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JETAASC Spotlight on Aaron Woolfolk, award-winning filmmaker (ALT in Kochi Prefecture, 1992-1993)

By Jessica Tang, JETAASC Career/Networking Coordinator (ALT in Saga Prefecture, 2008-2009)

 

JETAASC had the privilege of interviewing Aaron Woolfolk, writer and director of “The Harimaya Bridge” debuting in Los Angeles on March 26th at the Laemmle Music Hall 3. A former JET ALT in Kochi Prefecture and current JETAASC alumnus, Woolfolk shared some insight into the makings of his film and also of his career.

 

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1. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO RETURNING JETS WHO WANT TO PURSUE A FILM CAREER? HOW CAN THEY APPLY THEIR JET EXPERIENCE TO ACHIEVING THAT GOAL?

In regards to storytelling as writers and/or directors, people in the film business are always looking for fresh compelling stories. Even though much of what we see in theaters today are sequels, remakes, and comic book and video game adaptations, when someone comes along with a good story that hasn’t been done before, people flip for it. The JET experience provides such a wealth of good and interesting fresh stories, even after all these years of the program’s existence. A few books have been written by JETs, I’ve made THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE…but still, JETs have barely even scraped the tip of the iceberg in terms of getting our stories out there. There are a lot of novels and memoirs and screenplays yet to be written, I think.

On the business side of things, Hollywood is becoming much more international. Hollywood studios are now making local films for local audiences, including Japanese films for Japanese audiences. And of course, they continue to mine foreign films — especially Japanese films — for remake material. (That’s something I don’t particularly like, but it’s happening.) So I think there is opportunity there for former JETs who want to get into the business side of the entertainment industry.

 

2. DID YOU UTILIZE YOUR JET EXPERIENCE WHEN APPLYING TO FILM SCHOOL?

Yes, because I’d been told that graduate schools — especially creative arts programs — look for people who don’t only have good undergraduate grades and test scores, but who also have interesting life experiences. I figured that living and working in rural Japan certainly applied to that, so I definitely emphasized it in my applications.

 

3. WHAT ARE A FEW GOOD RESOURCES THAT HAVE BEEN HELPFUL TO DEVELOPING YOUR CAREER?

I really relied on my Japan connection to get my career established. So the JET experience was a good resource. I have an article that appears in the most recent JET Journal about maintaining ties with one’s connections in Japan even after leaving JET and returning to one’s home country, and how that can serve a person. That certainly helped me in getting my film school thesis films made, and then in getting THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE made. I never would have accomplished those things without that.

I received a Disney/ABC Talent Development Grant to do early work on THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE, and later I was a Walt Disney Studios/ABC Entertainment Writing Fellow. Those things really helped a lot. Unfortunately, the grant no longer exists, and the writing fellowship is still there but smaller in scope. We’re in a period of retrenchment in the entertainment industry now in which a lot of programs have been cut back or outright eliminated. But there are still resources in Hollywood that help folks get started in their careers.

I got a Challenge Grant from the Aurora Foundation, which is awarded to U.S. citizens residing in California who have a Japan-related project they want to do.

 

4. WHAT ASPECTS OF KOCHI PREFECTURE DID YOU HIGHLIGHT IN THE FILM? DID YOU GO BACK TO THE SCHOOL(S) THAT YOU TAUGHT AT?

I really wanted to capture what it is like to be in the inaka. So many films we see here in the U.S. about Japan are usually set in Tokyo or some other big city. So I wanted to show the rural life, the beauty of the rural landscape and the warmth of rural people. I also emphasized cultural things specific to Kochi that are known throughout Japan, like Yosakoi dancing, Sakamoto Ryoma, and of course the Harimaya Bridge.

We didn’t film in any of the schools I taught in, but we used students from one of the schools I taught in. Logistically it worked best to shoot in a school in a different county from where I was an ALT…though, actually, it was the same school I made one of my short films in years before. However, the students of that school were doing a sports activity that day so they couldn’t be extras for the film. One of the schools we had been considering was a school I had taught in. And the principal of that school was a board of education member who worked with me in the kyoiku jimusho I was based in as a JET. So we ended up using the students from that school in the school we filmed in.

 

5. I READ ON IMDB THAT YOUR TWO SHORT FILMS PRIOR TO “HARIMAYA” ARE MINI-PREQUELS TO THE FEATURE FILM. CAN WE SEE THESE SHORT FILMS ONLINE SOMEWHERE?

Yes, I made the short films EKI (The Station) and KUROI HITSUJI (Black Sheep) as my film school thesis project. They serve as a kind of prologue to THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE, as three of the prominent characters in the feature film are featured in the short films. It is not at all necessary to see the short films before THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE since they are all self-contained stories. But it’s a little fun to see early versions of the characters and the lives they were leading prior to the events of the feature film.

The short films used to be online, but they are not anymore because I took back the rights when my deal with the folks who ran the internet site expired. They will actually be publicly screened by Japan Film Society on March 21st (five days before THE HARIMAYA BRIDGE opens) at the Royal/T Café in Culver City.

For more information about “The Harimaya Bridge” and Los Angeles showtimes, please visit www.theharimayabridge.com/