Stephen Kijak directs film on X Japan and its enigmatic leader Yoshiki: 'this really remote, distant, alien-like creature'
Update: We Are X wins special jury prize at Sundance
Filmmaker Stephen Kijak has worked on projects with the Backstreet Boys, David Bowie and the Rolling Stones. A good warmup for his latest doc -- on Japan's most popular rock band.
We Are X, which held its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, delves deeply into X Japan and the band's creative force, composer/drummer/pianist Yoshiki.
He literally just went, 'This is the best interview I’ve ever done! Where’d you learn to do this?'
To call X Japan a phenomenon in the band's native country is to seriously understate the case. Yet the group is not well known to American rock fans, nor to Kijak before he took on the documentary project.
"This was like discovering a new band that I knew nothing about and it’s such an interesting story," Kijak told Nonfictionfilm.com. "It’s really quite extraordinary. And it’s a dramatic, emotional tale."
The emotional punch stems from a history of tragic events surrounding the band and Yoshiki.
"It becomes a real portrait of this one man and his fight against this bizarre shadow of death that kind of haunts him through his whole life," Kijak told NFF. "It’s very Japanese, it’s very gothic. It’s operatic. There’s like a real kind of bizarre Sturm und Drang to it that’s really unlike other stories. It’s got plot points that I don’t think you’ve ever seen in a traditional rock documentary, weird layers and waves of tragedy that are so much more melodramatic I think than I’ve seen anywhere else... When one of the members of the band dies and you see the riots on the streets in Tokyo, you can’t believe it. I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s pretty overwhelming."
Yoshiki came to Sundance in support of the film, performing at several venues and attracting a coterie of American celebrities, including Josh Groban, Octavia Spencer and Juliette Lewis.
Kijak said he spent a lot of time with Yoshiki gathering material for the film and trying to get beneath the rock star persona.
"I did have many interviews. I had a lot of access to him," Kijak said. "In all the interviews [we shot] he's got hair and makeup and he’s got sunglasses. You occasionally see him without his sunglasses but it’s so rare. To try to penetrate that emotionally I had to just sit there and look at him and hang out with him because when he hits it there is real and genuine emotion in this man that really takes you by surprise."
The director said it wasn't easy nudging his main subject "off script," so to speak.
"Rock stars, they just sit around telling their own stories day in and day out, interview after interview and they calcify into these chunks of story that you have to literally start chipping at with a hammer," Kijak told NFF. "The challenge is continuing to try to strip that off and figure out a way to create a space where the interviews start to naturalize a little more. It’s a process of trust-building. And three or four interviews in with Yoshiki I remember tears and everything. He literally just went, 'This is the best interview I’ve ever done! Where’d you learn to do this?'”
The praise from Yoshiki is ironic, because Kijak said he "hates doing interviews."
"They just make me really nervous and crazy and I regret everything I messed up and didn’t ask and didn’t follow up on and really become very self-critical in the edit. The second you see an opportunity for a followup that you miss -- which no one else will ever know was there -- but you still say, ‘F****** idiot!’"
Kijak said he relied on producer John Battsek -- whose credits include the Oscar-winning documentary Searching For Sugar Man and Oscar-shortlisted Listen to Me Marlon -- to curb some of his more esoteric predilections.
"The [recording] sessions, the writing, the producers, how [a record] was mixed — that stuff is endlessly fascinating to me -- super boring to other people. John Battsek was like, 'Focus on the story, the drama and the human element,' which is one side of it, of course, but I like that [process-oriented] stuff and I try to go from there first and then build it out. I love figuring out what makes musicians tick, how an atmosphere and a mood was set and a set of circumstances for a certain kind of creation to happen."
Reached by phone, Battsek told Nonfictionfilm.com his collaboration with Kijak -- his third with the filmmaker -- was "incredibly rewarding... He’s so un-precious. It makes my job incredibly easy."
He added, "All I did with Stephen is just continually remind him of what we really were trying to achieve here and how we were trying to make a film that could resonate with as wide an audience as possible."
"Our ambition with We Are X, is hopefully obviously to play to their fan base which is colossal but also to try to play to people who knew nothing about them," Battsek said. "And to try to make it enticing enough so that for an audience who’s heard nothing about X Japan they might be drawn in sufficiently to want to go and see it."
And how will audiences outside of Sundance get to see it? That's in the works, Battsek told NFF. "[Distribution plans] are all in the pipeline as of the various interests we’re getting through Sundance. And that will all make itself clear in the next few weeks."
Prospects for the film appear very positive based on the Sundance reception for We Are X.
"It's very gratifying because it felt like audiences really loved the film and that’s what it’s really all about," Battsek said.
Sundance jurors awarded a special prize to We Are X for editing. Kijak accepted the honor at the festival awards ceremony, on behalf of his editing team, which included John Maringouin.
Kijak kept his acceptance remarks brief. But in his interview with NFF, he spoke more broadly about what he tries to achieve in his documentaries, which include Stones in Exile and Scott Walker: 30 Century Man,
"I like them to feel really personal," he said. "With We Are X the challenge was to create the empathy really, to create a connection between the audience and this really remote, distant, alien-like creature [Yoshiki] who you’ve never frickin’ heard of. I mean they’re [X Japan] really unusual. There’s a lot of distance [for an audience] to travel to get under it but that was the goal."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and Documentary.org.