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Connection is the Answer: Edson Oda on Nine Days

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Writer/director Edson Oda’s “Nine Days” premiered at Sundance 2020, and audiences in Park City fell in love with this ambitious, moving tale. And then it went where so many movies had to in 2020, a holding pattern, waiting for the world to recover from a pandemic enough to go back to theaters. It is finally being released this week and Oda checked in with us to discuss this remarkable drama, the story of a man named Will (Winston Duke), who oversees a process to determine who shall move on to the next stage of existence and be born. Five souls come to his house, including ones played by Zazie Beetz and Tony Hale, and Will battles his own shaken confidence after one of his former subjects has killed herself. Did he get something wrong? How does one determine readiness for the beauty and cruelty of the world? Oda’s film was inspired by the suicide of his own uncle, and it is an emotionally charged study of human existence that feels both deeply personal and universal at the same time, especially after what’s happened to us in the last year.

Seeing the film for the first time in 18 months, I was struck by how it felt different in the context of the last year and I’m curious how the film has changed for you in that time? And what’s it been like to hold onto it for so long?

Actually, it changed quite a bit. It’s more or less the same movie but going through isolation and this year of people you love being away is interesting. More or less, I was going through what Will went through last year—stuck in a house, thinking about things, and watching people but not being able to do anything about it. Even my family is off in Brazil, where the situation is not the best. I can only see people on the screen and not being able to touch or do anything. So, I think it does have a different meaning. At one point, I went to the beach by myself, and I was just like ‘I’m going to go in the water.’ At that time, everyone seemed afraid of everything, and I just wanted to feel the water. It had such an impact on me that I started crying. Just touching the water. Which is kind of like a scene in my film.

It fits so many themes of the last year like helplessness and trying to understand something that can’t be understood. Where did that come from? What are the origins of this story?

There’s a lot about feeling helpless about another person but also about yourself. Will is based on an uncle of mine who committed suicide when he was 15. I was 12 at the time. He was very sensitive, kind, and artistic. At the time, I didn’t have the connection. Somehow, I felt like I couldn’t do anything about it and there was that kind of distance, but I also didn’t understand what he went through. After I started going through similar feelings and struggles, I thought that now I understand. I have a connection. Through connection, you feel less powerless. There’s something about feeling connected that somehow you feel like ... I don’t know. For example, my family is in Brazil, but I feel connected to them. There’s something there that makes you not feel powerless. It’s an energy that’s almost spiritual. The sense of powerlessness I had during this struggle and not feeling connected to my uncle and my family gave me a little more power than trying to go through that moment. Even this moment. Connection is the answer.

Let’s talk a little about that. Roger Ebert famously said that “Film is an empathy machine.” And that quote came to me at the beginning of this movie when Will is watching other experiences on screens. Am I crazy to read a subtext here about the importance of art and simply viewing other experiences or was that in your mind?

100%. He is able to see but he is not able to influence. He is not able to directly change it. He can’t change the others, but he can change himself. In this way, I think there is a parallel to art because when you watch art, you can’t change the artist, but you can change yourself. However, I do feel sometimes when that happens that there’s an impact on the artist too. It can be very metaphysical. You make an impact on the world and the artist is going to feel that. Even if they’re distant, there’s a connection. Mostly, it’s the change that the art has on the watcher, rather than the opposite.

What philosophies and religions did you study to incorporate into this, if anything? What were your texts?

I was raised Catholic. Brazil is a very Catholic place. My mom is Catholic. But, for me, it was interesting, I absorbed the words and the information and the principles, but it was always hard to go “literal” like a lot of people do. I don’t see “Nine Days” as a religious movie at all, but I’m always tempted to question the information that comes from above you. So, I think, there’s more questioning. Questions without answers. You have the answers rather than someone else. I also think that comes from a Japanese background. There’s some kind of spirituality about things. There’s a Japanese stop motion artist who had an impact on me who said that when you’re doing stop-motion you have to consider that everything is alive. And there’s spirituality in Japan that considers everything alive. In stop-motion, you teach something to the object that you’re animating, and the objects teach something to you. We are a part of something bigger. You can always learn. There’s something about that that stuck with me when I was writing.

Where does your questioning nature come from? Were you raised that way?

Maybe. I don’t know. I think it comes from so many rules that come down on you. I was so good at following the rules. I need to be the best student. I need to be the best. After a while. I started questioning because fitting into the box wasn’t making me any happier. I felt like the result of not being fulfilled with that philosophy brought me to questioning.

Outsiders often question the inside to a certain extent.

Yeah. That too. People ask me, “You being a foreigner and immigrant even in Brazil ...” It gives you a different perspective. You can see a more distant perspective. For art, it’s helpful.

What are the cinematic inspirations here? Were there films you looked at for reference?

I showed a lot of Gregory Crewdson, the photographer. And every time I was pitching, I said this should feel more like Will’s memories. Memories are more like paintings of reality. You think they’re photos, but your perspective is painting that reality. What’s the way we can show the film painterly? Crewdson felt interesting. That was for inside, and the outside world should feel more naturalistic and alive and light. Terrence Malick was one of the main references, especially “The Tree of Life,” and how people connect with nature.

One of the things I responded to strongly was the film’s very tactile sensibility. It could have been very surreal and dreamlike but there’s a lot of construction in this film. There’s physical work and analog TV and old-fashioned design. Let’s talk about how that grounds the film.

I knew that the premise itself was surreal enough that you couldn’t go more than that. Otherwise, it would be hard for people to connect and relate. I felt like what I need to do is show these people as regular people because then you have something to relate to. Something human. Something in everyday life. But the sets themselves feel a little surrealistic almost like the sets of dreams. If you look closer. The sets could be a little surreal. But it’s almost like watching a play. When you’re watching a play, you know you’re watching a stage, but you’re so into the characters’ emotions that you forget what’s around them and you’re inside the situation they’re in. The reason it’s not surreal is because of performance, I think. If you look closer, you can tell it’s a movie and manufactured. That was a fear—whether the actors could give a natural performance in a surreal environment. Cinema’s not real. It’s more like creating a safe environment [for the actors] and explain them to reflect the human condition and react how they would react to human beings and forget about the rest. They were so committed and understood the concept. You don’t feel it’s surreal because of the actors.

Let’s shift to those performances. How did Winston and Zazie come to the project and what do they bring that others wouldn’t have?

Winston breaks expectations. They wouldn’t imagine Winston for this role. The way he looks and his size. You wouldn’t imagine a guy like that being afraid of life. We had a four-hour conversation and talked about life in general. Why we’re making the film. It was interesting because there’s a director who once said that you should cast for what your character will become instead of what he is for most of the movie. When I was talking to Winston, I could see that he was Will at the end of the movie, the one who is larger than life and has so much energy. He is that guy. So, if I cast him, my job now is to go back and make sure that I’m hiding that guy through the whole movie other than glimpses of him. He’s numb but there’s still some life there. And then the end is 100%. Winston.

Zazie was interesting. Her personality and character are quite different. She’s almost a Zen wise person who could be 100 years old or five years old. Something interesting about her was how present she was the whole time. She was attracted because of this presence. She has no back story. She’s present. She also had this curiosity—it’s almost like she’s the oldest person in the room and the youngest at the same time. She’s perfect for the role because Emma is like that—the opposites in one person who represent the present.

 

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and Rolling Stone, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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