The unconventional story of an ambitious sea-creature who pursues her desire to become human and chase the elusive dream of self-fulfilment, Thessa Meijer’s The Walking Fish speaks to the deep-seated worry of not measuring up to self-imposed ideals with aplomb. With The Walking Fish arriving online today on a tidal wave of well deserved accolades – including its selection as the Dutch submission to the 2020 Academy Awards – Meijer joins us to discuss directing in Japan through interpreters and why she’s not done with aquatic creatures just yet.
Despite its fantastical premise, The Walking Fish is very much a grounded in real world concerns about ambition, drive and the discontentment which can arise from ‘falling short’. What made you want to explore these themes and how did that become married with the idea of the mutsugorou?
It actually went the other way around, I married my fascination with the mutsugorou with themes from my own life experience. It all started when researching the Saga region (in Kyushu, Japan) regarding an idea I had for a film about a woman and a volcano. The mutsugorou is almost a sort of mascot for this area, so it was difficult to avoid it. I instantly fell in love with this odd amphibian creature and started collecting all these facts and images – and completely abandoned the volcano idea (well, not completely but that’s another story… stay tuned!).
I instantly fell in love with this odd amphibian creature.
I could have given a whole lecture about the life and habitat of the mutsugorou! But the film’s narrative was still pretty open at that point. To narrow things down and turn my fascination into an actual story, my Producer Gijs Kerbosch from HALAL asked me what my personal connection to the mutsugorou was. Then I started writing, and the themes of ambition, perfectionism and self-acceptance became more clear.
How did the strange amphibian inform the parameters of Mutsumi’s character traits?
I think most mutsugorous don’t have much in common with Mutsumi’s character. They seem to be the missing link in evolution – as if they were halfway through becoming four-legged terrestrials – but suddenly stopped evolving and decided that their amphibian shape was good enough. That’s a pretty laid back attitude towards themselves that Mutsumi doesn’t have at all! She is curious, extremely self-critical and has a huge drive to learn and evolve. However, a lot of Mutsumi’s physiological traits did derive directly from the mutsugorou. She’s born with one pipe for both eating and breathing, she has a tiny heart, weak bones and she needs to keep her skin moist in order to stay healthy.
The Walking Fish was created as part of the Holland House Artist in Residency in Saga, Japan. In what ways did that programmed enable and support the film?
In so many ways, it wouldn’t have been possible without them. The Holland House residency provided part of the budget, as well as my apartment in Saga and a working space. They helped out with extras, location scouting and permits. And most of all: the people I met through the residency contributed in so many ways to the script development by teaching me about Japanese culture and introducing me to cast and crew members that I could never have found on my own. You-ga Sonada was the manager of Holland House when I was there, and together with Nikki Tsukamoto Kininmonth and Minako Yamaguchi, she formed a powerhouse production team that worked incredibly hard. None of them had ever made a fiction film before so it was pretty intense, but they moved mountains and I’m forever grateful to them.
As a non-Japanese speaker what were the practicalities of first casting, then directing actors in a different language to your own? Did you develop any techniques to speed up the translation barrier?
During castings and rehearsals I always worked with an interpreter. For the auditions, we asked the actors to improvise based on a scene and character description, because I liked to see what they would add to it, and this way make it more authentic. In rehearsals we would first discuss the meaning of a scene and the conflict between the characters, then make some changes in dialogue or actions to make it feel more real, then rehearse. After the rehearsal I would tell them how I experienced it and ask why they did certain things (from their character’s perspective).
It was tempting to try to speed things up by skipping or interrupting the interpreter.
It was a great practice, because – especially in the beginning – I had no idea what they were saying during the improvisation and had to fully focus on other forms of communication: body language, facial expressions etc. At the point of shooting I had learned some very basic Japanese and since some of the actors also spoke some English, it was tempting to try to speed things up by skipping or interrupting the interpreter. But of course, the more I tried to speed things up, the more frustrating and annoying and time consuming it would be. The best technique was being patient and letting go. Do you know the Japanese version of Frozen’s Let It Go? It’s great.
How did your location selections and desired vision for the film inform your choice of equipment and cinematographic approach? You and DoP Myrthe Mosterman have worked with each other numerous times, how does that familiarity enhance your collaborative process?
The choice of our equipment was very practical. We were bringing camera equipment from The Netherlands, and the initial idea was to have a mini crew that could fit in a small van. So Myrthe only had an Alexa Mini, a Fujinon 19-90 mm zoom lens and 1 small flex LED. That was all! This limitation was great because it made things way easier in terms of blocking a scene, setting priorities and making it slightly easier to execute.
Since the Dutch crew only arrived a few days prior to shooting, I did the location scouting together with the Japanese team and digitally discussed the options with HALAL, Myrthe and Sanne Schat (the production + costume designer). Sanne is great with colours and Myrthe is amazing with natural lighting, so during recce and on set we would choose the best angles for the scenes. We didn’t storyboard, but only briefly discussed the shot list that I had made and made changes on set. We liked doing digital zooms to add tension or humour, and often decided on the spot if it would fit the scene. This, of course, was only possible because we had worked together before and because Myrthe is such a great DP, it made me trust the process and be more flexible.
What was the film’s turnaround time from start to finish?
I was doing research on volcanoes in Kyushu (Japan) for quite a while, before I discovered the mutsugorou in January 2018. Then the ball started rolling, I got accepted for the Holland House residency and worked in Japan from mid-March till May. In June we started editing (with breaks in between which was a really nice way of working) and finished the post-production in October.
It’s easy to think all is over when a film is ‘locked’, but actually HALAL and I have been invested in the promotion of the film for almost three years now. The premiere and festival round started out pretty slowly, but in the end, the film has been overwhelmingly well received. It was even the Dutch submission to the 2020 Academy Awards! I’m super excited to finally release the film online, it feels like the final step of the whole process.
The style and story changed quite a lot during the writing process.
How closely does the final film echo the story laid out in the script, which itself went through a major change from a mockumentary form initially?
That’s right, in the first draft, the film would start with Mutsumi’s dead body being found. After that, it would consist of interviews, re-enactments and an autopsy, to discover what had happened to this young woman with fish bones instead of human ones. But I wanted to get closer to Mutsumi’s character (and we also needed to narrow down the characters and locations), so the style and story changed quite a lot during the writing process. In the editing, we stayed pretty close to the shooting script. Some of the interviews used to be longer and we removed the original ending scene. In the shooting script, it would end with Mutsumi’s last breath while she’s laying on the mudflats at low tide, but I wanted to give her a more hopeful ending.
Can you tell us anything about the feature you’re developing Volcano Girl? Will we see any other short form projects from you in the meantime?
Yes! As I mentioned before, I was researching volcanoes, but that idea got interrupted by The Walking Fish. Now I’m back to the volcanoes again. Volcano Girl will be my debut feature together with HALAL and we just received funding from the Dutch Film Fund for the first development stage, so that’s super exciting! The story is about the budding sexuality of 15-year old Viccy, and there’s a volcano… but that’s all I can say at the moment.
Last year I started directing commercials too and I really enjoy the variation between long and short form projects, as well as the boundaries that make me think of different storytelling angles and new visual styles, so I’d love to continue that learning curve. I am also working on a young adult horror short that’s again inspired by a strange sea creature, so hopefully, that one will be crawling towards you soon!
The Walking Fish is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.