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Film Interview: Philippe McKie (Dreams on Fire)

To say that Dreams on Fire is a simple tale in stylish furs would be both true and underplay the enjoyment it delivers. Its premise isn’t complicated: rural girl Yume heads into Tokyo’s night economy to follow her dream of being a dancer – the jeopardy being whether a good soul can survive the big city. Yet once there, Canadian filmmaker Philippe McKie assembles a wonderfully vibrant experience, passing through nightclubs, hostess bars, and even an Irish dive.

Touring genuine Tokyo locations was a wise choice, second only to casting real-life dancers, such as lead Bambi Naka: like a sports film in which an actor can’t actually play, actors faking dance would not do. McKie’s feature debut is not perfect, and 15 minutes could have been cut from the centre as Yume’s dream wavers, but the film contains numerous victories, not least a well-judged final act that opts for beautiful modesty rather than unrealistic destruction or victory. Made for anyone who enjoys dance, Japan, clubs, feeling young or feeling hope, the tale of Dick Whittington has rarely been so visually or sonically pleasing.

Philippe McKie, 32, is a filmmaker from Montreal who has lived in Japan since he was 21. Dreams on Fire is his first feature film, following on from successful shorts such as Breaker and Be My First. The film will receive its world premiere at the Glasgow Film Festival, before being released in Japan on 15th May prior to global distribution.

How would you describe Dreams on Fire?

I guess the easiest gate to enter from is that it’s the first Japanese urban dance film. There have been other Japanese dance films – the most famous example is probably Shall We Dance?, which is a film I love – but those films dealt more with social dancing and often the main characters were not dancers themselves. They were outsiders taking dance lessons. Here, we worked with a lot of the most famous dancers in the country and this is their first time on screen.

Why did you cast genuine dancers?

In Japan right now a lot of the production formulas are based purely on numbers of fans, and the people with fans are idols, models, and singers who used to be models. But I was like: ‘No, I am going to cast real dancers because no actor can go through an intensive course and dance like one of those dancers.’ They have been dancing and training their whole lives. I wanted to show what Japan had to offer in dance, so it was important for me to have the best dancers I could find.

How did you find your dancers?

There were a couple of ways. Firstly, for the last couple of years I’ve been exploring the dance scene in Japan, going to a lot of the biggest shows. These shows can last three hours, where it’s crew after crew after crew after crew. I love it! So I would go to those and be like, ‘them’. The other way was straight up talking to dancers and being like, ‘Who is the absolute all-star in this genre?’. For example, at the start of the film there’s a footwork battle between a guy and a girl. That girl had just won best house dancer for all Japan, a competition that lasted a year, starting in towns and leading up to this battle on this crazy stage in a stadium. When she won she was crying – it was really beautiful. So I was deeply honoured to work with dancers who are the stars in their fields.

Yume, the main character, gets a job in a hostess bar. How much research had to go into the hostess culture?

Oh my God, I love that you went there. Here’s the funny thing about the hostess research: I think that the film itself is a story that could have been told in any city, the story of someone with a dream trying to make good. It is a classic theme. But the hostess world is the one thing that international audiences are going to be like, ‘ha!’, and where Japanese audiences are going to be like, ‘ah yes, this is a very familiar world.’

My research in that world came mostly from having friends who work in it, so not as a customer but as a confidant getting to hear the juicy stories and tips. There is a scene where the more senior girl is like, ‘I’m going to teach you some tricks.’ I learnt those from a hostess.

How many people come from the countryside, like Yume, and get lost in the night economy?

It is a problem in Japan. If you are crazy ambitious, it is always Tokyo. Yes, Osaka rocks, but if you really want to make it you go to Tokyo. It is a huge world, the hostess world and beyond, even going into the sex trade, and a lot of people do come from other cities and prefectures and work those jobs. The funny thing is that if you are outside of Japan it is like this weird exotic industry. When you are in Japan it is part of the landscape. Every station has the hostess bars and the legal brothels and the love hotels. It is as normal as seeing someone in a business suit.

As well as the hostess bar, Dreams on Fire goes on quite a tour of Tokyo nightlife. This sounds a bit cheesy, but is it a love letter to Tokyo?

One thing I love about Tokyo is that there are many secret worlds to discover. The Irish pub, for example, is a real place that sits like six people. The place is like the size of a UK bathroom maybe, but for the master-san, the owner, it is a complete commitment that the inside of that little shrine feels like you are in Ireland. And Tokyo is full of those. So it all came together in Dreams on Fire as this buffet where you can see many dance styles, hear many music styles, and taste some of those Tokyo secret worlds. 100% love letter, yes [laughs]

One character, ChoCho, is not Japanese. Is she speaking in your voice?

I am so happy you picked up on ChoCho, because sometimes people don’t catch the fact that she is not Japanese. And yes, it is completely one aspect of myself. ChoCho’s visa thing is a struggle – I have been kicked out of Japan twice over the visa struggle! [laughs] Even the actress who plays ChoCho went through some visa issues during the shoot and we almost lost her. It was almost like this meta thing where the problems of the character were happening to the actress.

How do you approach the visual setup of a film before you arrive at it?

For me, it’s not that I have one style that I want to impose on every project. I do like when it is stylised, but the subject matter and the soul of the story will dictate the style. Dreams on Fire has a lot of different flavours: we have crazy rave lasers, and then we’re on a train going to the countryside and seeing leaves for the first time.

I approach it trying to be holistic about capturing the mood, and it goes through the cinematography, it goes through the art direction, the music, sound, and even the locations. And we tried to experiment and push things as much as we could. I don’t want to give away too many spoilers, but there are scenes in the film where it is all in camera – no CG, all in camera – with putting crystals in front of the lens and getting freaky with the tools.

For you, how different is shooting a feature from shooting a short?

I think a lot of filmmakers put pressure on themselves, thinking that their first feature has to be epic, like it is going to represent them forever. It’s good to have a healthy amount of pressure, but at the same time I believe we are never ready.

That is something I remember with Breaker. I had always wanted to make something cyberpunk and it took seven years because I was like, ‘I’m not ready, I’m not ready, I’m not ready’. Then I had this epiphany where I realised I could spend countless more years obsessing about it. I just needed to jump in and do the best that I could and see what happened. So yes, making a feature is bigger, but at the same time, if you have previously been committed to putting so much energy and love and time into a short, the pain gap isn’t that big.

What is going to be next for you?

Right now my life is all about Dreams on Fire and its release. It’s about to have a theatrical release in Japan, so that is really wild and I am excited to be there for that. I feel that how Dreams on Fire lands in Japan will steer how my career goes in a way. Personally, I like to be ready for different scenarios, so am ready in the event that I have to do something myself outside the system. But let’s see if Dreams on Fire is well received in Japan.

Dreams on Fire was shown at Glasgow Film Festival 2021

Full release: 15th May (Japan) followed by TBC international releases

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