Scores of filmmakers have toiled away at short films, hoping to one day parlay that work into the opportunity to make a feature. While there never has been a singular path for arriving at that end goal, there are a few qualities a storyteller can develop to move in that direction. Perhaps chief among those qualities is having something artistically to say.
The job of a writer/director is to show us something about how they see the world and then invite us into unspoken conversation about whether we agree. Truly gifted storytellers can offer us an experience of the transcendent, opening ideas beyond and perhaps bigger than ourselves and our preferred lenses for seeing the world.
Edson Oda is just such a storyteller.
Oda is a Japanese-Brazilian writer/director who takes on the gargantuan task of exploring the very meaning of life in his debut feature film, Nine Days. Nine Days premiered at Sundance in 2020 and won the Walt Salt Screenwriting Award. Coming out of a background in advertising, Oda got his start directing music videos, earning a Latin Grammy nomination, and eventually used his short film resume to secure a spot in the coveted Sundance Screenwriters Lab.
Nine Days certainly has a noteworthy cast that engages the audience from the moment they take the screen. However, it’s the writing that takes us out of the normal framework so common to the cinematic and transports us somewhere … well … else.
Like many of us, to understand how Oda achieved his present experience, he needs to travel backwards. “I used to work in advertising, and we were always trying to sell products. It was never related to my own voice. I remember when I was applying to film school. I was still in Brazil, trying to take the leap and start a new career. Schools would ask me, ‘Why do you want to be a filmmaker?’ Ultimately, my answer was about a theme that was important to me. I want to be a better human being, somehow. I believe that by being a better human being, I will be able to be a better filmmaker. That was eight years ago. That idea became stronger in my work, especially with Nine Days, and the more I was vulnerable about that idea, and the more it was personal with the story, the more people felt comfortable to be vulnerable and personal in their experience with the film,” Oda said.
In many ways, Nine Days feels like a dream. There’s a psychological theory about dreams that suggests that every character in our dreams is us—some version or aspect of ourselves. Oda resonated with this idea when I brought it up to him, with regards to the film, agreeing he could see himself in every character—except one.
“I think the one that's less me is Emma. Emma is more like an aspiration of who I’d like to be. I want to be more like Emma because she is just so unselfish, so about the other person, so about the present. Is that me as a human being? I don't know. I feel there's so many things that keep us away from the state of mind she is in,” Oda opines, looking deeper into himself as the words leave his lips.
He’s quick to see himself in the character who most closely resembles an antagonist in the story. “I'd say mostly I'm Will. Will was based on an uncle of mine. He was very sensitive, like Will, very kind and artistic, like Will. He committed suicide when he was 50. I was 12 at the time. I feel bad for even saying this, but the way I thought about him was that this guy was a failure. I didn’t want to be like him. I think after some years, I started going through the same feelings though, the same struggles that my uncle went through, and then it's, ‘Oh, so that's what he was feeling.’ He wasn't a failure. He was dealing with a lot of things, a lot of emotion. Then, I had more empathy towards him, and I could see him differently, and somehow, I think, from that connection I developed with my uncle later in my life, I think that's what created Will—who is a mix of me, my uncle, and some other ideas and emotions for sure, but mostly both of us. That's what writers do on an unconscious level. Even when you're writing about someone you create, based on someone else, that someone else actually is you because it's someone else from your perspective. It's interesting because it's not really about who the person was, but what I'm writing is more like what that person made me feel.”
One of the many skills Oda masterfully demonstrates in his script is the ability to not only place pieces of himself inside each character but to also showcase a wide variety of worldviews in an organic and authentic way. He recognizes his own intentionality in doing so.
“I feel like it's very important that all these worldviews are there, but it's not like this is the right one, this is the wrong one, because every person has their own beliefs and values. I think what I tried to do in the movie was show that Kane has a point of view. Is it wrong? No. Is it right? Not really. Emma has another point of view. Some people see Kane as the villain. I don't see him as the villain. I really love him for what he believes. I don't necessarily agree with him and would not do what he does, but I can see that he reacts according to what the world gives to him, and I respect that. I want to respect all the characters in the movie somehow.”
Looking back at the experience of taking the story from the page to the screen, Oda recognizes a few valuable lessons he’s learned.
“After I finished, I was so exhausted. I felt like I fulfilled what I was here for and now I can just die. It was almost like that. But after the movie began screening and people came to talk to me about how much it meant to them, those feelings changed. I was vulnerable, writing and making the movie, and people could see themselves in it. I think I learned that if you write something from your heart, even if you think it's ridiculous, someone who reads it or sees it or watches it could be affected by it. Then you both might not feel so alone. We were lonely when I was writing my script by myself and the person that read it was in their house, but somehow, we connected when they read it. That feels special and makes me want to keep doing this.”
Nine Days opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 30 and nationwide on August 6, 2021.
*Feature Photo: Nine Days / 30WEST (2020)