Interview: Atsuko Hirayanagi, writer/director of Oh Lucy!

Atsuko Hirayanagi’s debut feature film Oh Lucy!, adapted from her short film of the same name, is a beautiful and thoughtful portrait of a middle-aged woman desperate to find herself after living behind a quiet mask for so long. Atsuko Hirayanagi kindly took some time to chat about the inspiration behind the film, the struggles she faced during production, and the story behind Megan Mullally’s cameo.

Cinedelphia: I was wondering if you could talk about what the creative process was like when you were transforming this from a short into a feature, and any struggles along the way?

Atsuko Hirayanagi: The funny thing is that I had the first draft of the feature before I shot Oh Lucy!. But then at the same time, from the script phase moving onto the feature, I think the challenge would be because the short is about one moment, then the feature you have several moments. Then to keep the story developing from each scene is hard. That would be the challenge. Then honestly, this was my first feature that I’ve ever written so initially I had to really have faith in myself to keep pushing. Because it was part of the financing, it was for the feature screenwriting class in grad school so I had a deadline to turn it in. That helped a lot to really keep going and finish it. Otherwise probably I would have finished it around thirty pages. Having the class helped a lot. Then after you have the first draft then you go about rewriting and that took a long time, but through workshops and all these things helped—having professors give advice.

 

C: Can you talk about the casting process? I’m curious to hear how Josh Hartnett became involved, and then of course the wonderful cameo from Megan Mullally.

AH: Josh and Megan are both at the same agency, so it helped a lot. So Josh, he was always on the radar screen but I never thought that I would be able to get him. He’s a star. But then I saw on an interview about how he left Hollywood at the peak of his career, and I was thinking “Hm, I might have a shot, what do I lose?” Because he wanted to do independent films, and then at the same time it speaks to his character [John], how he’s struggling to find his own path as an actor and not what the people want him to be, to be the super star that’s bigger than life persona, to be a superhero, you know? So I thought something about that process made me think I have this instinct—maybe I should talk to him. I asked my agent to send him the script and the short of Oh Lucy! and he called me 48 hours later.

 

C: Oh wow.

AH: Yeah, it was amazing. We were location scouting in Hollywood and it was a very surreal moment. He was calling from London or something, and we talked for about fifty minutes. We talked about our kids and then he said he’s going to do it. Then the confirmation was after that talk and we met in person a week later or something. He knew exactly who [his character] John was. What John meant. So Megan [Mullally] came on board because one of the producers did a movie with her, before Oh Lucy!, and we knew she was at the agency, and she’s has a great part. And she’s so good, and so we sent her the script and short and then like “Yeah!” She really came on board just to do that [short scene]. We had a longer scene, so it’s going to be editing out for the flow and pacing of the film, but it’s going to be in the deleted scenes. For sure. She’s so hilarious.

C: I’m so intrigued by this wonderful and complex character of Setsuko/Lucy and sort of the culture clash that she experiences herself. How did this character come to be?

AH: Had you read somewhere that I was inspired by someone I know in my life?

 

C: I had read that. So you had this experience in your life with this person you know. I can only imagine you’d see that as an artist and maybe you want to turn that into something bigger than that.

AH: That’s true, that’s true. So I think I always wanted the person to speak the truth, how she feels. And then realize that she can say what she feels and how she feels. Then I think partially, because I had experienced that as an exchange student in the states. I had kind of an identity crisis of not being able to speak English, and people just saw me as this quiet Asian girl in class. At the same time—not just because I couldn’t speak English, but they thought I was just a quiet person. At the same time I have this whole persona inside of me. I do have my opinions, I have things I want to say, and that whole experience…I could understand that person’s feelings, who are afraid to speak out. So, I think that somewhat my experience is living in this character. So the inspiration was about her, about this person I know in my life, but at the same time, in the end, it’s not her anymore. It’s my all experiences through all the women I’ve met in my life, like for example, another exchange student from Japan was initially quiet, then suddenly ends up having like tattoos all over her body, after three years of staying in LA or something. So something that pops in them after they come to America and that kind of stuff is also in it too. Tattoos being the motif from this film.

 

C: I found the scene when she goes out and gets that tattoo—it’s so great—but it also made me so uncomfortable and nervous. I think it was just the level of how quickly she was diving into this new persona and particularly how quickly she falls so quickly for this man whom she doesn’t even really know.

AH: Yeah. For me, now that I’m looking more objectively at this process, in a way it’s like a suicide mission for her. You know? To just go for it, and never look back. Nothing to lose. Speaking of writing process, I only found out about all this stuff through the interviews that I’ve been having. When I’m actually writing it I don’t know all of this stuff. I’m just following this character. Feeling like, “What would I do?” I’m not seeing it like this, I’m not analyzing this character. It’s more following the energy in a way. It’s interesting that I’m bullshitting through these interviews I’ve done. I wish I knew all of this from the beginning. I really feel like an imposter these days, because I really didn’t know about this whole thing when I was writing. People ask me questions, and I’m like “Hm, actually you are right.”

 

C: I think people are lying if they say they have the entire grand picture figured out from the start.

AH: No, because, that’s just the way it is. Of course he has to be standing behind you because that’s just the way it is. It’s been my life. Like the guy who was standing behind her in the first scene. He has to be standing there, of course. He found her.

C: The opening is very jarring and powerful. I kind of saw in her mind, she has one committing suicide in front of her and then an older co-worker who’s living this sad, lonely life. Would you say this is kind of how she saw her life? Like those were her only two paths?

AH: Yeah, I mean that could have been her. Somebody else did it in front of her and it made her realize something was stirring in her soul. She was woken up by this. Shaken by this. But she doesn’t understand it right away because she’s been shutting down that part of her for so long. But once the floodgate opens, there’s no way of stopping it.

 

C: Yeah, and she can’t even return back to work after she’s experienced all of this.

AH: Yeah. But at the same time, to me, she’s in a better place because of what she’s been through. Sometimes you have to lose everything to find the person you want to be. You’re holding onto this mask. The identity that you thought was you is not you. It’s part of you, but it’s not you. Being office lady is not you, being Lucy is not you. It’s something else. To be in that place, to me, is a great thing. She has to do that to really come to her own person who she wanted to be. To try and find what she really wanted to do in this world. Not what someone else wanted her to do.

 

C: So you started with this short, and now with your feature, and they’ve both gone to so many amazing festivals, won awards, been nominated countless times. How has that experience been? Were you at all surprised by all of this incredible feedback?

AH: I think, yes. If I see it from a bird’s eye view, I’m so surprised. But I think when I’m in it, it was such a struggle to keeping this project moving. If you see it on paper it’s a dream come true—and it is a dream come true—but at the same time there are moments, so many times, like “I don’t think this is going to go” but I think small increments of things, and the fact that my family also pushed me to keep going. I was ready to give up when things got tough. We couldn’t find financing, but somehow things were still moving. And I was thinking, “I’m going to keep pushing until this stops.” But then the film won the Sundance NHK award, so those kind of things helped, getting pushed, so the project started moving again, and then I found the finance for the first chunk, and then it starts moving again. Those small increments got it to where it is. So when I was doing it, it was very difficult, but when I see it and look back, yeah. I feel like, “How lucky am I?” And this really is like a dream.

 

C: Are you working on anything new currently?

AH: Yeah, I’m working on my original script, as well as reading a lot of other people’s scripts. Thinking about many things, yeah. I think my next film would be about my high school exchange experience.

C: I know this is a cliché question, but I’m genuinely interested to hear about any other films or directors that influenced your personal style as an emerging artist.

AH: I don’t know that I have a particular one or someone. I’m sure all these movies that I like in my life have influenced me. When you have a vision in your mind, and then you try to put that visually—exactly how you’ve dreamt in life—then people will understand it. For me that movie was 8 ½. Like, “Oh okay, that’s what you have to do.” You have something and you just do exactly what you had in mind. At the same time, it’s not like [Fellini] influenced my film. I don’t know. I did use three different films for Oh Lucy! that I gave to my DP and some actors. Andrea Arnold’s Red Road, Haneke’s Piano Teacher, and Pedro Almodóvar’s All About my Mother. Those were my references. My next movie I’ll likely have different reference films.

Author: Catherine Haas

Catherine Haas is a native Philadelphian who received her master’s in film history from Columbia University. She is a freelance film programmer, writer, and an avid pug enthusiast.

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