FF2011: Hunting the Aardvark

Director Kitao Sakurai leaves rap videos for docu-noir

"We're taking you as a real person and twisting it in the movie and this is going to be confusing for you as an actor and as a person and for the audience." Director Kitao Sakuri on 'Aardvark' stars Darren Branch and Larry Lewis Jr. (Image courtesy of Aardvark)

It's Monday night outside the Highball, and director Kitao Sakurai is kind of stressed. It's understandable: Larry Lewis Jr., the star of his strange hybrid bio/noir/fantasy pic Aardvark, has been in an accident, and was not at Fantastic Fest.

Lewis was OK, and the night was about to get a lot better: Sakurai was about to collect the AMD and dell "Next Wave" Spotlight Competition award for best actress for his female lead and ex-girlfriend Jessica Cole.

For anyone that thinks Fantastic Fest is all psycho-slashers, Kaiju and Pinku, Aardvark may look way off the charts. The first half is a quasi-autobiographical depiction of Lewis, a recovering alcoholic who has been blind since birth, and his jujitsu instructor Darren Branch: The second half becomes an oddball noir that would make Crispin Hellion Glover proud. Sakurai and his producer Andrew Barchilon took time to explain how this intimate but very fantastical piece was created.

Austin Chronicle: This is a film with a major tonal shift halfway through, and both halves are pretty distinctive and unique anyway. Where did the structure of the film come from?

Kitao Sakurai: I'm from Cleveland, and Larry and Darren are real people. Larry I had met in a jujitsu class that Darren was running, and I'd actually gone to high school, actually through middle school with Darren, and I had made some films that he was in, also based loosely around his life. When I met Larry, I was just fascinated by this character, by his presence and his physicality. He's such an amazing actual person.

To get to where that break from, I think that idea was brewing in my brain for a while. As soon as I met Larry, there was some spark there. I think it was the third time I met him, he was standing outside of the jujitsu academy where everybody trains. I'm just standing there at a distance and I had this really strange thought, which was that I could deceive him so easily by not greeting him. He has no idea of my presence, and we where at enough of a distance that I could walk away and he would never have known I was standing there watching him. Then of course I was taken aback and said, 'Hey, Larry, how're you doing?' like a normal human being, but that just split second of the nature of seeing and understanding a situation and knowing someone else and the possibility of deception, was what I think was one of the earliest sparks.

AC: There are a lot of intimate truths in here, like Larry's alcoholism. Was there ever a moment when you thought of doing a straightforward documentary instead?

KS: No. There was never a period when we thought this should be a documentary. People have come up to and said, 'Why didn't you make a documentary?' but fundamentally the idea is that it is a recreation-slash-imagining, based in a real world situation.

AC: This all sounds pretty intimate and personal: Andrew, how did you come on board?

Andrew Barchilon: Kitao and I had been working together for about five years already, and we had come up on big hip-hop videos. I was the producer, he was the cinematographer, and I actually directed a piece that he was DP on, but in that environment we're just equals in most senses. We have a really longstanding approach, so we knew that we wanted to make a film together for like, months, years already, and were just waiting for that idea. Whoever has that idea first, the other person will have your back. For him, that idea came so quickly. I didn't know when he met Larry the first time that anything was brewing, but eventually he had that initial conceit. Here's this amazing dude in Cleveland, and he told me all about Larry and I said, 'That sounds fascinating,' and he said, 'I want to make a film about him where, halfway through the film, we're going to introduce this completely fictional element. He had the whole thing worked out to the final scene, pretty much as it is now, and it's going to lead on this crazy noir vengeance path. I was just such a ridiculous idea, it was so exciting.

We didn't know yet if Larry was going to go for it, so after Kitao walked me through the paces he had to go to Cleveland to talk to both Darren and Larry. For Darren, it's like, we're taking you as a real person and twisting it in the movie and this is going to be confusing for you as an actor and as a person and for the audience. Are you comfortable with that? But Darren had a longstanding trust with Kitao, and for him it was pretty quick. Kitao was really concerned about Larry, and he asked Darren, 'How should I approach Larry?'

KS: Basically, he said there's only one of two options on Larry's answer. He'll either say no way, or he'll say, 'I'm in to the end' and luckily for us he was in it to the end. He brought such a level of commitment, not only to the project but to his character and the conceit and the idea of representing a version of himself. As a performer, in a situation like this and as a non-acting performer, it can be tricky and emotionally strange. In the end, I think it was tougher for Darren than it was for Larry. In the film, we were heightening Darren's own internal psychological issues that he struggles with. To put that on film in exploded way is a really weird thing for somebody to ask you to do.

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ff2011, Aardvark, Larry Lewis Jr., Kitao Sakurai, Fantastic Fest, FF 2011, Andrew Barchilon, Darren Branch, Blind, Ju Jitsu

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