In October 2010, I made the music video for Robyn Loau’s single “Never Let You Down”. It was my first professional gig as a filmmaker, and I was lucky enough to work with an artist that I have admired and respected for a very long time. So, how did this happen? How did I become only the third Drag Queen in the world to become a professional filmmaker, and the first to go into legitimate cinema? How did we manage to shoot guerrilla-style deep in Yakuza territory, and survive? Stick with me.
Who Am I?
Son of a preacher man, turned International Drag Queen, turned writer/producer. Most well known for Robyn Loau’s “Never Let You Down” music video, and the fan-film “Silent Hill: Stolen Heart”.
Havana Fair (my stage name) performs “Running Away” by Spook (from the album “The Dusk Sessions”) at the J-POP Cafe in Shibuya, Japan. This venue is most famous as one of the locations used in the Brad Pitt film “BABEL”.
Robyn Loau – “Never Let You Down” – the PV/short film. This is the music video, I’m talking about.
Silent Hill: Stolen Heart – a short fan-film. Paul and I made this in an abandoned Japanese Hospital. It’s done pretty well, and has made it onto a number of well-known film and gaming websites.
So how did I go from Drag Queen to Filmmaker? Patience my pets, that comes later. Believe me, it’ll be worth the wait.
Who is Robyn?
For those not in the know, Robyn Loau was the lead singer of GIRLFRIEND, an Australian all-girl vocal group.
Girlfriend stole the hearts, and minds of Australia, toured Asia and Europe, had a brief stint on Japan’s Disney Channel, and started a fashion label. Then, Robyn left the group to make a world music album SIVA PACIFICA, which was huge in Australia and France.
She then made her debut album Malaria, featuring the dark and dirty lead single SICK WITH LOVE. Sick With Love made it into the top 20, was one of Triple J’s annual hottest 100, and got released in France. The album Malaria got 4 stars from Rolling Stone.
She’s done film (Idiot Box), television (Wildside), and in 2011, she released her sophomore album, “Only Human”, featuring the lead single SHE DEVIL, which appeared on TV Soap “Neighbours”.
So, basically I’m a huge fan of hers. And hopefully now that you’ve watched those videos, and seen her metamorphosis from bubblegum pop-princess in a flower hat, to earth queen, to edgy pop star, to mature vocalist, you are too.
How we know each other
Our professional association started in 2004. She was one of the first to get on board with my animation project, Spirulina Tracy. She was to play one of the most interesting villains, Bovinia the Hideous.
We also actually met once backstage at her Siva Pacifica Concert at the Sydney Opera House in 2001. Yes, that’s me wearing a tracksuit. I was going through a very trying time (a hint of the missing link between Drag Queen and Filmmaker), and believe it or not, but for this period of time – I was dressed up!
Luckily, ten years later, what I now lack in hair, I’ve gained in fashion sense (no laughing, Ken!). As you can see, I got to meet her again (on a professional level) in March last year, after the Great Tohoku Earthquake forced me to come back to Australia for a short time.
So, now we’ve all introduced ourselves, onto the actual video!
I got to hear much of the album pre-release, which was such a dream come true. I knew that they were planning on releasing “Never Let You Down” as the next single, so that night my brain went into overdrive, coming up with ideas. Eventually, at 2am I knew I wasn’t going to sleep unless I got these ideas down. So I wrote a script for the video. The following day I pitched the idea to them – a RUN LOLA RUN/Bourne-style video shot in Spain. They loved the idea of doing a RLR homage, but suggested moving the location to Tokyo, where I live. Which also meant that the budget was no longer $100million. Nice!
WOW! I just scored my big break.
Pre-Production Part One
Holy crap! You mean I’ve actually got to make this thing? A much more talented man then me described the process of getting your big break like this, “most of spend years pushing up against this wall, trying to get in, that when the wall is finally removed, it is like free-falling into space”. Sean Young, on scoring the role of Rachael in “Bladerunner”, said she fell into a depression at the realisation that such an important role had been given to her, when she had so little experience. Believe me, I can relate to that!
Thankfully, a mutual friend got me in touch with Paul Leeming.
He was a fellow Aussie in Tokyo, who was interested in the project. We clicked straight away. After the stuffy court rituals that passes as communication in Japan, his laconic easiness was like a cool glass of water on a hot day. He looked at my storyboards (which I worked on with the help of Ken Takahashi – a Broadyway Scenic Designer), and instantly told me that I had enough ideas for three music videos, and that even the simplified one would massively blow the budget.
Here are some of the storyboards from that concept:
As you can see, we did get a bit of the original concept into the video. Here is a part that didn’t make it into the final video:
This was for a very sexy part of the film. I was also playing with the costumes, all under the direction of Ken:
Ken hated the one on the left. I loved it, because it paid homage to so many parts of Robyn’s career. The hat was a nod to the fashion of Girlfriend (and was even in the Without You video), and the colour red was a nod to Run Lola Run. The wild hair was a nod to her Love Addiction single cover. And finally the coconut bra, a nod to Siva Pacifica.
But the truth was, it didn’t work. We finally settled on a much rockier, grungier look. Much more in tune with the song:
I started getting people on board for the film, including Spring Day, a Tokyo-Based US comedian. In this version of the film, she was to play a Paris Hilton-type character.
However, all was not well in paradise, everyone around me was telling me not to do the music video. Quit, You’re in love with the idea of doing a music video. Once you’ve made something, that’s what you’ll be remembered for.
Some where even telling me not to do the video with Paul. People called him horrible names not worth repeating. What I was hearing was the polar opposite of the man I met. However, because I was new to this business, and not wanting to fudge things up, I listened to them, and delayed the video.
Flights to Japan suddenly became costly, and I blew our budget sky-high. And, Spring Day left for a three week stint at the Edinburgh Free Fringe festival.
That decision cost me the job. Naturally, I was devastated. But all was not lost!
Pitching Part Two
At the time I was taking a hip-hop class, and my teacher Naoya was incredible. A middle-aged man, that could move better than most kids half his age in their alleged prime. If I’d had the guts, I would have done a video of the class, a kind of “Praise You” homage. All the women were, over sixty, one even in a Cleopatra wig, all getting down to the latest hip-hop rhyme. And they all did a pretty good job. Naoya had a great knack for breaking down the most complicated moves, into simple steps. If only I had him when I was doing drag!!!! So, I pitched the idea of doing a viral video featuring him dancing. They have me the go-ahead, perhaps feeling sorry for me.
I re-watched the short films that Paul had produced, and realised that what people were telling me about Paul was a load of BS, and got back in touch with him. Thankfully he was still interested.
So, we were back in business!
Pre-Production Part Two
This is where things started becoming weird. Naoya got sick, and I couldn’t talk to him at the gym. Scared of losing the job again, I started organising a plan B video featuring my Martial Arts friends Zenta and Anthony. Spring Day called me after getting back from her first run at Edinburgh and still wanted to be a part of the project. I realised that I could make something similar to the original video.
I talked to Paul about it, and he suggested doing a homage to Ford Fairlane. Spring Day would play a Courtney Love-type rock star. I took to it like a duck to water. This would be the perfect first film for me. And here’s why…
Annie Wilkes: I am your number one fan. There is nothing to worry about. You are going to be just fine. I am your number one fan.
The Missing Link: in early 2000, at the height of my Drag career, I was held against my will by a hard-core fan. He had been stalking and taking photos of me for a number of years, and had a God-like memory of my performances. If this is sounding like Misery, let me tell you, it felt like it too. It was the most scary night of my life. After that, I became a recluse for two years. During that time I needed a creative outlet that didn’t involve leaving my room… and so life went into writing.
Annie Wilkes: [Right after smashing Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer] God I love you.
Flash-forward to 2010, and here was an opportunity to make a comment on the relationship between star and stalker/fan. Perfect. The very thing that got me into writing, would be the subject matter of my big break. Ironically, for Robyn Loau… considering that I’m one of her biggest fans (don’t we all think that?). I told you it was going to get weird.
I told Robyn’s manager that we weren’t able to make the planned viral dance video, but that we might be able to make a Bourne/Bond/Run Lola Run-esque martial arts video, and he gave me a license to kill. Can you imagine that? He basically gave me the freedom to do whatever we wanted. On my first ever professional video! That just doesn’t happen. But, it happened to me. What an amazing privilege!
Everyone’s schedule dictated that we had one opportunity to make the film, and that was in two weeks. Over the next ten days, it was a process of locking people in, getting the new storyboards done (this time they were only stick figures). We went location scouting all over Shinjuku. And finally, Paul, Ken and I settled on the locations.
The Love Sign, the “cock and ball” building, the vending machines, the University, Shinjuku Station, “Memory” Street – a Showa-era style restaurant street, and Kabukicho (Yakuza country).
At the last minute, Naoya recovered and he was able to join the shoot. Nice!
We shot it all in one night, and due to the Guriella nature of the film, we were very limited as to time at each location. It was shot on Canon 5D, and we used a stabliser as a substitute for a proper steady-cam. It took 6 hours to film.
The idea was, that we would shoot Naoya’s scenes first, and then shoot the others. I was hoping to be more of a director on this project, but as it turned out, I was really just a producer. While, Naoya’s scenes were being shot, I was collecting the rest of the cast, and Ken was making last minute prop purchases (which we ended up cutting out of the film anyway – the nature of the beast). The little bit of directing I did do, was virtually a disaster. I had Naoya listen to the music on an MP3 player, and we filmed him. This decision meant that his scenes were virtually unusable, as we couldn’t match the dance to the music in post. So, these scenes had to be cut out of the final video. And we got into trouble with the local security guard. Never mind, we ended up shooting elsewhere and those were the scenes that would make up the majority of the dance/lyrics video that I put together from that footage for Animal Ways.
Little did we know, but the weekend we shot the video, was the same weekend as the APEC summit. So, we were shooting without a permit, surrounded by police, secret service, and the leaders of the world. Oddly enough, one of the police appologised for bumping into me while we were shooting! What a difference from the Security Guard! Thankfully, Paul’s camera just looks like an expensive photo camera, so this helped our “we are just tourists” ruse!
Next to be shot was the scene that opens and closes the video, at the vending machines. This scene arguably was one of the most troublesome in terms of coordination and the Police.
You can see one of the bloopers below:
The next blooper, Zenta lost his shoe as he was running. Unfortunately, that one didn’t get captured on film. Aww!
This was my best piece of direction. I told Maryann to be the assistant that didn’t care about her star. We portrayed that by having her speaking on the phone the whole time, caught up in her own little world. I told her to call someone (anyone), and chat to them. So we actually have something very authentic looking in the final film, rather then those stupid background scenes where you know that the extras are just saying “rhubarb, rhubarb, lemonade, lemonade” to each other.
Next came scenes Paul and I are most proud of. If you are keeping track, you might recognise this from the stick-figure storyboards. I wanted a Alfred Hitchcock Vertigo scene on a staircase, and we found this great location that had a glass elevator. This sequence was partly shot aerially, and partly through the glass elevator. Paul managed to make a very expensive-looking spy-movie shot, and we are both immensely proud of this shot.
We shot quite a lot around this location (the cock-and-ball building), because it really was very cool, and had some many different facets to it.
From here we shot the fight sequence. If you take a look at the video below, you’ll see how we did it:
One of the funny things about it, is that while they we shooting, Ken and I were having a real fight behind the scenes! Nothing big mind you, just the kind of thing brothers have with each other.
We then did the scene through the Showa-era street, which we are also very proud of. It looks like it is straight out of one of those Yakuza/Kung-Fu movies.
I kind of hesitate to say this, but be very glad that you don’t have John Water’s Smell-O-Vision while watching this. Shijuku has about 30 million people pass through it each day, and well, most of those people go to the bathroom… well the sewers are built just below the roads in Shinjuku, and at about 6pm (right around the time we were filming), the whole place stinks.
Now that you’ve got your heads around that, I’ll shatter another little illusion of the film. Just after the scene in the Showa-era street, there is a section where the two guys are looking for each other, and the way that Paul shot it, it’s quite romantic with the out-of-focus lights in the background. Well, if those lights were in focus, you would be seeing some very lurid ads for strippers. Because, that’s right, we shot that sequence in Kabukicho, Tokyo’s answer to King’s Cross. Deep in the heart of Yakuza controlled territory. A den of sin and illicit gambling.
Of course, gambling is illegal in Japan, but the way they get around it, is by calling them “game centres. They have a separate section were you buy these silver balls, which you then go and gamble with. At the end of your trip, you then exchange any left over silver balls for food and/or other items, which can then be sold to another separate section, for cash. Hence why gambling is illegal in Japan, but the place is filled with Pachinko parlours.
We shot very quickly through Yakuza territory. Even then, they were coming out to watch what we were doing. If we’d stayed a minute longer, you knows what would of happened. We had to get in and out as quickly as possible. But I’m glad we did it, as those shots are beautiful.
They were the final shots we took for the film, and everyone was exhausted. I had planned on taking everyone out, but it was basically a case of everyone needing to catch their last trains.
We shot it like a documentary, there was about 40 minutes of footage, and Paul edited it down into the sharp, tight little 2min 49 sec video that you now see. In the first cut of the film, there was a different “surprise ending”.
In this ending, Anthony wins. Although he was beaten up, he got what he wanted, a piece of Spring Day, in the form of her toothbrush. But the problem was that Zenta gives him quite a punch in the end, and it just wasn’t realistic that he would have such a clean face. I didn’t have a make-up artist on set to do fake blood, basically because I thought that if this were to go on TV, blood would mean that it couldn’t be shown on the early morning music video shows, RAGE and VIDEO HITS.
We were also intending to do a kind of Melrose Place-style end credits. Very cheesy where everyone smiles at the camera. Finally at the end I would appear with my back turned to the camera. I couldn’t show my face due to contract stipulations at my day-job, so I thought it would be funny to do a little homage to the classic Oral B “this man can’t show his face, because he is a dentist” ads. At the time of shooting, my favourite AFL team St. Kilda was having some very big trouble with the law, so I thought I’d make the following statement:
But this was one of the first things to get cut. It just didn’t work with the rest of the film, especially when the toothbrush sequence got cut.
So, when Robyn’s people saw the final cut, they loved it so much that… our little viral video became the OFFICIAL VIDEO! OMG!!!!!
There was never a right time to release this video, 2010-2011 being the year of natural disasters. It’s eventual release was timed to coincide with meetings that I was supposed to have with NHK about my animation (another story for another time). Do you see just how kind Robyn is? The video was released at a time that was best for me, rather than them. Can you imagine another artist doing that? I think not. Robyn and her people are the greatest!
Fans were underwhelmed. I think most were disappointed that Robyn didn’t appear in the video (sorry guys, that was my fault).
While I am disappointed that the video has had less than three thousand views in a year, that is about on the same track as HARD did. And that video had the benefit of having TV coverage, which NLYD didn’t. I’ve also read that for independent artists, it’s very difficult to get even one thousand views on youtube, so, we are doing pretty well. A minor hit. As a fan though, I feel so disappointed that it didn’t do better.
Almost no-one understood that this was a celebrity stalker story. Some thought it was a drug-deal gone wrong, others thought it was about a pimp protecting his earnings.
An 80s pop icon liked the video, and we were put in the running for directing her comeback single. Tom Twyker (director of Run Lola Run)’s people got in contact with me, and one of the 3D designers behind TRON: Legacy called it “awesome”. And it has lead to a great working relationship with Paul, Robyn, and her people.
Paul and I have been working together a lot since then. I’m now working on a WW2 script “A Place Like Home”, which was partially inspired by Robyn’s beautiful song “Home”.
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