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‘I think acting is an impossibly difficult thing’: Talking with Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, director of ‘Drive My Car’

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi poses with the best screenplay award for "Drive My Car" last July at the Cannes Film Festival.Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

Despite the tumultuous conditions facing film production and distribution, the most fortunate of filmmakers have been able to defy the odds and complete some major projects over the past two years. Ryûsuke Hamaguchi makes the rest of them look like slackers.

Last year alone saw the US release of three different projects by the acclaimed Japanese filmmaker: “Wife of a Spy,” the Kiyoshi Kurosawa-directed World War II drama co-written by Hamaguchi (available on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and YouTube); “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy,” a romantic triptych Hamaguchi both wrote and directed (available on Amazon Prime and Vudu); and “Drive My Car,” the sprawling emotional epic he adapted from the Haruki Murakami short story of the same name with co-writer Takamase Oe.

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It’s this latest film, which has had a rolling release since late November and opens at the Coolidge Corner on Jan. 14, that has catapulted Hamaguchi’s already impressive reputation to that of a modern master. The film sees theater actor and director Yūsuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) confront major losses alongside his young driver Misaki Watari (Tōko Miura) while staging an adaptation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.” “Drive My Car” has swept up recognition from all the major critic’s groups, including the Boston Society of Film Critics, which awarded the film best picture, best actor for Nishijima, best director for Hamaguchi, and best screenplay for both Hamaguchi and Oe.

Reached recently by Zoom alongside a translator, Hamaguchi discussed his collaborative process of working with actors, finding eroticism in the everyday, and adapting Murakami.

Writer-director Ryûsuke Hamaguchi next to the car the hero drives in "Drive My Car."Janus Films

Q. “Drive My Car” is both an adaptation and a co-written script, while “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” is entirely your own. As a director, do you approach your co-written works any differently from how you do the screenplays on which you’re the sole author?

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A. There is really no material difference to me between co-writing a screenplay and writing alone when it comes to directing, in the sense that I always reserve the right to be able to change parts of the screenplay on set. There might be pieces of dialogue that I tweak to make them easier for the actors to express.

I’ve actually had more projects that I’ve co-written, as opposed to screenplays that I’ve written by myself. I intentionally do this — I think it creates vaster worlds to depict, because there are limits to one person’s imagination. However, co-writing is a very difficult creative process that doesn’t have any one correct method. But if you do find the right partner, it can be a very wonderful, collaborative process.

Q. The stage performance of “Uncle Vanya” in “Drive My Car” is quite challenging for the show’s actors — they each speak in their native languages, and some struggle to connect with the director’s process. Did your lead actors feel similarly challenged by the long takes and confined space of their own conversations in the film?

A. First and foremost, I think acting is an almost impossibly difficult thing, especially if you’re acting in front of the camera. You’re embodying something that is not yourself. This … creates a certain dissonance that seeps out into the way one carries the body, and this puts the audience members in a state of disbelief.

In order to overcome that difficulty with my actors, I have them read again and again and again, so that the dialogue seeps into their body, and really comes out of their body when they’re called to say their lines. When they’re doing this repetitive reading, I have them rehearse without any emotion. Only when we start rolling the cameras do I allow for any expression. When you do it in this way, what you get is not a preconceived character created beforehand by the actor, but something that the actors actually react to physically, so whatever comes out in that instance becomes the character that they portray.

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Hidetishi Nishijima in "Drive My Car."Janus Films

The actors that I worked with did understand my process — Mr. Nishijima had read about it somewhere and still expressed his interest in wanting to work with me. So in that sense, there were no complaints about difficulties with this process. The actors expressed they felt rather supported by it, which really resulted in quite remarkable performances, in my humble opinion [laughs].

The scenes that were shot in the car were very difficult, with a lot of long takes and long bits of dialogue, but this was achieved through co-working with my actors. Even when we had one actor facing the camera saying his or her lines, we had their counterpart beside the camera, so they were still working together in the scene. We were able to support our cast members this way — I think it truly made for a great ensemble performance.

Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tōko Miura in "Drive My Car."Janus Films and Sideshow via AP

Q. This central relationship between Yūsuke (Nishijima) and Misaki (Miura) is difficult to define as simply friendship or mentorship or partnership, but they share a common grief. What do you find compelling about these characters together?

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A. If you go back to Murakami’s original short story, it’s very interesting how these characters are so different from each other on the surface — Misaki is a young woman in her twenties, and Yūsuke is a very established actor. But the story notes that once Misaki opens her mouth, you can tell how intelligent she is. And it’s not an intelligence gained through studying, but through the way she’s had to live her life. In that respect, Yūsuke and Misaki are on equal footing, more than their status in life represents, which was very interesting to me.

The original story doesn’t state much about Misaki’s past, so in adapting it to a feature-length film, I had to dig deep into what kind of background she would have that would make her such an intelligent character. As I began to think about it and mold the character, the more I was able to create this relationship where Yūsuke and Misaki’s souls kind of echo off of each other. It’s a certain dialogue that you can only arrive at if both characters have a very deep sense of grief.

Q. Both “Drive My Car” and “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” have an interest in eroticism, particularly as it relates to language and storytelling — Yūsuke’s wife, Oto, connects her writing to her sexual encounters, for example. Do you see this interest in the erotic as a fundamental element of your work?

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A. I would say [sex] is a part of our lives, so it’s only natural that it would be a part of my work as well. We’re born with a certain sexuality, we’re often defined by it, we sometimes have to suffer because of it, so it’s only a matter of course that it comes up in my films. But eroticism that is depicted via sex is only the entrance point. What I’m ultimately aiming to depict in both films is that there is an eroticism that goes beyond how we physically engage with each other. There’s a certain eroticism that comes with how we speak to and interact with each other, and I think this gives us the strength to live our lives. It’s my intention to go beyond the physical realm and to depict that kind of eroticism in my films.

Interview was edited and condensed.

Cassidy Olsen can be reached at me@cassidyolsen.com. Follow her on Twitter @olsencassidy.