GIRLS has been gone for about six months now, but director Richard Shepard—who's lent his prowess to some of GIRLS' best episodes, including "One Man's Trash," "American Bitch," "The Panic in Central Park," and "Sit-In,"—hasn't strayed too far. He recently wrote and directed Tokyo Project, a 30-minute film about a Los Angeles man, Sebastian, who meets a mysterious woman named Claire on a trip to Tokyo. The short, which boasts GIRLS showrunners Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner as executive producers, stars Ebon Moss Bachrach, who played Desi on GIRLS, and Elisabeth Moss. It will air on HBO this weekend, and we spoke to Shepard to find out a little bit about shooting in (and exploring) Tokyo, secret sake bars, and what it was like making some of GIRLS' standouts.
How did Tokyo Project come to be? I had been wanting to write a love story. I first got very influenced by the “Panic in Central Park" episode of GIRLS, which was an incredibly fun episode to do.
I think it really worked, and it was this intimate, two-person relationship half hour that I really loved doing. It inspired me to find and write a love story on my own. Most of the movies that I’ve written have been dark comedies, but I was enjoying the different parts of myself that I was using directing that episode.
So that sort of corresponded with GIRLS going to Tokyo, and I went with the production even though I wasn’t shooting or directing. I wanted to just hang out with them. But I was watching Jesse Peretz direct in the streets of Tokyo and I just thought, oh, I'm jealous, I wish I was directing this episode. It wasn’t so much about what Jesse was doing, as that I wasn’t able to do it. So I was like, I should write a love story set in Tokyo, and I should just make a movie in Tokyo, and I should stop being jealous, and I should better use my energy [on] something else.
I started writing, and weirdly the story I came up with seemed much better suited for short film than a feature film. That was really freeing. Once I realized, oh, this is a short film, then I didn't need to have anyone approve my script. I just needed to make the movie. And being able to have that freedom of going off and making that a 30-minute short without to have anyone approve it was really great, especially after years of working in television, where ultimately, even with all of the freedom in the world, you’re working for someone else’s vision as the director.
What was the GIRLS Tokyo shoot like? Well, it was fun to be there, but I must tell you, being on someone else’s film set when you’re a director and you’re not directing is sort of painful. So I enjoyed my time in Tokyo, but at a certain point I was just like, I don’t even really want to watch them film this. I think Jesse did a great job with that episode, but for me I just ended up going to a lot of places and discovering a lot during my two weeks there. A lot of those places ended up in the short. I found that old movie poster shop, I found that beautiful art book store, I found that sake bar, I found that noodle shop.
I just went to those places as a tourist, as a human being, but they informed me and made me understand the parts of Tokyo I wanted to show, which were separate from the parts of Tokyo Lena and Jenni wanted to show in GIRLS.
I interviewed Zosia Mamet a few years ago, around the time that Tokyo episode was shot, and she said that it was such a "fever dream," because they were all jet-lagged and were just shooting it over a couple of days. And the episode feels that way—it feels very frantic, whereas Tokyo Project feels a lot more languid. The fact of the matter was that we were also all jet-lagged. I mean Lizzie Moss arrived on Saturday and left the next Saturday. She was in Tokyo for basically a week. And we were all taking Ambien to get to sleep and drinking coffee to wake up, and eating a lot of sushi and drinking a lot of sake. There is a sense of, how do you capture this jet-lagged-ness, and it’s either frantic, or it’s very different, and very dreamy. And for me, it was very dreamy, like things just aren’t quite real.
All those shots of the people walking in slow motion, that to me is a little bit how Tokyo feels when you first arrive. It’s so much to take in. Even if you’re from New York, which is a crazy city, Tokyo puts it to shame. I wanted to capture that feeling of, like, [Sebastian]'s really jet-lagged, he’s not really himself. It’s about slowly getting your sea legs, which happens during the course of the movie. By the end, in a way, once he has his night with her, it’s a little less dreamy, and a little more in reality.
How did you end up casting the film? It is very jarring to see Desi not being Desi. Well, I love Ebon, I think Ebon is a brilliant actor, and I think his portrayal of Desi is so multi-faceted that it’s unbelievable. But I also know him as a friend. I've hung out with him and traveled with him. I know him, and he’s a deeply sensitive man. I felt like he is a leading man, and as I was writing this, I was thinking of him the whole time. I was like, I would love to see him play a different sort of role and show people a different range.
That was an exciting part of this thing, writing for him and sending it to him, and saying, "Will you do it?" and him saying yes. That was pretty awesome. The Lizzie Moss of it all was, when I finished the script, I gave it to Lena to give me notes, because she’s a very tough note-giver and very smart. She gave me a bunch of helpful notes, and she said, "I’d love to be involved if I can," and I said, "Well, will you help me get Elisabeth Moss?"
She got the script to Lizzie, and Lizzie responded and was excited about doing it, and I think the idea of going to Tokyo and doing this shoot with twelve people on the crew. It was very intimate. It was a different sort of energy than a normal film crew. It was almost like we were students making a film, except with people who knew what they were doing. I think it really affects the movie. And there’s a real reason there’s an intimacy between those two characters, because of how tiny the group of us [was], and also how intimate we were when we were making the movie. I mean, we ate every meal together, we went out every night together, we were all dealing with the same jet-lag and, you know, sake headaches.
I thought it was interesting that Tokyo Project is this movie about two apparent strangers who find each other in this strange land. I feel like Japan—and especially Tokyo—ends up being that kind of setting a lot, like in Lost in Translation. Can you talk a little bit about that? Well, first off, I think that any romance between two people from another country in another country always has this sort of foreign feeling to it. Even if it’s a romance in Italy, it’s still like, two people enjoying a plate of pasta like no one’s business. It is, in a way, just the overriding cinematic cliche that foreign countries are by their nature romantic.
Lost in Translation was obviously a brilliant movie, but it shouldn’t be the only time we ever see Tokyo portrayed. You know, I didn’t want to watch Lost in Translation again while making this movie, because it’s really nothing like it, other than the fact that there are two people who fall in love in a city. And unlike in Lost in Translation, they actually consummate their relationship. But you know, there is something about how when you travel, you can reinvent yourself, or find your truer self, when you’re not around people who know you and not in your normal life.
In your normal life, you’re not going out to dinner seven nights in a row. In your normal life, you’re not talking as much to strangers maybe as much as you do when you’re traveling. And
[when you're traveling] you can be anyone you want. You can be the guy in a café [who] writes all afternoon when you’re traveling, but that might not be the guy you are when you’re at home. I love that about traveling. I think traveling by its nature is about reinvention. And it’s about taking in new places. So for me, Tokyo just captures my imagination cinematically. I could’ve been another city also, but I wanted it to be Tokyo. At one point we were just crunching numbers to figure out, because we basically got a camera for free, and a crew for free, and editing for free, but there were still some hard costs, like plane tickets and hotel rooms.
At one point it was like, is it cheaper to not go to Tokyo, but go somewhere else, and I was like, what’s the point? I’m making a short film. I’m not doing it to try to make a movie to sell. I just want to make a piece of art. I want to make something for myself, and I wrote it to be in Tokyo. So we’ll fly to Tokyo. And it’s a pain in the neck, but it makes sense for the story I wanted to tell. It could’ve easily been set in another city, but it wouldn’t have been the movie that I wanted to make.
It definitely works, because as soon as I watched this, I started looking up plane tickets to Tokyo. Excellent! That’s the best review my movie will ever get. I love that.
I enjoyed the snippet where different Tokyo residents were talking about Brooklyn. Is there really this obsession with Brooklyn in Tokyo? Oh my God. That was based completely on the fact that all anyone talks about is Brooklyn in Tokyo. A lot of the stores for young people are, like, "Brooklyn Baseball Caps" and "Brooklyn Sneakers." It’s such a weird cultural thing.
While I was there, everyone was talking about Brooklyn so much. I was like, you know what? We just need to go out on the street and have people talk to us about it. Because this is happening right this minute—this idea of how we also are fascinated by certain cultural things in other countries. They certainly are fascinated by certain things in our country. And right when we were making GIRLS, and when we were making our film, Brooklyn was such a hot topic. It just seemed to a certain segment of the population in Tokyo to be the most cool place in the world. Suddenly there were artisanal coffee shops and artisanal mustache places, and all of this stuff ripping off the same Brooklyn stuff that GIRLS also had a good time making fun of. So, yeah. It’s all real.
There's a scene at a secret sake bar where the bartender meticulously crafts this awesome drink. Can you talk a little bit more about it? I found the whole sequence really fascinating. In Tokyo, they have these specific sake bars where they only let three or four people in at a time, because it takes the bartender like ten minutes to make the drinks. It’s not like normal bar where they can make three drinks in one minute. It takes ten minutes. In fact, we only had two hours to shoot the whole scene, and it took the bartender ten minutes each time to make the drinks, so we could only do like four takes.
We didn’t have any other time to do it, and we cut it down to one minute. He created the drink for us, using some of the ingredients we showed. We actually invented that drink, and at the end of the movie, there’s a little title card with the recipe. It was so delicious, I can’t even tell you. It was really one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever tasted. But I loved the idea that you can sit there quietly for ten minutes and watch this person create this drink. And then even just in the way they present it to you, the way they put it on the table in front of you, the glass, all of that is so specific. There’s a real love of detail [in Japan], and a real love of the process.
And what I love about Tokyo is that you can be outside with a million people walking on the street, like we showed, but then you can turn a corner and you can walk into a place that's absolute quiet. We had no music in that scene. I just wanted the sound of the making of the drink. Because the real places—and there’s a few of them in Tokyo—are these very specific type of sake bars. There’s no music. There’s barely anything on the wall. They don’t want you to talk. They just want you to watch them make the drink, and enjoy all of the ingredients they use, and then to enjoy drinking the drink. It’s not a place you go with your friends. There are plenty of bars like that, obviously, but this place and a few others like it are very specific and of course, you know, you feel like you’re in the most important, cool place in the world, because we’re not used to that in a bar. Usually we see a bar that’s empty and we’re like, something’s wrong with this bar, but it’s actually the exact opposite there. They don’t want anyone in there.
I thought it was interesting that both of the food and drink places featured in the film—a ramen spot and the sake bar—are the kind of places where you can just go and sit by yourself and eat and it’s not strange. These are two people who are exploring a city on their own, but eating and drinking is such a social thing in New York. I feel weird eating alone anywhere. You’re more likely to eat alone when you’re traveling. I always think about that. I’m happy to sit at a bar by myself when I’m traveling. It’s when I’m at home that it feels odd. One of the things that people seek out in places while traveling is where they can eat without feeling someone will be like, "Why aren’t you with someone else?" I also like this idea that [Sebastian and Claire] both were on the same travel website and looking at the same places to go to that were cool in Tokyo. Of course because they have so much in common, their instincts are to go to some of the same places. That’s what was fun about it, and of course we eventually find out that they definitely are connected.
Courtesy of HBO
I did the GIRLS recaps for Gothamist and have seen every episode like, multiple times. Too many times. But you’ve directed, I think, the most self-contained episodes, “One Man’s Trash” and “American Bitch” and “The Panic in Central Park,” even “Sit-In,” they all feel like their own short films. But they do have the benefit of the audience knowing the characters in advance. Is it harder to do something like that, where you’re locked into the characters and can’t really make the story you want, or is it easier because your audience already knows who you’re talking about? I think that’s a great question, and there’s not an exact answer to it. There’s obviously some ease when you have an audience already understanding the characters. That is helpful. Those episodes were always really challenging because there was no other story to cut to. And that requires a different level of approaching the material than maybe a normal episode. When you can be like, "We can always cut to the Andrew Rannells story, it’s so funny," or "We can always cut to Ray being locked out of the place." We had none of that. So there’s a huge amount of pressure because, you know, if it doesn’t work it really doesn’t work. And so the amount of time working on the script in a way is heightened on those episodes.
But at the same time, because they are like little mini-movies, there’s a deep freedom cinematically to take the show out of the normal language that it’s in. “One Man’s Trash” was the first time we [shot with a handheld camera] on that show. And I think the second time we were handheld was in “Panic in Central Park.” And then for the Matthew Rhys episode, the painting being done specifically for the shots that we were doing, and the specificity of the framing with a different image, all of the fun stuff for directing, you get a lot more time to reflect on it. It’s a little more tough with film, but it’s also really fun.
Conversely, doing a short film where you don’t have any history of anyone allows you a real freedom to create anything you want, in any film language. And I have been doing GIRLS for a lot of years and a lot of TV pilots and it has been like five years since I made my own movie and I was just itching to do anything that was my own. In a way, a short film relieves you of the stress of having to do something “commercial,” like I guess, in fact I didn’t need to get it financed by a studio, I didn’t have to worry about how many theaters it was being released in, or whatever.
I was doing a short film and I wanted to do a love story and I wanted to show my love of Tokyo and hopefully do something very engaging and specific and free enough to have a montage of people saying Brooklyn, and it feels like it’s all part of the same movie and all of that. And I was thrilled that HBO wanted to buy it when we were done, that's an incredible gift that people are going to be able to see this movie. I feel very, very lucky.
But, that’s a long answer to the question, to say that I really was excited by the freedom of both doing something in 30 minutes and also not having the constraints of character. But I must say, as a director on GIRLS, those standalone episodes were always the most fun to do, and the most challenging to do. As opposed to other episodes, that had their own sequences that might have been challenging. Certainly the one with the play in the backyard of the apartment building, and Hannah’s watching Adam and Jessa on the balcony, all of that, that was like the hardest thing I’ve ever done on that show in terms of planning. But that entire episode wasn’t nearly as hard as any of the three we were just talking about.
Yeah, certainly “One Man’s Trash, “Panic in Central Park," and “American Bitch" felt like short films. Although my favorite episode is still "Sit-In," which I guess is also sort of its own bottle episode. But [Sit-In] is similar, it’s very similar in that there is nothing—yes you can cut to a different person showing up, which helps, but you can’t cut out of that apartment. We purposefully shot it so we’re never outside of the apartment until the last two shots of the whole episode. Even the shot of New York is from her window. The segue shot. So that was challenging.
I convinced them to allow me to bash the wall out so that there would be some room to move the camera and block the actors. That was the first episode we bashed the wall between Marnie’s old room and Hannah’s room. I begged the writers to do it, I was like if you make me shoot it in this tiny set for 30 minutes I have to be able to move the camera through this wall.
Tokyo Project debuts on HBO on Saturday, October 14th at 10 p.m.