Fantastic Fest Interview: Aaron McCann & Dominic Pearce of Top Knot Detective

© Screen Australia

One of the great things about film festivals like Fantastic Fest is the chance to chat with talent from various films in a laid back and somewhat low-key setting. Compared to the normal press junkets, you may luck out and find yourself in a rather sprawling discussion, one that goes past your allotted time restraints. I was lucky enough to sit down and have one such conversation with the directors of Top Knot Detective.  The film played to packed screenings several times throughout the fest and while it didn’t rack up any awards, the buzz on the film is huge, landing on a lot of “best of…” lists.  I managed to snag a seat to one of the showings and you can see me gush about it here.

© Screen Australia

 

I’m here with the directors of Top Knot Detective, Dominic Pearce and  Aaron McCann. How are you guys doing today?

Aaron McCann: Yeah, really good really good. We’ve been enjoying the fest and as you know pushing through, pushing through the liver pains. We’re on day seven now, of the festival.

Dominic Pearce: Yes, a little sleepy in the morning. You guys do film, hardcore, in Austin.

I mean that’s part of the joy of Fantastic Fest, getting to see everything. In fact, your film was one of the movies, before I even came here, that I was really looking forward to just off the synopsis alone. I was told that I had to mention this to you, but several people who I suggested the movie to didn’t realize until the very end that it wasn’t real. Is that the reaction that you’re getting a lot, or was that even your initial intention?

AM: It was never our initial intention. Like, when we when we went and shot the film we put everything up online and everyone knew we were making a film.

DP: A “behind the scenes” film.

AM: They knew we were casting. We did make up stuff. All the photos were up, but the amount of people that come up and still didn’t know about it, is pretty overwhelming.

DP: So, we’ve had several screenings now and even when it gets dropped on us in a Q&A, like someone will general ask us “so who do you think actually did it?” I’m just kind of like uh, we don’t know how to answer, because on one hand we don’t want spoil the mystery or 2) don’t want to make them feel silly in front of a bunch of people as well, but you do want to answer them.

AM: I get caught off guard because they ask me and I’m thinking that they were asking me about how I made a decision to do that and I’m like “oh yeah. You mean that right? Oh no….You, you honestly believe this thing?”

Which I thought was great, because I did see in a couple of early interviews that you guys had, where one of you was saying “oh yeah, we found this information and we did this” and then for each question, the other person would say “or we just made it all up.” Have you guys had a lot of fun with that?

DP: Yes! We know the backstory to this film very well to the point that we can kind of just riff when people ask us obscure questions about the “real history” of Top Knot Detective now, we can kind of ho “oh yeah, well that happened in ’92,” “This or this happened and he was a good guy,” You know, like it was based on some real s@$%! Yeah, in interviews we were happy to play it up and we still do on occasion, specially when going on radio and people haven’t really read the press release yet or any brief or anything beforehand, we kind of like to just go “oh no, it’s really real.”

AM: There was a recent radio interview and they said, “We’d love to talk about your documentary” and as soon as they said “documentary” I was like “yeah, well, you know it took us many years” and I just played with it. Even when we’re on the radio, we just like playing around with them because they never asked the right questions so it was like “well, I’m not going to tell you if that’s how it’s going to go.”

So, I think that most people who are watching it, there’s a certain point where, as it starts to rather crazy, where they might start to be clued in that it’s fake. Because it does, for the people who may have not seen it, there is a point where it starts to become a kind of “true crime”. I wondered, was that something that you guys always had planned from the start, or was it while you’re putting things together that you thought “Oh, this would be a fun avenue to take”?

AM: When we originally came up with it, there was a very different crime at the center of it. Originally it was going to be about an Australian dub [of the show]. So, it was about the dubbing crew, all in English and it was the channel [SBS] that we were making it for, they’re a multicultural station, so they kind of pushed us away from doing everything in English and made us focus more on the Japanese. The English crime was more based around-

DP: It was insurance fraud essentially. We were trying to pitch this world where these guys would dub foreign shows, were just given a box of episodes from this Japanese production company. No scripts, no subtitles and just they had to make up the whole thing. So we were going to write in this crime that the “Clive Palmer”, you know, corrupt Hollywood executive business type guy had tried to burn down the factory for insurance money and lost all the records and stuff. So it became this whole thing. But then as we moved away from the dubbing crew and we went down the samurai’s story more, this character, this Tommy Wiseau-esque/Ed Wood type kind of fallen film figure kind of came about. As we started playing with that it was like “Well, yes keep the true crime thing,” but we wanted to get darker. We wanted to shift it essentially and also as a point of difference, because there had been a lot of genre spoofs in this kind of world, specially in the last few years and they’re all great, we love them and we wanted to do one, but thought what could give ours film a difference space to play in. That’s kind of where the murder thing came from-

AM: And played as seriously as possible. It needed to be very very serious at the end.

It definitely works and I mean, since there’s been so many True Crime documentaries that have come out the last few years it definitely hits upon those notes of things people are familiar with. So it works really really well.

AM: The Jinx was a big big influence.

DP: I think these days people just assume that the TV idols of 20 years ago were actually horrible people.

Since it does deal with a Japanese TV series, were the actors that you got for the roles, were they game at first or did they kind think it was a really weird idea?

AM: So the casting process took a long while, because we knew that when we were shooting in Perth, Western Australia, there isn’t a large contingent of Japanese actors. A lot of the Japanese actors are actually based on the East Coast. But because of our funding requirements we needed to have our main actor based in Perth. So it was a long search to try and find them, but they kind of came on board quite quickly and really liked the fact that we were trying to make a Japanese film about Japanese people and that culture. Instead of them playing a stereotype of “I’m the bad WWII character”, which they’ll always get in like Hacksaw Ridge or things that were already shooting. Actually they were shooting Hacksaw Ridge while were in prep.

DP: All of the guys doing the choreography for our fight sequences where actually rehearsing on the backlot of Hacksaw Ridge. So we were getting some videos of dudes decked out in WWII Japanese Army attire doing our samurai fights or kung fu sequences just with sticks. It was fantastic, but that’s usually their bread and butter.

AM: But it was big getting Masa Yamaguchi. He’s in The Wolverine and in Strike Back and Ghost In The Shell recently. He became very instrumental for us of learning a little bit more of the backgrounds to the hierarchy within Japanese film culture. And we had originally wanted to cast him as the main character, but then when we saw Toshi it was like “Ok, you’ve got more fragility going on here. It’s like you’d be the one I would cast if I was making this a real show.” But really big debt to Toshi [Okuzaki], who’s not an actor at all. He’s an English/Japanese teacher. So no acting experience prior to this.

That’s awesome, because he goes off the rails, in a fantastic way that completely sells that type of character, that you’ve seen in plenty other things to make it believable. So it’s great that he was just like “I’ll do it.

DP: Yes. He was very game, very game. Even though the person he’s playing was the polar opposite to him in real life. He’s polite and you know, he’s very respectful and quiet and shy and then was “ok, cool, so we need you to be the exact opposite of who you fundamentally are and be able to switch that on and off on a day to day basis!”

AM: He’s also big into Hip-Hop. He was on Japanese radio stations. So, there’s sometimes when we did the music videos, we had to get him out of doing all the hip-hop sort of signs. It was like “no no no, you would never dance like that. It wasn’t the 90’s, it wasn’t a thing, man.”

DP: We were trying to do this 60’s Go-Go thing and he’s just like throwing Puff Daddy, just like slinging it to the camera. We’re like “no, that’s not quite right.” The big thing about the actors is they really helped us fine tune the script in a lot of ways, because they helped us better use the dialogue and the way our characters kind of worked with each other. They could really see what we were trying to do and the people we were trying to reference. They really helped us get it better, especially when we were moving to Japanese, how to translate that and actually get the right performance. We couldn’t have done it without them-

AM: Because we do not speak Japanese-

DP: At all-

AM: Whatsoever!

You mentioned you had to fall within certain restrictions for the funding that you got. Can you speak a little about how that comes together, I guess one of the kind of downsides in America is that we don’t have anything like that, but in so many other countries you have different government funds that are available to help certain projects that are smaller like this, to be able to find a life.

AM: So in Australia, we went through ScreenWest which is our local government funding body. There’s also ScreenAustralia which is the national government funding body. The tv station which we originally made it for was SBS and they put in additional funds as well. And then as we have a producers offset which is a tax break of about 40%, which then also goes into the budget. And then there was an additional sort of gap finance sort of thing, that was the finance structure…we’re not talking just about numbers. But within that, you have to shoot…Ok. So, when we shot in Japan, anything that we shot there isn’t covered under the 40% tax offsets. There’s certain restrictions like you have to have all your crew from Western Australia which is where we’re based. So we couldn’t really import any crew from the Eastern states, because then we’d have less funding ability there. Same with actors. We’d have to have at least X amount of West Australian based actors and then if we import other actors over, then it plays around with all the different tax offsets, so it can get quite complicated. In terms of how this began, we had done this short for the soccer World Cup. We did this crazy Japanese ad for the station.

top knot detective
© Screen Australia

DP: It was a Suttafu product [Fake company at the heart of Top Knot Detective]

AM: And from that they asked “Oh, do you have an idea for like a web series. we’d love to do a web series with you guys!” I’m like “well, actually, we do.” And they said “we have a pilot program where we’ll give you ten thousand dollars and you can go and make a pilot for whatever you want.” But with the idea that we’d then make a web series afterwards. So we made an episode, which you can still see online, of Top Knot Detective, which all the interview portions are different but all of the Japanese stuff still remains in the film, from that. Once we had made that we then wrote the rest of the script and reapplied back to SBS, going “OK these are the rest of the scripts, do you want to do the series?” And they said yes, and it was always going to originally be a series and it just kept evolving and evolving, evolving. Over about a 12-month period. In order get our heads around it we had to make it at least a feature film script and we had the intention of breaking it up to a webseries afterwards. Then once we showed it to them as one film they were like “it has to stay a film. If you break it up you’re just going to lose all the feeling to it.” So that’s sort of a very truncated version of the history of this.

DP: Stitched together from places. We really should say big thanks and shout out particularly to the a gentleman named Neil Downard, who was the head of SBS Comedy, at the time that we got the pilot up. He was overseeing the pilot program, helping get the project off the ground and he was pretty instrumental in helping us then get the actual film off the ground. Even though the channel is now become SBS VICE, it was originally being made for SBS2 and it was the only feature film. they actually made.

In a Q&A you did after the 2nd screening, you likened the filming style to basically an “onion theory”. What exactly does that mean and how difficult was it to try and create a “fake” environment where mistakes are happening, but they’re done so in a controlled chaos type of space.

DP: So, “Onion Theory” was a term that our producer Lauren (Brunswick) coined, because she was trying to find the shortest, most direct way to explain how we were basing this film, because essentially, we have like behind the scenes media, on behind scenes media. on the actual show itself. In addition to that we have actual behind the scenes around that, so we had this kind of circular crew thing going on, where we had our main unit filming the show within the show stuff and then we had another unit just there to film on the set of the original show. Like sneaking photos and taking in the little elements that kind of build the world of the show being produced. Then we had other camera crews behind that, so it was as all this weird shifting, rotating thing. I mean a lot of the time that we were shooting, I don’t think the crew quite understood exactly how the script was working. They would just kept building these sets for these giant set ups for this one shot and we’d do it like “cool, alright. Let’s move on and pack it down” and they’d be like “wait, that’s all we’re doing? That’s it?” We had this kind of central rotational crew going on. And we when we built the film, when we were first writing it, we actually edited the whole thing, before we started shooting. We made a whole movie out of storyboards and reference clips and shots of us on our iPhone doing dialogue and everything to show the cast and crew, how all these individual elements were kind of going to.

AM: And we had pre-recorded all the voices. Which was fine when we cut it together in English. But then once it is in Japanese, it really changes your editing style. So that became quite complicated.

DP: So then we had heaps of photos being taken on set, along with video. And then we would take all of those and we have different graphic artists and different photographers and everyone do different treatments to them to give us a mix of the different magazine and actual photos and you know, unfinished negatives and business stuff that actually make up this kind of documentary.

AM: It was complicated.

DP: It was a very weird film to make. We shot the bulk of it in a couple weeks. It was a very intense couple of weeks shooting.

Was there any extra footage that was filmed of the show for marketing materials or that may end up as a special feature or something?

AM: Only about two scenes that really got caught and they were really from the show within the show. In terms of like the interviews with the subjects, we kind of gave them their own full scripts so there are about hour long interviews that we knew we would pull stuff from. Pretty much everything that we had is on screen, minus maybe two or three things. There’s not much that’s cut out.

DP: Well yeah. We started shooting elements of more scenes, but we didn’t go back and finish all of ‘em.  Those things that were never gonna quite work. Even as bad as we were doing it, we were still trying to get it full filled and 100% right as possible. We did two things that haven’t been fully seen, that are the music videos in the film. The one for Toshi’s early pop career and the one for Shlam, the girl group [in the film]. Both of those are actual full music videos that we haven’t we haven’t finished yet but there is stuff to do that. If you do want to see one of the ads from the film, you can find the cigarette commercial on YouTube. Yeah, nice, good, wholesome, family fun for that particular commercial.

AM: And that soccer commercial that we made, is in the film. You can kind of see it. It’s on a shot in Shibuya station right up on one of the billboards. We replaced the billboard with that ad. So it’s a little Easter egg. There’s lots of Easter eggs all the way through.

DP: I don’t even think you can watch it anymore because I think it got banned. The World Cup banned them [on Youtube].

AM: Yeah, well it’s up on my Vimeo and they’ll never find it.

I know this film has been a success here. So I’m guessing that it’s also been playing really well at the other festivals that you guys have been to? The reception has been good, so far?

AM: So far we’ve done FrightFest in the UK. We did the Revelation back in Perth. We are about to do Hardline Film Festival in Germany. Actually that’s in two days time [Sept. 30] Then there’s Mayhem which is also in the UK and a couple more that haven’t been announced. We did Belfast, as well as a few more I’m blanking on-

DP: We’re up to about 10 or 11 festivals at this stage and we’re about to do satellite festivals for Fantastic Fest.

I know you can’t say very much, but if you can, can you hint if you’ve been approached for possible distribution, as in America, sometimes it takes us a while to get things that hit in other countries.

DP: Not compared to Australia. Actually, We usually have to wait two years for shows to finish up. We are…well, it’s a work in progress we-

AM: We’re in talks and hopefully will have more news on that in a very very short time.

DP:  You know we’re very keen to get it out there. We would really love for it to be this gem of a film that people can find it. We want more people to kind of stumble across this. It’s supposed to be the kind [of thing] you just sort accidentally find and end up watching it one night going “what the he’ll did I just watch?”

AM: So failing that, there might end up being a VHS copy that floats around. And it’s like something someone can bootleg or do bad pan and scan over.

 

It’s a way to go, as several years back the makers of the WNUF Halloween Special, they made it look like someone had recorded the “special” off TV years ago. They made sure everything was 80’s appropriate. Even made fake commercials, too. But one of the ways that they started distributing it, was they would go to different flea markets and conventions and stuff and would just throw VHS tapes on piles for people to find and stumble across and be like “have you guys seen this?” So I can easily Top Knot Detective being something like that which somebody finds.

AM: Like Winnebago Man?

Yeah, kind of like that! In a “What is this?” sort of way, that just grows into a life of its own. While you guys have clearly mastered this type of genre film, what other type of films do you want be able to make, if you had the chance?

AM: I mean, we’re currently working on a Sci-Fi film that’s nothing like this at all. I mean, I’ve made a horror film before this, that again, wasn’t found footage sort of thing. We want to play around with different genres and really look at the characters.

DP: We haven’t exactly set out to be mockumentary guys or anything. Just kind of happened that this was the format that worked best for this film. And it’s kind of gone well, but we were lucky on this one because it still has dramatic elements to play with. It wasn’t entirely a documentary. We’re developing a Sci-Fi together, which is kind of a nihilistic rom-com in space. Everyone’s f@&%ing horrible. And we’ve got a couple of other things going on. I’m working on a film in Australia which is kind of like a high school bullying take on organized crime/hit man style standoff films. We’re also trying to get a spin-off series up for the Time Stryker series from Top Knot Detective. It’s something we’ve been looking at and playing with a lot. To make a full actual series and not just another documentary

AM: I’m also working on an adaptation of a novel. I’m currently doing casting for that, right now. So hopefully I’ll have more news on that, soon.

Top Knot Detective
© Screen Australia

I want to thank you guys for sitting down and talk to me. At the same time, want to wish you the best of luck. One of the great things about a Fantastic Fest is you see a movie like this and then get to say, “hey you your movie was great.” Then throughout the week you all run into each other and go “oh, what have you seen? What do you suggest?”

AM: Or if you’re Australian, you see us drunk at the pub.

It’s Fantastic Fest, so that’s usually everybody.

AM: We fit in well, in that regard.

I hope it just continually goes up and up and up for you guys.

DP: Thanks man for doing this. Thanks for Fantastic Fest for having us, too. It’s been really good getting to show the movie to great audiences, like you.

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