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Published on November 23rd, 2014 | by aeiko

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Studio Ghibli documentary director interview

Mami Sunada was born in Tokyo and studied documentary filmmaking at Keio University. She broke into film by assisting director Hirokazu Kore-eda on Still Walking and Air Doll. She also wrote and directed Death of a Japanese Salaryman.

Her latest film, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, played at TIFF.

WaH: Please give us your description of the film playing.

MS: Studio Ghibli, a nationally recognized studio in Japan, was in a state where two films, The Wind Rises and The Tale of Princess Kaguya, were being directed by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata during the same year. This was very unusual, and thus a memorable event that both were in production at the same time. Since I was granted such rare access for this documentary in such a busy year, I was able to capture many of the details of the studio’s production process.

WaH: What drew you to this story?

MS: This project started off as a request from Disney Japan to make a commercial DVD, but as soon as I started going to Studio Ghibli, I realized that in order to depict the studio in a comprehensive manner, it should be done as a feature film instead. I had the intuition that this would be a historic year for Studio Ghibli, so I thought, rather than just having a video to promote it, I wanted to give a more in-depth glimpse at the daily operations within the legendary studio.

WaH: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

MS: There were three major obstacles for me to overcome before I could get the access I needed to Studio Ghibli. The first was producer Mr. Suzuki, who initially was reluctant to agree to the approaches I suggested. It was only when I said I wanted to make this into a documentary feature film that he gave me his support, and only with the condition that I approach directors Miyazaki and Takahata myself.

Mr. Miyazaki was right in the middle of production for The Wind Rises, so it was hard to find the time to start really filming him. I went daily to see how he worked and to figure out how best to approach him. Mr. Takahata was even more difficult. If Miyazaki was Mount Fuji, then Mr. Takahata was Mount Everest. With the release date for the documentary looming, I had no choice but to overcome these difficulties on a tight deadline.

WaH: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

MS: Regardless of the audience’s interest in animation, I would hope that they leave the theatre with an appreciation for the value of consistent, hard work. These three animation filmmakers show how difficult it is to actually finish these projects, and how the result of repeating quality work every day can be something really incredible.

WaH: What advice do you have for other female directors?

MS: Actually, I would like get advice from other female directors! It’s still early in my career, but so far what I have learned is that female filmmakers need to really focus on patiently and persistently explaining their vision to producers.

WaH: How did you get your film funded?

MS: At first, we had no production funding set up at all, so both Mr. Suzuki and Mr. Miyazaki at Studio Ghibli were concerned about how I was funding myself and the project. They helped set me up with Mr. Nobuo Kawakami, who is the head of Dwango Co. and was a producer on this film, and he ultimately ended up funding the film via Dwango.

WaH: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

MS: Open Hearts directed by Susanne Bier in 2002. It’s a fully realized work of entertainment, but it also shows what it means to be human. It very delicately shows the loneliest parts of life, as well as the inner and outer aspects of people.

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