“This film was so hard, it was nothing but trouble!” Japanese director Shinichiro Ueda exclaims, as he describes the process of making his debut feature-length film One Cut of the Dead. With the first 37 minutes literally filmed in one take, with a narrative based on everything going wrong for its fictitious cast, it’s no wonder that the filmmaker feels so strongly about the ambitious project. One Cut of the Dead focuses on a crew trying to make their own zombie film, but they soon get a nasty surprise when they find that their director -who clearly has a screw loose- has somehow managed to resurrect the undead, and it takes everything they have to stay alive. Despite how difficult it might have been to make, Ueda’s zombie comedy is insanely brilliant thanks to its hilarious timing, indie feel, and exceptional cast.
Two of Ueda’s leading actors, Harumi Shuhama and Hiroshi Ichihara, sit either side of him, listening attentively as he speaks and patiently waiting their turn. Both appear reluctant to speak at first, but when we meet with them separately later to discuss the film, we soon begin to realise how passionate they really are for the project. Both playing characters with the same first name as their own, Harumi takes on the role of an overly-enthusiastic actress, and wife of the director, while Hiroshi plays the timid Assistant Director. As we talk with them it becomes self-evident why they were chosen to be a part of the film, and we all find it hard not to laugh as we talk about everything that happened on set…
How did this project first come about?
Shinichiro Ueda (SU): This film began as a workshop which is only available in Japan, it’s not a peculiar system but it’s only really used in our country. What happened was that a company came to me as a director first, and then once I was chosen I started to search for a story we could look at. Once I had found one then we auditioned people, and hand-picked the actors that were going to play in the film. The major difference between this system, and normal films, is that we pick the actors and then we write the script to suit the individual people we cast. In that way we could give the actors a role that brings out the best in them, it’s really an actor-focused project. On top of that, the actors were paying to take part in the film because it was part of their training, it was like a lesson for them.
Since this began as a workshop, how long did it take to make this film? And did the actors collaborate on the project at all?
SU: It took three months to make this film from scratch, and I asked the actors to participate right from the start. We didn’t begin practicing with the script for this film, though, we worked with a different one instead to see how the actors would work together, how they would react etc. Once I grasped the individuality of each actor then I started to write the script to suit each person, and then we made the film. It was a long process, and I asked for their opinion all the time because team participation is so important for a project like this. We didn’t just do the workshop every day though, we would also go out drinking as a team and would then discuss things together there. It wasn’t like I was leading the project, it was us making it as a team.
What was it that interested you in making the film?
Hiroshi Ichihara (HI): I knew of the director’s work before, because of all the shorts he’s made before. He’s a well-established director, so I always wanted to work with him. When I heard about this project I knew I had to be a part of it so I jumped right in, I didn’t hesitate whatsoever and I wasn’t worried about how it would go, I just knew that I had to be a part of it. He mentioned that he wanted to make a feature film, so I thought this was a time for me to help him make a great film. I am a relatively unknown actor, so I was worried I wouldn’t be picked, or that I wouldn’t meet his expectations, but I wanted to take on the challenge anyway. It’s a different way of working because we had to pay to be a part of it, but that didn’t really affect my decision – I’m just happy I could work with him.
This looked like a complicated film to shoot, how did you organise things and decide what to film first?
SU: I don’t want to spoil the film, since it’s important for the audience not to know exactly what’s going to happen until they watch the film, but can I talk about it? Yes? This film was so hard, it was nothing but trouble trying to make it! It was so difficult while we were filming, honestly. In the script we had planned some things to go wrong for the fictional crew, but on top of that we had a lot of other things that went wrong while we were filming the one shot. There’s a moment where blood splashed on the camera, it looked planned but that happened completely by chance and someone really had to wipe it off the screen. We had planned for some things to go wrong, and then we had other things go wrong in reality, so we ended up amalgamating the two into the film.
I think if we had scripted everything then it wouldn’t have been as exciting. When we had the cast make a human pyramid at the end of the film, for example, we had tried so many times to make that happen, but it just wouldn’t work. It was only on our last take that it worked, and even then, it worked for just 15 seconds! That was the only time we managed to make it work, and it’s those kinds of things that really motivated me to work hard on this film. Having a script was great, but we needed to go with what happened as the shooting unfolded no matter how difficult it was, so that we could have some unexpected surprises for the audience. That made the film much more interesting for me.
Although you said the film was difficult to make, was there anything that was particularly fun about the process as well?
Harumi Shuhama (HS): From the viewpoint of the director it was probably quite difficult to film, but for me it was fun to play this kind of role. He would tell us that within those first 37 minutes we weren’t allowed to change anything, we had to follow the story because it had to be filmed within one take. But, outside of that, when we went into the backstory of how we made the film we were quite free so I could put some ideas into it. I could improvise a lot, and the director was telling us to do whatever we like because he could use it or take it out, and that was a fun experience for me.
HI: When I was playing this role, I had to really concentrate on doing well, and I was panicking about doing everything correctly so I wasn’t really thinking. Retrospectively, when I watch the film I can tell that I am really panicking, it’s not actually acting! I really liked that aspect of it, because the director told me to be myself rather than act. At the time I felt stressed and didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have done, but now I really love it. At one point I was really worried because the cameraman was using a handheld camera so I couldn’t anticipate when he was coming my way. I could sometimes prepare myself and say it was coming, but sometimes it would appear without me knowing it so I had to become a zombie straight away! Do you know how zombies are supposed to come down the stairs? I didn’t, while I was off screen I kept thinking about how I could do it, what it would look like, and then suddenly the camera panned straight down on me, and I thought ‘Oh! I have to be a zombie’ so I just had to do it. That kind of thing was fun to do, in retrospect.
You said you had to improvise a lot, could you elaborate on what you did?
HS: There was scene where I had to shout: ‘that’s impossible, I can’t believe it’, and I had to keep talking for quite a long time. What happened was that he (Hiroshi Ichihara) was supposed to be there in that scene but he wasn’t ready, so I ended up improvising!
What was the experience of making this film like, for you?
HS: I think the big, established actors wouldn’t agree with me, but following the script is quite boring. I know that there’s a script I must follow, but I like to improvise and make something new. To me, being able to do something outside of the box is beneficial for me, so I really enjoyed doing that on this film.
HI: The director said this earlier, but he wrote the roles with us in mind so the dialogue I had was suited to my personality. But it kind of showed my timid side, it’s something I felt was a negative part of my personality but the director said that it was a good side to my character, that it was positive, and that I had to bring those kinds of feelings out more in the role. So, he wrote my dialogue with that in mind and I played this panicked character. At first, I didn’t want to do it because as an actor I like to make myself a completely different person, someone that’s full of energy. But, in this film, I am playing someone that is somewhat like myself in real life, the director made me realise that it wasn’t bad to be timid, or play an introverted character. I accepted it, and that was a new revelation for me.
In the film everything that could go wrong does happen to the characters, was there anything that really went wrong on set for you?
HI: In one scene I had no arm and I had to fall on the ground, if you look at it closely then you can see that my hand is poking out. What happened was that the shirt had a section to hide my hand, but because I was panicked I didn’t do it properly and the buttons let go. That shot was our last chance that we were given because it was the sixth take, and the director told us that this was the last one we would do. It was our last chance, so if we messed things up then that was it, so I was quite nervous about that and I ended up making a mistake! All that tension reflected in my performance, but at the end of the day, although it showed that I was tense while filming, I don’t think that it looked bad, these mistakes made it a great film. When I watched it back, though, I realised that you couldn’t see it so there was no need for me to panic! I also just want to stress that I was good in the five takes before that, it was just that one take where I panicked and it went wrong!
HS: I’m 44, and my stamina is not as good as the younger actors. They are energetic, and I’m not like that anymore so on the last day of the shooting, compared to the young stars, my energy level wasn’t that high. I was running around the whole building for six takes without a break so I was absolutely exhausted. On the last take I had to go up to the third floor, and we had already rehearsed the scene a few times already that day so I was completely dead, and I was waiting in my head for the moment when my character would be killed. I was saying to myself ‘I really want to die now, please kill me now’ and I was wishing for that moment to come. I was thinking about how this was the last time I had to do this, and that I would be dead soon so I wouldn’t have to run around anymore!
One Cut of the Dead is set to have its UK premiere later this year, and will be released on Home Video with Third Window Films.
Read more of our Udine Far East Film Festival coverage:
• One Cut of the Dead REVIEW
• 20th Udine Far East Film Festival: Hwang Jung-min and Ryoo Seung-wan Interview
• The Battleship Island: Director’s Cut REVIEW
• 20th Udine Far East Film Festival: Inuyashiki REVIEW