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Sundance Directors Lab 2023 Diary: Masami Kawai

Masami Kawai and Ed Harris at the Sundance Directors Lab 2023Masami Kawai and Ed Harris at the Sundance Directors Lab 2023

This week Filmmaker is publishing three diaries from writers and directors who attended the 2023 Sundance Directors Lab. We’ve already published writer-director Dania Bdeir‘s, and next up is director-writer-producer Masami Kawai, who traveled to the Lab with Valley of the Tall Grass. Here’s the description: “A TV/VCR combo set is thrown out, but it survives and circulates through the lives of various working class Indigenous characters of color in an Oregon town. They find forgotten memories, love, and connection through this seemingly obsolete object.” A complete list of Sundance Labs participants can be found here. — Editor

My project Valley of the Tall Grass isn’t just my first feature film; it’s also been a journey that’s helped me grow as an artist, human being and parent. As part of this journey, I believe that my ancestors nudged me toward the mountains of the Ute people, where the Sundance Directors Lab took place and where I got to continue to grow as a film director.

The first week at the Lab was a boot camp of sorts, with workshops on directing actors, a review of cameras and lenses and discussions of our favorite film clips. (I showed a scene from Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga.) In creative advisor Joan Darling’s workshop, I learned a tremendous amount from being an actor directed by another fellow. I experienced how it felt to take directions, how to internalize those directions and then translate them into actions. Darling was filled with joy, humor and wisdom. And she gave me some of the best directing advice: To think of your story like it’s your baby. As a mom of a toddler, putting my child first is instinctual for me, so prioritizing my story, like my baby, would help me better navigate the pressures of a set.

During the second week of the Lab, directing fellows shot and edited two scenes from our scripts. Made up of various vignettes, my script follows a TV/VCR combo set that is thrown out in an Oregon town. It survives and circulates through the lives of various Indigenous characters of color. At its core, my project is a pan-Indigenous story that has reconnected me to my own Indigenous heritage. My people are Ryukyuan from Amami, an island north of Okinawa.

For my first scene, I chose to work on a vignette that comes early in the script, which focuses on two Native American sisters who discover the combo TV/VCR on the street. They carry it across town to their home, where it stirs up bad memories for their grandma. I was fortunate to cast Elaine Miles (Northern Exposure, Smoke Signals, The Last of Us) as the grandmother and two local Diné sisters as her granddaughters. My goal was to figure out how to direct an experienced actor and two kids with no professional experience. For part of the rehearsal process, I wanted to build trust among the actors and with me. So, we hung out and rode the Sundance Resort ski lift together. As we went up the Ute Timpanogos Mountains, the girls’ real grandmother told me why she moved to Utah and left the Diné reservation. Her story resonated with my family’s own experience of leaving Amami for the United States.

Once we started shooting, I tailored the scene to accommodate the two young sisters by cutting down on the dialogue and incorporating their natural behaviors. When one of the little girls fell asleep on set, we filmed it while I encouraged Elaine to caress her head. This became a useful cutaway in the scene’s final edit. While directing, I was inspired by how Sundance creative director Gyula Gazdag directed his child actor in his movie A Hungarian Fairytale, which we watched during the Lab. I was also anchored by my amazing crew, who completely backed my vision and were open to experimentation.

My second scene came from a vignette about an Indigenous Ryukyuan artist from Japan, who gets the TV/VCR from a thrift store and brings it home for his latest installation. The television ends up causing some tension with his pregnant girlfriend. Although this section is based on my parents, it’s the one I’ve struggled with the most. I had received many notes about the girlfriend character being too passive in the script, but I had always imagined her with a tremendous amount of strength, which existed more in the subtext. During the shooting process, I wanted to see if I could bring this out through my direction of the actors. By collaborating with DP Gemma Doll-Grossman and actors Ayako Fujitani and Daisuke A. Suzuki, we were able to develop the characters and especially reveal the girlfriend’s depth and force. We were lucky that creative advisor Ed Harris worked closely with us during the rehearsal and helped us find more specificity for the characters. Even after filming and editing the scene, I realize it’s a vignette that still needs work. But the Directors Lab and a post-Lab virtual screenwriter’s workshop with Joan Tewkesbury have helped me make some personal and creative breakthroughs in this section of the story.

Before Sundance, I felt like I was always begging and hustling to get a crew to work with me. But at the Labs, I got to experience the abundance of Sundance’s resources and what it felt like to collaborate with a cast and crew who were truly invested in a story about contemporary Indigenous lives. I also got to experience all of the advisors’ generosity and the confidence they had in me as a director. I will remember my lunch with the ever-supportive Gina Prince-Bythewood, the encouragement of the two Joans (Darling and Tewkesbury), the iconoclastic spirit of Ira Sachs and the warmth and wisdom of Gyula Gazdag. And even though I will likely remain a scrappy filmmaker trying to work with limited resources, I will always hold onto the generosity, creativity and love of cinema that Sundance gave us.

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