Warm skin, cold bones: Christopher Makoto Yogi on ‘I Was a Simple Man’
Between this year’s stand out documentary Cane Fire and I Was a Simple Man, Hawaiian filmmaking is making a long overdue statement on their narrative mastery. Christopher Makoto Yogi, director of I Was a Simple Man, wields an understated, yet playful voice in his newest film.
I Was a Simple Man, features an aged and ailing man, Masao (Steve Iwamoto) contending with the urbanization of Hawaii, his strained relationships with his children, and the appearance of a ghost from years before. As he loses grip on reality, he is able to remember and mourn through the life he had lived. I Was a Simple Man is a chilling dissection of a long ruptured life.
I had the opportunity to ask Christopher Makoto Yogi about ghost stories, his creative approach, and the magical elements of I Was a Simple Man during the 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Could you tell me about ghosts in Hawaii? What’s the relationship between the two in your film?
You know growing up, I always loved ghost stories. I would read all the books — there’s this one folklorist in Hawaii, his name is Glen Grant. He would collect all the stories, I would read all of his books, and he would come speak at our school during assemblies. We would all go and listen to him tell these stories. As teenagers, we would actually go out to find ghosts. We had nothing to do, so we went to haunted places just to freak ourselves out. In Hawaii, you have the Asian ghost stories, Indigenous mythology, Western ghosts that have made their way over, and there’s this interesting, diverse stew of ghost story culture. As I got older, I started to realize that it was one of the only ways that culture was passed down. I wasn’t necessarily someone who was always reading up on history or culture, but through these titillating stories I was slowly getting a little bit here and there. That’s always fascinated me.
So when I was making this film, the idea of using ghosts was really inspired by being in the room with someone who was passing away. In a short period of time, I had many people in my family pass away. I remember a specific experience with my grandfather where he was talking to people who weren’t there and yelling these phrases in Japanese. I didn’t know who he was talking to. At one point, he actually started speaking to me as if I were my father — his son — but my father had passed away at that point. For me at the time as a younger person, it was kind of terrifying. I didn’t really understand what was going on and I could feel there were ghosts in the room. He was seeing something I wasn’t. He was tapping into some other realm that I wasn’t privy to, but I could feel it. I wanted to capture that feeling of someone’s life closing in in this very intense way. And at the time it was scary, but now that I look back it was a beautiful thing to have been witness to — the idea of passing in a very beautiful and haunting way.
How did you communicate the unique tone of this film to your crew?
A lot of the crew I’ve worked with multiple times before. I think most of it was communicated through me telling them about what the film was inspired by and the script itself. The script wasn’t your typical description and dialogue. I tried to put a lot of emotion into the writing of the film that I would hope to communicate to the DP and the sound designer and the producers. And so a lot of that was already having built a relationship with them, we’re almost like a band at this point.
It’s very easy for me to, with sort of a few words, communicate what I’m trying to do, and they bring in their ideas. They read this and interpret this. They’re bringing in a lot of their personal experience. My DP had lost her grandmother a couple years ago, and she was tapping into that specific experience. My composer had lost his father a year before, and it touched him in a specific way. By opening myself up, it gave space for other people to give a little bit of themselves as well. The process is all of us bringing in our personal points of view into the film. It very much is like a story that was inspired by my experience — then of course because it’s so collaborative, the end result is everybody’s.
I had never heard a film set like a band before. That makes too much sense.
Yeah, me and my DP just have a few words. We’ve worked together for ten years now. She’s from Korea, but she’s now shot in Hawaii so many times that she just knows the light and is familiar with the islands. She told me, “Who would have thought I would have spent so much time here. I never would have expected that.” But she has, because she’s helped me shoot my films.
There’s an element of prophecy present in the film? What inspired this and what makes it so significant?
I don’t think I have a good answer. I don’t know where it comes from. It was an element in the short film. After I had this experience with my grandfather, I made a short film that attempted to capture what it was like to be in a room with someone who was passing away. I thought I would be done with the story after the short, but for whatever reason it stuck with me and so many years later I wrote a feature version and shot it. But that was there in the initial short, and it was the main part of the short. Grace is telling Masao what was going to happen to him. I don’t know what it was inspired by. I don’t think I have a good answer for that, unfortunately. I transposed it almost directly into the feature.
It definitely stood out for me. If you wanted someone to validate what your life was going to be like and have someone say it word for word, I think it communicates a specific feeling to someone right in the middle of their lives. If only someone could just tell me, or would I even want to know?
There’s something nostalgic and very sad about seeing a really innocent, naive, young man being told all the pain he would go through and that he will die. There was a poignancy to that that spoke to me. It was so beautiful. We said it had to be in the feature version.
I wanted to ask about the eclipse. The motif of the eclipse is so strong and present. Is that inspired from something real?
No, not at all. The striking image of a lunar eclipse has always stayed with me. It’s totally magic. It doesn’t make the world red in that way. It’s a device to play with color and connect the world. That eclipse is the first moment where the timelines come together in an interesting way. Previous to that, you’re watching a film move pretty conventionally. But the eclipse is the first time things start to get formally adventurous. And then after that, the film starts to unravel itself and mix the timelines in a playful and fun way. I thought some natural event was the way to do that.
This interview was conducted by Justin Ricafort, in-person, in Los Angeles on September 24th, 2021.
I Was A Simple Man was screened at the 2021 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
Film pages: IMDb