Director Lana Wilson Talks Gaining Trust, Valuing Life and Her Wise, Empathetic Suicide Prevention Doc, The Departure
With Lana Wilson’s highly recommended documentary The Departure opening today at New York’s The Metograph, we’re rerunning this interview with Wilson conducted prior to the film’s premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Check The Metrograph’s page for screening times and a list of special guest moderators, ranging from fellow filmmakers to Zen teachers, who will host Q&A’s with Wilson this weekend.
One of the major discoveries of the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Lana Wilson’s The Departure is a beautiful, wise and deeply empathetic immersion into one fascinating character’s unique approach to suicide prevention. Ittetsu Nemoto is a former punk rocker turned Buddhist priest who, in quietly wrenching group sessions, counsels the suicidal while facing down his own demons. Working in a small, remote temple in Japan, he constructs spare, philosophical rituals for his patients and then, separately, bonds with them in more personal, emotionally intimate ways.
Following Nemoto both within his practice and outside of it, The Departure initially grabs hold due to the sureness of its elegant, melancholy tone. Despite having a wife and son, there’s a loneliness to the man, a quality captured by the film’s opening sequence in which, in slow motion, Nemoto dances alone in a Japanese nightclub, the probable techno throb replaced by Wilson for the more emotionally ambiguous tones of a Ryuichi Sakamoto/Christian Fennesz piano-and-electronics collaboration.
As the documentary progresses, Wilson carefully offers us more and more information about Nemoto, with one beautiful retrospective photo montage — reminiscent of the kinds of flashbacks found in the work of Joachim Trier — occurring late in the film. The sequence and its placement is indicative of this film’s independent nature. The Departure moves with a graceful rhythm dictated not by the editorial preconceptions of so much character-based non-fiction work but by the thoughtfulness of its main subject and the solemnity of its subject matter. In the same way that Nemoto constructs a pure, non-judgemental space for his patients, so too does Wilson for her viewers. As this finally hopeful film progresses, Nemoto comes into greater and greater relief, revealing for us health problems that are both a product of his emotionally draining work as well as, perhaps, those kind of paradoxical character traits that can never be totally unpacked. The result is a quietly impressive work whose images, characters and ruminations linger on long after the lights come up.
I spoke to Wilson about the origins of this project, why she didn’t bring a camera to her first meeting with her main subject, and about not only directing this film alone (her previous work, After Tiller, she directed with Martha Shane) but being the sole main producer as well. The Departure has its final screening tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Filmmaker: Let’s just start with the first, obvious question. How did you meet Ittetsu Nemoto?
Wilson: I read a New Yorker article on Nemoto in summer of 2013. I was immediately fascinated by him as a character and, especially, I was curious about what you would say to someone who says they want to die? How would you convince them to go on living? The article also described very briefly the retreat for which the film is named, The Departure. It described this death role play that people would go through with him [involving] writing down things down on pieces of paper. I immediately wondered what people write down. And when you consider that idea, you think, “What would I write down?” It immediately becomes very personal. So I thought that the film could be a chance to do something cinematic, where the audience feels like they’re kind of having a session with Nemoto. [The film is] about him, but it also gives you, while you’re watching it, hopefully, the chance to think, to reflect on the value, the purpose, and what’s most important in your own life. So that was the immediate impulse.
Filmmaker: So what happened next?
Wilson: I met the author of The New Yorker article, and she was wonderful and told me all about her trip and put me in touch with someone who was her translator while she was there. And then, I went over there on my own and worked with this translator, and I met a bunch of priests who work in suicide prevention, ending with Nemotosan. I didn’t bring a camera for this trip or anything like that. It was just for research and to meet him. I got to know him over a couple of days. I arrived at the temple very late at night, and he watched After Tiller with me. We had a live translation of After Tiller to kind of give him a sense of what kind of movie this would be, and how I could work in sensitive situations. At the end, he was like, “Yes, you can come back and film again.”
Filmmaker: A lot of documentary filmmakers wouldn’t have made that first trip without at least a small camera. Why did you decide not to bring one?
Wilson: I deliberately wanted to not even have that option there. It was a sign of respect, like, “I’m not here to get something out of you.” It felt so important to me, and I think it meant a lot to him that I’d come so far, with no camera, just to spend time with him and get to know him. But it was also like that in how we got access to film with the people who you see in the film. Often, I’d have met them several times before we filmed with them. The fact that I was committed to a long-term relationship there [in Japan], and to not pushing anyone to do anything uncomfortable meant a lot to people. Even from the beginning, with Nemotosan, I [said], “I know I’m an outsider to this culture. I’m curious and I’m here to learn.” Taking that approach was really helpful because he’d worked with a couple of news crews in Japan who had done segments on him. And they — and maybe some documentary filmmakers are also like this — come in and are like, “Okay. I want to get this shot and that shot and this scene and that scene.” I think what he responded to most was that that was not going to be what was happening with this.
Filmmaker: Could you discuss your attraction to making a film set within Japanese culture? There must have been suicide prevention programs closer to home you could have made a movie about.
Wilson: Yes. I mean, I read the article and it compelled me so much that I felt like I had to do this, you know? I had a strong enough feeling about him as a character, and then this was confirmed, really, when I met him — that he was so complicated, and that the work he was doing was so unusual, that this would make an incredible film. I hadn’t been like, “I want to make a documentary about suicide,” and then researching places in America.
But, of course, I was so conscious that this is a completely different culture, and that I was an outsider to it. I worked with translators, most of whom hadn’t worked in film before. Like, one of my field producers was a friend of Nemoto’s. One of them was a Buddhist priest herself. She was our translator for half the shoots and a field producer. The co-producer, Eri Yokoyama, is a Japanese filmmaker who’s been living in America for 20, 25 years. So I tried to surround myself with people who had that inside perspective. [For the translators], it wasn’t just translating – it was being able to detect stuff that’s going on underneath the surface. When are people agreeing to do something, and when are they just being polite? While shooting I relied very much on this group of four Japanese women, who rotated in and out of these field producer and translator roles.
Filmmaker: At what point in the filmmaking process were you aware of Nemoto’s own health issues?
Wilson: I was aware of them from the beginning. The fact that he had this motorcycle accident when he was so young, and that that’s where he met his wife, who was his nurse at the hospital, for me, kind of says everything about who he is and about their relationship. But his health was definitely getting worse while I was filming. I hadn’t expected things to get so bad.
But I think the real difference, when I was filming, was the presence of his son, and how that was changing his life in this way he hadn’t predicted. His son was only six months old when I first met him. [Fatherhood] was really what he was grappling with — how to be a parent when he’d had such a complicated relationship with his own father. And, also, how much help to give other people versus how much to take care of yourself. For him, the additional complication was that he’s so alive when he’s counseling people who are struggling with suicide. It’s not just a do-gooder impulse — it’s because he is so interested in finding out the answers to these questions himself, because of the people he’s lost to suicide. I think that’s what’s so unique about him. He isn’t just trying to help other people. He recognizes that he is in need of help as much as they are, in a lot of ways. And so, that gives him this kind of extraordinary energy, when he’s working with people. It’s like, “This is for both of us. We have to save each other here. I really need to figure this stuff out.”
Filmmaker: You go into any documentary film imagining its possible story arcs. This film has some possibly sad ones. To what degree were you thinking about this? Obviously, this is a film where you probably are wishing for the least dramatic things to happen, which might be the opposite of other documentary filmmakers.
Wilson: Yeah, I mean, of course, like with After Tiller, we knew there was inherent drama and conflict in the fact that people wanted to assassinate these doctors, and they’re working under this kind of pressure. I did know from the beginning that Nemoto had these health problems, and he wasn’t taking care of himself the way he should. He probably didn’t have a lot of balance in his life. But, you know, it didn’t really cross my mind, what if someone actually commits suicide? In over 10 years of doing this work, amazingly, only one person [Nemoto] has met has ever committed suicide. Having witnessed him at work early on, [I saw that] he’s becoming friends with these people, and they’re friends for life. It’s so far beyond what any suicide prevention counselor would do here and in most other places in the world. It’s not quite a family relationship, but it is this deep friendship. He makes people feel needed, makes them feel part of this community. So once I saw that this was beyond traditional counseling of any kind, that it was this lifelong friendship thing, it never even crossed my mind again. I mean, I was worried sometimes, of course, about some of the people, especially the other father in the film. But they’re all slowly making progress in this odd way. I was just talking to Nemotosan the other day, and so many of the people you see in the film are just doing great now. They’ve gotten married. they’ve gotten jobs and all kinds of things are happening.
Filmmaker: Have you lost anyone to suicide?
Wilson: One person who was not very, very close to me, a colleague for a year at this arts festival I used to work at. And then, this isn’t suicide, but it’s something that Nemoto and I talked about a lot, which is that my grandmother was 90 years old, was in reasonably good health, but just kind of decided she didn’t want to live anymore. She lived in Washington State, where there is a Death with Dignity Act, but she didn’t want to wait that long. So she just announced that she was going off all her medication, and she was going to stop eating and drinking. She just wanted to leave. She was ready to go. And I went over there and went through that with her. I don’t consider it suicide, but Nemoto thinks she was kind of enlightened, actually, because once me and the family were all like, “Okay, we understand. It’s just time for you to go onto this next leg,” she became kind of happy. She looked radiant and peaceful, like in this way I’d never seen her before. So it’s not suicide, but a little bit comparable.
Filmmaker:The piece of music at the beginning of your film — that’s from one of the Ryuichi Sakomoto/Christian Fennesz collaborations, right?
Wilson: It was Fennesz Sakamoto, the very beginning, yes.
Filmmaker: When I heard that cue, I immediately read it as a kind of metaphorical setup for a film that was going to blend Western and Eastern points of view.
Wilson: Oh, that’s interesting.
Filmmaker: Could you talk a bit about the qualities that some people might read as being inspired by certain Japanese cinema, like the film’s pace, its rhythm, its use of silence?
Wilson: I think there’s this quality to the footage that was actually aided by the fact that I don’t understand Japanese. Imagine if a Japanese film crew was filming you right now. You could be a little more relaxed because they wouldn’t understand what you were saying. So I think the camera felt slightly more invisible in this film because my cinematographer and I couldn’t understand [our subjects]. I would have my translator leave the room while we filmed, because I saw this visual difference in how people acted and how comfortable they were if my translator was there or not. As far as East meets West, and the silence and everything — so much of that is just inspired by trying to capture how it felt to be there, in the temple. And yeah, it’s in Japan, in the middle of nowhere. It’s this very rural, quiet place. And [Nemoto’s] life was this kind of alternation of this extreme, quiet world, and then clubs and parties – much louder, more raucous environments. So we wanted the movie to have that kind of quiet, quiet, quiet, loud, quiet, quiet, quiet, loud, kind of dynamic. I do love East Asian cinema very deeply. So maybe I’ve just watched so many East Asian films that some of that just comes through a little bit in how it was shot.
Filmmaker:There’s a little biographical section about Nemoto that occurs maybe halfway or two thirds of the way through the film. I loved that sequence and where you placed it. How did that come about in the edit process?
Wilson: I think you know my editor David Teague.
Wilson: The freeing thing about doing this low budget, completely independent project is that you don’t have to worry too much about making it commercial or about what people would normally expect in terms of the placement of that scene — the back story, the setting up of context and stuff. So we came in from the beginning being like, “We’re not going to open this with statistics about suicide. We want this to be a slowly unfolding, mysterious, gripping experience. And we’re not going to explain anything too soon.”
I think in early cuts, we did have perhaps a little more voiceover throughout the movie, a little more about Buddhism and stuff. But then, we ended up taking almost all of it out. The photo sequence, I think it always was around there in the cut, maybe a little bit earlier. It was the difference between it feeling like a more traditional documentary, [where it would have been] upfront. But we liked the idea that [the film] starts out being about these patients coming to visit Nemoto, and that gradually, you realize this is really all about him, and he is the person who needs help, perhaps more than anyone. So we liked having it there for that reason, and about how it echoes the stuff with the father we see [in the film], and then Nemoto’s relationship with his son that comes afterward.
But at a rough-cut screening, a lot of people were like, “I wish that came earlier. You know, I wish you could explain all that first, and then I get it.” And I remember David and I just looked at each other and were like, “No.” We love having it later. We love having this sense of mystery and wondering, and having this space [for the viewer] to kind of put things together, or speculated a bit.
Filmmaker: So I noticed on After Tiller, you were working with Martha and then you also had other producers on that film. And this film, I think you’re the sole producer, the sole credited producer.
Filmmaker:So what did that entail for you on this film that was going to be different from the previous?
Wilson: I knew that I just wanted to pursue this kind of aesthetic in a kind of rigorous, extreme way in this film. I knew how I wanted it to look from the beginning. So [producing it myself] was good and bad. The good thing was that I could pursue every aesthetic fantasy of mine to the nth degree. I didn’t have to compromise on anything. The bad part is that it’s lonely, of course. I miss Martha now more than ever, actually. I mean, we’re still best friends, but being alone at the end stages is the hardest part. You’re alone in the post house at three a.m., trying to figure out what comma should go where in the subtitles.
But you know, it was mostly just because I knew I needed a Japanese partner for this film, and Eri Yokoyama co-produced it. And I couldn’t find anyone who was available enough to be a full-time producing partner on it. In the end, it’s like, there’s only one person who wants to make the movie desperately enough to be willing to rack up huge amounts of credit card debt. I worked a full-time job in television for about a year and a half just to pay off the credit cards. Going through the financial business part of this alone was tough, because that’s when I felt most like, am I making really the wrong decisions here? I felt good about my instincts while shooting, and I had such great collaborators, and in editing, I felt really good about that, about directing alone. But it was tough producing alone, really, I guess. I mean, I tried. I would say I’m probably a mediocre producer. I think I’m good at the line producing part, but I think I’m terrible at large, strategic or business decisions. I just have no idea what I’m doing, because I’m new.
Filmmaker: Did you do all the fundraising yourself on this?
Wilson: Yes, I did. I mean, I had a few great executive producers, who helped with that. So like, Mike Lerner, he was an executive producer. He came on about halfway through, and he was someone who I could call if I was having a tricky situation in Japan. Like, what do I do about getting a release form signed by someone who’s actually schizophrenic? What are the ethics of this? That kind of thing. He was always there for me. Lilly Hartley, from Candescent Films, she, especially early on, reached out to funders. And Diane Max and Regina Scully are the other two executive producers. They supported the film but also would advocate for it with other people in their community, which was very helpful.
Filmmaker: Who were the primary funders?
Wilson: The primary funding of the film was, to my surprise, ITVS, which is 40 percent of the budget. And they came on when I was pretty far along in the process, while I was editing. The film got rejected from many, many grants. It was much harder to raise money for than After Tiller, I think because it doesn’t have a political issue attached, and it’s a hard subject. But, I had been rejected from almost everything over and over, and so, I wasn’t even applying to ITVS. And I saw [a former ITVS executive] at a party and she was like, “Why didn’t you apply?” And I thought there was just no chance that ITVS would want to support this subtitled movie about death. She encouraged me strongly, and I could not believe that I actually got it.
I wouldn’t have been able to finish the film, no way, if that hadn’t happened. And now I’ve become completely obsessed with ITVS and public media in general. It’s taxpayer money, and they keep such careful track of every dollar. It’s very moving, how careful they are with this money, and how low cost they keep everything. And they’re doing such great films. They did I Am Not Your Negro. They’ve done just such extraordinary stuff. We live in a country where there’s so little government support for the arts, but what little there is is being so well-managed by them. They’ve been such sensitive, insightful viewers of cuts of this film and so supportive. They’ve never been like, “We need you to speed things up here to make it a little easier for TV.” So they were lifesavers.