January 11, 2007

My first interview with an international movie star

We've got an exclusive! Remember when I did the send up of The Drifting Classroom via a video entry? Well, I managed to get ahold of one of the stars of said movie. This is a rare opportunity to get into the head of a childstar, in Japan, in the 80s, in a movie based on a horror manga.
I have no idea what is going on with the yellow stuff in the picture, but the grandfather of Japanese horror manga is standing with the cast in this pic.

Our interviewee is Arthur Johnson, who you may recall as the kid that was holding the racially-questionable piggy bank. Unfortunately, I forgot to ask how he felt about that, but I still got plenty of questions in. Without further ado:

1: How did you get involved in the movie? What was the casting process like?
I was walking home from school. I noticed I lost my book bag. So as I was looking for it. A car pulled up along side of me with a Japanese casting crew inside of it. Asked me if I wanted to be in a movie. Of course I thought they were pulling my leg. So I asked my mom. She said go for it because that was a 1 in a million chance. If they were telling the truth. Acting never crossed my mind at the time. Anyways, all the kids they had gathered up. They had us meet at a specific location on base. They brought a bus. Picked all of us up and drove us to Tokyo. Once we arrived there, they (casting crew) introduced us to the writer, director, and producer. Then we sat around a table and did some cold reading. We repeated that process on them picking us up. Around 4 times. After the last cold reading session. They brought us home and said that they would call whoever made it. But the phone call will be on the first day of the school yr in the morning. So if you got that phone call. You was not going to school. Well, I didn't receive a phone call that morning. So I went to school with my head held low. Thinking I was a failure. Because I knew the kids that didn't show up for school that day. Got chosen over me. Then fate intervened. They called me late that evening. Saying they made a mistake and needed me after all. The next thing you know. I'm working everyday. Missing all kinds of school. Teachers were split on the issue of us doing the movie. Some allowed us to do homework on the road. Others just flat out failed us. But I was making to much money to worry about that at the time. Eventually it all worked out for the best.
All though the casting process was pretty much a lot of cold reading sessions. I thought I should explain the whole story because I thought it was weird how I got chosen.

2: Did you live in Kobe at the time, and go to an international school like your character? If so, how was it? Did you learn to speak Japanese? Could the Japanese kids in the cast really speak English in turn, or did they have their English lines memorized by rote?
I lived at Yokota Air Force base in Japan for 10yrs. From 1980-90. I never lived in Kobe. One thing I regret. Is that I never learned the language there. I just knew the basics to get by. The majority of the Japanese cast could not speak English. They had English coaches. But on set, they spoke enough English, well enough for us to understand.

This interview is continued after the jump.

3: Viewing Japanese films from the 80's makes me oddly (cause I didn't live there) nostalgic. Can you describe how Japan has changed since then, especially from a foreigner's point of view?
Japan will always be nostalgic. They thrive on the past. Especially in the wardrobe department. From what I know and heard. Its still pretty much the same over there. With the exception of a few more high rises and there technology is still light yrs ahead of the U.S.

4: Is there a DVD version of the movie, or special releases?
There are no special releases that I know of. But I do have the DVD version. I found a collector on line that had a version for me. I jumped on that quick.

5: Are there deleted scenes out there somewhere, especially ones that explain plot holes? Several characters seem to disappear without anyone noticing or explanations given. And what happened to the guy that went crazy? I don't seem to recall him dying, but merely being subdued. I could go on, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on the plot and editing.
The movie came across as a sci fi with a comedy twist. I thought it was written pretty well. The movie was suppose to be over 2 hrs long originally. But they took out a huge chunk of the script because of the budget. That's what probably let to some of the holes.
The movie was based off a comic book. Which was a success in Japan. So it was easy to convert it to film. As far as the teachers mysteriously disappearing. Some of them went to find help. Not knowing what was out there in the sand dunes. And were attacked by the huge roaches. Some got scared and just left. The teachers that chose to stay with us. Died during battle. After that crazy guy was defeated he went crazy and left. He pretty much was outnumbered. As quick as the teachers were vanishing. You had to assume the worst for them. Regardless whether you saw them killed or not. The movie was based on how kids came together through adversity and survived off of what we had. Meaning little food and no weapons. Then we had to develop a plan to defeat the creatures. The teachers were just a minute part of the equation.
I thought the editing was pretty good. People have to realize. That movie was made in 1987. Graphics back then weren't to sophisticated. We didn't have a green screen and all that computer animation. Everything was built by hand. We shot 90% of that movie in huge hangers. When we went to the premiere. The audience got a kick out of it. That right there alone, let me know the whole crew did a great job.

6: What was the atmosphere on the set like?

The atmosphere on set was very, very sandy. Everyday I went to work. I got a huge dose of this thick slimy gel and sand thrown on me. I didn't think anybody can pack that much sand into them huge hangers. The only time the atmosphere was clean. Was when we shot the school scene before the storm hit. We actually shot that at a real private school. That was pretty much the only time we didn't have to shower every 20 min.

7: Were the majority of the cast professional actors? Do you know what the acting biz is like for a foreigner in Japan?

The entire Japanese cast and the teachers were professional. Me and the rest of the American kids were not professional. We were just normal kids plucked from a crowd. The funny think is. After that movie. Even all the autograph signings, press conferences. I still had no intentions on becoming an actor.
Back then, when I was living in Japan. Acting came easy for foreigners. Especially commercials. You really didn't need an agent or any type of experience. You could get noticed by just walking down the street. Someone will notice your face. Next thing you know. Your in a commercial.

8: Did you do any more films, Japanese or otherwise?

After the Drifting Classroom. I didn't do no more films there. I had to focus on graduating. I almost didn't graduate. I missed a lot of school my sophomore yr. Although I did do some commercials and shows. It was no big deal to us back then because those little side jobs came easy. We did a show, got paid and didn't think nothing of it.

9: What is your favorite Japanese horror film?

I would have to say all the Godzilla films. I loved watching them.

10: Have you read the original manga upon which the film was based? How good of an adaptation do you think the film is?

[unanswered]

11: Have you seen the recently made drama TV series that was based off of the same manga? If so, do you have thoughts on it?
No, I haven't seen the recently made drama t.v. series. I would love to check it out.

12: Anything you have a burning desire to let people know about this film or your experience?
I tell you one thing. I'm never going to forget that experience. I really enjoyed working with Nobuhiko Obayachi (director). We had Mc Donalds as one of our sponsors. We literally ate free Mc Donalds every day for almost 4 mos. I'm talking breakfast, lunch, and dinner. We were catered to everyday. I'm talking star treatment. Everywhere I went in Japan, people recognized me. At my school. I was like a celebrity. I think I was one of the first ones from my class to buy a car with my own money, and I was a sophomore.
Another thing I learned. That when I look back in hindsight. I realized that I was destined to become an actor. I look at as a preparation period for the future.
Once I actually pursued acting as a profession. That whole process on establishing myself as an actor was so much easier than I anticipated.
Now I'm writing, producing, and co directing my own comedy plays. I'm involved with a production company called No Whip Productions.
In 2007, I will emerge again. lol
Ill send you some of my work. We had to make some minor corrections on our site.

13: Are you still in contact with the rest of the cast? Looking at your guys' comments on IMDB, it seems you really enjoyed working together.

I'm still in contact with some of the cast. We got along really well. They were like my second family.

14: Do you know what the reaction was to a Japanese movie almost completely in English dialogue? Did it fare okay at the box offices? Did it even officially come to America (I saw it here in Japan at the video store)?
At the time. Drifting Classroom debuted. We were paired up with "Goonies" and a few other films. I remember "Goonies" barely beat us out in Japan. Although our movie never made it to the states. I forgot the reason. It did pretty good at the box office. Especially when you consider the anticipation because of the comic book.

Arthur, all growed up and lookin' tough.


Update: Arthur told me the following in an email:
Good job Clay. Although your youtube segment about the movie. Had me on the ground laughing. I'm the jerry curl kid hah... and then at the end. You said that I managed to save my curl with that controversial piggy bank. LMAO

Couple of holes in your commentary though. That little boy wasnt sho's brother. Just some little boy that followed him. lol That bank. I knew it was going to be a controversial piece. Even now. I had a discussion with my folks and told them what I was using. It all boiled down to. Japan is not a racist country. They just didnt know better. They figured since I was black and the bank was black. There shouldnt be nothing to it. Or they probably didnt know the full history behind that character. I know one thing. They sure was not trying to be derogatory with whatever message people were perceiving it to be. Plus I was making to much money to tell them what to do. lol

Oh yah. The preppy kid with the soccer ball. He never was a bad guy. He just formed his own alliance. You see at the end he sacrificed his life to save ours.

In that school. We sung, dance, and played instruments. That's why we knew all them routines. Everybody was gleeful....

1 more thing. The kid that mentioned time wharp. He was one of those gifted students. Thats why he knew alot of stuff when it came down to science and physics. lol