Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Filmmaker Interview: Ken Ochiai

Ken Ochiai is an award-winning writer/director of short films and music videos. I first met Ken as an undergrad at USC film school. Ken is currently months away from completing his Masters in Cinema at AFI and volunteered to be the first artist featured on Uncelebrity.


Born in Tokyo, Japan, Ken recalls having the experience that sparked his desire for a life in cinema at six years old, after waiting in line for four hours to see Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park:

"That was ,like the first time as far as I can remember I got to go to a movie theater without parents, -and the first movie I could remember. I remember the scene where the dinosaur comes in, and I was like, “Wow. This is the movie. This is, like, my dream.” And that's when I starting thinking of making a movie. And at the end of [Jurassic Park], when the helicopter goes over the sunset and the end credit comes in, “Directed by Steven Spielberg”, thats when I started being interested in what exactly a director does. I started watching all of Spielberg's movies, other Hollywood movies, Japanese movies...”

“I kept talking to my parents that I wanted to study abroad. I wanted to become a film director in this country because if I make a movie in English, then people can watch the movie in any country. But, if I make a movie in Japanese, I guess its really hard to distribute worldwide. I was like 16, and I told my parents that I wanted to study in a university in LA or New York. They said, 'You can go to school in the States, but you can't go to film school', because my parents are kind of like a strict business – a not too stereotypical Asian family-, but they wanted me to be like a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman... They wanted me to be like, a global, international person, but they didn't want me to be a so-called 'artist.'”

“I convinced them that if I were able to get into either USC or NYU, I could study abroad and go to film school. And they said okay. At that point I was going to a private school which has a university. It's one of the best private schools. 95% of the students go to that University, which is, you know, a good path for normal Japanese people. But, I didn't want to go on that path. So, the high school has an exam to get into that university, -which is not a too difficult exam, but you have to take the exam to go to that university. But, I didn't take the exam. I just didn't go. So, my parents had no choice but to say yes and let me study abroad.”

Ken went from high school to NYU Summer School, to Santa Monica College, and then eventually to the University of Southern California School of Cinema-TV as an undergrad. In this clip, Ken tells about how his efforts to adjust to going to school in America, unexpectedly revealed cinema's potential for communication.

Ken's second-semester USC film “Phoenix” received the Special Jury Prize at the San Giovanni International Film Festival in Rome. The story of two young brothers who escape from their abusing father by burning down their house, “Phoenix” has a personal meaning to Ken.

“I think that was one of the first movies that I can actually be proud of. I think it is partially based on my life. It's not like I burned down the house, or my parents were abusive or anything.... But this whole story was like I made this movie for my brother- my older brother-, who was always at my side and supporting me in a lot of ways. When I was telling my parents that I wanted to be a filmmaker, he was pretty much the only one who supported me, with moral support and, well, not financially, but yeah, moral support. That was the first movie where I made it for someone else. And, it felt different, I felt a lot better than just making it for myself. That was my way of saying thank-you to my brother. So, I invited him to the screening. He came all the way from Japan to see it. And I felt like we talked way more than millions of words by just watching the movie together.”

Ken pursued his post-graduate education at AFI partially as part of the promise he made to his parents. He reasons that with a Masters Degree, if he was unsuccessful as a director, he could have a career in teaching. Ken was fortunate enough to be chosen by the AFI faculty to direct not one, but two thesis films. The first, “Lucky Lotus,” is a coming of age story between a Vietnamese mother and her daughter, set in the titular Los Angeles nightclub. “Lotus” is currently completing sound editing. Ken's second thesis, which Ken also co-wrote, has already received considerable attention even though it had only wrapped principal photography last May.

“My latest one is called “Half Kenneth” which is about, again, two brothers who escape from a Japanese American internment camp in 1944. They are half-Japanese and half-Caucasian. Their Caucasian mother lives in town. The movie begins at the father's funeral, and because their father died of heart disease, they decide to escape the camp and live with their mother.

The movie is...I don't know, getting bigger and bigger right now? I pitched the project to some distribution companies, and one of the Japanese TV stations called TVS is willing to distribute the movie with a kind of “making-of” type of documentary thing once it is finished. And also, Japan Airlines, which is one of the biggest airline companies in Japan, is interested in distributing the short film in their airplanes. So, “Half Kenneth” might be the first [AFI thesis film] to fly in the air. Also, because our executive producer is Yoko Ono Lennon. We didn't know her, but my producer and I wrote a letter about how passionate we are about this project. She liked the project and she liked the proposal, so she signed on as executive producer.”

“I want to direct a feature version of “Half Kenneth,” which my producer is trying to pitch to some studios right now, so I am working on writing a feature script for that.”

Ken will complete the requirements for his Masters Degree from AFI in the fall. After that, he hopes to be directing his first feature film within a year for more reasons than one.

“Because I am an international student, I have to get a working visa, which is really tough to do for a director because you have to get an artist's visa. That means you need to establish status as an artist, and you can't be a student. So, that is going to be my next goal, to get my working visa and stay in this country, as well as professionally directing movies and commercials and music videos. So, hopefully, my plan is to direct a feature next summer.”

“I have one script called “Summer of '47”. It is about four college students going on a travel from the north part of Japan to the south part of Japan, spending $1,500 for three months. So, it is kind of like a road movie, teenage comedy/drama about them finding themselves in a foreign country. So, I think it is kind of entertaining and commercial.”

Ken has written, directed, or produced over 30 short films, commercials, and music videos. His award-winning films include “Phoenix” winner of the Special Jury Award at the 2006 San Giovanni International Film Festival , and “Express 831”, winner of the Bronze Award at the 2008 USC First Look Screenings. His thesis shorts “Lucky Lotus” and “Half Kenneth” are currently in post production.