy after not having seen him since she was in high school -- since she was very small. So when she comes, he falls in love with her, and they become involved in this little love triangle because she is falling back in love with her high school boyfriend, played by James Kyson Lee. So he's pursuing her, and he's not really pursuing her back. [laughs]
APA: Why is the title White on Rice?
Dave: It comes from a Southern expression that's used. I think it's more of a Southern or East Coast expression, where people say, "Man they were all over each other like white on rice." And Jimmy, in the movie, as soon as he meets Lynn's character, he's stuck to her like white on rice. She can't get rid of him; the whole family can't get rid of him. And I just thought it was kind of catchy, so that's basically it. I thought about trying to explain it in the movie, but I always hate that, when they use a line of dialogue in the movie to try to explain it. So I just kind of left it there.
APA: As someone who directs comedies, who are some of your influences?
Dave: I know it's not hip to admit it, but I really like Woody Allen.
Lynn: It's not hip?
Dave: Is it?
Lynn: Call me not hip. I love Woody Allen.
Dave: Okay, cool. I also really like silent comedy, like Harold Lloyd and Chaplin. And I really like the comedies that Francois Truffaut made, even though that's kind of a stupid film school answer. But I didn't go to film school, so that's okay.
APA: Do you think that any of these influences found their way into your film?
Dave: Maybe. It's hard to look at your own stuff, and say clearly: Here, I'm being influenced by so-and-so, because I try to stay away from that -- try not to steal too much, not consciously at least. When I'm getting my creative team together, unless I really have to, I try not to give them a list of movies to watch. I just try and work from the ground up basically. I don't know if that pays off or not, but I try to not watch too many movies when I'm getting ready to do my own stuff.
APA: [to Lynn and Hiroshi] Do you look to other actors as influences? Did anyone or anything influence your characters for this movie?
Hiroshi: My influence was dinosaurs, because Jimmy loves dinosaurs. And he acts like dinosaurs. When he's very calm, maybe he's going to act like a brontosaurus, and when he has a date with a woman, I think he's going to act like a Tyrannosaurus, because they love meat. [Dave and Lynn laugh, so Hiroshi starts to laugh.] Also, my inspiration is kids, because kids can act spontaneously very well, and Jimmy has that personality. So my influence is dinosaurs and kids.
APA: Did you do a lot of research on dinosaurs for this role?
Hiroshi: Yes, I read a lot of dinosaur books, and I bought a lot of dinosaur toys. And I decorated dinosaurs. I put many dinosaurs in my hotel room, and I made a little dinosaur amusement park.
APA: Did you enjoy acting in a comedy?
Hiroshi: The audience in Cleveland, San Francisco, and San Jose were really laughing at the film, really enjoying the film. But to me, this was not a comedy. It's about very serious things. Because Jimmy got divorced from his wife, and he got really depressed, and he came to the United States to find a new wife, and Dave wrote a really difficult situation for Jimmy, so I was always struggling in every scene. But I really love people enjoying the film.
APA: I guess they say that often the characters in a comedy think their story is a drama -- which might be the case for your character.
Dave: I think that was it. I'm not sure Hiroshi knew it was a comedy until it was over. [laughs] Which was good. I think that's what makes his performance so great.
Lynn: Shooting a comedy was a lot of fun. Everybody, the whole crew wanted to be there. As cheesy as it sounds, it was really a magical experience being on set, even though it was really hot. We were shooting in Salt Lake City in the summer, 110 degrees every day. And I was sleep deprived, because I was staying in a hotel that was going beep beep beep outside my window every night. But despite all that, it was one of the best filmmaking experiences I've ever had.
APA: Can you tell me a little bit more about shooting in Salt Lake City?
Dave: This was a pretty ambitious script for a low budget movie. There were over 200 scenes and about 40 locations and a lot of characters, so physically it was a very demanding shoot, especially since it was summer and everybody was getting heat stroke. [laughs]
Lynn: Meaning this one person [points to herself] was getting heat stroke. [laughs]
Dave: So I felt really bad. They were all troopers. And I'm one of those people who probably worries a little bit too much that everyone is comfortable. But there wasn't really much I could do to make everybody comfortable. They put in amazing work though. It was fun, but there were tough aspects, for sure.
Lynn: For people who've had heat stroke before, apparently each time you're exposed to it, it gets worse and worse and quicker and quicker, which I didn't know. So the first time I had it was pretty manageable, but the second time was pretty bad. I had it twice, I think. [pauses] Dave's saying -- four times. I don't even remember; I'm blocking it out of my memory. But everyone was so great. Nobody made me feel like I was a freak, and that was nice. And I was pleasantly surprised, when I saw the movie, that it doesn't really register that I'm, like, dying of heat stroke. I look pretty comfortable!
APA: Was that masterful editing right there?
Dave: No, no, it was weird. We'd be doing a scene outdoors on a college campus. It was a really complicated scene, we had to shoot a lot of coverage for it, and she'd be in the scene, and as soon as we called "Cut!" --
Lynn: I'd, like, collapse. [laughs] I do remember that.
Dave: So that's the mark of a true professional.
APA: Had any of you been to Salt Lake City before?
Lynn: No, I'd never been to Salt Lake City before.
Dave: I went to college there. I'm from Arizona originally. Now I'm just kind of a vagabond, wherever I want.
Hiroshi: It was my second time there, but I'd never stayed there for such a long time, a month. But people were really nice and I really enjoyed it.
Dave: So, Utah Film Commission: you owe me one.
White on Rice will be in theaters in limited release on September 11th.
Date Posted: 7/3/2009