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[TIFF '12 Interview] ‘No One Lives’ Director Ryuhei Kitamura

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When the WWE Films logo appears before a film, I keep my expectations in check. While I’ll admit that the Kane vehicle, See No Evil is in my guilty pleasure list, the majority I’ve seen are straight-to-video fare at its laziest. Like most DTV, they’re an attempt to cash in on whatever the fad may be at the moment and hope that fans looking for a quick fix won’t mind. From the offset, No One Lives (review) comes across as just that. The attempt at “clever” dialogue is consistently laughable but once the film is suddenly steered in a different direction at the end of the first act, my attention was grabbed. For the remainder of its duration, No One Lives is a creatively violent, trashy ride in the way the Friday the 13th movies are. If you watch it for what it is, fun will be had.

The skillful directing of Ryuhei Kitamura (Midnight Meat Train, Versus) is the main reason why I ignored the film’s obvious issues. I had the pleasure of chatting with him at TIFF ’12, where the film was getting its premiere. I asked him what drew him to the script. “I started reading it. First I felt; oh okay, No One Lives, everybody dies. Girl running in the woods, a couple of gangsters, okay another torture porn kind of movie which I love to watch but didn’t want to do myself. Then there’s a twist and turn in the script and I simply felt: wow this is a non-stop ride and it’s a fun popcorn project which was very different from the movie I did, Midnight Meat Train. That was much more twisted and a philosophical. So this was to me a fun, straightforward genre movie almost like the movies from the 80’s.

It’s obvious that Kitamura set out to make a picture that was more geared to entertain genre fans than to shock them via cruel, exploitative shock tactics often seen in modern horror. “I’ve been doing that in almost all my movies. Even Midnight Meat Train has a funny scene. Of course, it’s always a struggle with me with myself, the producers (to push) how far. Come on, what’s wrong with giving the audience a little bit of a laugh? I always knew the balance. Good and bad in the script was very simple and crystal clear. It’s got twist and turns but it’s got a very straightforward 80’s feeling. My job was to make a movie for myself and my fans. Iconic shots, iconic ways of killing somebody was my number one focus. If this was a script about just a couple kidnapped trying to get away, it wouldn’t have attracted me that much. I really liked the character Driver. He was the reason why I chose to do this movie. He has a really extreme way of loving somebody. That character and the relationship was the main reason…It was always about finding the right balance. First to have this iconic character, iconic moment, iconic way of killing and somehow amp up this twisted love relationship between Driver, Emma and Betty.

What makes No One Lives standout from the usually interchangeable directing associated with WWE Films is the effort Kitamura went through in order to inject a style into the visuals and use more wide master shots than you’d usually find. “Those kinds of shots are always a battle at the end with the financiers, producers because they have nothing to cut away with. I have to choose my fight. I can’t do that for every single shot which I wish I could but then they’ll fire me and bring someone else to do the coverage. That’s what I mean by iconic shot. I’m really glad you spotted that. I feel that’s my signature. Otherwise, it’s flashy; tight, tight, tight, coverage, coverage. There are a lot of good quality directors in Hollywood. They don’t have to hire me. I feel like I have to put my stamp on it so that’s always my challenge. Some people like it. The producers and financiers don’t like it: Why don’t you do the coverage?

There’s one pull-in in particular that marks the turning point of the picture. It’s one of the most memorable shots I’ve seen all year. “It was a great, mind-blowing moment when I read the script. It’s easy to read, easy to say but it’s hard to execute. First thing I decided; I don’t cut away. It’s going to be a long, slow push-in and I have to find a way to do it somehow in one shot. I’m a hardcore movie fan like you. When you look at action and horror movies, you don’t remember every single dialogue or the story itself but you always remember the iconic shot. Yes, people may forget about No One Lives in a couple of years but I’m pretty sure they’ll remember that shot. Those kinds of iconic moments and ideas were the ones I brought in. It’s easy to make it straightforward horror, suspense, little of bit torture action movie but I felt I had to somehow make it special under all kinds of circumstances.

The special make-up effects were provided by the great Robert Hall, who was behind the Laid to Rest series. Argue all you want about the validity of the content but when it comes to the kills, no modern horror film can touch the creativity and execution on display in either Laid to Rest movie. In No One Lives, Hall continues that level of excellence. Kitamura elaborates: “I hate CGI blood. It’s easy to do these days but it always looks so fake. Even big movies are doing that. I know exactly why they do it; One, if you mess up with the blood, you have to change the clothes, wash up the make-up. It takes a lot of time, it’s complicated. First thing I told the producer, DP, crew and Robert; No, no, no. I want real fake blood like back in the 80’s. We need tons of blood! So Robert was bringing tons and tons, gallons and gallons of fake blood. He did a great job. I’d say like 98% was practical.

Another attribute I dug about No One Lives; it was shot on Super 16 film. This grittier, softer look only helps to lend the film a feel from the era it so lovingly borrows from. I couldn’t think of anyone better suited to the task than Cinematographer Daniel Pearl, who shot both the original The Texas Chainsaw Massacre plus its remake. “That was the first thing me and Daniel Pearl discussed. I’m not against going digital but because there was an 80’s drive-in feeling in the script, it would be such fun to shoot back in Super 16. I shot Versus with Super 16. Since then I haven’t used it. If we have to spend the same amount of money, let’s try to do it on Super 16. Because it was a tight schedule and money situations, we knew we had to move super-fast. Every single day we had to kill somebody. Problem with this digital age, the monitor is so cool, it’s like Blu-ray so you start to see lots of things then you have to rewind, playback again then the actors want to see: “No, no, no, I don’t like this spot on my face. Fix it!” (laughs) Good thing about the Super 16 monitor; you don’t really see. It’s like a VHS bootleg: “It’s fine. Let’s move on.” So that made us move fast. It was thrilling to work with Daniel Pearl. We had a strong bond. It was an honour to work with a legend like him.