The Creators of IN FULL BLOOM Discuss Their Award-Winning First Feature
The milieu is postwar Japan, the conflict is East versus West, and the dual focus falls upon two boxers: one the reigning Japanese champion, literally going back to nature to refine and redefine his mettle; the other an American soldier haunted by his time in action, the concerns of his family, and his refusal to kowtow to dubious forces which may destroy him. This is In Full Bloom, the aptly titled independent feature bursting with visual poetry, auditory nuance, and surprising existential contemplation. Winner of both Best Film and Best First Film at the 2019 Oldenburg Film Festival, it’s an auspicious début.
Welcome to our triple-header interview, like a Zoom meeting sans juddering webcams. On the line are In Full Bloom’s multi-hyphenate filmmakers Adam VillaSeñor and Reza Ghassemi (directors, writers, cinematographers, and editors), and their friend and manager Jacob Stein (producer). We begin at the beginning, with their project’s origins:
“It was an idea that Adam and I had brewing for a while,” reveals Reza, “and it kind of mirrored our struggle within the film industry itself — we wanted to show that through the characters of Clint [Tyler Wood], and Masahiro [Yusuke Ogasawara]. We grew up on anime and foreign cinema, and our fathers loved Japanese cinema, Korean cinema, so we grew up watching those kinds of stories unfold onscreen. We had a lot of influence from the Japan Film Society, in making sure that the culture and history were presented in a way that was respectful and correct, to that time and place.”
“We always planned for it to be kind of this ‘50s/’60s-feeling movie,” adds Adam, “and for it to be a period piece. It was a unique thing to be able to have an old-school boxing movie, and be able to show postwar political tension in the background.”
“We had written another story that was more contemporary,” rebounds Reza, “and we wanted to delve deeper into the story of a fighter. We just wanted to create this intimate setting where you get into the heads of two very different boxers.”
Without giving it away, the depiction of In Full Bloom’s third-act clash of men and cultures is unorthodox. Producer Jacob weighs in on bringing it to the screen:
“One of the main things about this film and the creation of it was really about trust, trusting Adam and Reza’s vision, and execution of that vision. It took a team of people, but it really took trust more than anything, because some of the things they were saying are hard to visualize! I love the guys, and I’ve been working with them for many years, and they’re two of my best friends, so I trust them wholeheartedly. Yet still for me, it was something that I had to really see to understand, and you had to get the sound involved [designed by 40-year veteran of many productions, Wylie Stateman], and you had to get the score involved [wondrous work from their high-school friend Andrew Kawczynski, a Hans Zimmer associate on huge Hollywood hits], so it really was a holistic approach to the film.
“What Adam and Reza created, especially in that first round, is the feeling like you’re in there with the fighters. I think that’s never really happened in cinema before, to this extent, where you feel like it’s all-encompassing. So it just took a lot of trust, and faith, and in the end it was really brilliant, and I’m really proud of what’s been created.”
This sort of perfectly-synced partnership hasn’t been seen since perhaps the Coen brothers, so I’m wondering if the two were already drawing up storyboards in the womb. Adam elucidates:
“Reza and I have been best friends since we were twelve years old, so it was such an easy shorthand to be able to communicate, and have reference points, and kind of a lexicon for: ‘What about a little bit of this? And a little bit of that?’ For us to have all the production duties, you know, we really wanted to make this film how we wanted to make it. It’s like its own machine, but we were able to oversee and control the machine as a whole, and it was great just to have that creative control, and the freedom, and the knowledge base.”
In Full Bloom deftly depicts ideologies clashing, so I inquire about handling that properly, plus making a truly bilingual film.
“We wanted to make sure that this film was presented in a way wherein it was authentic, and retained the language of the Japanese people,” Reza responds. “There were times when Adam and I were offered to make this film, and, um, they asked if we could change the characters to a different nationality, whether it be Chinese, or something else — and we were like, ‘Hey, we set out to make this Japanese, we put cultural elements in here that are very Japanese, and 1) We cannot change it; and 2) It has to be in their native tongue, with actual Japanese-speakers from Japan. Making sure that we’re sensitive to people’s heritages and cultures is, again, something that was paramount for me and Adam, and the whole team.”
“What Reza touched on earlier,” Adam elaborates, “is that we grew up watching Japanese cinema, Asian cinema, foreign cinema, anime, and it was this aesthetic that I just really loved, and I wanted to bring kind of an anime sensibility to it. I know Reza did as well. Making this film, it was like, well, why not do it this way? When it came to pitching it, people were like, ‘Oh, what? What do you mean you’re making a movie half in Japanese with native actors, and it’s gonna be this anime-style thing?’ I think people’s only big reference was like something like Kill Bill. And I said, ‘Well, no, it’s not as cartoony. It’s more grounded and real.’ It was definitely interesting and challenging, approaching it just from my our own view growing up.”
I marvel at the sheer earthiness (and snowiness!) of Masahiro’s training sequences with his refreshingly blunt and unorthodox sensei (Hiroyuki Watanabe in a standout role as Tetsuro Tokugawa), and how the guys captured the gorgeous setting.
“We wanted to get in there and do everything everyone was doing,” replies Reza, “and not ask our actors to do stuff that we wouldn’t do ourselves. When we were searching for locations for Tokugawa’s cabin, we found this winter wonderland, and we were like, ‘We have to shoot here’ — and it’s gonna be uncomfortable, it’s gonna be cold, we’re gonna be sleep-deprived, but we wanted to be involved in every aspect of that. There were times when we were in freezing waters for hours, just filming, and almost getting frostbite, crashing snowmobiles, Adam almost fell off a mountaintop (laughs), and there was a lot involved. We enjoyed every aspect of it, and look forward to doing something like that again.”
Meanwhile, Adam notes the contrast that makes the whole:
“We wanted Clint’s character to kind of be in this like mental dungeon, this kind of hellish, red, locker-room place, where he was living in his memories, and his thoughts, and these kind of dreams, and that was this place of hell a bit, limbo. These guys are the fire and the ice, they’re the yin and the yang. And there’s a mutual respect there, and a mutual understanding, when you see them in the ring for the first time. You see their backstory. Oftentimes in boxing films, it’s just the good guy and the bad guy. And so [we said], ‘Let’s do something with two protagonists, and let’s follow their paths. Then they can meet, and people can choose who they want to root for, who they want to get behind, or maybe it’s both, and they get a little more of an omniscient view. That’s what we wanted to explore.”
Regarding the ephemeral yet lovely nature of life (inherent in the title), Jacob offers this insight:
“One of the things that’s beautiful about the film is that — the nature aspects — there are some things you can’t predict. When you capture those moments, there’s something really magical about it — it can only exist in that moment, and it can only exist with those specific people. This film is very much about that. It’s about the metaphor of the cherry blossoms. It’s this short blooming season, but it’s really beautiful. All these moments that will never happen again with those people, and that energy, for that to be captured on film forever is moving. Seeing these natural elements, and seeing them shape and shift, it really tied the story and the journey, at the end, in a really beautiful way.”
And what’s next for In Full Bloom, and its makers?
“I think that there is a very strong audience for this type of film,” states Reza, “not only being a boxing film, but kind of like this different take on masculinity, and your dreams, and your goals, and fighting for what you believe in, and strength through hardship. Our biggest goal is just to get it to as many people as we can, whether it’s through one of these big streamers, or through the independent route, or hopefully when theatres open up again, to do that — whatever the option is, we just want to have an audience watch it and enjoy the film.”
Regarding their career/s, Adam caps it off:
“Reza and I just finished writing a loose sequel to In Full Bloom, called Cherryblossom Bloom, and it follows Clint’s son, thirty years later. That’s something we’re hoping to get to immediately. And then I’ve been developing a screenplay that Terry Malick wrote, called The English Speaker. It’s something I’ve kept under wraps for a few years, so hopefully the stars will align sometime in the next year.”
Hallelujah that. Thanks, guys.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
Photos courtesy of Dozo LLC.