Yamasong: March of the Hollows is an upcoming feature-length fantasy film from director Sam Koji Hale and Dark Dunes Productions featuring the voice talents of Nathan Fillion (Firefly), Abigail Breslin (Maggie), Whoopi Goldberg (Star Trek: The Next Generation), Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), Peter Weller (Robocop), Malcolm McDowell (A Clockwork Orange), George Takei (Star Trek), Ed Asner (Up), and Bruce Davison (X-Men). The movie tells the tale of an automaton girl and a tortoise as they search for a relic to save their world from an encroaching army of mechanical men.
The screenplay was written by Ekaterina Sedia and backed by a pair of executive producers with impressive puppeteering pedigrees – Heather Henson, the daughter of Jim Henson, and Toby Froud, the son of Brian Froud, whom you may better know as that adorable baby from Labyrinth.
In 2010, Sam Koji Hale released the award-winning short film “Yamasong” featuring Japanese-style puppetry and a story driven by the percussion rhythm of the modern taiko group On Ensemble. Five years later, Hale is returning to the world of “Yamasong” with a whole new story with the full-length feature Yamasong: March of the Hollows.
Hale recently sat down with SF Signal to tell us more about his impressively imaginative directorial debut.
SF Signal: Yamasong: March of the Hollows is the first all puppet feature film to be released in a decade, and based on the trailer, it’s going to be gorgeous, but my first question has to be, why live-action puppets? With all of the advances in computer animation and the recent success of stop-motion films like Coraline and The Boxtrolls, what do puppets bring to the storytelling experience?
Sam Koji Hale: I’ve worked in live-action puppetry for years and what I’ve found is that it’s a medium oftentimes overlooked or underestimated as a storytelling medium. In this country, at least, it’s been largely relegated to children’s entertainment, but I’ve found it to be so much broader, has so much more potential than the general public gives it credit. I loved Jim Henson’s “Dark Crystal”, “Labyrinth”, “The Storyteller” and more growing up, and feel puppetry has the power to mesmerize with its visceral, raw, handmade quality that doesn’t exist very easily in the medium of CG animation and has been squeezed out of the Laika stop-motion films. I come from a VFX background too and I can tell you how sterile CG can be, how difficult it is to be raw! You get in the business of polishing and polishing and polishing until there’s no human touch left. It’s all about perfection, being slick and shiny. We use CG in Yamasong too, but as a compliment to the live in-camera performance. Watching puppetry you can feel the human presence behind the puppets and feel the grit!
SF Signal: This feature film is based on your award-winning 2010 short film “Yamasong,” but is it a sequel, a big screen adaptation, or an altogether new story? How does it all fit together?
SKH: The original “Yamasong”, which I’m now calling “Yamasong: First Encounter” (in my head at least – LOL!), was a short film produced by Heather Henson, Jim Henson’s daughter. Heather supports the puppetry arts, including short films, through her company IBEX Puppetry. We toured the short to over 30 film festivals worldwide and it won awards, including Best Animated Short at Dragon-Con Independent Film Festival. Heather is attached as executive producer on YSMOH too, and in addition, add producer Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki to the mix, who discovered me through Kickstarter. He asked me if I wanted to make a feature version of the short and I said YES! YSMOH picks up after the short film, introduces new characters and broadens the landscapes we explore. You don’t have to see the short film to follow the feature story.
The feature is about three characters from different clans, two rival organics and one mechanical, who have to join forces to stop the conversion of the world’s creatures into machines. The Hollow girl Nani (Abigail Breslin) has to stand up to her mother the queen (Whoopi Goldberg) to save the organics. Shojun (Nathan Fillion) is the “glue” that holds the team together, a rogue tortoise fighter exiled from his clan for making contact with Nani (the event in the short film) and allies himself with Geta (Freida Pinto) of the ramlike race, his people’s perennial enemy. We round out our “band of outlaws” with Lord Geer (Malcolm McDowell), a would-be ally who gives clues to the whereabouts of an ancient artifact that can defeat the Hollows. But Geer’s erratic behavior makes the trio question if he can really be trusted
SF Signal: Would you characterize this as a kid-friendly movie, or is it a story for a more mature audience?
SKH: I like to think of my audience as similar to Hayao Miyazaki’s audience during his “Princess Mononoke”/”Spirited Away” period. I think this will play best to the teen and early 20s audience because it’s a story about people who don’t mesh with their elders, who have to rebel in order to grow and survive. That’s a teen/young adult theme in my mind. But it’s safe for viewing by younger audiences, though possibly a bit sophisticated in the storytelling.
Speaking of the audience, my hope is that the film appeals to an audience tired of cookie cutter storytelling, especially the big studio films. I remember sitting through a blockbuster a few years back and feeling like there was nothing fresh about the story or the characters. It was horribly predictable – even while it was a big CGI spectacle. I’m hoping YSMOH’s audience will be those interested in something fresh and different, both in the visual style of the storytelling and in the content. That could be college-aged adults, lovers of indie films and fine art, our friends abroad in Europe, Asia and Latin America, people not necessarily craving mainstream fare. I also hope folks who consume mainstream will take a chance with a new flavor of ice cream like Yamasong and watch this film.
SF Signal: Dark Dunes Productions is describing Yamasong: March of Hollows as a continuation of “the epic puppet storytelling tradition of Dark Crystal with a strong dose of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, which I’m pretty sure guarantees you instant cult classic status (in addition to a future slot in my DVD collection), but what other films inspired March of Hollows?
SKH: As a sci-fi/fantasy fan, I’d include “Star Wars”, “Lord of the Rings” and “Serenity” in that mix. Also television’s reboot of “Doctor Who” in its sometimes far out weirdness. Filmmakers I love include Terry Gilliam, Guillermo del Toro, David Lynch, Spike Jonze and Tersem Singh. If my stories go a bit surreal and dark at times, it’s probably Lynch’s fault… and influences of writers like Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison! I LOVE COMICS and have to shout out to classic Jack Kirby for the visceral, raw superheroic fighting stuff, which finds its way into the puppet battle scenes!
SF Signal: Has working in movies always been your ambition?
SHK: It’s funny you ask. I’ve always wanted to tell stories, for sure, but thought I’d be a comic book writer/illustrator. That was my little pocket dream. Then I moved to Japan and lived there a while, had my first art exhibition, then went to art school back in the States. Getting to make films is just giving me a different canvas to paint on, and tell a broader, moving story (literally) with more creative collaborators and mass market potential. I LOVE the collaborative nature of filmmaking. And it’s still telling stories, just not quite where I’d imagined myself after college.
SF Signal: How did you make the leap from creating short films to feature films?
SKH: Well, the leap was all in the funding. Once the money was there, I made the leap! But seriously, getting capital is always a challenge and once it was in place, it was a matter if thinking “bigger”, thinking longer form, thinking about broader story and character arcs. Shorts you try to tell a story with a few characters and one, possibly two story arcs, fit it into a 5-10 minute piece.
Now, with a feature, multiply that 10-20 fold. It’s exciting, for sure, and honestly, I had found myself trying to cram a lot in to my short films. Getting a feature length gives me time to let the moments breathe and allows the story itself to breathe. I would say, though, be prepared for the “marathon” because features take longer, require more endurance, and finding ways to keep rediscovering the material so you can handle the material “fresh” even during the day-to-day grind of making the film.
SF Signal: Yamasong: March of the Hollows features the voice actors, including Nathan Fillion, Abigail Breslin, George Takei, Whoopi Goldberg, Malcolm McDowell, Peter Weller, and Ed Asner. The cast credits read like a sci-fi convention schedule. That had to be an incredible experience for a directorial debut. What was that like, and how did you land such an extraordinary cast?
SKH: I have my Dark Dunes Productions and Taormina Films producers Sultan Saeed al Darmaki, Adamo Paolo Cultraro and Mallory O’Meara to thank for casting. The experience has been really amazing. Definitely one of the highlights (among many) of making YSMOH.
Each actor was a unique experience! George Takei shared stories of Gene Roddenberry and Star Trek, and compared my film with the franchise for its diverse characters working together to build a peaceful future – that was a high compliment coming from George. I definitely also got the sense he was involved to my development as an up-and-coming artist of Japanese-American descent.
Freida Pinto was a hoot with her insistence on jumping off furniture and hitting things to get more into the action of her character! And I admire her activism outside of her film career too – she had just released her documentary “India’s Daughter” when we were recording her. Peter Weller is a walking scholar, and regaled us with his impromptu lecture on his character and the medieval pagan symbolism in its design. Fascinating stuff. Nathan Fillion complimented me on my “Serenity” t-shirt and shared how he had a Grover puppet as a kid and got really good at puppeteering! Ed Asner made me promise to will him his puppet character when I die, because he planned on sticking around until then! I have many more stories – many good first experiences, and AMAZING voice performances, from these top-notch stars.
SF Signal: In a past interview with Fantascize, you discussed how you drew inspiration for the imagery of your films from music. The original short film “Yamasong” featured a soundtrack by the L.A.-based taiko troupe On Ensemble while your follow-up, “Monster of the Sky,” was driven by the music of Grammy-winning composer, Christopher Tin (Stereo Alchemy). Tell us a bit about the soundtrack of this new feature film.
SKH: I love working with musicians. I think they unleash something subconscious – their process is a bit of an opposite to the visuals – in some ways. I feel when I’m drawing, when I’m storyboarding, that sometimes I get a bit too logical about the approach. What is the camera movement and angles? What is the composition and lighting? I feel when I let myself get lost in the music, ideas just flow. I discovered that going to concerts in my early twenties – especially the instrumental stuff. Lyrics don’t get in the way. It’s just the music and the flow. So I love working with musicians – and yes, on both “Yamasong” and “Monster of the Sky” shorts, I let the music lead my inspiration.
The feature is different. The film visuals will drive the music, I think it has to be that way – just because of the process. Early on I did supply Shoji Kameda with concept art, and he started composing based on those. We have three fantastic pieces from him from that first experimentation – they are otherworldly, help shape the soundscape, and give us influences from both Western and Eastern traditions, which is important to me. And I play those pieces on set to establish the mood when we’re shooting. So Shoji’s creative presence is there – it’s just not the horse pulling the wagon, it’s more like the horse following the wagon, if that makes sense?
I do find myself going back to his music, both On Ensemble and Stereo Alchemy (with Christopher Tin) for inspiration. The music is still there feeding the subconscious!
SF Signal: Are there any plans to release the film’s soundtrack for purchase on iTunes or a similar service?
SKH: I sure hope we do! Shoji and I have talked about that from the very start. I’d love if the next On Ensemble album is a full Yamasong soundtrack! It’s really in the producers hands at this point to make that call. But who wouldn’t want a great Yamasong soundtrack to play on their iPods and computers?
SFS: Finally, what’s next for you? Any chance that we’ll be seeing a “Monster Of The Sky” feature film in the near future?
SKH: It all depends on the financing. I’d LOVE to make a “Monster of the Sky” feature! Actually, I really want to link the “Yamasong” and “Monster” worlds together – there are lots of possibilities here. The Yamasong world is an ancient world filled with spirits, like Japanese Shinto, full of myths and legends but contaminated by a mechanical universe. “Monster of the Sky” takes place in a Steampunk universe so… someone may have paid a visit from one world to the other at some point, no? I’d love to explore the clockwork nature of the “Monster” world too. Explore some of the Hollow Earth and Dyson Sphere ideas I have for that world and the social upheaval between the rival ground and cloud clans.
This is no ordinary film. It will be a stunning – it will be groundbreaking as a contemporary puppet feature. I have a mission: to prove to the world that puppetry is powerful in its rawness and poignant in its subtlety, and much of the contemporary movie-going audience just hasn’t seen the full potential of the medium. I’m hoping we help change that perception with “Yamasong: March of the Hollows.”
“A time lapse of the first week of shooting Yamasong: March of the Hollows. Video by Nick Federoff”