INTERVIEWS - Randall Okita discusses "The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer"

Last week I sat down with Randall Okita at the NFB and had a conversation about his latest film, "The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer". The film deals with fairly intimate material while  exploring the boundaries of both narrative and visual story telling techniques.

Update: "The Weatherman and the Shadowboxer" won "The Best Canadian Short at the TIFF"

GL: How did you come up with the concept for this film?
Randall Okita

RO: I’d been kicking this idea about a little bit. I’d been dreaming about it and seeing the images. I was thinking a lot about these ideas and siblings, and then I started to talk to Michael [Fukushima], and he is really the reason that made the film come alive. He did a graceful job of turning our relationship into one that could be a working relationship in which it was possible to make this film. And that’s why he has now become a collaborative mentor for me; he’s so positive and encouraging that even when we’re working together it never actually feels like work. After completing this film, I would say there is no other process that we could have used to properly tell this story, and as a result I don’t know of any other place where we could have made this film.


GL: How personal would you say this film is?

RO: It’s as personal as it gets, I would say. My joking thought was, “well, on a scale of one to ten, it’s a….,” but this film transcends that for me. That being said, any time I get the opportunity to make something, it becomes a very personal investment. I would argue that this film is about my family and the ideas that I’ve observed and struggled with. From that sense, there was a very important and special kind of journey in the making of this film. 

GL: You decided to start the film with a horror film trope - the face revealing turn - which reveals that the children’s faces have been scratched away, but this isn’t a horror film. Why choose to start the film like that?

RO: That image was always in my mind and I went for what felt right. I wanted to take on these characters and not show their faces - and, as adults, it’s challenging for us to not see the characters’ faces and still be drawn through the story. That allows there to be an active fracture, an attack on identity, a frame by frame removal of who they are. It feels very violent. The short answer is that it felt right to do it, but the long answer is that I wanted to start with these ideas, and I wanted to start with these characters, and then set up an entirely different narrative. 

GL: The catalyst event in the film: would you say the brothers do or do not remember it correctly?

RO: With art anything is open to interpretation, of course, but I would say they remember the event correctly. The problem in their relationship occurs not in their remembrance of the event, but in their disagreement in how to interpret the event. You could say with a personal narrative, which every person constructs, that events in one’s life are always interpreted and then described so they fit into that person’s personal story, that person’s world view. 

RO: As a result, the truth of things can get changed or dismantled along the way. I think this is the case especially with traumatic incidents, which a person might not have the capacity to deal with at the time they occur. So the emotions around those events get put aside for us to process later, especially when we’re kids and we don’t have the psychological tools to handle them at the time. And so, with kids, those events are processed as they’re building themselves and that builds up a lot of grey areas in terms of the way in which those kids end up interpreting that event. 

RO: In this case, the way each of the protagonists eventually interpreted the event made them grow into two very different individuals who look at the world in two very different ways. This film examines how that relates to a negative experience in their lives that they both experience. How each of the individuals chose to psychologically cope with the event allowed them to survive, but the subsequent gulf between their individual world views cost them their relationships with each other. 

GL: With that in mind, how did you settle on the idea of calling one The Shadowboxer and the other one The Weatherman?

RO: Again, not to be too vague about it, but the true answer is that it felt right. It’s the idea of one looking back and one looking forward. 

RO: The Weatherman is obsessed with looking forward and seeing what will happen next. He uses what he learns to keep up appearances, whereas The Shadowboxer rejects appearances and rejects monetary and social structures: he only wants to examine his past experiences. So, shadow boxing felt like an appropriate metaphor because he is constantly wrestling with his demons. The Weatherman, on the other hand, is always moving forward and ignoring his history. What this film deals with is depicting how you can never completely transcend your life experiences. 

GL: The scenes in this film feel very raw and very personal. It feels like the images came to you and you made them without a lot of back and forth. Would that be a correct assumption?

RO: The short answer is yeah. And the National Film Board (NFB) is one of the few places where I could make a film like this. In the many conversations that we did have, the key of the conversation was always based around realizing the image that we originally set out to make. I had a tone and a specific thing that I wanted to get out and the NFB’s only interest was in helping me realize that vision by allowing me to do my own thing.

RO: If I made this film somewhere else, they would have had a message that they would have also wanted to get out, but at the NFB I was able to make my film. Michael [Fukushima] started out asking what ideas I had, and as a result was a mentor from day one. He also actively participated in keeping this film true to my vision while I collaborated with all the other people I needed to interact with while making this film.

GL: What would you say the audience reaction to this film been like?

RO: There has been some nice feedback and, so far, the press has also been positive. The live audiences have also responded very well after screenings, but people are also polite, so in some ways that makes it hard to tell how the audience really feels.

GL: With this film being marketed as a very dark and a very personal film, did you wonder whether that was going to come back to you and how people interact with you in the future as a result of that?

RO: Yeah, and really, if you’re pouring your heart into something for years, every film you make like that becomes autobiographical. It’s going to become about you. If you’re going to talk about themes of identity, you have to be honest to yourself and to your story. To tell an emotionally true story, you have to come from a time and a place emotionally that you have experienced. Sometimes that means pulling the focus back a little. Who did what and when takes a back seat to the emotional impact of the story. Our tendency is to jump on those emotional building blocks and then determine who is the villain and who is the hero. And, especially in this case, that isn’t what this film is about. Not seeing faces, not having names, I built this story so viewers can see the foundation of the story without being distracted by the details. This film is about emotional states, it’s not about particular plot points. The characters’ emotional states drive the story as opposed to who said what when. As a result, a lot of the objects in the film become emotional markers: bottle of pills, a hospital bed, boxing gloves. These objects are great examples of how we dive toward feeling things. 

GL: You pushed a lot of boundaries in terms of narrative, but you also pushed boundaries in terms of the styles and techniques used for the film. What was one of the boundaries you felt the most challenged with?

RO: Pulling off the all the visual techniques in a way that is both resonant and cohesive with the story we were telling. I think my proposal included so many techniques and so many visual ideas that a lot of people would have said, “this is too much, this isn’t coherent enough, this isn’t going to work.” Whereas the amount of trust and confidence the NFB had in us allowed us to experiment and to push until we found the unique visual language we needed to use to tell this story properly. 

RO: While we were pitching the concept, the NFB didn’t continually come back to us and say, “okay, that technique is nice, but we want to see more examples of how you might do this particular scene before we go ahead with it.” Instead, they gave us the go-ahead, and then allowed us to find the language of the film during the production. That allowed the visual language to develop from the story as opposed to us being forced to fit the story into a limited, predetermined visual box. We were able to chase the story as opposed to chase the commercial viability of the final product. In that way, with this film, we were able to develop a unique piece of art with a tone and a heartbeat that has never existed before.

Interview conducted by Grayden Laing and edited by Laura Bolt.

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