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EXCLUSIVE: Interview with 'New Religion' Writer/Director Keishi Kondo

One of our favourite films that premiered at this year's FrightFest in London was 'New Religion' which we called "a dread inducing, profoundly beautiful and heartbreakingly creepy film that needs to be seen by as many eyes as possible."

Director Keishi Kondo is a hugely exciting new voice rising out of Japan right now and writer Gavin Logan was lucky enough to interview him when he arrived back home after his trip to London.

GL: Was this your 1st time at FrightFest? What did you think of the festival overall?

KK: Of course, this was my first FrightFest. Overall, it was a great world premiere. I never expected so many people to love the film.

GL: As a child, what films inspired you to become a filmmaker?

KK: I was more into video games than films as a kid like 'Resident Evil' and 'Silent Hill'. Those games influenced me to discover film directors such as George A. Romero, Sam Raimi, James Cameron and so. Those films made me want to make my own films.

GL: If you had to sum up 'New Religion' in one or two sentences what would it be?

KK: 'New Religion' is an infinite mirror lying on the boundary, on the border between reality and dream, sea and land, life and death, me and you, audiences and screen.

GL: When and how did the genesis of the idea for the film begin?

KK: I think it all started when I first met Satoshi Oka. At first glance he seemed like an ordinary man but my instincts told me he had something special. He and I have been working in video production together for years now. I wanted to discover his talent and I was mischievously casting him as an actor in TV shows sometimes and also making vlogs of him. Then in 2018, with inspiration from him, I started writing a script.

GL: Were there any other versions of the script and especially the ending? Can you give us some examples?

KK: Yes, I have the different scripts but which were not filmed. One of them had another ending which Miyabi and her boyfriend end up differently than they do now. But the differences are only on a personal level. From a macro perspective, there is no different version of the ending. There is also a version of the story that places more emphasis on the question of whether Aoi existed or she is just Miyabi's imagination. Much more complicated but I felt it was too much.

GL: Let's talk about Oka. Can you explain his motives a little bit or how you came up with that character?

KK: I think that he just wanted to tell people what he experienced and how everyone can be like him. Well, I am not sure.

GL: Is Oka the devil?

KK: He is, dare I say it, a dream. I’d like to leave the definition to the audiences.

GL: In our review we mentioned that the character of Oka reminded us of Bob from 'Twin Peaks'. He has such a great screen presence. Was David Lynch an inspiration for the film?

KK: For many filmmakers, David Lynch is a huge source of inspiration. But at the same time, it is a huge challenge to find a way to distance yourself from him. His works were huge influences for us as well but it is just one of many influences.

GL: The film looks absolutely gorgeous and is very artistic. What process did you and Sho go through to capture the beautiful images on screen?

KK: On surface level, the visuals were influenced by the work of Nicolas Winding Refn or Chinese film-maker Diao Yinan. At first, I showed 'Only God Forgives' to Sho Mishina and lighting technician Nagaoka. I repeated to tell them that the color must be like this. This was necessary both from a design point of view for the film as a whole and to express the world of the film visually rather than through dialogue. I didn’t have much time to discuss them about the lightning so Nagaoka brought lighting gears as possible as he could and we selected them on the locations. That seemed to be beyond indie filmmaking. I and Sho explained to Nagaoka the colours to use and the concept, and then he and his assistants let their creativity take over. Actually locations, Oka’s room in particular, were too small and the air was stale. It was hard to breathe under those red lights every day, and we all felt like we were going crazy.

GL: 'New Religion' might be a very triggering film for some people. There are some distressing scenes but the most upsetting scenes are with Miyabi when she is "communicating" with her daughter. How important was it to make these scenes sincere and feel genuine?

KK: I believe that a good film, no matter how complex or idiosyncratic it may seem, has one thick skeleton at its centre. For example, David Lynch's 'Mulholland Drive' is a very complex film, but the core of the story is very simple. About love and disappointment. In order to make Miyabi's story seem more compelling, I thought the sequence of events after she meets the ghost of her daughter was most important. I thought that only once that was made, the audience would be convinced and start to discover for themselves the fascination of the film's drifting on the border between dream and reality. To be honest, It was kind easy to make these scenes feel genuine for me because I had clear vision in my mind. I just repeatedly told Kaho Seto what I wanted, facial expression or timing something like that until I got what I wanted.

GL: Can you talk about the music in the film? The soundscapes are haunting and really add to the atmosphere.

KK: I believe that sound is half of a movie, so I didn't want to use mediocre music or sound effects. Although the budget was limited, I did not want to compromise on sound. I needed a partner who would be patient with my film. Zeze Wakamatsu is a composer I met through a live performance we did together in Kyoto. She is a talented person who makes music for both advertising videos and indie films, and after considering, I asked her for help. She readily agreed, which was a relief for me. I did the editing and give her the sequence. She fitted the music over it and gave it back to me. I gave her many instructions, sometimes specific, sometimes abstract, like when this cut is switched, a different sound should come in, and so on. I worried that she would get upset because it was so detailed, but she was always positive and her attitude really helped me. She is a very calm person and I feel that her intelligence is overflowing in the sounds she makes. The club scene is one example. But at the same time, she can also create horrible sounds. She listened patiently to my words and created, within herself, new interpretations. It's great. The other composers did a great job as well: Akihiko Matsumoto composed the music for the opening and near the end of the film. He is also a very talented and experienced composer, and I had very few retakes. I have been a fan of Abul Mogard since I discovered him on Spotify shortly before I started writing the script. He is a rare composer whose music is subtle and dynamic, with a Blade Runner alike sci-fi vibe. I listened to his music all the time when I was writing the script and even used his music as a temporary music during the editing process. I was very relieved when he allowed me to use for the film because I didn't feel like I could create the right music for the scene except for his music. Overall, all the composers did great jobs for my film.

GL: What was the most challenging scene to film, either from a practical standpoint or thematic standpoint?

KK: In terms of technique, the scene where Akali kills people on the street was difficult. The lighting and filming equipment was more complicated and much more difficult to arrange than anticipated. We also had to reshoot a bit to make it more realistic. Editing was also very difficult. From a thematic point of view, the scene where Miyabi and her boyfriend have an important conversation was hard. The dialogue in this scene is very sensitive. I felt that if the dialogue was changed in any way, the nuance would be terribly cheapened. I rewrote the dialogue many times and believe I have written a convincing, multi-faceted piece of dialogue. They are very simple, though. I hope the subs in English could express as well.

I think the two actors had a hard time as well with so many takes.

GL: We can't wait to see what you do next. Can you tell us about your next project?

KK: I have been writing several scripts. Currently, I feel that the horror film about the Japanese sea that I am writing now would be my next film. I try to depict a Cthulhu-like motif in my own original way in the film.

Thank you so much Keishi for taking the time to answer our questions and we wish you all the best for 'New Religion' once it finally gets a release and of course best wishes for your future projects too.

- Gavin Logan


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