PODCAST — Episode 5, recorded
Lisa Spilliaert in conversation with BFMAF programmer Herb Shellenberger about the film ‘N.P’.→
Lisa Spilliaert (1990, Tokyo) lives and works in Ghent, Belgium. Her fascination for genealogy and the constant shifting between her cultural backgrounds are recurring motifs in her autobiographically inspired work. Before working in film, Spilliaert trained as a photographer at KASK School of Arts Gent. Her video debut Hotel Red Shoes (2013, a collaboration with her sister Clara Spilliaert) displayed her skills in translating the quality and strength of her photographic work to the moving image. Her second video work Growth Record 1 (2014) was the start of a conceptual series of yearly videos, steadily documenting the growth of a baby towards adulthood through photography and video. Spilliaert’s work has been screened at Image Forum Festival (Tokyo, Kyoto, Nagoya and Yokohama), International Film Festival Rotterdam, Art Cinema OFFoff (Gent) and Beursschouwburg (Brussels).
Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer and writer originally from Philadelphia and based in London. He has curated screenings and film series at an international array of very excellent film festivals, cinematheques and art institutions, as well as some not so good like Tate and Tyneside Cinema which unfortunately have treated their workers very poorly. He is editor of Rep Cinema International, a newsletter/online publication focusing on repertory and archival film exhibition around the world and has recently written for the exhibition catalogue Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emswhiller (Anthology Editions/Lightbox Film Center, 2019).
This is Herb Shellenberger from Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, and I’m really happy to speak today with Lisa Spilliaert about her film N.P. We’re really pleased to show it in this year’s festival and I’m really looking forward to hearing more about the film from you. To start off Lisa, could you tell me a little bit about your work leading up to making this film? I know that you’ve made a series of short films before, but I understand that they’re perhaps quite different than this film.
Yeah, it’s my first feature film. A feature, like 60 minutes, but a first narrative film in which I also adapted an existing novel by Banana Yoshimoto. I’ve been fascinated with the book since my teenage years in Japan where I was born and grew up. Yeah, I first read the book as a really young teenager and it was very special for me all the time. And also after I moved to Belgium and started art education and studied photography, it became really undertone of my life and also my art practice. And after making short films, more and more I found the motives of my interest in this novel, like genealogy as a theme. And the art translation is also an important theme in this work. And then at some point I decided to make the film.
And can you talk a little bit about the book? A little bit more about the book itself, about its history and its reception, when you thought about adapting it.
Banana Yoshimoto is actually super famous outside Japan. And back then for me it was really an exciting book. I was very young, 13, 14, and it was opening the world and I took the book for my own bookshelf. The book is also very widely translated in various languages.
And you’ve brought it with you through the years. And when did you actually know that the time was right for you to, how did you work out the permission to do so?
In 2015, I think I first had the idea, in 2015 or 2016, I don’t remember. And then I was visiting my family in Japan, I think. And then I wanted to meet Banana Yoshimoto and to ask her if I could do it. So yeah, there was this kind of events where she was presenting her book and I went there and I said to her, “hello, I want to make the film of N.P.” And yes, she was very kind and nice. And she said, “Okay then, you have to contact my agent.” So I first tried the script grant in Flanders. With that script grant I could make my script. And then the next step is actually finding a producer. Yeah, it was a very long process. The intense year of production lasted three years. But from the first moment I got the idea it’s about five years, I think.
Did you feel at all intimidated to take on such a great work of literature as a filmmaker? It’s a big statement, I think, to adapt such a rich book. Or you were really ready for this challenge?
Yeah, I don’t know anymore, but yeah, I guess I thought I was.
It’s good. It’s really good. Considering that the book itself is so focused on translation, how did you discover this quite, interesting, formal way to move into translating the story and texts into a film?
Yeah. That part was actually most intense in a post-production. Because we knew already that it would be a silent film. So I had a very simple, plane script during the shoot. So that all the actors could improvise and concentrate on their dynamics. But it was in the post-production that we really concentrated ourselves on the text with the dramaturge, Sis Matthé, he had different language versions as references. Because I have the Japanese original version in my mind. We had to come to the very final product in English. And Banana, she recommended us to read the Italian translation. And so Sis the dramaturg, he read the Italian translation, as well as I think, many, many versions of translated N.P. And in conversation with Sis, with him, yeah, we tried to make them actually reconstruct the story. Then we really had the feeling to entering the deep forest of translation. But it was very interesting process to see the parting from so many different translations to how my feelings are in the story. Yeah.
Yeah, because it’s a silent film, but it’s not a silent film in the way that we’re used to. So I guess I want to know how focusing on this different approach allowed you to take the elements of filmmaking in a different way, whether that’s sound design or scripting.
Sound design was another great journey, but with the texts, we tried to make all the dialogue as simple as possible in a good way, and then not making it too long. But in the monologues, in the black punk artists, the black boars, you see the monologue of Kazami who is telling the story. In that part, in the monologue part, we really focused on the subtle feelings that’s in the original book. Yeah, sometimes very photographic descriptions of very small things, for example, or yeah, the feelings. So we tried to make the contrast between dialogues and monologues. And there is also an another part, by a translator character, that comes here and there in the film, not really in the linear chronology, but they to introduce the phenomena of translation together with original copy, not really copy, but original untranslated version and other versions and somehow linked with the incestuous relations between a protagonist. You know, you have original copy, not really copy, but another version. Yeah.
And could you talk about your use of music throughout the film?
Sound concept was done by Vincent Stroep, who is also one of the producers, and with a sound studio in Antwerp. One important decision was that the voices are stolen. Only the voices are taken away, mostly in the dialogue parts. You hear all the sounds, but only the voices are taken out. So environmental sounds together with foley, because we didn’t record any sounds during the shoots, so we had to reconstruct all of this. They had a foley studio that was very, so wonderful. And very important are the musicians who contributed the new pieces. Asuna, the Japanese sound artist who did the more subtle tones, and then you have Wolf Eyes. There are two numbers of Wolf Eyes: one Black Vomit, that existing number. Very heavy noise number that works very well in more, not violence, but emotionally, very heavy scenes. And the other one, they made in a toilet. Anyway, great contribution by Wolf Eyes. And then the ending, like when the titles come, that is actually the first time you hear a voice because it’s singing.
That was made by the Antwerp musician Stacks. Yeah.
I wanted to actually speak more about the ending because I just, watching it, sat really transfixed. It’s this gorgeously terse moment. One of these really vivid scenes; how it’s unfolding and the duration and these things. So can you talk more about how that was planned?
Yeah. It’s also actually the ending scene in the original book. Kazami and Otohiko, they sit together on the beach. And there is also suggestion that there might be a starting of a new relationship, or you carried it in many different ways. But we cut off all the dialogue, but let the audience feel their very simple interactions. They drink together and they are eating cheese or snacks. You see them talking and something is growing. I also really wanted to let the image continue also after the music piece has ended. Of course it’s maybe more a cinema experience thing, but yeah, I hope people can enjoy it at home as well.
I haven’t seen it in a cinema yet, but I did really enjoy it. The last thing I’m interested to know is: have you sent the film to Banana Yoshimoto? Has she seen it?
Yeah, I think she likes it. But we’re now just ready with the Japanese version, so I only sent her the English version, which she liked, I think, and now the Japanese version is almost ready. So back to the original version. That was another enriching process to translate it again back to Japanese.
Yeah. That’s excellent. Well, we’re very excited to show the English version that’s part of the Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival and they’re excited to see where the film travels to next. So thank you for joining.