Art Of Life: interview with We Are X director Stephen Kijak
So the awesome new documentary, We Are X, about legendary Japanese speed metal band X Japan, dropped last week here in San Francisco. An energetic and engrossing look at one of Japan’s most popular bands, the film follows the group’s long and often tragic history, as seen through the eyes of its charismatic leader Yoshiki, the band’s drummer, pianist, composer, and mastermind.
I attended a screening of the film at Mezzanine in San Francisco, followed special performance by Yoshiki, who performed a short set including a rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner (!) and held an extensive Q&A/lovefest with his adoring fans.
As a special perk I also got to meet Yoshiki backstage, where I tried desperately to control my fangirling. I got to shake Yoshiki’s hand (soft and smooth) and observe him as he chatted with his friends while a hovering videographer and a photographer documented his every move. I’m happy to report that despite his superstar status Yoshiki is a nice fellow, especially for a rock god.
The next day I got the chance to sit down with filmmaker Stephen Kijak to talk about We Are X. I’m also familiar with Kijak’s earlier film, Scott Walker: 30 Century Man (2006), so it was fun to talk with him about his experiences working with two pop music legends.
beyond asiaphilia: So what was it like to show the film to room full of fan people last night?
Stephen Kijak: Last night was amazing! We were in Austin the night before and then San Francisco last night for the screening and both cities had the most passionate fan response I think I’ve seen. Just young people, too, that had a history with the band and discovered the band as teenagers–collecting all this stuff, they had really deep knowledge of the band and a really passionate response.
BA: So what is the difference between when you show it to a general audience versus people who know every detail of the history?
SK: At the festivals, some of the fans find out and make their way, so you kind of test each audience by starting off with a, “WE ARE (makes X gesture)“, and you see how many people do an X. At Sundance, I think, maybe five?
SK: We did a festival in Moscow, the beat festival. It was all music and documentaries, and it’s a lot more accessible to the general public. We went “WE ARE (makes X gesture)“ and the whole place went up in Xs, the whole cinema. So, like, the metal heads of Russia all came to Moscow to pay homage to Yoshiki! You know, it’s one thing when it’s a screening of the film but when he’s going to appear afterwards to either take questions or play piano, it becomes a real event for the fans.
SK: Because usually, you’re seeing him on top of a drum riser with pyrotechnics and it’s a stadium show, and here he is in a movie theatre with you-
BA: Ten feet away.
SK: It’s pretty intense.
BA: He was really close. I’m sure a lot of people couldn’t breathe in that room last night.
SK: Yeah, I could not believe it, actually. It was intense last night.
BA: Yes, at one moment when he was playing the second song he paused. People were singing along–
SK: Endless Rain. Yeah.
BA: They were singing along quietly. Not loudly. Which I thought was very beautiful. And then he paused and stopped playing and they kept singing.
SK: They kept singing.
BA: It was just, like-
SK: Oh, my God, right?
BA: That was the moment. Wow. His charisma is amazing. Just amazing. But anyway, ok, we’re done squeeing here.
BA: So I actually know your other film about Scott Walker, which I really love, and again it’s kind of weird, because you’ve done the Rolling Stones movie? And the Backstreet Boys movie. Then, this X Japan movie – everybody knows who X Japan is in Asia but here they’re a little more obscure. Scott Walker is definitely obscure these days unless you’re really, really, really hip. So what are the different approaches you have when you have to deal with these incredibly famous people like the Rolling Stones versus Scott Walker?
SK: It’s all storytelling. You have to just tell a story, and that’s it. Scott Walker–I was the fanboy, you know, I was obsessed with his music. But you really have to just approach them professionally and go ok, I’m not a fanboy, I’m a professional storyteller, I need to figure out how to break this down and piece it together in the best way possible that’s going to be emotional and cinematic. I’m not just putting facts in order to tell you A, B, C, D, whatever it is. My creative approach is always that of a kid making a mixtape for his friend. The art of the mixtape was something that I tried to perfect when I was younger. I worked in a record store, I was taping songs off of records and making mixtapes for friends and wrapping them up in these little packages, and to me the movies are literally an extension of that because you have to figure out how to tell a narrative, you have to communicate it in a way that’s going to move people emotionally and half the time the technique is to imagine you’re literally making them up –
BA: You said that last night, yeah.
SK: It’s a way to work that, if you had the choice, what would be the beats, where would you go next, logically, if you were trying to craft a drama. Because you can’t let the celebrity and all that get in your way. They try to get in your way and you can’t let them.
BA: That’s my other question. Both Scott Walker and Yoshiki are quite strong characters, human beings, personalities. There must have been some push and pull with them, right?
SK: I weirdly feel that the two films are slightly similar in that you’ve got a beautiful enigma kind of hovering in the middle, which are our central characters, but they couldn’t be more opposite. Scott Walker was someone who was super-famous who, because of the shock of fame, retreated into this kind of wilderness. And he tried to surround himself with silence and he really keeps himself well-hidden and protected and really just wants the music to be the only thing you’re confronting. So our access to him was relatively limited. I think I might have had forty-five minutes to interview him, and it was the last thing I did.
BA: Weren’t you in the studio with him, though?
SK: We were in the studio. We had, like, one and a half days. We really did not have a lot of time. Which was insane, to think we had to make a whole film and he gives you just enough. But he’s a master of that economy within his music, so it kind of makes sense. Whereas Yoshiki is fully revealed at all times, you would think, it’s constant cameras. I had ten billion hours of archive to work with. He’s been having himself filmed and archived forever and it’s actually very well organized and logged. It was an open door policy. I mean, cameras everywhere, people were filming us filming him, it was kind of excessive. But at the same time he wears a mask which you need to try and chip away at.
SK: Which is a great cue to go okay, we can go all doppelganger on you and work with a lot of visual doubles and splits. It gave us a clue to a visual world we could create.
BA: Did you pull all that B-roll from his archive? All the psychedelic, dreamy stuff, was that something he shot, or did you shoot that?
SK: Well, the real psychedelic crazy stuff was probably stuff we created. We got a brilliant graphic design team that created that title sequence and all the really psychedelic sequences within the movie which are probably things we made, but we would generally make them with things we shot or from his own archive.
BA: Although there is that one part with the David Lynch footage—
SK: That was like a total surprise. I knew they had worked together and I had been combing through the logs going, where’s Lynch, where’s Lynch, and just one day it was like, box 903 and tapes one through twenty and I was like, what’s this, let’s just start looking at things, and there he is. He basically directed a music video for Yoshiki that I think kinda got shelved but it was right before he was gonna make Lost Highway so I think he was testing out a lot of tricks. Like the fire in the desert and all that stuff, but there’s Yoshiki in the middle of it.
BA: It was like, oh yeah, there’s David Lynch. Because it’s not flashy the way you put him in there! So, you make a lot of documentaries. You made a narrative a while ago but it’s been pretty much straight up docs and music docs. And it sounds like you were a big music fan when you were a kid.
SK: It’s a pocket that I like being in, I love. It motivates me. I feel like you can turn these stories around so many different ways. And each one provides unique challenges in terms of how to approach it, and they’ve all been radically different and this one especially, starting from no knowledge of the band. It was like great, I know nothing about this band, let’s hop in and take this on, you know? And the majority of those people you are trying to reach here in the West are going to be like me, like who the hell are these guys? So I can be that guy and that conduit and you can maybe see it through my eyes. Yet at the same time given the privileged access that we were allowed, what I discovered, thankfully, was that the fans are seeing a side of the band that they’ve never seen before, so it kind of works both ways.
BA: And has it screened in Japan yet?
SK: I think it’ll be February or March – I’m not a hundred percent sure.
BA: Oh, because the record is coming out.
SK: Yeah. The record is coming out and I think he kind of wanted kind of like a homecoming, with the success of the film in the States, like with the wind in his sails. I think it was very important for him. Because it would have been very easy just to make the film and release it in Japan and be done with it. But there is an aspect of this whole thing that is about trying to expand the awareness of the band just to see what kind of a success they can make of themselves outside of their comfort zone and the film is a big part of that.
BA: Is he pretty hands-on about that stuff?
SK: Yeah. He runs everything. I mean, look at the tour. There’s no artistic director. He runs everything, standing up on his drumstool, on his drum riser, dictating everything–the pyro, the lights, the screens, where the band goes, who walks down there, when things explode, when the CO2 blasts out, when the drum goes out (laughter), I mean, he’s running it all himself, all the time.
BA: He’s orchestrating it.
SK: It’s absolutely mind-boggling. So he’s got a plan. And if this ever makes this way to fans in Japan–they’ve been so patient. And we thank them for their patience. It’s coming, we haven’t forgotten about you.
BA: It’ll be interesting an experience to see how that’s received.
SK: I really just can’t wait, because we did show it at the Shanghai International Film Festival and it was in some freaking movie palace and it was off the charts– security, people rushing on the stage, screaming…
BA: Throwing dolls up there…
SK: Everything. They actually had advised him not to do a red carpet because it would be too crazy. He said, well, then I have to do a red carpet. It’s like he orchestrated the event in such a way that there would be pandemonium. But it only got people more excited. He’s a master showman.
BA: It’s interesting because I think in the movie he comes off as being this very delicate angsty person – which I’m sure he is, but what seems to me is that his personality also has an incredible steeliness to it. What you did to try to bring that out as well|? How did you balance that with his tragic life?
SK: Well I think you just have to present it. You just have to see it and draw your own conclusions. You know, we asked Pata, the guitar player, are you ever worried about him, seeing him collapsing. I mean, Pata’s been there since day one and he’s man of few words, but he winks at you and he goes, pssht, he’s not that weak. Come on. (laughter) Not that guy. Give me a break.
BA: So it’s the mask again.
SK: But there’s psychic and emotional pain and physical pain and I think there’s a really interesting relationship between the two. The physical pain helps numb what’s inside. But he carries himself in a very calm, peaceful, quiet manner outside of the realm of his rock star presentation. But he also just lets it out. And I think that’s the case with a lot of performers. The stage is where they unleash it, right?
BA: Do you think that you were able to penetrate the mask that he wanted to show you?
SK: Oh yeah. I mean, granted, it was hair and makeup for every interview, but we had to stop half the time, because he’d be crying and getting very emotional. I think once he decided he’d let me in, in a way, he was really forthcoming and I just felt a closeness in these interviews that I don’t usually get to with musicians. I mean you try to go there and sometimes you just can’t get through.
BA: How long did that take?
SK: The first interview was the day after Madison Square Garden and really we had started with that–I had no preparation. We were shooting days after we got the job, really. And so he was exhausted and kind of elated at the same time. We just sat him down for a very quick forty-five minutes and one of the first things I asked him was, what an amazing night, who do you wish could have been here to share in this experience, you know, totally loaded question – but he immediately started talking about his dad and just got really choked up. And we just went from there and I think just having him observing how we work – he was very impressed with the crew and the team, I think a lot of people who will normally shoot with him or try to approach him for interviews or anything especially in Japan are doing so with a real reserve and they put him on this pedestal, and we just had to go for it. No boundaries – I mean, it was respectful, but we were invasive. And I told him, look, we’re gonna be as obnoxious and as annoying as we can be during production and I’m going to make you uncomfortable and we’re going to cross as many lines as we can, because we can always pull it back in the edit if we need to. But let’s not be censored. If you want to make a great film, that’s kind of part of it, so… And he got it–-I think once he was in, he was all the way. Because he was resistant to making the film apparently, for years.
BA: So what was surprising to you about making this movie? What did you learn about them that you didn’t expect?
SK: Well, it was just the whole thing. It was X Japan itself. It was literally being side-stage at Yokohama Arena, literally a week after meeting him, to see them warming up – warming up – for Madison Garden with two sold-out arena shows. I had never seen anything like it in my life–just the intensity of the fans. I think that was THE most jaw-dropping, just seeing twenty thousand people X-jumping, and crying, and singing along, and just that simultaneous collective passion was at a level I had never experienced. I mean it was an actual just shock in the most beautiful way, literally just being privileged to stand right there. I’m right here, the stage is EXPLODING, there’s pyro, there’s all this stuff, and there’s just a sea of people with their little glow sticks making Xs as far as the eye can see and I was just, where am I? What has happened to me? I just couldn’t believe it.
BA: So you hadn’t witnessed Asian pop music before-
SK: Not to that level. Not to that level. I mean that was pretty awesome. Pretty awesome. It’s a question you get a lot, and it’s never just one thing, it was just kind of the totality of that experience. And then you realize what a heavy burden you have to carry. I’m sure there’s a million fans that wish they could have been in a position to tell the story.
BA: So did the moviemaking change you?
SK: I think they always change you a little bit. I know I have a lot more grey in my beard right now. But, they always change you in some way. I mean, Scott Walker had set a certain bar as an artist and he was someone I felt that I could learn lessons from in terms of how strong you have to be to be an artist and to go down a certain path. I don’t think I could ever be that strong, to go so fully into an artistic wilderness on your own and do something, though I would love to. I think sometimes economically and just logically you kind of can’t do that –
SK: But, in Yoshiki’s case, X Japan… there was such an artistic freedom. It was more about freedom, in a lot of ways. He didn’t mess with us at all and literally, the film was 90% finished, accepted into Sundance, and then we showed him a cut. He gave us that much kind of leeway.
BA: Did you get feedback after that?
SK: A little bit. But it really, it was so minor, because the film was done. There was kind of no going back after a point, so it was a bit of a risk. I think what I took away from his kind of artistic project that allowed us to push it that far visually and emotionally. You kind of feed on the artist and their aesthetic world–that’s kind of how I try to then put that back into the film and try to make sure it’s all calibrated in a way that feels like the music and feels like the show and has a visual aspect that rises to the level of the subject, you know. And it was that kind of excessive freedom that I think he brings to his art that really fueled us and let us really stretch out and do something different with it.
BA: Did you feel like he was collaborating with you?
SK: Oh yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. You know, he says, “Oh, I was too busy to mess with you,” Because he is really on the go all the time. But he said to him it was just a level of trust, so he couldn’t be involved because it’s too painful. He says it a lot and it’s a good story but I do buy it because I’ve seen it in action–he could hardly edit the DVD of the Last Live concert, you know. He said it took him three or four years to finish it because he would watch five minutes and he’d have to go cry and take a break. And that’s one show, forget about the whole career.
BA: Did you ever find a barrier or a wall that he wouldn’t let you through? Like when you asked him about why Taiji got thrown out, and he said, “I’m not telling.”
SK: Those aren’t necessarily walls or barriers, there are just certain things that you know, if he’s not gonna answer, he’s not gonna answer. And we’ve never got an even off the record, that’s one he’s going to take to his grave. Which is fine. I think we need to leave a little mystery intact.
BA: Cool. So you’re still in love with this movie?
SK: I love this movie. I love this movie. I can’t remember – was it Picasso, they asked him, what’s your favorite painting, he says, “the last one, or the next one,” or whatever it is. It’s only in the last few weeks of really showing it to a lot of diverse audiences where you’re really feeling the impact of it. And your perception of it keeps changing. But, yeah, I’m really proud of it. I’m really proud of it. I love it. Which I said about the Backstreet Boys movie, and I love that movie. (laughter) But this one’s just like another level. There’s just something other about this one. It was more of a challenge and I just think it’s visually one of the most stunning things I’ve done yet. I had such great collaborators, like really great collaborators, behind the camera and the graphics team, my editorial team… Everyone just knocked it out on this one. I love it.