The reality of African-American directors making Japanese movies isn’t as rare as it may sound. Aside from Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour’s Born With It, there are several others, including director Darryl Wharton-Rigby, a Baltimore native whose been living in Japan on and off for fifteen years. He wrote, directed, and produced his second feature film Stay (2018). Set in Tokyo, Japan, the story is a cross-cultural romance about finding love at the wrong time. Ryuu, a former salary man, is an addict fighting for his sobriety. He just got fired from his job at a fish market. Misery beckons to be guzzled from a bottle. Drugs whisper from his pocket, but at a club on the dance floor, he finds Hope. Though like a fleeting high that teases permeant flight, she can’t stay.
Rising Japanese actor Shogen plays Ryuu while British actress Ana Tanaka makes her on screen debut as Hope. Stay was shot over the course of two weeks, guerilla-style. Hand held shots on Tokyo’s hectic streets aided the film’s coarse texture and allure. The city plays a vibrant character that infuses the story with a specific sense of place and time. A lot of the locations are only familiar to those that live in Tokyo. The cast is mostly Japanese, though the movie is in both English and Japanese. Neither language dominates the dialogue. Still, cross-cultural issues present themselves in front of a homogenous backdrop, giving way to the universal behavior of human nature. This is Darryl’s second full length film.
As a production assistant and assistant director, Darryl has worked on numerous films like Meteor Man (1993), Gettysburg (1993), Renaissance Man (1994), and he was a screenwriter along side David Simon (The Wire) on the TV show Homicide Life On The Street (1998). But before his efforts took him on this path, had it not been for the late poet Maya Angelou who encouraged him to pursue his dreams, he might have quit. “I asked her for hug. She stood up and she said, ‘Come here, baby.’ She was a tall woman. She spread her arms and they felt like angel wings wrapping around me,” Darryl said.
His first feature film Detention (1998) got some notable praise, winning “Best Director” at the Urbanworld Film Festival. Since then Darryl has made numerous short features, directed plays, and at Morgan State University, he taught film. Thus far Stay has been getting great exposer and it’s racking up awards along the festival circuit which lead to a distribution deal for the movie. Currently Darryl is working on several screenplays and a documentary that focuses on a taiko drumming club in Fukushima. He started the film prior to Japan’s earthquake and triple-meltdown. Now he’s following their recovery in the wake of the disaster. He’s also got some scripts that were prophetic for their time and still need to be produced. They are his stash in case of emergency, “I always got something in the back pocket,” he said.
When talking to him it’s like imagining if movies could personify themselves. They, like Darryl, would talk anecdotally. In the brief interview Darryl talks about the relevance of theaters and the fact that Japan doesn’t have a drug or alcohol problem. The conversation could’ve easily gone off the rails for good reason. Darryl is infectious. Every topic is a potentially attractive story. But to Stay on track, I wanted to know about the films that inspired him. So the former Morgan film professor laced us with his bangers.
Godfather I (1971) / Part II (1974)
Those films are about family. Everybody thinks that they’re gangster movies, but it’s a family drama. That’s the thing that I love about those films. They are in the racket and doing all this other stuff, but they’re the family we love. They’re the good family that’s doing bad things. But there’s a moment in Godfather in the wedding scene that every time I watch it I go, “that’s the moment.” Its when Connie is getting married. They’re going to take a family picture and the family’s together and the photographer’s there and Don Corleone goes, “Where’s Michael?” And Micheal’s not there yet. And Corleone goes, “We’re not taking the picture without Michael.” That moment tells you everything you need to know about that story because it tells you that Michael’s important. Corleone won’t take the family picture without all of the family being there. It lets you know how important Michael is to his father. And then when you finally meet Michael, you see that he’s got that uniform on and you go, ‘Oh wow, he’s kind of not a part of that family business.’ But it’s his story. Yeah, Marlon Brando, he’s the Godfather, but the movie is about Michael becoming the Godfather. That’s the movie. And that’s the beauty of the film. You watch it and you get pulled in, but its all about this family. One of the most important things to me is family. I grew up in a single-parent household, but my family was always around me. Rather it was my uncles or my great uncles and aunts, my grandmother’s brothers and sisters, my mother’s brothers and sisters, and my cousins. Family has always been an important part of my life so when I see that film it just connects to what is important to me. Family.
In The Mode For Love (2000)
It’s just a beautiful film. It’s a love story. Its visual poetry. Its just this artistic film. Wong Kar-Wai brings these colors and these textures to the characters in the story and doesn’t use a lot of dialogue to tell the story. It’s visual.
Do you think a lot of filmmakers bit off his style?
I don’t think that they bit off his style. They paid homage to it. We all kind of rif off of each other. It’s like jazz, but we’re doing it visually, storytelling-wise. [Quentin]Tarantino built an entire career off of riffing off of other people, where as Barry Jenkins, you can see the influence of Wan Kar-Wai in Moonlight, Medicine For Melancholy, and If Beale Street Could Talk (2019). As an artist you want to have visuals that help tell the story and he does that, which is one of the things that attracts me to his work.
Cooley High (1975)
That’s the first movie that ever made me cry. I was a kid. I saw it in the theatre on the big screen. When it hit me that Cochise died, I balled like a baby. That movie was the precursor to Boyz In The Hood, Menace II Society, and all those films. You see the same elements in those films as Cooley High. And it’s a fun film. It speaks to the times. I’ve been fortunate enough to have met Michael Schultz, the director. I got to meet Eric Monte, who wrote the screenplay. For African-American filmmakers, Cooley was kind of a seminal film if you’re of a certain age because how many stories about young black men were being told in the 70’s?
Seven Samurai (1956)
Its an epic story, but its a simplistic story. In a lot of ways it goes back to community. And these guys become their own kind of family in fighting for this small town and defending and protecting this town. They don’t have to do it, but they take an honor in doing it. And there’s something appealing in that. People who are gonna sacrifice themselves for folks that they don’t necessarily know. But they made a promise and once they made the promise they’re gonna stick with it.
TMG: It might be unfair to director Akira Kurosawa cause when I watched Ran, I was like, man, c’mon. You can’t compare Seven Samurai to this.
If Kurosowa was a hip-hop artist, everybody would be like, ‘he’s got bangers.’ The man has a body of work. Not every track is a home run. But you got enough tracks that hit that you go, ‘wow, look at what this guy did in 20 or 30 years.’
Do The Right Thing (1989)
Do The Right Thing came out at a time when America was going through stuff like its going through now. That movie still holds up to today and that’s when you start talking about work being great. That’s a banger. It asks big questions. It doesn’t always answer them, but it allows you to make up your own mind. You could debate why Mookie threw that garbage can? Why did Radio Raheem have to die? Thematically, Lee choose one of the hottest days in the summer, which means now you’re thematically talking about heat, boiling heat. 100 degrees. Everybody is hot. So everything is already at its peak, not only emotionally, but society and everything is ready to boil and blow up. It’s almost like a volcano in a way. When you watch that film, there’s all these elements that Spike put together. He created this work of art that cinematically, when you see it on the screen, you’re like, ‘Shit…that muthafucka…goddamn.’
The Night of the Hunter (1955)
Well, here’s the thing, that film is scary as all get up. If you notice, love/hate [from Do The Right Thing] is a direct reference to The Night of the Hunter. But cinematically that film is brilliant and beautiful to watch. Robert Mitchum’s performance is great. Shelley Winters is great. She’s old school Hollywood in this film. And the kids are amazing, but it’s a scary story, especially for that time frame. “Come in children,” [Darryl mimic’s Mitchum’s character, Harry Powell] and he’s a preacher. So you got this dark film that deals with issues in a subtextual way and it just pulls you in and you can’t take your eyes off the screen and you’re like ‘what’s gonna happens next?’ I was talking to Robert Townsend and he said ‘if you want to make a million dollars in this business, all you have to do is make a bunch of people in a dark room go, hah!’ And I’ma tell you, you know whose done that, Jordan Peele when he did Get Out (2017) and he’s doing it again. I don’t even want to read a review on Us (2019) because stuff don’t come out here until three or four months after it’s released stateside. I wish more African-American actors and filmmakers would come here more to promote the work. Either the studios or the artists themselves have to take the Will Smith route. Will Smith is a global star because he goes out and he promotes internationally, the work. I was recently glad that Barry Jenkins came to Japan to help promote If Beale Street Could Talk because when I saw it, the theater was packed. I was disappointed that the film didn’t get nominated for best picture. Regina King deserved the Oscar. But the other cast members should’ve also been nominated. But there are movies that don’t come here that I don’t get to see.
Dirty Pretty Things (2003)
Its an immigrant story. When I was an undergrad my degree was in history, but my focus was ethnic and immigrant history and so seeing the immigrant story in the UK just appealed to me. I went in it not knowing what it was about. I just heard about it [Dirty Pretty Things]. I knew about Audrey Tautou because of Amelie (2001) I knew about Chiwetel Ejiofor, so I thought it was interesting. But I liked that it was this subtle love story that kind of didn’t hit you over the head. He was working, but he was flawed. She’s flawed. They go through a lot of shit and then at the end it’s a love story, but its unrequited. They can’t really be together. I guess in a lot of ways there’s a little bit of Stay in that. You find somebody, but at the same time you know that the timing is wrong. And you still got other stuff that you gotta do. You can’t just follow this thing because you got other stuff.
Clockwork Orange (1971)
That’s a freaking work of art. I also loved Dr. Strange Love. I screened Clockwork Orange when I was a projectionist in college. I had to do the little sink marks in film and screen it on film in the projection booth. To watch that film projected was beautiful. The story just pulls you in and all the madness and the droogs. Because I saw it when I was in college I was like ‘Wow, this is what filmmaking can be.’ Cause usually you’re thinking that film has be reality based, but then you see a Clockwork Orange and you’re like ‘holy shit, this is a whole different thing.’ It just took me into a place where I was like ‘Wow.’ That scene toward the end with eye and I was like ‘what the fuck? Goddamn.’ Just as a filmmaker I was like ‘Alright, don’t limit yourself. Try some different shit.’
It’s directed by Jean-Luc Godard. It’s a part of the French New Wave era. When you see that film it’s doing jump cuts [snapping his fingers]. I got introduced to Breathless when I was working the tv show Homicide Life On The Street. At the time the dp [director of photography] was a guy name Wayne Ewing and I said to him ‘What’s this?’ and said, ‘Oh, I’m using a style from a movie called Breathless. So I went to the video store, found Breathless, watched it and I was like ‘fuck.’ Because Godard uses jump cuts and voice-overs and all these different techniques.
Can you talk about the jump cut?
Well it was a technique to condense time. Editing is all about condensing time. So you can find experimental ways of editing to condense time or convey emotion or to move the story forward in unconventional ways. You don’t necessarily have to do master shot, close up, medium. You can find different ways to edit. So when you have jump cuts it does something a little bit different. Its really good when you’re doing hand held shots. I started doing gorilla filmmaking when I was in Baltimore. It was what I had to do to get what I wanted to do done. When I did my first film, Detention (1998), we shot hand held because we needed to shoot quick. In the editing we used jump cuts to help propel the story forward. We have a little bit of that in Stay. Like you’ll see images and nobody’s talking, but you can hear what their saying. And you can see the emotion on their face. So you’re skipping moments and you’re playing with time and space. You want to make the audience see the emotion, not necessarily tell them the emotion.
My Neighbor Tortoro (1988)
I would show this film to my classes when I was teaching at Morgan State University because I wanted them to see a Japanese film. I wanted them to see an animation. Here’s the thing that I though was interesting, there’s a scene in the film where the father is bathing with the daughters. All of my students freaked out. They asked me, ‘Why is there a scene where the father is bathing with the daughters. What’s going on there? That’s really weird.’ I had to explain to them that that’s Japanese culture. Because in Japan, the fathers bath their children. That’s because usually the fathers aren’t home. They’re working. Usually when they come home, the one time they have in terms of bonding with their children is the bath time. It’s usually before or after the family eats dinner. My students were like ‘That’s perverted.’ I told them, ‘Its only perverted because of your western mindset. It’s not perverted because of Japanese culture. What you’re putting on there is your own stuff. For them [Japanese] that’s an innocent thing. Families bath together. Families go to what they call an onsen [Japanese hot spring]. The world is not just centered around this western thing. It’s not the same. So you gotta look at the world as the world sees itself. You can’t just put all your own shit on Japanese culture cause that’s a culture that’s been around longer than the United States. How you gonna put your stuff on what they do? You need to look at what they do and say, ‘Why does that work or does it and how does it work? Becuase that scene is indicative of Japanese culture.’ You go to an onsen in any town, sometimes you’ll see a father bring their daughter into the onsen. It freaked me out when I was first going to an onsen. I seen some little girls running around, but then I realized that I needed to relax and shed my own shit.
TMG: On social media, you seem to put great importance on watching movies on the big screen.
I love the big screen. Everybody wants to be on the big screen.
TMG: But you didn’t have a problem with Netflix movies getting nominated for an Oscar. They also had the same problem submitting their movies to Cannes Film Festival.
We are in a time right now where filmmakers of color, women, and people who are disenfranchised, are having the opportunity to tell stories visually. Not everybody is gonna be on the big screen. I don’t know if Stay is gonna show in theaters. It’s showing in theaters through festivals, but I don’t know if it’s gonna show as a theatrical release. But if people can watch it at home and on their computer, I’m ok with that because I want to tell a story. And if you connect with it on your computer or if you can connect with it on your TV screen, that’s good for me because at least people will see the story. It’s like if you make a film and nobody sees it, did you make it? But if you make it and people see it then they’re are plenty of platforms out there that will show it. You can find an audience. But not everybody is gonna get on the screen and I’m ok with that.
TMG: Its like the difference between getting married and getting hitched.
Right. You’re still married. A wedding is the ceremony. Marriage is just an agreement between two people. They make a promise to each other. That’s the marriage. That’s the bond. The wedding is a ceremony so that people can see you do it. If you have a wedding and you just go to the town hall, your marriage ain’t gonna be no different in terms of the concept of marriage. Its still the same thing. I know folks who’ve been married and had big giant weddings, got divorced and had small weddings and they’re happier. So for me I don’t have a problem with Netflix or Amazon or Hulu or any of the streaming services because those are outlets for the work.
TMG: Do you have plans for putting Stay on any of those platforms?
I gotta wait to hear back from my distributor. I got a distribution agreement with a company called Summer Hill and we’re waiting to see what happens. We’re still looking for distribution in Japan though.
TMG: Why is it tough to get distribution in Japan?
When you’re dealing with a topic that [in Japan] is taboo…we’re talking about drug addiction and recovery. We have some nudity in the film. But that’s the story we’re telling. We’re not trying to pull punches. There are those who don’t want to discuss those issues because in terms of drugs and narcotics, Japanese people don’t want to admit that that’s in Japan. But if you have recovery groups that are here that means there are people out there who are recovering, who have a problem. So for me, if there’s a truth there then it’s a truth worth telling. So if there’s a truth I gotta tell the truth and there are people here who are recovering from narcotics. There are people recovering from alcoholism and a whole of bunch of other things so lets tell that story.