There are very few directors who have the courage and determination to turn their visions into exemplary artworks. While it is easy to demand marriage equality rights for the LGBTQ community; a positive portrayal of the said subject that evokes a thoughtful depiction is a rather difficult task. In the midst of this metaphorical worldview, we have one director who is trying to make a difference by mirroring his own cathartic experiences.
Hamish Downie is an Australian LGBT filmmaker and producer based in Osaka, Japan. After teaming up with Paul Leeming and directing some music videos for word music diva, Robyn Loau, he made his first short film, “Silence”, which did well on the festival circuit in Europe. Buoyed by that success, he ventured out to make his first feature film, “Matcha & Vanilla”, which reunites the creative team behind “Silence”. Hamish hopes to continue to make films that have a multi-cultural focus, and in the future would like to make an animated series. In this exclusive, we talk to Mr. Downie about his filmmaking style, casting and much more!
1) You graduated from a well-known university in Australia and are quite open about your sexuality. Why did you think it was prudent to return to Japan, while leaving behind the optimistic attitude of the Western world?
Firstly, thank you for referring to my alma mater that way. When I went to the University of Newcastle, it was just a small, young local university, with a very good Medical and Design program. I had some great teachers, so I’m glad the University is getting the recognition it deserves. In Australia, there is the “tyranny of distance” aspect. We are isolated from much of the world, and I wanted to be a part of the global community (which is perhaps a bit difficult to understand in this era of everyone being connected on social media), so when a University friend had a great experience teaching English abroad, I decided to do the same. I moved to Tokyo, and I’ve been in Japan for over fifteen years. Japan has been a land of opportunity for me. I’ve got to meet amazing people from all over the world, I’ve gotten to kickstart my filmmaking career here, and I’ve even gotten to be a travel correspondent on NHK World. Funnily enough, my first big opportunity was to film a music video in Japan for an Australian World Music artist, Robyn Loau, who has released music in English, Japanese and many Polyneisan languages.
Watch Robyn Loau “Never Let You Down” here: https://youtu.be/FEDBvlo1NPg
2) Your endeavor to produce LGBTQ content wouldn’t have been an easy decision; especially when you are currently located in a homophobic society. How did you mentally prepare yourself for this transition?
That’s such a great question. I work for an international company in my day job, so I haven’t had too many issues there, although I’m not out with my students. For the most part, Japan isn’t openly homophobic like Australia was when I was growing up. The issues really come to a head with things like travelling with my partner (we get twin rooms to not cause any issues), or with things like marriage equality as I’ve addressed in my latest film, “Matcha & Vanilla”.
I’ve said in previous interviews that I wanted to tell human stories, not just LGBT stories. I guess if you look at all of my work, I focus on making films with a message. My father was a Preacher, so you could say that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Since making “Silence”, I’ve been really passionate to tell stories about our community, especially ones that hold a mirror up to show the truth.
3) You have mentioned that “Fear” is one of your muses. What kind of cathartic experience has shaped your life and also led your directives?
I got some advice from the great Chris Wells (Actor, TV Presenter and Improv Teacher in Japan), who said that audiences wanted characters to walk towards their fears, not run away from them. I think it’s because we want to live vicariously through them and learn from their experiences. Up until then, I wrote very happy animation stories. With Chris’ advice, and the encouragement from my creative partner Paul Leeming, who said that horror movies were just dark fairytales, I started to explore the things that scare me. So, I started telling stories about things that had happened to me, like being stalked by a fan (“Never Let You Down” music video), and like escaping from a toxic relationship (“Silence”). Also, I’ve recently been telling stories about things that scare me about the future, like a possible world war (“An American Piano”), like the fear of your partner getting sick and not being able to be together (“Matcha & Vanilla”), and the fear of being separated in the afterlife (“The Last Anomaly”).
4) It is difficult to recreate your own life stories. Your short film “Silence” chronicles your past abusive relationship? How did you correlate the storyline with your own circumstances?
It is difficult to recreate your own life stories, but it’s very cathartic and therapeutic. The hope is that if the people watching can relate, maybe they can be helped. At the time, same-sex family violence was very taboo in our community, but it was the story I needed to tell. The short film was originally planned to be a music video for the Robyn Loau song, “The Last Time”, so I used my story to help tell the story of the song and especially the lyric “you made a survivor out of me”. I’ve known a couple of lesbian friends in domestic abuse situations, and the song was sung in a female voice, so I thought by shining a light in the darkest of places, I could help the community at large.
Watch “Silence” here:
5) Explain your vision behind the animation movie, “The Last Anomaly”. What did you have in mind while scripting this divine comedy?
This really started out as a philosophical discussion that I was having during my nightly prayers. My partner and I come from different religious backgrounds and I was debating about the unfairness of being separated in the afterlife. The idea that heaven could be hell if you were separated from your loved ones. I got inspired one day that it might make an interesting “The Seventh Seal” inspired radio play for my podcast “The Fizz Popcast Radio Show”. Then, my co-host Bec, convinced me that it really would make a good animation. So, I got in touch with Ross Ozaka, an animator in NZ, and Aridan Austin, a talented writer in Australia, and we developed it into a comedy. We’ve now gathered some big names in Australia for the voice cast, Robyn Loau (Idiot Box, Somewhere in the Darkness), Damian Bodie (Neighbours, Wives and Husbands), and Adam J Yeend (Scary Endings: The Water Rises, An American Piano).
6) You have questioned and pushed the boundaries of trust, monogamy and open relationships in your short film “Night Disclosure”. Why did you choose these poignant themes?
I’d just gotten out of an eight-year on/off relationship with someone who was cheating on me, and then we opened up the relationship, or he opened it up, and I just accepted it. I wanted desperately to make it work, and played every game in the book to keep it together. But, in the end, the relationship failed. So, I wanted to explore those games that we play in relationships in a fun way. I wasn’t able to make the film in Japan, so I focused on making “Silence”, and put this project on the backburner. Then, AJ, the director in New York was looking for short film scripts, and I sent him my script, and he loved it. He helped me develop the story, and now it’s out there in the world.
Watch “Night Disclosure” here:
7) Your recent release “Matcha & Vanilla”, is currently streaming on GagaOOLala. You faced a lot of problems during the production stage and yet persisted. Why is this film so important to you?
The story is very close to my heart. “Matcha & Vanilla” is about a lesbian couple who must fight to stay together when one of them gets a terminal illness. A mentor of mine once said that the biggest fear of every LGBT couple in Japan is their partner getting sick and not being allowed to see them in the hospital, and then the partner dying without them knowing about it because of the partner’s family closing ranks. And now that I’m in a stable loving relationship, I’ve found myself with that same fear, and I thought it was an interesting concept to explore. I didn’t know that I would be the one who would get sick and have to be hospitalised during the production of this film! Can you believe that I was still doing pre-production while in my hospital bed? I think just about every film that gets made, big or small, is a miracle. Look at the behind-the-scenes documentaries about “Apocalypse Now” or “Eye of the Beholder”, making a film really drives you to the edge. After the second shoot, I’d ran out of money, but I was lucky that Jaime, Jay Lin and the team at Gagaoolala found the film and came to the rescue with completion funds, we couldn’t have made it without their support. Then, like every film in 2020, the pandemic happened, and it just made everything a million times more difficult. One thing that came out of that time was the music that Deron created. We were originally planning on mostly instrumental music, but during the lockdowns we were so inspired to create these songs for the film, and it’s ended up with us having enough songs to release a soundtrack, including one song that I got to make with an idol of mine, “Write”, which I also wrote the lyrics for. The thing that keeps you going is the passion to tell the story and hopefully make a difference. Plus, it’s a great pleasure getting to see such amazing talent like Qyoko Kudo and Tomoko Hayakawa up close doing what they do best, and giving a platform to all these amazing talented people who just needed someone to give them a shot at a big break.
Watch the trailer here:
Watch a highlight:
8) The most common issue faced by the LGBTQ community in the Asian Subcontinent is the denial of marriage equality as well as the rebuttal to adoption/surrogacy rights. Does “Matcha & Vanilla” tackle these problems?
We definitely tackle the issue of marriage equality, and how it affects all aspects of one’s life – from work, to home, to friends and family, and especially to health. We were even lucky enough to have a member of Marriage Equality Hong Kong present the film at the world premiere at the Hong Kong Lesbian & Gay Film Festival. During the production, the “Rainbow Card” was introduced in some cities in Japan. It doesn’t really do much, but it is a way of saying that we exist to the Japanese Government, so I found a way to incorporate that into the film. When I went into hospital myself, I listed my partner as my “key person”, but the hospital was pressuring me to get someone else. If we could get true Marriage Equality, then this needless stress would be taken away. The other issue is that most Japanese LGBT are in the closet, so when they get hospitalised, they become separated from their partners because of the societal pressure to remain in the closet. So, the issue is not just governmental, it is societal, and I did my best to address that in the film.
9) How did you cast Qyoko Kudo and Tomoko Hayakawa for their respective roles as Ai and Yuki? Did they fulfil your vision?
I’d worked with Qyoko Kudo twice (“Silence”, “An American Piano”), and Tomoko Hayakawa three times (“Silence”, “Pieces of 8”, “Fish & Love”) before this production. They are two of the best working actors in Japan today. When we all worked together on the “Silence” project, I really regretted not recording their improvised dialogue, because the film would have turned out even more powerful. So, I promised to write something especially for them, and that project was “Matcha & Vanilla”. The thing about hiring two incredibly smart and talented actors is that they will lift the material to heights far beyond what I could have humbly imagined as I was writing the story, and as we were filming together. It was such a privilege to work together with them, and I sincerely hope that we can do so again in the future.
10) If you had to choose between directing films or dramas, which one would you choose? Which form of art is closer to your heart?
As Paul Leeming would say, the format depends on the story. I just want to tell stories. Sometimes a story is a short film or a music video, sometimes a feature, and sometimes it’s a web series or a drama or sitcom series. I’ve probably had more ideas for TV Series than anything else, but I haven’t had the opportunity to make them yet. It depends on the story idea, and my ability to make it into a reality.
11) Have you watched BL/LGBTQ dramas or movies directed by others?
Yes, of course. As John Waters said, if you want to be a LGBT filmmaker, become a fan of what you want to make. Buy things. With “Matcha & Vanilla”, I was inspired by the work of Gus Van Sant (“My Own Private Idaho”), Andrew Haigh (“Weekend”), Stephan Elliott (“Priscilla, Queen of the Desert”), Wong Kai-Wai (“Happy Together”), and Ang Lee (“The Wedding Banquet”). My partner has introduced me to Argentinian filmmaker Marco Berger, especially his films, “Hawaii” and “The Blonde One”. Also, film critic Ali Naro introduced me to the incredible lesbian film, “LoveSong”, which like “Weekend” just feel so real. There is some incredible up-and-coming talent such as Shawna Khorasani, who made the short “LoverGirl”, and David Bobrow, who made the short film “Country People”. I’m also really inspired by the talented writers around me like David Chester, and Adrian Austin.
12) You are trying to bring drastic and radical changes to the societal mindset regarding the LGBTQ community. Do you think that films can serve as a medium to draft this change?
When Priscilla was released in 1994, the tag line was, “this film will change the way you think, feel, and most importantly, the way you dress”. And in a way, it did. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing, which came first. Did Priscilla ride the wave or did Priscilla help make the wave? I do think that stories are important. And that the way we are portrayed in stories is important. Can films make a change? Well, “One flew over the cuckoo’s nest” certainly changed the way society looked at mental illness. I don’t know the answer to this, except that we’ve been telling stories to each other since the early days around the campfire, and drawing on cave walls. These narratives must be important. I know as a kid, I tried to watch any and everything I could that had LGBT people, from talk shows to documentaries to movies, tv and books.
13) “Matcha and Vanilla” has won three awards for “Best LGBTQ Film” at various international film festivals, while you won the Special Jury Award for Best Director. How is the feeling?
It feels great that people and festivals are responding to the film. I just want the film to be seen and heard, and awards like these help. I imagined that the film would be recognised for the incredible performances by Tomoko Hayakawa and Qyoko Kudo, Paul Leeming’s beautiful cinematography, and Deron Reynolds’ gorgeous music. I was completely surprised and blown away with the Best Director award. To me, it is an award for the whole team. As Ridley Scott once said at the Q&A in Sydney for “Black Hawk Down”, “80% of directing is casting”. And I think I managed to assemble a great team for this one. I hope I can live up to these awards for my next projects.
14) Same- sex marriages are still not legalized in Japan. What is your opinion about the same? Are you hoping to get married to your long-time partner in the near future?
I certainly hope so. We are engaged, but we want to wait until we have marriage equality in Japan and in Australia. The “Rainbow Card” is a step in the right direction, but it is not enough. It is not equality. But, even though we have politicians saying that we are “unproductive”, there is a movement beginning. I hope that we can follow in Taiwan’s footsteps and achieve marriage equality in Japan as well. But, as I mentioned, there are societal issues at play as well as legal ones. But, I do hope that this momentum can continue, and I hope that “Matcha & Vanilla” will be able to play a part.
15) Talk to us about your upcoming future projects related to queer culture?
Ross Ozaka is hard at work on doing the animation for “The Last Anomaly”, and I’m so excited for everyone to get to see that project. I’ve just pitched a musical web series that I hope to make this year. It’s called “Marry Me Maki” and it’s all about joy, family and I promise that it has a happy ending! And there will be more music videos to support the soundtrack of “Matcha & Vanilla”.
16) We have a lot of BL fans and members of the LGBTQ+ community as our avid readers. Do you have any advice or message to share with them?
Firstly to the fans, thank you for supporting and buying the work of independent creators. You are the reason that we can do this. Also, thank you to websites like this one, Brian Kirst of Big Gay Horror Fan, Ali Naro (formally Movies Over the Rainbow) and Ben & Keith of the Two Gay Geeks, who champion independent creators.
Now, to the community. Our stories are important. You are important. You are worth having equal rights. You deserve happiness. You deserve to have your stories told. You have the right to take up space. You deserve to love and be loved.
The BL Xpress would like to thank Mr. Hamish Downie for this opportunity!