When writer-director Ryusuke Hamaguchi first laid eyes on the red Saab 900 Turbo at the center of his award-winning film “Drive My Car,” he knew it was the one. Over thirty years old and in immaculate condition, the car was perfect. It needed to be — he’d be spending a lot of time inside. “It almost feels like the best casting that I’ve ever done,” Hamaguchi recalled in a video interview with CNN.
While the car didn’t land any acting accolades, Hamaguchi’s 2021 film has gone on to receive four Oscar nominations, including Japan’s first for Best Picture.
Hamaguchi and co-writer Takamasa Oe adapted “Drive My Car” from a short story of the same name by famed Japanese author Haruki Murakami. Their expanded version follows actor and theatrical director Yusuke Kafuku, played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, as he grapples with the unexpected death of his wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima).
Kafuku takes up an offer to direct a multilingual stage production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, where he meets Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), a woman hired to chauffeur him around in his cherished Saab. As Kafuku faces haunting truths of his past, the film delves into love, loss and forgiveness, and explores the ways people communicate with others and themselves.
“Drive My Car” is already a BAFTA winner and has topped multiple critics’ end of year lists. Ahead of the Academy Awards on March 27, CNN caught up with Hamaguchi to learn more about his film and the ideas he explores in his work.
The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
CNN: First of all, congratulations on the Oscar nominations. How do you feel about scoring Japan’s first in the Best Picture category?
Hamaguchi: Of course I feel pleased. I never expected it. I think the fact that non-English language films can be nominated in this way really confirms to me that things are changing and that we’re part of that change.
I wanted to ask about the film’s beautiful red Saab 900. Why the red color? And what became of it?
In (Haruki Murakami’s) original short story it was a yellow Saab convertible. I knew from the beginning that it wouldn’t be feasible to use a convertible, because noises like the wind would it make it difficult. But we did actually go see some yellow Saabs. The coordinator, who was in charge of arranging film vehicles, arrived in his red Saab and I remember thinking, “Wow, what a good-looking car.” Once I found out it was a Saab 900, I thought it was not going to be too far from the original. I wanted the car to pop in the film in the same way I had seen it. As for what happened to the car, it’s the coordinator’s, so he’s still riding it around.
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura, as Yusuke Kafuku and Misaki Watari, standing next to the red Saab 900 Turbo in Hamaguchi’s “Drive My Car.” “I have always felt that it is easy to have a very intimate conversation in a car,” the director tells CNN. Credit: Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
I understand your rehearsal process is similar to the one we see Kafuku and his cast undertake when they are preparing for the play. Can you explain why you prepare your actors this way?
When actors say or do what they don’t normally do when playing characters, the body feels strange and it doesn’t move as smoothly as it normally does. “Hon-yomi” (script reading) is an exercise in saying words that the person would not normally say. I asked my actors to repeat their lines over and over again, literally, without emotion. What ends up happening is your mouth and your whole body gets used to saying the words and learns things, like where to take a breath. As this happens, I can also start to sense a change in the actors’ voices, as their bodies relax into the words. Once I hear that their voices have become clear, that’s when I think that we’re ready to shoot.
The actors featured in the play use their native languages, including Japanese, Korean, Mandarin and others. Was there a message you were trying to convey with this?
The truth is it doesn’t contain any message. Of course words have meaning, but the most important part of our communication is body language and the texture of voice. There’s a lot of information there, and if there’s deception the audience will know it. We need to encourage mutual reactions among the actors. I thought it would be easier for such things to happen if we cut off the circuit of exchanges based on the meaning of the other’s language — you will be unable to perform unless you pay attention.
Park Yurim plays Lee Yoon-a, an actor in Kafuku’s stage production who communicates in Korean Sign Language. Can you explain how you utilized this character and Park’s performance to explore disconnections between what a character is saying and what they are feeling?
I became interested in sign language when I was invited to a deaf film festival where they communicated in sign language. I really felt like an outsider. I also realized sign language is a much more physical and more expressive language than I thought. In order to sign to each other, they have to look at the other person closely, because they can’t understand unless they look. I remember being really observed while I was there, and I had this feeling that if someone’s looking at me with such depth, it means that if I were to lie, then they could see through my lie.
I think that using sign language and expressing oneself openly are very much connected. So when I decided to adopt this multilingual play, I didn’t want to use sign language as a language of disability; I really wanted to use sign language as just another language. I was looking for someone to play this role and I came across Park Yurim and felt that she was such a wonderful actor.
“Drive My Car” features a multilingual cast. Park Yurim plays Lee Yoon-a, an actor in Kafuku’s stage production of “Uncle Vanya” who communicates using Korean Sign Language. Credit: Courtesy of Sideshow and Janus Films
So much of the characters’ plight in “Drive My Car” and in “Uncle Vanya” is their inability to communicate. Some of that stems from their fear of not being truly heard. Do you think we could be better listeners?
“Drive My Car” and your other 2021 film “Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy” share a common theme of lies and deception — and the pros and cons of maintaining a fiction, whether it’s to convince other people or ourselves. One of Kafuku’s cast members Koshi Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) confesses he feels “empty” inside, which seems pointed given he’s an actor. Do you wish we had to put on less of a performance to get by in life?
I don’t necessarily think we shouldn’t perform or lie. I think it’s inevitable to some extent that that’s how we live. I mean, we all have desires, don’t we? One short term way of fulfilling those desires could be to lie. At the same time, I think we all know that lies are very fragile. That’s because truth has a certain gravity to it, and humans are drawn to this. The film depicts that. I think this sense of truth coming into our perspective can be seen almost as a failure or a loss, but I think at the same time there’s something very beautiful about when that truth really lands. I’m very interested in that moment.
WarnerMedia acquired “Drive My Car” to premiere on HBO Max in March 2022. HBO Max and CNN are owned by WarnerMedia.