Maria Garguilo is the writer-director of The Year of My Japanese Cousin, an independent feature set in the Seattle alternative music scene. It tells the story of Stevie (played by Selene Vigil of the band Seven Year Bitch), whose cousin Ukari shows up in Seattle unexpectedly after being kicked out of a Japanese conservatory. She bonds with Stevie, who fronts her own band, but as soon as Ukari picks up a guitar they become rivals. It’s a humorous, authentic look at young people caught up in artistic struggle and cultural misunderstanding.
Maria and her co-producers, Tami Hinch and Sheila Kelly, raised the bulk of the budget through a grant from the Independent Television Service (ITVS), a program funded by PBS to promote diversity in programming. ITVS issues a yearly call for proposals, and anyone can apply.
Although this is her first feature, Maria has made many shorts and documentaries, won various awards and received an astonishing number of grants and fellowships. I interviewed her in the editing room as she fine-tuned her film.
MM: Is this story autobiographical at all?
MG: No. I have a Japanese cousin, but she’s a housewife with three kids.
MM: Why did you make this film?
MG: Because there aren’t any old people in it. I didn’t have to use union talent, and older people who can act are hard to get into a low-budget film. The theme is universal, an artist frustrated by another’s success. Like Amadeus. Also, I was inspired by the Japanese girl groups, these very feminine Japanese women who get up on stage and turn into rockin’ babes. The main thing is to do something fun and easy to cast.
MM: Do you have other feature projects?
MG: Doesn’t everybody? I just need the money.
MM: Tell me how you got the funds for this one.
MG: ITVS gave me $100,000 and the National Asian American Telecommunications Association gave me $10,000, based on a grant application and the completed script.
MM: How important were your prior credits versus the strength of the script?
MG: I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason as to why people get money. It’s mostly luck. It also has to do with salesmanship and whether you have “elements,” such as a star attached or timely subject matter, and who’s sitting on the grant panel.
MM: What does it mean to have ITVS fund your film?
MG: They have the option to show it first, but that doesn’t mean they will. PBS is a very conservative, labyrinthine system. It’s up to individual stations to decide whether or not to air something. Their primary audience is kids under five watching “Sesame Street” and older folks watching Lawrence Welk and National Geographic specials.
I applied to ITVS a couple years ago with this same project and got rejected. Like I said, it’s whoever sits on the panel that particular year. I applied again and got funded.
MM: Tell me about the production. You shot 16mm?
MG: Yes. I shot two cameras, which is a technique I get in big arguments with cameramen about, because you have to light for two directions and that takes more time and they believe it doesn’t look as good. But when you’re working with non-professional actors it makes a big difference because they cannot do things over and over again; they’re just not trained for it. They only have so many takes in them before they go dry. Probably more than half the people on our crew had not done their jobs before. It’s important to get the right mix of people who want to learn a new skill, are really good at their job, or want to do a more interesting project than a commercial.
MM: How did you assemble your cast?
MG: I saw a lot of actors from theater groups, but most of them acted like actors, so I didn’t cast them. Almost everyone comes out of the music scene. I put ads in the papers and put signs up in clubs. I had seen Selene sing and I thought she’d be good. Her part’s difficult because she has to play someone who says and does unattractive things, and yet the character can’t be unattractive. She had had to work with her band on her days off, once she had to fly to Miami, do a show and then fly back. This all happened when Kurt Cobain died, so that was really hard on the people that knew him.
MM: Did you cast music people to get great music for your film?
MG: No, the main reason for casting music people was that I thought their performances would be fresh; they wouldn’t act like they were on stage, they would act the reality of the scene. And they did. People have told me this film has a documentary feel, and they’re not talking about the camera work.
MM: Is this the first dramatic feature set in the Seattle music scene?
MG: Well, Singles is set here. Pearl Jam plays Matt Dillon’s band in it. They’re sitting in his apartment talking about how big they are in Belgium. I can’t think of any others.
MM: What are you doing with this film once it’s completed?
MG: I’m taking this to the American Film Market in New York to try and sell it. What I’d really like is for someone to pay for me to do another movie.