From a Grandfather’s WWII Memories to Modern Cinematic Excellence: An Interview with the Writer-Director, and Producer, of NISEI
Filmmakers Darren Haruo Rae and Jessica Olthof have transformed a poignant personal history into a vital motion picture called Nisei, and the nuanced, stirring short film makes a strong impression. Fresh from festival rounds ranging from Los Angeles to New York, Silicon Valley to Milan, this year it’s been winning prestigious awards such as the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Dramatic Short at Cinequest (an Academy Award-qualifying festival), and both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Choice Award at the Poppy Jasper International Film Festival, as well as appearing at the Academy Award-qualifying HollyShorts Film Festival in the heart of Hollywood. The acclaim is merited; Nisei is an important cultural document, and a truly unforgettable experience.
Daring to explore one of America’s most embarrassing and damaging missteps from the perspective of those directly affected, Nisei — meaning, in Japanese, “second generation” — takes an objective, unflinching step back to 1942, and concerns two brothers, Minoru and John Miyasaki, among the 120,000 Japanese Americans stripped of citizenship and freedom, relocated to American internment camps by President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. As with many good movies, there’s a twist: both brothers, in real life and in the film, volunteer for the all-Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team: the most medaled unit in the history of the American military.
It’s enjoyable and enlightening to speak about Nisei with its writer-director, Mr. Rae (hereafter, Darren, whose grandfather’s writings and reflections formed the project’s foundation), and its producer, Ms. Olthof (hereafter, Jessica, whose skills shepherded the film from concept to screen). We begin by discussing the challenge of presenting cultural and historical authenticity.
“I grew up with these stories,” reveals Darren, “internment camps in general, along with the 442nd. This was common knowledge in my household, and I didn’t realize how little people actually knew about it. It was not really represented in any history textbook or anything like that. So I always wanted to tell this story, doing book reports, video essays through school. When I became a filmmaker, I wanted to tell this story, but it’s very hard, trying to be historically accurate. It is very daunting and scary, especially with a period piece, to make sure we got it right.
“And so one of the big things going into it was, how to keep ourselves accountable? Part of it was having a really long pre-production process, and really making sure we got the period stuff correct: correct uniforms, the bus, everything like that, making sure there wasn’t ever a shot where you broke the illusion and you felt like you weren’t part of that world. The authenticity about the Japanese-American side of it, too: doing a lot of research with my family, as well as the Veterans Association, making sure I was doing it justice in that regard, too.”
Both Jessica and Darren have proven themselves in their chosen field. Jessica, an active member of Women in Film, worked her way up from camera assistant into producing, and has coordinated ten feature films in the past five years, including Palm Springs, with Andy Samberg and J.K. Simmons, and The Starling, with Melissa McCarthy and Kevin Kline. Darren, meanwhile, rose through the camera crew to direct prominent commercials for Western Digital, Airbnb, and Cisco, and he co-founded the boutique production company, Roann Films. Both are currently producing the feature film Surrender, starring Andrea Bang, one of Film Independent’s Fast Track fellowship program’s top ten narrative fiction features. (Concerning gambling addiction with a specific cultural bias, the new project proves that they don’t shy away from complex and difficult themes.) Given their respective and shared backgrounds, I ask them what practical business their ambitious Nisei presented to them.
“For my career side, I used to do camera, then I was a production coordinator for a long time,” Jessica relates. “It helped when it came to producing, because I’ve done this so many times. Especially with this budget, it allowed me to, kind of like, do everything. We used students at San Jose State University to help us with some of the production, and I trained them and taught them how to run a production office. So there were a lot of aspects that we definitely knew, but producing for the first time, I learned a lot, like casting and like those sorts of creative elements, that were actually really fun to do.”
“I came up through the crew side too,” adds Darren. “I’ve been on big TV shows where they have pyrotechnics and stuff like that., but I’ve never been in the position to direct it. That was definitely a learning curve for me. That was part of the point of it: I wanted to push myself as a director, as a filmmaker, and see where we can take it. And just from us having a crew background, I think it makes us better filmmakers in general, because we have an appreciation for the crew. We know what the crew is capable of, and what we’re asking in certain situations. The war scene, for example: safety was first and foremost, the top priority — so we ended up shooting the whole thing over three days, as opposed to you know, someone could probably cram it into a day or two days. But we want safety to be the priority. We want all the steps in place to make sure not only was it going to be a good movie, but it was fun to make, too.”
I ask about the notes of Darren’s grandfather.
“I have a bunch of his old textbooks where it’s the troop movement through the years or through the battles in Italy, in France,” he enthuses. “I would open them up and find him jotting some notes down: memories of soldiers, of places and events, and he never fully listed everything out. But I was able to use that, and piece together moments — and also just growing up with his stories, and going to the reunions with him: I always kept this mental catalogue of things I heard from him, and his fellow veterans. Having that backlog of all these stories, and information of the unit itself, we were able to do something that felt authentic to what actually happened.”
The dedication to authenticity shows onscreen, as the San Jose Museum graciously allowed the filmmakers to use their internment shack in the first part of the film, with tea and origami (courtesy of Darren’s mother), and a blanket (from Darren’s great grandmother, who was also in the camp) added to enhance the realism. Then, when Nisei turns to war, onscreen, you buy it.
“We filmed that in Petaluma, Northern California,” Jessica recalls, “so the landscape does kind of look like Italy a bit. And we actually found a World War Two collector who had the tank, the land, he had the house that we sort of blew up — ”
“That’s his back yard,” Darren notes, and the two share a knowing laugh.
“Darren and his cinematographer actually went out there, gosh, like four or five times and wrote the war scene based off the location, because that’s what we had to do with our budget.”
With anti-Asian racism rising again recently, I ask if the filmmakers contemplated making their period piece also relevant to the 21st century. Darren responds:
“I think every good film, whether it’s a genre film, or period piece, or whatever, the themes are universal, and they need to be timeless. It’s hard to introduce someone to a subject if they don’t want to listen. But if you present it as a story of heroism, you show it as a story of belonging, and you make it more anecdotal, like following an individual and humanizing them, I think that’s the best approach to starting a conversation.”
Jessica elaborates: “After every screening we’ve done so far, everybody keeps coming up to us and saying, ‘I didn’t know about this story.’ I knew that it was important, but I didn’t realize how many people it was actually going to affect, or make them think a little bit. So that’s been one of the big things, for both of us. I knew about the story a little bit more, I grew up on the West Coast, and we did learn about it, but still not very much. It’s important that people see the history of it.”
Good intentions might be for naught, were the overall production not top-notch, but Nisei is, indeed, top-notch. Darren praises his familiar editor, Caleb Wheeler, for being “amazing” and earning his trust, as well as being less familiar with the material, thus a good sounding board. And not only does Nisei look terrific, thanks to DP Connor Van Bodell, production designers Andrea Bechert and John York, and spot-on costume designer Rachel Dagdagan, but sound designer Nick Bozzone, and especially composer Yuichiro “Sixtwo” Oku, do exceptional work throughout. The score of Nisei — subtle, beautiful, character-rich yet never hackneyed —has its own fortuitous origin story, which the filmmakers share:
“Our downstairs neighbor is a violinist, and we’ve been sharing the process with her, and we told her that we were looking for a composer,” explains Jessica. “Her violin teacher is friends with our now-composer, so that was another one of those things where the stars aligned, and we just found somebody who’s great. He’s Japanese, and Darren and he connected a lot on the story.”
This led to a keyboard temp track from Mr. Oku, who then recorded with an orchestra in Bulgaria.
Darren, who grew up in orchestra himself and had specific intentions for the score, shares the reflection: “Yeah, Yuichiro, we got lunch, and he’s from Japan, and his grandfather was in the Japanese Imperial Navy, so his family was on the other side of the war. It was fascinating. One, he didn’t know anything about this history [internment camps, the 442nd] at all; and two, it’s just two people in this place now, having lunch, talking about the theory, and how to approach a film about our ancestors, that were on opposite sides of the war.
“It was really cool,” he adds of the score. “Once we got it approved, and once we did the live recording — I’ve heard it a hundred times, but once we actually sat down and listened to it, it was like: Oh, this is a theme song for my grandfather. I got pretty emotional.”
The cast of Nisei are sublime. In the leads, Jonathan Tanigaki and Brent Yoshida really allow the viewer — especially any viewer unfamiliar with their characters’ plight — to connect with, and begin to comprehend, the strain put upon thousands of families, and the courage they chose to display. Just try to imagine fighting for a country that’s treating you like the bad guys.
“Jonathan plays my grandfather; he is actually Nisei as well. It was really cool bridging these connections between them. And Brent telling me about his family story. It’s just like, not even talking about the film itself, but really just being able to connect on a deeper kind of historical level, of seeing how we all kind of fit into this world.”
With respect for the sombre subject matter, during our conversation, we also get a chance to geek out with a little pop culture, as I admit that I learned of the internment camps from someone who’s certainly not quiet about them: Star Trek’s own legendary George Takei. To my surprise, Darren, a serious filmmaker, quickly shares his admiration:
“He was actually a big inspiration! He has a graphic novel called They Called Us Enemy, and I had him autograph it for me at Comic Con. And so he’s definitely an inspiration in terms my career, and Asian representation in cinema. George was a little boy in the camps. That was a facet I never even thought about because I knew my grandfather’s story, and being of age to serve. Whereas George’s mom sacrificed one of their suitcases to fill it up with toys, so he wouldn’t be scared. Hearing that stuff, it makes me want to keep learning and dive more into it.”
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Images courtesy of Roann Films
Nisei screens at New York Japan CineFest 2023: November 4th, 3:30 pm EST