Jon Moritsugu Interview

(a September 2005 interview)

- New York Underground Film Festival

Jon Moritsugu has played his movies in, and won awards at, underground film festivals and he has also played his movies at international, mainstream forums including the Cannes film festival. He once made a 16 MM Panavision movie for PBS with a budget of over $350,000 and he has also made feature length movies for under $5,000. This versatile, very creative, always super independent, punk rock influenced and inspired American filmmaker has a two decade long resume and body of work that most creative professionals anywhere would envy. Moritsugu's latest feature "Scumrock", shot on the shockingly amateur and inexpensive Hi-8 analog video format and starring, among others, musician Kyp Malone from the well respected indie band TV on the Radio, won Best Feature award at the 2003 New York Underground Film Festival and Best Feature award at the 2002 Chicago Underground Film Festival. His career is being celebrated locally and abroad. In 2004 the Anthology Film Archives in New York City presented a one week long retrospective of Moritsugu's work. This year, from October 12 to 16, the Lausanne Underground Film Festival in Switzerland will present a week long retrospective of Moritsugu's films. The following is an interview conducted through e-mail in September 2005. Interview By Sujewa Ekanayake :: September 2005
Copyright 2005 Sujewa Ekanayake/Wild Diner Films

Sujewa: Hey Jon, thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk (through the miracle of e-mail) to me. You shot your most recent feature "Scumrock" on Hi-8 analog video. And the movie won several festival awards and received excellent reviews. Do you wish you had used inexpensive video as a shooting format earlier in your career (possibly to save thousands of dollars and have a less of a waiting/fund raising period between projects)?

Jon: I definitely would have used video earlier on, but the problem was that in the 80's and early 90's, video was still really expen$$$ive. Digital video (DV) did not exist, desktop editing didn't exist, no protools, etc, etc, and video was still pretty low-fi, unless you stepped into an online studio (which could cost you major buckage). I actually stuck to 16mm cuz it was a low-cost option. Even my feature MY DEGENERATION cost about $5000, which is a large chunk of money, but if you're talking about shooting and completing a feature film (color 16mm), it really is quite reasonable. I actually totally appreciate the fact that I was able to crank out a bunch of movies in the waning days of 16mm production. I think the movies have a certain look and feel that just wouldn't be the same if they were shot on DV. As far as SCUMROCK, it was shot in 2000, and at that time, DV was still pretty expensive. I shot it on analog Hi-8 because that format has incredible color saturation and does look a little like film, plus all the gear was real cheap (our main production camera was purchased brand-new for $300 vs. a couple thousand for a DV camera).

Sujewa: I read somewhere that one of your movies played at a theater in France for over a year. Amazing! Which movie was it and could you reflect on that whole seemingly mind blowing experience? Did that year long theatrical engagement in France increase the number of your groupies and did it make you obscenely wealthy?

Jon: HIPPY PORN played at the Action Christine theater in Paris for almost a year. This was in 1993, when indie film in America was just breaking and getting huge. This upstart French distribution company took the film (and 4 others) as examples of the "West Coast new wave" and put a lot of energy and money into the theatrical release. Quite exciting actually. I was flown to Paris and ate lotsa cheese and had a great time, but really didn't make any money. I don't think anyone made money, though it was a great way for people to bond as a community trying to change the face of filmmaking, and also for this company to get a start in the industry. It was a cool experience, though, where I felt the French audience (with all of its artsiness and pretension), connected to the raw, revolutionary and punkoid nature of the flicks.

Sujewa: Your movies and public personality makes me think of, a little, John Waters and Greg Araki. I'd say all three of you have a gleefully subversive art/punk/trash/underground/subcultural quality in a lot of your work. Am I totally off base here or do you see some similarities between your work and that of Araki & Waters?

Jon: Sujewa, you are totally on base! I definitely was inspired early in my filmmaking days by some of John Waters' early work. Greg Araki and I also go waaaaay back - I met him at an Asian film fest in the late 80's and we bonded on feeling like freaks at the event. We did some hangin' out in the early 90's and kept sane by shooting the shit and trying to fight the power for the Asian brothers and sisters.

Sujewa: As far as I know you are the most famous filmmaker to come out of Hawaii (I am assuming here that you are from Hawaii, correct me if I am wrong). Does Hawaii love Jon Moritsugu? Are there Moritsugu statues and streets in Hawaii yet? Do Fidel Castro style gigantic portraits of Jon Moritsugu hang on buildings & streets of Hawaii? I'd like to visit there, it seems lovely. Is Hawaii lovely?

Jon: Yeah, Hawaii is lovely. I was born in da islands and lived there recently for a year, and it finally feels like independent film production/DIY culture has arrived there. My films have played at a couple of fests and venues in Honolulu, and there is definitely some type of humor in the films that the Hawaiian audiences totally dig. Very sarcastic and messed-up humor, actually. No streets named after me, but lotsa people named Moritsugu who I don't even know.

Sujewa: Dogme 95 changed the indie film world. Until they came along filmmakers who used formats other than 35MM or 16MM film were not taken seriously by the Hollywood/Indiewood related culture. How do you feel about this change? Some commentators have said that the DV revolution makes things worse - more movies, less quality projects, more competition for distribution - how do you feel about the DV revolution?

Jon: Rock on DV! I'm all for cheaper movies and filmmaking being a more "democratic" form of expression. I like the fact that you can now be your own movie production studio - you don't have to invest millions of dollars to get your story/ideas up on screen. Just like punk rock, the 4-track, and now digital home recording freeing the music scene and making it immediate/accesssible to more people, I feel digital video is doing the same. Hallelujah.

Sujewa: Your life and work seems to be heavily influenced by the punk rock scene. How did you discover punk rock and what about it made you want to become a part of that scene/culture? Jon: When I was a kid, I remember going to a record store with a friend one afternoon. He grabbed the last copy of "Never Mind The Bollocks" by the Sex Pistols (very hard to find, as this was Hawaii) and I grabbed some live Frank Zappa album that Rolling Stone highly recommended. We took them to his place, had private record party, and I was totally floored by his choice and bored by mine. Later that night we spray painted the school. Very nice memories and my intro to punk rock. I've been into punkoid shit ever since, and it has also inspired my filmmaking. In the mid to late-80's in the USA, I really had no sense of there being a "film scene" or community of people doing lo-fi, underground, or independent work. On the other hand, the music scene was exploding with bands, clubs, and labels like Dischord, SST, Touch & Go really getting the music to the people out in the scene. I was totally stoked and inspired by all of this and decided to make it a model for how I should pursue my filmmaking and distribution activities. I've always appreciated the practicality and lack of pretense (generalization) in the punkoid scene. You know, punk rock = modern day quaker.

Sujewa: When I saw Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train" for the first time in '91, I realized that most American movies & television, including most indie movies, do not reflect the diverse ethnic make up of American society. "Mystery Train" had Japanese tourists characters and an African-American character in lead roles. Your recent film "Scumrock" too contains casting that could be called diverse or casting that reflects the multi-ethnic nature of America. Why do you think that most American movies & television have refused to portray & reflect the always multi-ethnic nature of the American population?

Jon: Yeah, I love that "Mystery Train". Anyway, I think the bland homogenization is all about creating projects that will not be challenging and ultimately controversial. It's about capturing the largest audience by using the most "acceptable" ideas. And that is why stereotyping is used. Oddly, I feel a lot of the public WANTS to see change. The public wants to be presented with strange or different ideas. You know, the Asian American character who doesn't speak with an accent and who is bad at math. The African American character who doesn't play sports. etc. But it seems like the networks, mainstream producers and studios really don't want to take too many chances. Even something as normal as inter-racial + same-sex couples is rarely seen, which is why we need the revolution, man!

Sujewa: As far as I can tell you have engaged in theatrical self-distribution for several of your projects. I am finishing up a feature called "Date Number One" at the moment and I am looking forward to theatrical self-distribution of that project. What advise do you have for me and other filmmakers who are contemplating D.I.Y. distribution?

Jon: I have done a lot of self-distribution of my movies, though I have also worked w/ distributors on theatrical releases. As far as this all goes, I've been able to "control" my release as well as make a little more money through the self-distribution route. However, it can be a big job and I certainly rely on the help of others. For instance, I have a European theatrical distributor, Jack Stevenson, who I've worked with for years. He's in Denmark and also handles all the print traffic, which simplifies my life. We save tons on postage since he's got prints of all the films plus he's really familiar w/ the various territories, their nuances, and the language. It definitely is good to form alliances with people you trust, especially over the long term. Theatrical releases have gotten a lot harder to do recently because the audiences are shrinking. But there has been a microcinema revolution, which is pretty cool. Look into "alternative" spaces (art galleries, cafes, your living room) and also plan for a DVD release of your film - maybe even overlap it with the theatrical release. Get these DVDs into rental stores, record stores, websites, make them available to distributors, and also check out alternatives like streaming video.

Sujewa: I believe your film "Mod Fuck Explosion" played at Cannes. Was that your first film at Cannes? Have you been there since? What was the Cannes/M.F.E. experience like?

Jon: Yeah, MOD FUCK EXPLOSION played at Cannes, though it was in the film festival market, which is sorta considered the "meat market" and "blood and guts" of the festival. Lotsa softcore porn movies, action and cop flicks, everything up for sale and being pushed by sales agents. Needless to say, MOD FUCK (with its artsy sensibilities and strangeness) stood out like a sore thumb. People were baffled and confused by it. I didn't actually make the trip out to the fest, though in hindsight I should have just for the sheer experience. $1500 hotel rooms and $20 cocacolas on the French Riviera, who can resist?

Sujewa: I read somewhere that the 9-11 attacks significantly changed your perspective on film and filmmaking. Can you please elaborate on this? Does this mean that future movies of yours will take a broader view of the world, a view that takes in people and lives outside of the American punk/indie/underground culture?

Jon: I shot SCUMROCK before 9-11 and was just starting the editing when the attacks occurred. The movie was originally supposed to be much more cynical, but this all changed. Though SCUMROCK definitely does not have a "happily ever after" ending, the negative vibage was toned done. It just didn't seem right to release something that was totally bleak into a world that felt totally bleak.

Sujewa: I have not seen your film "Terminal USA" yet, am looking forward to checking it out. I read that it was created on a budget of $200-$300,000 for public television. What was it like to work under such a budget and production entanglements, as opposed to working completely independently at (I assume) a much lower budget on a project such as "Scumrock"? Which production environment do you prefer, of the two mentioned above?

Jon: TERMINAL USA was shot in 1993 with a budget of $360,000. This was a complete shocker, since my previous feature was completed for about $12,000! We used panavision color 16mm equipment, had a crew of 50, and still had a really hard time. Everything felt rushed and there was a certain lack of flexibility and spontaneity throughout the production. Plus we were on an insane nocturnal schedule shooting from early evening to early morning (baaaad idea but necessary for clean sound). On the other hand, SCUMROCK was shot over 5 months with a crew of 3 for far less money (movie "in the can" for $5000). It too, was a challenging project, but it definitely was more intimate and felt much more like a "family" thing. I think it would be great to make a movie somewhere in between these two extremes. You know, have enough money and help to get the shooting done quickly and not too painfully, yet not go overboard and create a "film army" situation.

Sujewa: The prolific filmmaker Todd Verow (of Bangor Films fame) was the photographer of your movie "Mod Fuck Explosion". What was it like working with Verow? And what was it like working with lead actor Kyp Malone (from the band TV On The Radio) in "Scumrock"?

Jon: It was great workin' with Todd (he also shot TERMINAL USA). Very talented DP and really great w/ lighting. We had lotsa laughs on these productions. Kyp Malone was awesome! I met him in San Francisco and he came to an audition for SCUMROCK. We ended up casting him as the lead actor because of his natural abilities and "presence", though he had never been in a movie before. The role was originally supposed to be for an Asian-American actor, but Kyp totally broke through all racial boundaries and barriers.

Sujewa: It looks like you have traveled a lot for you work (film festivals, screenings, etc.). Do you have any amazing, spectacular or horrible stories from the road that you would like to share? Accounts of unforgettable things that have happened at festivals or screenings or while getting to those events or while coming back from those events?

Jon: Ok, here's a funny experience: MOD FUCK EXPLOSION played at the Freakzone Film Festival in Lille, France a few years ago, and I traveled out for the event. Since the audience was mostly French speaking, they actually hired some actors to sit backstage and do "live translations" of the movies from the scripts. So we're in the middle of MOD FUCK, a particularly dramatic moment, when the audience starts laughing like crazy. I'm baffled, then a friend who speaks French (who's also laughing) leans over and tells me the actors have lost their place in the movie and are flipping through the script, saying things like "shit, are we on page 6 or 7....I'm totally lost, how about you?" etc. But this really isn't the funny moment. So I'm at the awards ceremony where they're picking the "best feature" of the festival. I've heard rumors that MOD has a really good chance of winning. So speeches are being made (of course in French), and after a really long speech by the festival director, my name is called out! WOOOOHOOOOO! I'M THE WINNER!!! MOD FUCK EXPLOSION WINS!! I run down the aisle, jump up on the stage, and shake hands and hug the director. I make a very passionate speech about "how we are all winners in life-there are no losers-there is no room for jealousy-we are all filmmaking brothers and sisters," then they hand me my prize (it's supposed to be $$$), a stack of French comic books. This is sorta odd, I think, as I walk back to my seat. I sit down and my French friend whispers in my ear, "you do know that you didn't win first place... you just won the honorable mention award, right? They're going to announce first place now..." I was totally embarrassed, man.

Sujewa: Wow, great story. On a different note, even though feature film production is very affordable and the knowledge required for production is easily available (through the internet, library books, etc.) right now, it seems to me that a lot of people who make indie movies in America are not coming from a ethnic minority background. I think the situation is much different in the arena of American music or literature - lots of minority artists participate in those two creative areas. Why do you think indie filmmaking has not caught on more with American minorities at this time? Do you think this will change in the near future?

Jon: I actually think there is a sizable and growing group of minorities doin' the film thing. Maybe it's because I'm seeing it all from a West Coast perspective (I've lived in Frisco, Honolulu, and now the Pac NW), but the whole stereotype of "you can't be artsy if you're a minority" is rapidly breaking down. In the Bay Area, for example, there are lotsa alternative film fests (Latino, Asian American, Hong Kong, African American) as well as "minority" theater companies, film organizations, non-profits, etc.On a worldwide scale, it's also really cool that some of the most cutting-edge and exciting filmmaking is coming from countries like South Korea, Hong Kong, Japan, even Brazil and Mexico. Woohooo.

Thanks Jon!


See Jon Moritsugu's official web site here
Buy Jon's movies through mail-order from here
Download several of Jon's movies here