Aaron MCCANN (1983, Ireland) studied Film & TV at the Central Institute of Technology in Perth, Australia. There, he met Henry Inglis, with whom he started producing and starring in a comedic series of digital shorts, called Henry & Aaron, since 2009. These shorts became an international success online, leading him to the premiere of his horror short Perished (2011) at SXSW. McCann has worked as a producer, director, camera operator, assistant director, actor, and writer on a variety of projects in a variety of platforms since 2001. Top Knot Detective (2017) is his first feature film, a co-direction with Dominic Pearce.
Dominic PEARCE (Australia), raised in Singapore, is a multi-award winning director and editor. He has also worked as leading digital compositor, colourist and musician. Pearce is one of the founders and the managing director of independent production company Blue Forest Media. This production company creates work for television, advertising, music video’s and contemporary and public art projects. Top Knot Detective (2017) is his first feature as a writer and director, a collaboration with Aaron McCann.
On the occasion of their film “Top Knot Detective” screening at International Film Festival Rotterdam, we speak with them about the film and the extreme process of its shooting, mockumentaries and their future plans
To begin with, congratulations on a great film. How did this idea for a mockumentary about a TV-show and your cooperation came about?
AARON: I was about to do a trip to Japan and was asking for travel advice from Dom when he told me about a strange TV series he had seen when he was last visiting. He described it as a “Samurai Detective” series from the 80’s (we’d later discover that the show was titled: “Aberenbo Shogun”). I told him that it would make a great TV series for us to do here in Australia and to dub it all into English – ala “Monkey Magic”… but over the course of three years the story, changed significantly and we kept all of the original dialogue in English.
And how did you came up with all the information behind it, particularly the main characters and the concept of the company behind the production?
DOM: It was kind of an organic evolution in the writing. Takashi was always central, and we introduced Haruto as another co-star as early as the pilot, but as we fleshed it out for the feature, things started to change. For one, when we cast the roles of Takashi and Haruto, the casting actually affected the story. We chose Toshi to play Takashi largely based on the fact he couldn’t really act. For Masa however, being cast in the supporting role actually created some tension during filming – he wasn’t sure about playing the rival, but still doing all of the main characters stunts. We loved that so much, it found its way into the script, which everyone really ran with. Mia’s character came later in scripting. We wanted to find a central female character to join the other two, and the more we researched real J-Pop performers in Japan who transitioned into acting roles, the more we started seeing similarities and story possibilities with both characters. A tragic romance in amongst all of the treachery felt like a interesting journey to follow. Our actors all brought such incredible authenticity to their roles – we couldn’t have done it without them.
Was Takamoto inspired by Shintaro Katsu?
AARON: Originally it wasn’t. We just thought that an arrogant, Japanese “Tommy Wisesu” type character would be best. We did discover some amazing stories about Shintaro Katsu during our research and they did inform some of both Takashi and Haruto’s characters throughout, especially during their interviews.
What is the process of creating a mockumentary?
DOM: It’s a weird one in terms of assembly. I’d edited a few feature length documentary films prior to starting on “Top Knot” with Aaron, so we had an idea of what you end up with, in terms of an edit cut down from years and years of footage. We wrote the initial script, then essentially turned it into an edit timeline made up of storyboards and temp material, then worked backwards towards shooting. It’s a weirdly mutagenic process, but fun.
How do you approach the actors for example and the artists that are to make a film as such?
AARON: It was a long process. All up, the film took us three years to complete and we relied on many favours from lots of friends that we made across the country.
DOM: Calling in a lot of favors for sure. In terms of the Japanese cast, a lot of their inspiration and love for the project actually came from the lack of key Japanese roles in Australian films and TV. We don’t make a lot of content here that requires Japanese leads, so they were excited to have something to sink their teeth into.
In general, how was the casting process like?
AARON: We slowly built up the cast and had to shoot in blocks. With the majority of the interviews occurring after we had completed the main portion of the shoot.
DOM: Difficult at first. We shot most of the film in Perth, but the bulk of Japanese talent are based in Melbourne and Sydney. We did a lot of the stunt rehearsals and supporting character interviews there, while for the rest, we flew to Perth. Samurai are surprisingly hard to find in Australia.
Can you tell me a bit about your cooperation with A. J. Coultier and Matthew Willemsen in creating the images and the sets in the film? What was the process of creating this retro feel that seems so realistic?
AARON: The idea was to shoot all of the exteriors for real – ie: as much as we could in Japan or in locations that looked similar in Australia. The Sand Dunes for example are located in Lancelin, Western Australia. The sets, Matt created in a warehouse so that we could easily move between each, but they were also constructed in such a way as to make them look cheap – which wasn’t hard to do on our limited budget.
A.J. shot the whole film on RED, GH4 and VHS using old lenses where possible. We shot 4K so that we could do all of the visual effects, even though we were eventually going to downgrade everything to VHS and 4:3 afterwards.
We ended up breaking 4 or 5 VCR’s in the process.
DOM: So many VCR’s. It’s truly a dying format. We must give a bunch of thanks to our production designer Liz Wratten, as well as our costume head Nicole Ferraro. Asking for a mix of authentic feudal Japan and authentic 90’s Japan is an odd request to make.
The film features fast editing and punk music, and occasionally looks like an extreme music video or an extreme advertisement. Why did you choose this approach?
AARON: We tried to keep in frenetic, similar to how Takashi Miike edited
‘Ichi the Killer’ and ‘Dead or Alive’. We were also trying to make it appear as if we had sourced material from over 20+ years, so the less we showed, the more of an illusion it created that there was more material available than was actually shot. The punk music at the start was provided by the wonderful Japanese band: ‘The Fadeaways’ who were kind enough to let us use one of their tracks.
DOM: The Fadeaways are an incredible band – considered by many in Tokyo to be the next generation of bands like Guitar Wolf. We were lucky to tap into Japan’s fantastic Garage Punk scene to help score the film. Toyo, the Fadeaways lead singer, actually wrote and sang the lyrics for Takashi’s pop song in the film. As for the pace, I think frenetic is Japan in a nutshell. As over the top as our film is, it pales in comparison to actual Japanese film and TV.
What was the budget like for the film?
As the film progresses, it seems to me you challenge the concept of how far can an actual story go. Was that one of your purposes, and additionally, to leave the audience wondering about the authenticity of the events depicted?
AARON: We never wanted there to be a clear ending. We never wanted to wrap anything up neatly and say: This was the bad guy and they got the justice they deserved. That always felt like cheating. Life is never as clean as that. We always knew how it was going to end forTakashi though, that was something we were very set on from the beginning.
DOM: It was really important to us to try and find a new place to go in a genre spoof like this. 90’s comedic parody has been a popular sub-genre for many years, and we thought it would be both fun, and essential, to tell a different kind of story in that universe. Plus, with all of the problems plaguing Hollywood at the moment in terms of horrible-yet-famous filmmakers, we thought it would help make a story from 30 years ago seem eerily relevant to today.
Do you plan on shooting anything based on the particular material? In general, what are your plans for the future?
AARON: We’d love to go back and make more of the ‘Top Knot Detective’ universe, and if anyone out there wants to see more and possibly fund a full series – we’d be happy to leap at the opportunity.
DOM: I would very much like to see a full-fledged Time Stryker series in existence as well. He’s proven a fairly popular character from the film, and he’d be fun to do more with.
AARON: Until then, myself and Dom are working on a Sci-Fi that is kind of a nihilistic love story in space, and we’re also working on an actual documentary at the moment, that will hopefully be completed by the end of 2018 / start of 2019.