“What If This is the Goal? This is Everything?”: Writer/Director Edson Oda on His Sundance Hit, Nine Days
Ever so often you’ll have a film at Sundance that hits at the right time, place and with the right crowd — so that you feel the theater buzz. The last moment of the film, before it cuts to black, rings out over silence (aside from the sniffling of a handful audience members.) For me this year that film was Nine Days on Monday night at the Eccles theater. A feature debut from director Edson Oda, the expansive piece is equal parts grounded sci-fi, drama and a delicate exploration of emotion and existence. Let’s just say you don’t want to go into this one cynical, and if you do, that may be compromised fairly quickly. Inspired by Oda’s own losses and subsequent evolutions, the film asks us, what is the purpose of life? And if you were truly aware of that purpose, what would you do with yours?
Led by a wonderful Winston Duke, who truly shows his chops in the final moments of the film, the story centers on Will. Will lives, if that’s what we want to call it, in a rich-hued, remote house on far-stretching salt plains. He watches a wall of decades-old TVs, each playing footage of lives he’s created. He keeps their tapes in dusty file cabinets stacked in a dim-lit room — like much of the house, stagnant with memories. In this world, which Oda has no interest in explaining but rather exploring, you have to audition to be born. And Will is tasked with choosing the lucky winner. After Amanda, a beautifully skilled violinist he created, suffers a tragedy, Will begins to spiral. What type of souls, if that’s what we want to call them, is he choosing for life? He was alive once after all, which he consistently reminds his assistant (Benedict Wong), and knows just how horrible the world can be.
And so begins the roll call of potential candidates up next for Will. There’s Kane (Bill Skarsgard), Emma (Zazie Beetz), Alexander (Tony Hale), Maria (Arianna Ortiz) and Mike (David Rysdahl). Each character is acutely crafted and consistently impenetrable. Except for Mike, who is by far the most sensitive, artistic and perhaps talented. He shows Will an impressive drawing of a beach — but doesn’t find it any good. For nine days, Will asks each candidate very specific moral questions, ones that are interesting to also ask yourself. Oda takes his lens macro, examining the broad strokes of morality in life, the strength it takes to survive, and capturing the ephemeral nature of joy when times get tough. Working with DP Wyatt Garfield (Give Me Liberty), production designer Dan Hermansen (Child’s Play), and costume designer Fernando Rodriguez (The Florida Project), Oda creates a wholly unique world that feels as textured as real life, and as strange as perhaps what comes before or after.
I had a chance to chat with Oda about crafting the film and the inspirations behind the unique premise. First features that are bold, demand the big screen and aim high in what they’re saying about humanity — are exactly what warrant unpacking the process.
Filmmaker: How was the premiere for you on Monday? What an amazing standing ovation.
Oda: I was so nervous and everything went so fast that I couldn’t even process at the time. Now I feel like I’m enjoying it more. At the [premiere] people were applauding and I felt like, well, why are they doing that? Did they like it? Then my composer [Antonio Pinto] came up on stage and I asked him, “It means they like it right?” And then he start making fun of me.
Filmmaker: I feel like the film tackles so many really beautiful existential questions. And here what you’re talking about is validation. Certain characters in the film care about validation, especially from Will, more so than others. Was that a mirrored theme for you — like your artistic validation?
Oda: Yeah, I think so, and a lot like [the character] Mike all the time. Sometimes people have something nice to say, “Oh, it’s great,” but you don’t feel that it’s good enough, you know? I don’t know if it’s something from the imposter syndrome, but I always have the sense that everything that I do is not good enough. I knew the movie was solid and good, but I wasn’t expecting that reaction.
Filmmaker: The film reminds me of a dream or a subconscious space . What was the seed of the story and then how did you build the world?
Oda: I think it was pretty much two things. One, is that we always feel like we want to achieve something, and we lose perspective of the now, the present. I do that. I think a lot of people think they do that. But then it was just raising the question, “What if this is the goal? This is everything?”
Filmmaker: By “this,” what do you mean?
Oda: Our life — this life. It’s almost like a poem or a celebration of life and seeing those moments and things that are actually so precious but you take for granted. Because it can feel like a standing ovation is the most important thing in the world, which it’s not. It’s more about just drinking a coffee or dancing with your partner — I think life is so much about those small moments. And then, as I mentioned in the Q&A, the main character Will was based on my uncle and my connection and lack of connection with him when he committed suicide. I was 12. He was 50. And interestingly, he was very artistic, sensitive and kind. For me, receiving the news was almost like seeing okay, he failed and I don’t want to become like him. Throughout the years when I was older and had experienced more things, I could completely relate with him, going through similar struggles or feeling things that he might have felt.
I could see his struggle. And I could see that it’s a battle they fight every day and this is really hard. And at the same time, it’s not just about the battle and there are so many things that he did in life that were so great. I learned that he used to box, and his drawings are amazing. He was full of life. I feel like this movie was also a celebration of his life or people’s lives — even though we focus so much on the bad parts.
Filmmaker: How did you take all of these ideas and then construct the design of the visual world? If you heard the concept, you’d almost expect the production design to be more sci-fi.
Oda: I think it’s so much about being human, and I feel sci-fi sometimes goes too much towards the technology. It was something that I wanted to get distance from. The technology would be more like a connection to memories and nostalgia. That’s why I went to more VHS and tapes. [Will] died in the ’80s, and that space encapsulates the time when he was still alive. I [thought], what’s the best way to emphasize this sense of memory? Memories feel like they’re pictures, they’re eyes, but actually they’re more like paintings because we are constructing the memory in a way that makes sense for our brains.
Filmmaker: Tell me about choosing each of these characters and crafting them. Did you have these existential questions and themes you wanted to explore and then the characters came after that? Or did the characters dictate the story?
Oda: Everything came at once somehow. I knew about the protagonist, Will, and then you have a limited amount of time to make your point [and show the characters’ realities] to [allow the audience to] perceive who those people are. It seemed to have five different characters. It was important to me that people could identify with [the characters] representing something, but at same time, not getting a stereotype and more of the layers of their personality. After I knew the centerpiece would be Will, I needed to assemble different personalities that represented different types of people. Kane is more the pragmatic person. With Emma, it’s not about her, but it’s about the other people. Mike has such huge potential, but is compressed by the environment around him. Maria is this person who is about feeling and experiencing, and then Alexander is about enjoying things. It’s almost thinking about colors that are happening inside the house and Will is more neutral. Winston would play in a way, almost mirroring the other characters. But when [Will] was with Emma and Kane, he didn’t know exactly what to do because it’s not very clear what color they are.
Filmmaker: When we’re building characters, we often think about it so literally. I did a lot of theatre training where an avenue into a character would be an animal. I feel like a color is a similarly interesting approach.
Oda: The good thing about the colors is that there’s not only one kind of red, there are so many nuances to this “red” word. And sometimes orange can be seen as red as well. There’s a transition sometimes.
Filmmaker: I feel like Kane in particular consistently changed for me. Bill is such good casting because he already has one of those faces where you’re going, at times I trust you, at times I don’t — are you violent or are you pragmatic?
Oda: That came a lot from Bill. The first thing he said when he read the script was, “Kane can’t be just one thing.” In the early drafts of the script, [Kane] was this jerk. I feel like what [Bill] brought to the table was showing him as just — man, the world is tough. [Kane] is almost like the mirror of the world and [acts the way he does] because [he thinks] — if not, I’m going to perish.
Filmmaker: Tell me about casting the other characters and similarly what they brought to the script.
Oda: We started with Will. When I sat with Winston, it was amazing, and we had such a long conversation about life, our best experiences and how we connect to the themes of the movie, about childhood. I think that the way I cast was following the advice from another director — you cast your character by what they become in the movie, not by what they are in the whole movie.
I could see Winston was the Will by the end of the movie — passionate, funny, full of life. I built with [Winston] this arc and throughout the movie, I’m showing parts or elements of who Will can be. And then later I started meeting with amazing actors. Everyone in this cast is just unbelievable. The process was pretty much talking about life and having a sense of the struggles and joys, and seeing if they connect to the characters.
Filmmaker: What about Zazie? I feel like her energy is amazing and very calm.
Oda: Zen — she’s the adult in the room. I always saw Emma as this character who is about the present and [Zazie] has such a presence that is so present in the moment. Kane is more about the goal. What can I achieve? I’m going to do whatever is possible to get what I want. While Emma is more about what is happening right now and can experience and find the joy. Zazie has this maturity, but also a childish innocence and joy.
Filmmaker: Which character are you?
Oda: I’m all of them, you know. I’m a lot of Will, of Mike.
Filmmaker: You don’t see very, very vulnerable male characters on screen a lot of times — I appreciated Mike’s character for that.
Oda: Yeah, and I felt David just gave an amazing vulnerable performance. It’s so heartbreaking because Will wants to send [Mike] and we want him to succeed. I think that’s what Will had in his mind — can I send this kind of flower, this beautiful soul when I know he’s going to struggle?
Filmmaker: When I was watching this, I felt like the filmmaking was wonderfully restrained. You place the camera in a spot and let the action play out. It didn’t feel as if you were trying to show your directing — something we see a lot of in first features, too. Can you speak to some of those choices?
Oda: There are two styles in the movie — you have the style of the real world that’s on the TVs, which is a camera following characters and filming life.
Filmmaker: Did you shoot all of that on different cameras?
Oda: Yes — even cell phone shots or GoPros. So it’s very free. It’s almost like emulating life itself. And then you have Will’s world that’s totally, as you say, restrained, almost like being in a box. It’s precise dollies or wide shots, just seeing what’s happening. For Will’s world, that’s where all my storyboards and shot lists were going. I took that as a compliment that you don’t feel the filmmaking. I feel you feel filmmaking when it’s not working. I think my actors also helped in the process and reminded me that the most important thing is their story, movement and bringing life to the scene. For me it was more okay, how can I capture this and match the technique and their blocking?
Filmmaker: I felt like the score was more a communication of theme rather than a communication of atmosphere. Tell me about constructing it. The violin as a through line is really great.
Oda: We had this amazing composer, Antonio Pinto. He composed for a City of God, Central Station, all those movies that I love. We had a lot of conversations. The theme itself was composed during pre-production because we needed something that the violinist would play.
Filmmaker: So that was an original song?
Oda: Everything’s original. We always thought we should have one thing that manifests in different ways throughout the movie. It’s Amanda and Will’s and then the monologue theme [at the end of the film]. And then you have some other stuff in the same world but in different executions.
Filmmaker: There’s a crucial question Will asks everyone in order to discern their character— would you pull the chair? Can you remind me of exactly what the scenario is. And would you pull the chair?
Oda: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s such a tough question. The question is that [your son] tries to run away from this concentration camp and you’re the mother. You see a guard catch your son and say he’s going to set this as an example as something that you should never do. [He puts] the son over a chair and ties his neck and [tells] the the mom, ‘You have to pull the chair. If you pull the chair, your son is going to die. But if you don’t pull the chair, everyone’s going to die.’ That’s the decision. How can you be responsible for a death? But at the same time, you don’t want everyone to die.
Filmmaker: Emma has the best answer — I can’t answer that. But I found some of the other character responses interesting. Maria said the guard could be bluffing.
Oda: That’s maybe why I put it in there. Its such an interesting dilemma.
Filmmaker: Throughout the film there are these questions surrounding life’s difficulties and how someone chooses to react. You realize that honestly, you don’t really know how you’d react until you’re there.
Oda: When Will pits Emma and Kane against one another, it was Will’s way of creating the moment for Emma. There’s a [question Will asks] — would you shoot the person who is about to shoot you or not? It’s almost like the final test — you have Kane who has a gun, and you have a gun. So now who’s going to fire first? And it’s interesting that Kane doesn’t do exactly what he said he would.
Filmmaker: Tell me about the choice of the monologue at the end and pulling that off — it’s definitely crucial for the emotional payoff.
Oda: The monologue came from a workshop I was doing at Sundance. The Sundance Institute sent me to an acting workshop just to be a better director. And then one of the exercises is reading monologues, and going through it. That was a moment of pure terror, being thrown in front of people and pouring your soul out, where people are just watching you. And then at the same time, watching other people delivering amazing monologues that would never be seen by anyone — just by us in that moment. I thought oh, why not a monologue [at the end of the film]? I was happy that the monologue was amazing, but it didn’t need to be. We just needed to know that in that moment, Will was becoming Will again. There was no armor and he was just himself.