Profile

Brazilian–Japanese director Edson Oda left a flourishing career in advertising to tell his own stories. Now his surreal debut, Nine Days, is generating excitement. By Jessica Zhan Mei Yu.

Director Edson Oda

Director Edson Oda.
Credit: Auden Bui

Content warning: this profile includes discussion of suicide.

 

While many films speculate on what happens after death, Brazilian–Japanese director Edson Oda’s much-anticipated first feature film, Nine Days, speculates on what happens before life. It has a bold and slightly terrifying premise: over nine days, eight unborn souls called “candidates” compete for the “opportunity of life”.

The central character – their “tester”, Will – is based on Oda’s uncle, who was “a good soul”, “very sensitive … very kind” and who died by suicide at the age of 50 when Oda was 12. Oda’s uncle became “the suicide” in the family. “Like okay, this is this person who didn’t succeed because of that,” he tells me via Zoom. “And I didn’t have the empathy, you know.”

Oda speaks about his uncle’s death with an honesty and self-reflection that feels rare and unforced. We meet for an hour on a call set up and monitored by his team at Sony, squashed between other press and promotions for the film. He is at his home in Los Angeles, and behind him the wall is covered with sticky notes and brightly coloured cards that, he explains, are a part of his initial creative process for screenwriting.

When we begin to talk, he has the slightly harried look of an artist in “promo mode” but he manages to be gracious, patient and open.

He says his need to distance himself from his uncle was born of his “fear of becoming like him, in my, you know, in parts of myself that I like and don’t like”. But later in Oda’s life things darkened. “And I felt weak as he felt,” he says. “I felt like, you know, I went through some hard times, the same way he went through.”

Nine Days is deeply moving and enigmatic. It resists interpretation yet at the same time insists on it. It is strongly implied that Will took his own life and, as the “tester”, he searches for a candidate who can overcome the challenges of life to which he feels he succumbed. When he isn’t interviewing new souls, Will watches the lives of previously successful candidates.

Will shares some similarities with his favourite candidate, Amanda, a concert violinist. The qualities they share are essentially those of an artist: sensitivity to beauty, an openness to the world. He watches over Amanda’s every move like a proud father, from the moment she wakes until she goes to sleep, and is deeply disturbed when she is killed the morning before a concert. Nursing suspicions that her death was intentional, he obsessively tries to work out where he went wrong.

Oda says he didn’t want the film to feel “like sci-fi”. It was important to him that the surreal premise act as a background, and what comes into focus for audiences “is just the people in this world, and how do they feel? Who they are in their relationships, their struggles, and the pain and joy and everything around those characters?”

The before-life that Oda has created is a quotidian place that feels personal and recognisable. The setting is bleak, a desert wasteland with only one yellow house crammed with old televisions, VHS tapes, books and dark wooden furniture. The lights are constantly down, giving it the air of a home cinema. Turquoise, yellow and beige hues create a worn, lived-in and tired feeling.

After watching Nine Days, I had a desperate desire for Oda to explain it to me. I ask what it means and he describes this question several times as “tricky” because, he explains, “I always like to leave room for people to come up with something rather than make them chase my own intentions”.

He turns the question back on me, as a viewer: how do I understand the film? I relay my thoughts. Is it perhaps about the preciousness of the everyday? Is it about the ways we understand suicide, or a celebration of cinema and its power, or the cruelty of a capitalist society in which even the mysterious and painful gift of life can be made into a zero–sum game? Or is it about the inner workings of white supremacy? He smiles enigmatically and doesn’t give anything away, except that he enjoys hearing me guess.

Oda shows the same flexible and self-decentring approach to writing and directing as he does to interpretation. When discussing his approach as a screenwriter, Portuguese-speaking Oda points out that English isn’t his first language. “And I know that the dialogue I write, it’s… You know the intentions are there and the purpose of the dialogue is there but it’s not… 100 per cent, you know? So with Nine Days, when I gave the script to [the actors], I say, yeah, read it. And if there is anything you would say differently, just let me know, just say it differently.”

Oda was an advertising copywriter in São Paulo working for clients such as Nokia, Honda and Johnson & Johnson when he decided to pursue writing and directing. He completed an MFA in filmmaking and production at the University of Southern California. When asked what prompted this change, he says: “I think mainly telling stories – a story that will be mine and personal, you know. For advertising, usually how it works, it’s the brand’s story. They are the voice and you’re just their arms – you know to help them shine.

“And I feel like filmmaking is pretty much you, as a human being, as this unique person who was born there, and grew up in their family, and you [are] capable of telling your own story, and sharing your own story to the rest of the world. And people who are coming from kind of the same place that you were, they can grab it, or even people totally different from you, they can just see similarities … And somehow you change them.”

In 2017 the Nine Days script was one of 12 selected by the Sundance Institute for development in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. As part of the program, the artists spend a week at a resort with mentors who run workshops, give artist notes and exercises, and create an effective environment for the development.

After this, the institute continues to act as a sounding board for the artists; they help to prepare the script and assist in building connections with producers. Oda speaks of the institute warmly, calling them his “second family”. Nine Days was shot in Utah during 2019 and showed in January 2020 at Sundance, one of the few film festivals held last year. It made a splash but Sony Classics held the film’s official release until now.

As a director, Oda tries to be as “hands-off as possible with the time that I have”. The scenes in which Will interviews each “soul” about their fitness for life are almost entirely improvised. Actor Winston Duke who plays Will asked “random questions” or acted “very scary” and the other actors reacted to it. Arrested Development’s Tony Hale – who plays Alex, a man whose drive to win the prize of life is motivated purely by his desire to taste beer and eat barbecue – was particularly funny on set. “Most of Tony’s gags and jokes came from him,” says Oda, his face lighting up. “Every time Tony was interviewed we couldn’t stop laughing.”

The time constraints of filmmaking can be limiting. Oda jokes that when he allowed the actors to improvise the script on the first day of shooting, “you know the first AD [assistant director] starts looking at you, killing you with the eyes”.

The result of this playfulness is that the dialogue in the film rings with the clarity of truth. “The movie was kind of an experiment with all those candidates and somehow that allow[ed] me to … experiment with the actors. And it was fun when you had time to do it.”

Oda describes the editing process as a form of rewriting. He recalls that after one of the test screenings, he felt the movie came across as “very heavy” because of the constant eliminating of candidates and its theme of suicide. Afterwards he used humour to undercut the many moments that felt “grey”. He also tried to develop Will’s character further through the editing process to make him kinder.

He worried that the audience would start feeling bad for the candidates. “How can we see why [Will’s] doing that? Or how much Will cares for those souls?” he asks. “It’s more like a father who is tough on their kids because he loves them, he wants to prepare them for the reality, which is not the kindest, you know. So, I think it was that that was missing. And then we start just, you know, trying to show how much he cares about them and how he was tough, but there was a reason behind that.”

Oda laughs when I mention his complicated racial heritage as a Japanese–Brazilian who has migrated to the United States. He explains that Brazil has the largest Japanese population outside Japan. When I ask him why, he says his mum told him that the wave of Japanese immigration began because Japan wasn’t doing well.

“Brazil, they used to advertise that you can plant anything and it’ll be great … and they didn’t have internet at the time so…” He shrugs and laughs. “Thirty days travel by ships,” he says of the voyage to Brazil. “Such a life-changing event. Didn’t speak the language or anything, tried to adapt, survive and grow.”

Oda believes that immigrants are all artists. “Something about trying to fit,” he says. “Trying to do something out of nothing.” Oda’s immigrant background is both what Nine Days is about and where it sprang from, “that mix of isolation, loneliness, having a different perspective”.

The filmmaker suggests that different qualities from each of his racial and cultural identities make him a good director. From Brazil comes his love of people and from America he takes his professionalism. As a Japanese immigrant, he says he was “educated with the values of the Japanese from 100 years ago” which is “more traditional than even the Japanese living in Japan”.

He says that from his traditional Japanese upbringing he holds the values of self-mastery and discipline, which are particularly useful to a new screenwriter. “Something about, okay, I have to do this, persist, have patience,” he says. “This helps in my writing for sure.” In particular, he mentions the tenuousness of writing “specs”: unsolicited, non-commissioned speculative scripts that may not be optioned. When you write specs, he says, “you don’t know what is going to happen … you won’t finish because there’s no reward, no immediate reward”.

Nine Days is a product of determination in the face of uncertainty. For Oda, the process of struggle – writing, thinking, creating and even surviving difficult times – is its own reward.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 17, 2021 as "Life matters".

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Jessica Zhan Mei Yu is a Melbourne-based writer. She holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Melbourne.