American director and producer Alan Poul is best known to the industry for his work on prestige HBO series like Six Feet Under, The Newsroom and Big Love, but his career began, improbably, on a soundstage on the west side of Tokyo, Japan.
After graduating with a degree in Japanese language and literature from Yale University, Poul was working in New York as a Japanese cinema programmer in the mid-1980s when he was approached by maverick screenwriter and filmmaker Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Light Sleeper) with a job offer to serve as a consultant on the movie that would become Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Schrader’s now classic, semi-experimental biopic about the great Japanese author Yukio Mishima. Poul accepted the job and decamped with Schrader to Japan, eventually becoming an associate producer on the film while earning his entree into the business at Tokyo’s Toho Studios, where Mishima was filmed with an all-Japanese cast and crew. That experience led to Poul associate producing Ridley Scott’s Japan-set Yakuza crime film Black Rain (1989) — and from there, with his foot in the door, Poul returned to Hollywood and to build an esteemed career, working as a producer or director on series ranging from My So-Called Life (1994) to Six Feet Under (2001-2005), Rome (2005), Big Love (2006) and Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom (2012-2013).
Last year, Poul returned to his filmmaking roots in Japan to executive produce and co-direct Tokyo Vice, HBO Max’s acclaimed drama series starring Ansel Elgort and Ken Watanabe. Set in the Japanese capital in the 1990s, the show portrays the overlapping worlds of crime reporters, beat cops and yakuza crime lords. In Japan, Tokyo Vice has been praised for its uncommon cultural authenticity (still a rarity for a Japan-set project produced by Hollywood), while viewers virtually everywhere else have been entranced by the show’s sharp writing and neon-lit exoticism. The project also represents a landmark for the production industry, as the very first big-budget U.S. series to have shot entirely in Japan.
With Tokyo Vice set to begin shooting its second season in Tokyo next week, Poul took a break from prep on Wednesday to participate in a seminar at the Tokyo International Film Festival. Hosted by the Motion Picture Association, the occasion was designed as a brainstorming session on the topic of how Japan can become a more competitive destination for global film and TV projects. The Hollywood Reporter connected with Poul prior for a brief chat about his experiences and insights from working in Japan.
You’re one of the very few U.S. producers or directors who’s worked in Japan, on high-profile Hollywood projects, over a period of decades. What were your impressions of shooting in Japan back in the 1980s, when you first came over for Mishima and then later Black Rain, and what was it like coming back for Tokyo Vice? Have you noticed changes, good or bad?
Well, you say over many years, but the truth is, I did two films here in the 80s, and then here I am coming back many years later for Tokyo Vice. There were meetings about things in between, but I hadn’t actually shot anything in between, except for some segments for a PBS documentary series in the early 1990s. So, the contrast is very stark. And as with many things with regard to Japan, it’s astonishing how much things have changed — and on the other hand, it’s astonishing how much some things have not changed at all. Mishima was shot almost completely like a Japanese film, with an all-Japanese crew and cast, and was shot largely on sets at Toho Studios, with limited location shooting. So we functioned like a Japanese film, and as such, we were able to operate pretty much unhindered. But Black Rain, on the other hand, was a big Paramount production, with dozens of American crew coming to Japan. And as a result, it was something that I think Japan was not yet prepared to handle in terms of the Western style of filmmaking — so it was constant tumult.
Yeah, it’s still kind of legendary in the industry, right? The challenges you faced on that film?
Yeah, back in the early 2000s, when I was shooting Six Feet Under in LA, a gentleman from the Japan Film Commission came to visit me in my office just specifically to ask for details about Black Rain, because it was the most notorious example of a shoot that had gone horribly wrong.
For people who aren’t as close to the industry — particularly the circumstances in Japan — can you talk about a few of the things that made, and continue to make, shooting in Japan tough for a big U.S. film or TV project?
Yes, so, although there are now many people invested in making Japan and more film-friendly location, and we rely on their kindness all the time, among the great metropolises of the world, Tokyo is still probably the most difficult to do extensive location shooting in. And broadly speaking, the main reasons are that there’s not a lot of top down political support for filmmaking — although we have several members of parliament who are advocating for us now, and we’re very grateful for that. The second main reason is that in Japan, everything is local, and people’s relationships with each other in their day-to-day life are sacrosanct. That’s a good thing. It’s one of the main reasons Tokyo as a city works so well, but it means that if you’re coming in and you’re going to disturb a day or two days of life for the residents or shopkeepers in a particular neighborhood, the police there will value their relationship with those residents over your needs — and almost exclusively. In Japan, you can’t solve the fact that you’re disrupting people’s lives with just money, which makes Japan stand out very differently from how filmmaking functions in Western countries.
You began your career in film as a Japanese cinema programmer, so I’m curious to hear your thoughts on how the Japanese film industry has evolved over the years. When film buffs look at Japanese film history, the period from the 1950s through the mid-1970s is legendary for the level of experimentation, innovation and mastery of the medium on display. And then something seems to have changed. There are still great Japanese auteurs who break through from time to time, but Japanese cinema, broadly, doesn’t have nearly the same reach and critical regard it once had. And many Japanese directors with artistic ambitions, whether they are working in the indie space or the studio system, will tell you how exceedingly hard it is to get a film to fruition. I realize this is an absurdly broad question, but what are some of the key things that changed or were lost along the way?
Yeah, you know, as an outsider I’m a little loath to make grand statements about the Japanese filmmaking system. But the truth is, from the 50s through the 70s, you were still in the hands of a very strong studio system. And there were the Japanese majors — Toho, Toei, Shochiku, Daiei and Nikkatsu. So there were generally five majors, and they all had their own studio lots and their own stables of directors and actors. And it was very much an auteur-driven system. ADs (assistant directors) would work under the tutelage of one of the senior directors until they got to the point where they could step up. And there was an unusual number of masterpieces that came out of that system. But I think that ultimately, with the rise of television, and then in more recent decades of mobile technology, the internet and social media, it’s become impossible to operate on that kind of a standard. So, you know, a number of the Japanese majors went away. Nikkatsu went down, and Daiei went down. And so, as the field narrowed, it became a much tougher survival game for Toho, Shochiku and Toei, until they could no longer afford to be director-driven. Instead, they became much more driven by IP — manga in many cases — or by trendy talent.
Pivoting to the present moment, it feels to me from the conversations that I have, that there’s a fair bit of agitation for change within the domestic industry. You know, Hirokazu Kore-eda and his cohort are lobbying for structural reforms. And then we also have the global streamers coming in with their investment capital and their interest in producing and leveraging local-language Japanese content on a fairly massive scale. There’s also the pilot incentive scheme that Tokyo Vice was able to benefit from, which could be expanded. So what’s your sense of the present moment, and which among these initiatives and trends are you most optimistic about bringing positive change to the Japanese industry, both for locals and the international industry coming to work here?
I think what’s interesting about the present moment is that there is a huge desire in the western world to shoot in Japan — to create more content that has authentic Japanese culture in it. And people, broadly, are drawn to Japanese culture as much as ever today. Part of that is that the appeal of Japanese culture has been invigorated among young people because of the growing popularity of gaming, manga and anime; and then what we perceive as the refined and pristine nature of Japanese high culture still has an incredible sense of appeal to Americans of all ages. So there is a golden opportunity.
On the other hand, unlike Korea, which has very successfully entered the world movie stage and created its own blockbusters and been able to make films that will play successfully around the world, Japan has been slower to open up — both to open up to international filmmakers and also to create product that is more aimed at an international audience. And at this particular juncture, I think what’s critical is that even though there’s an appetite for American and European companies to shoot in Japan, Japan is woefully short on trained crew, woefully short on sound stages, and woefully short on incentives. So they have not yet created the infrastructure that would allow filmmaking to prosper here and become a lucrative industry. Knowing that changes in infrastructure take time, I feel like this is a critical moment to kickstart that process.
And about the pilot incentive program?
With regard to the incentive, most world capitals that have an incentive program offer a tax rebate of anywhere between 10 percent and 30 percent of the amount of cash that a company spends in the local country. In Japan, you can’t even call it an incentive yet. What VIPO (Visual Industry Promotion Organization) has done is called a research grant program, and it’s a lump sum of $1 million, which, you know, if you’re going to spend $30 million on a big movie in a country, even 20 percent of that would be a $6 million rebate. So it’s still fledgling. Also, ironically, that $1 million number that VIPO has put forward was fixed at a certain number in yen. So, with the exchange rate what it is today, it’s actually now about $700,000.
We’ve been fortunate enough to receive it both years, so I want to make clear that I’m very, very grateful for that. But if you look at the world stage and what it takes to draw large international productions, Japan’s not in that league yet.
I know you can’t share much about the new season yet, but let’s talk about Tokyo Vice. From what I’ve heard, season one was immensely challenging in various ways. You were the first big-budget U.S. TV drama to shoot entirely in Tokyo — and you had to do it during the pandemic. How are you feeling as you come back for season two? And what are you most excited to build upon with the second season of the show, whether it’s from a storytelling or style perspective, or in terms of Japan-based production practices that you built up over the course of making Season One.
Well, we’re really fortunate that the first season was a hit worldwide. And even in Japan, where it was seen on the satellite network Wowow, it had a tremendous reputation. So we’re coming back to a very altered landscape. On season one, nobody knew us. People tend to be hesitant about new things in Japan, but not only that, we were a show that was loosely based on a nonfiction memoir that was so controversial in Japan that it’s never been properly published — also, incidentally, it deals with the world of the Yakuza. So people had good reasons to be hesitant about having any contact with us. During season one, we got a lot of flat denials on things just based on the perceived association with organized crime. Now, on season two, everybody knows what the show is, and everybody knows that the show takes a very authentic Japanese point of view in describing Tokyo in the 90s. So we’re finding many more doors opening and people actually welcoming us, or even soliciting us, on the basis of how much they enjoyed the first season. So that’s a dramatic change.
You mentioned how the authenticity of season one is now helping to open doors. There have been so many films and shows over the years made by Westerners involving Japan that have gotten cultural details big and small wrong, whether it’s costumes or fundamental social behavior. What did you do on Tokyo Vice to avoid those mistakes?
I hate to use the word osmosis, but working exclusively in Tokyo with with a mostly Japanese crew, you’re just surrounded by people who are intent on getting the details right? And who will have the courage to always let us know when we might be doing something that is off the mark. Making the show work as well for Japanese audiences as it does for Western audiences was a very key goal for our showrunner, J.T. Rogers and the entire producing team. There’s a lot of extra effort associated with that, particularly in terms of script translations and dialect translations, where there are nuances that will never be on the radar of anybody other than the Japanese viewer, but which we knew we had to get right. But I think it was worth it. Making the show for a Japanese audience was very important to us, but even for a Western viewer watching the show, somehow the authenticity seeps through.