Thursday, March 23, 2023

‘Nine Days’ Helmer Edson Oda Talks Working With His Filmmaking ‘Hero’ Spike Jonze

Ever since “Nine Days” filmmaker Edson Oda won the Sundance Film Festival’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award in January 2020, the prize has been a great boost of confidence whenever a little imposter syndrome syndrome kicks in.

“I keep it on another table so I can see it,” Edson tells Variety over Zoom, pointing at the trophy, which is just off camera. “When I’m writing, and I feel like, ‘Oh, this page sucks,’ I can just look at it and, at least, I have some recognition for writing that keeps me motivated to keep going.”

It makes sense that the budding filmmaker is using every talisman he can get, especially since the last 18 months have been a major test of confidence and patience. Sony Pictures Classics held onto “Nine Days” for more than a year due to the pandemic, waiting until audiences could experience the movie in its full theatrical wonder. The movie debuted July 31, making a strong showing and earning $18,455 opening weekend from just four theaters in New York and Los Angeles. The film expanded nationwide on Aug. 6, adding more than $235,000 to its box office total.

It’s been a long — and emotional — journey for the Japanese Brazilian filmmaker, and not just because of the pandemic. “I sometimes just go back to when I just moved to the U.S., and I was just starting film school,” he says looking back on the last few years. “For me, releasing a movie nationwide was such a super distant reality.”

“Nine Days” is a very personal project, inspired by the suicide of Oda’s uncle when the writer and director was just 12 years old. The tragedy was deeply affecting for Oda’s family and the movie that resulted from it is an intimate and introspective feature about a man named Will (Winston Duke), who is tasked with auditioning prospective souls for the chance to be born after a suicide opens up the opportunity. Benedict Wong plays Kyo, Will’s friend and neighbor in the remote world before the world; Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Arianna Ortiz, Tony Hale and Bill Skarsgård are the souls vying for a turn at life on Earth.

After its Sundance debut, Variety chief film critic Peter Debruge described “Nine Days” as a film of “dizzying conceptual ambition,” writing: “At the risk of overselling [Oda’s] ultra-original, meaning-of-life directorial debut, there’s a big difference between ‘Nine Days’ and pretty much every other film ever made.”

Another great admirer of the film was Oscar-winning filmmaker Spike Jonze, whose praise feels like kismet, since Oda spent time in pre-production analyzing Jonze’s 2013 film “Her.” The creator points to Scarlett Johansson’s voice performance as Samantha, being particularly inspiring for Oda’s film and its premise.

“When the movie was in pre-production, I was just analyzing every shot of ‘Her,’ so I could get some inspiration and some confidence so I’d know I can do it,” Oda recalls, noting that the humanity and vulnerability of that movie’s characters was similar thematically to what he aimed to accomplish with “Nine Days.”

“There’s something about Scarlett Johansson’s character Samantha, she’s almost like a soul,” he explains. “She had never lived before and she was trying to understand what it is to have a body and at the same time connecting with people, finding love and all those emotions so dramatically. And, of course, visually and how he shot was another thing that gave me [inspiration], that I wanted to just learn from that perspective.”

After Sundance, Oda and his production team sent the movie to Jonze, who fell in love with it. Jonze brought Oda into his circle to talk about “Nine Days,” forming such a close bond that Jonze asked Oda for help with something new he’s working on. Shortly thereafter, Jonze signed on as an executive producer on the movie.

“Edson is a special human with a special mind and heart. And ‘Nine Days’ is a film that comes straight from within him and therefore is special in the exact same way. Delicate and deep, like the man himself,” Jonze said in a press release announcing his attachment to the project last October.

Of working with Jonze, who he calls one of his “heroes,” Oda says: “It’s been a great, great, great experience, just to be closer to him and I’m learning so much every time we interact.”

Oda similarly praised the ensemble of actors that signed on for the film (including Duke, who also served as an executive producer) saying that assembling a cast of this caliber is “unbelievable, especially for a first-time filmmaker.”

“When you write something, it’s still on the page and it’s just one level,” the director explains. “But when they read the words and you hear them being spoken in their voices, it just elevates the material to another dimension, to say the least.”

And while the pandemic delay wasn’t ideal, after this introspective year, Oda sees the movie with fresh eyes and presumes audiences might too.

“Watching it right now, it’s even easier to relate with Will’s journey, because I think we more than ever, we better understand this isolation and the place he’s coming from,” Oda says.

“From this isolation and his struggles, he’s able to find hope, and find a different perspective on the things that he loves and loves doing,” he explains. “I expect people watching this movie [will be] able to relate with the characters, and then see something in their lives that they can find more hopeful. Or maybe they can see it in a different way, or find something that they love and possibly love it more or feel it with more intensity.”

Early audiences have sent messages to the filmmaker, writing how closely they related to Will’s story.

“Some people just say that Will made me remember when I lost someone very important in my family,” he recounts. “Or people talk about experiences they had in war. It’s very rewarding to see how empathy goes beyond [the surface]. Will is this vessel for people to feel things they went through or experiences, losses or traumas, and somehow help them heal.”

And, while the presence of a sensitive Black man as the film’s protagonist is particularly noteworthy, Oda has seen a vast cross-cultural response to the project. “People see themselves on the screen, and they see themselves as Will no matter the color of their skin,” he says.

Oda is currently writing his next movie, describing the project-in-progress as more pure sci-fi (science fiction), than the “spi-fi” (spiritual fiction) feel of “Nine Days,” but equally as intimate. But right now the director is savoring the once-in-a-lifetime experience of debuting his first movie. Looking back at one of his favorite days on set, the filmmaker recalls an interaction with Duke after the actor completed a challenging monologue for the movie’s climax.

“We had like a lot of days to go, but there was some kind of sense of ‘Mission Accomplished’ because after we filmed, everyone felt like we had something special in the can,” Oda says. “I remember Winston just came up to me — it was sunset, it was just getting darker — and he said, ‘Your uncle is going to be really proud of you, you know.’ It meant so much to me; that’s something I’ll remember.”

“Nine Days” is now playing in theaters nationwide.


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