Every once in a while life throws up a seemingly innocuous piece of information which forces you to consider where you are at this point in your existence and where you could have been had you taken a different path. For the amateur pornographer at the centre of Stephen Takashima’s understated short Breathing Through Trees, it’s the engagement of his ex-girlfriend which leads to conflicted feelings about a fresh new applicant ready to expose herself for his lens. Making its online premiere on Directors Notes today, we invited Stephen to tell us how a desire for subtlety guided his narrative approach, while impromptu production design brought a realistic aesthetic to set.

I have somewhat of a penchant for beating people over the head with ideas, being a little too heavy-handed. Like middle school poetry. So one of my goals with this film was to reign it in and communicate my ideas as subtly and minimalistically as possible. Sometimes an entire reason or motivation is represented by a single image. Obviously, this opens the film up to interpretation and lends itself towards people projecting their own histories onto it, but I was hoping it would still be possible to piece together the broad strokes of what happened.

Though I’ll spare you the minute details of everything I had in mind while writing this film, I will say that a substantial inspiration for me was the song Hold On To What You Believe by Mumford and Sons. In fact, it is from this song that the film gets its title.

I don’t pretend to know what Marcus Mumford was really thinking when he wrote it but in a lot of ways, this film is a representation of the story I imagine behind it. There is a tension in many of his songs that I really resonate with; a wrestling between the person he wants to be (or used to be) and the life he actually chooses on a daily basis. A kind of longing to return home, competing with the desire to keep expectations and commitments at arm’s length. Before the beginning of each chorus, he asks “What if I was wrong?” Every day we make these small decisions that lead us down a certain road; I think it can be so incredibly easy to end up somewhere we never intended.

The production itself was also quite minimalistic. The first day we shot everything in the apartment, which was an Airbnb I had only confirmed a couple days beforehand. I had an entirely different place in mind, so all of our blocking had to happen the morning of the shoot. The room was so small, I literally had to structure my blocking around what permitted all four of us (the two actors, my DP, and I) to successfully navigate through a space that was only big enough for one and half of us to pass through.

One of my goals with this film was to reign it in and communicate my ideas as subtly and minimalistically as possible.

All of the flashback scenes were shot on the following day; the bedroom scene was filmed at a friend’s house in the morning, then we hopped over to a close-by park to get the nature shots. Somehow, we fit the entire shoot into a day and a half.

We shot on the Sony a7S (because that’s the camera that I own). Our lighting setups were rarely more than two lights; we pumped an HMI through the window for the main apartment scene so that we could have some semblance of consistency, and then my DP (John Klein) stuck a couple small LEDs here and there as needed. He’s a champ.

All in all, the total budget was about $800; essentially this covered food, location, props and equipment. Our Production Designer Casey Autey gets double-extra-special points for working with basically nothing. Also, for helping me clean out the main character’s sink when we were done shooting. Mushy corn flakes.

My favorite story from production involves the bathroom scene. When we started shooting in there, we were all thinking, “Something’s not quite right. This mirror looks too damn clean…” So both Cole Simon (the lead actor) and John started wiping their faces and hands across the mirror to make it gross. It worked, I think.

I usually get through the editing phase relatively quickly; I had a rough draft a few days after we shot (which honestly didn’t change too much by the final draft). I know that most people advise against editing your own stuff, but… meh. I like editing and didn’t have money for someone else to do it. To make post-production more interesting, I was actually traveling throughout Central America at the time. All of my notes with John (who also colored the film) and the sound designers had to take place remotely over a sketchy internet connection.

The film had a pretty modest festival run. I think we got rejected from about 35 festivals or so and accepted into only 4. The fact that one of these 4 was Chicago International, however, certainly helped. After becoming so accustomed to the “unfortunately” and “had to make some tough decisions” letters, I was pretty stunned when I saw that we would be screening there.

After sitting on it for so long, I’ve been a bit anxious about releasing it online (which is way overdue). I don’t exactly have a large social sphere, so I’ve been worried it will get about 36 views and then die. I’m incredibly grateful to DN for taking an interest in our film and being willing to help us share it with a larger audience! It means a lot to me.

6 Responses to Past Love Forces an Amateur Pornographer to Reconsider His Life in Stephen Takashima’s ‘Breathing Through Trees’

  1. Daniel Lee says:

    I loved everything about this! I especially thought the bathroom scene + nature shots worked really well together and definitely added a huge impact on the film overall. Great Job Stephen!

  2. Victoria Van Hof says:

    I love the subtlety of this film. The subject matter would be an easy one to lead to a heavy-handed approach. Beautifully done.

  3. Beautiful work, Stephen! Great job on the dynamics and subtleties of human interaction. Love it!

  4. I’ve seen the film a few times now, and continue to be amazed by it’s elegant story-telling. Stephen Takashima tells his story using minimal words, time and resources, leaving it to viewers to answer questions encountered along the way. Bravo! And thanks for the directors notes. Very interesting and helpful.

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