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The Toronto International Film Festival is home to screenings of many Oscar hopefuls, foreign language films too obscure to see release, and documentaries about the soul of man or whatnot. But it also hosts the fantastically intertwining Midnight Madness series, 10 nights of movies mean to thrill you, scare you, or just let you witness something totally awesome. Falling into that latter category more than any other in this year's program was Guy Moshe's Bunraku, a pop-up book of a movie about a man with no name (Josh Hartnett) wandering into a town run by a ruthless gangster (Ron Perlman) and vowing revenge.
The look of the film is some crazy combination of puppet theater, video games, comic books and Hong Kong action; the added fact that this is all taking place in a world with no guns means there's pretty much no limit to how someone can be killed, and with what instrument. I talked to Moshe the day after the film premiered and picked his brain as to why an independent, relatively unknown filmmaker would spent three and a half years putting together a film that was super complicated to make, and how he got Hartnett on board with some of the bigger action set pieces, including a single-take fight in which he takes on 20 or so bad guys.
If you want to catch Bunraku in theaters right now, it's playing at Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas this weekend. Beyond that, the movie is still looking for distribution.
Last night's midnight screening seemed like exactly the right crowd to see this with.
I couldn't tell if it was an audience that would have wished for more gore. It's strange. I don't know if this is exactly what they were signing in for.
This is clearly such a passion project for you. There are much easier movies to make. Why did you feel like you had to make it?
Regardless of the ultimate reception of the movie, there's nothing more rewarding than trying to do something new. You might not succeed, you might fall on your face, but the attempt is what you live for. My life is waking up and making movies; it's what I do. I challenge myself as a filmmaker to try and bring something new to the table that hopefully the audience will appreciate because it's something new. If I can make that happen, if it works, phenomenal.
You say you want to make something new, but the story is the most classic story of all, the stranger coming to town.
Exactly. You could do exactly the opposite, set it in a very simple setting and then you could complicate the story a little more. I thought something in this movie needed to be simple and safe enough so the audience could grab hold. This is a very dense experience, it's an audio-visual spectacle. The story should be simple and classical enough so people can follow and understand what's going on.
You look at the action genre-- what is the action genre? You take two characters, one character, and your job is to lead them through as many obstacles as you can so they fight and shoot and beat up somebody. I'm a fan of these films. But part of my fascination was, why is this classical story so successful? We're suckers for the idea of personal responsibility, seeing a man detached from the community who seemingly doesn't have to do anything for anybody find in himself the urge to help the common man. The Man With No Name is the classical character who stands up to these people.
The one really original thing you do is set this story in a world where guns are banned, and it makes the violence even worse. Did you want the chance to use other weapons, or what?
To me martial arts films that are set up in contemporary settings are slightly ridiculous when you think about it. Guns are faster than people, and there's not much you can do about that. I also like the idea of the musical analog. Those obstacles you take your characters through are like musical numbers. The idea that violence could be as beautiful as a dance. You could do it with gunfights, you could do it with swords only.
How long did it take to choreograph that single-take staircase fight, where Josh Hartnett takes on all the bad guys on all the different levels?
Josh trained for the movie for about four months, he had so many fight sequences. He came very prepared. It was more about timing the camera. It's very difficult to shoot a scene like this, because most punches it's easier to sell from the back, and I had to shoot it from the side. Everybody had to be in the perfect place, and the camera has to be in the perfect place.
In addition to the bunraku art form and comic books you take a lot of influence from video games here. Why did you want to include that as well?
To me all of these things are coming from the same core. I think video games in their essence are simplistic, very graphic, and have a very clear visual direction to them. And I think when you look at a comic book, the way comic books are being laid out, there's a lot of playfulness. To me video games are the way of the future. There's a new medium coming. I'm as certain of it as I was certain of cell phones being invented when I was younger. At some point there will be a new medium that will join cinema and video games into one. I don't know what it's going to be , but I want to be in the forefront of it. Certainly audiences today are probably capable of processing information in different ways. That's what gave birth to cinema at the end of the day, 100 years ago.
This movie reminded me in some ways of Scott Pilgrim, and it seems like both of them are so fast-paced and dense because they assume that we can all process information now better than we could in the past?
Obviously what's similar about this and Scott Pilgrim, is probably the approach. I love Edgar Wright, I think he's a super talented director, but in Scott Pilgrim he's taking our contemporary environment and he draws it into a surreal universe, where Bunraku is set up in a world of its own creation. But both of these films are dense, and they try and engage you on multiple levels.
And both really do make you feel like we're heading somewhere different with how audiences respond to cinema.
On that level, absolutely. There are filmmakers out there like Edgar Wright, like David Fincher, any film they make, I don't care how good or bad their last one is, I will always be in line to see their next movie. Ultimately that's what I hope to be. You don't have to love everything I do, but you can bet your ass I'll give it everything I've got.