Powers of Deduction: Top Knot Detective
In the early 90s, a little known Japanese Samurai/Detective series hit Australia where it quickly became a cult hit. In Japan it was called ‘Ronin Suiri Tentai’ (translation: ‘Deductive Reasoning Ronin’) but in Australia it’s only known as ‘Top Knot Detective’. Created by Aaron McCann and Dominic Pearce as a throwback to the films and TV shows that were broadcast on SBS Australia in the 90s, this documentary tells the story of director and star, Takashi Takamoto, who couldn’t act, fight or write a TV show, but through various underworld connections had the money to make himself into a star – or so he thought.
Top Knot Detective is about to make its Australian cinema debut at the 20th Revelation Film Festival in their hometown of Perth, Western Australia. Laith Tierney caught up with Dominic and Aaron to discuss their time and experience working on the project.
Why do you love working in Film and how did you get your start?
AARON: Working in film is probably the only job I can actually do at any competent level of proficiency, also it’s the only job where my office is different from week to week and where the people I work with become like family… essentially I’m just living out the boyhood dream of running away and joining the circus… with less clowns (sort of). I got my start in theatre. I was an actor at school and during my final exam in year 12 I was faced with a choice. Do my geography exam and fail (I knew I was going to fail) or skip the exam and be an extra in “Let’s get Skase”. I chose the latter and since then I caught the film bug. I went and studied film at Tafe (I didn’t get into university… something about not completing my geography exam or something stupid like that) and after three years at that, i knew that i wanted to write and direct films. 13 years later, I got to direct my first feature.Dom: As a kid I always had a big imagination. I didn’t like sports, other kids, myself, sports or anything outside of violent cartoons. Or sports. What I did like, however, was the colorful stuff that came out my brain. I did a lot of creative design and arts in highschool, and then in junior and senior year my friend Chiz got me heavily into Kevin Smith and making little no budget films in and around school. I came back to Perth still treating film as a side interest and went into Uni studying journalism full time and film on the side. Then, when journalism in Australia wanted to make me put a gun in mouth, it became pretty clear film was making me the happiest. A few buddies of mine and I went into business together straight out of uni doing media design for contemporary art exhibitions and I started getting heavily involved in making music videos. Once I had a chance to start working on actual short and long form films, I was sold. This is what I wanted to do. I met Aaron working on his horror film Perished (I auditioned to be a zombie and landed the editors gig instead), and we’ve been collaborating on stuff ever since.
Do find it is a struggle to pursue your hopes and dreams as a creative, pay your rent and fund your productions?
AARON: It’s certainly a struggle to be a creative and pay rent. If I could pay rent by making someone a short video about zombies I would do that. I’m just thankful for government funding and the assistance given to filmmakers by state agencies like Screenwest and national ones like Screen Australia. Without institutions like that, the majority of us socially awkward, creative types, would fall by the wayside.
I’m just praying to Odin for Universal Basic Income, that and some rich eccentric type who sees the benefit in a tax offset.
Dom: Definitely. It’s one of the hardest things to do in the world. Well in fairness brain surgery is probably the hardest job in the world, but those guys have dental insurance. You’re working day and night to ground your intangible ideas in some sort of measurable system of financial worth. We’re also incredibly lucky to have access to arts funding of any measure, and Screenwest, Screen Australia, SBS, ABC – all of the funding bodies really. It’s something a lot of the rest of the world doesn’t really have.
How have you kept your head above the water and your eye on the ball?
AARON: I write every day. If I’m not writing, I’m developing a music video. If I’m not doing that, I’m shooting a live gig ot a smallcorporate video. I’m I’m not doing that I’m just curled up in a little ball yelling at myself for not writing or shooting something.
Dom: Smoking pot helps. I started out making souless corporate video and paying my bills as an editor, whereas now I’m gradually trying to transition into being a full time director. It takes a fair bit of drive and patience, but if you’re willing to wear the late nights and life stresses it’s one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.
You both share writing and directing credits, Nice
Dom: Aaron and I have worked on a few different things over the years, most often me doing post-production work on his short films and music videos. Top Knot was the first time we got to collaborate together as writer/directors, and was my first chance to make a long form. I’ve learnt heaps from Aaron, and I’m very thankful to him for everything he’s taught me about putting together a film.
Do you remember the exact moment the concept came to you?
AARON: I was about to travel to Japan for the first time with my then girlfriend. Dom was living with a friend of mine and he had mentioned that he had been to Japan with his now fiancé. he told me about a time they spend in a love hotel watching a strange Japanese samurai show (which I would later find out was called: Abarenbō Shōgun / 暴れん坊将軍) He struggled to explain the concept, but he described it as a Samurai Detective who couldn’t kill anyone. We bantered back and forth about it and then the title came: Top Knot Detective. We had no idea what the show was going to be about, but we know that it was going to be set in the 90’s and be a throwback to all the crazy shows we saw on SBS when we were kids.
Dom: Aaron and I had spent heaps of time chatting about watching SBS growing up. For a lot of pre-internet creatives I know in Perth, late night public broadcasting was our one and only window into cult cinema, international cinema, experimental films, adult oriented British sitcoms and anime. That, and getting Ninja Scroll out from Champagne video. Hell yeah. It opened our mind up to a much weirder world of film and TV that watching Channel 10 was never going to show you. Our chats about samurai cinema really reminded us of that time in our lives. Whatever we made, we wanted to celebrate that.
Did you spend 3 days really high in front of a typewriter…or what?
AARON: More like three years, and we don’t use a typewriter, we use a word processor, what the kids now call a computer. In that time we also cut together this proof of concept trailer:
Dom: From the concept trailer to the finished feature, the whole thing was about three years, yeah. We kind of never stopped writing it. Even after we’d shot it, the format demanded we keep writing in the edit.
How did everyone else get involved?
AARON: It was a slow process. We initially went for funding and were rejected (something to do with missing a deadline). Then Neal Downward (the King of Comedy at SBS Comedy) contacted me to do some small interstitial spots on SBS about the world cup. You can view them here:
SBS really liked the videos and then we pitched them Top Knot Detective as part of their Comedy Runway initiative and they gave us the funds to make a pilot, from there it was another year of intense writing to then come up with the fleshed out feature film which is what everyone will get a chance to see (finally) on the big screen.
Explain a little bit about the cast a crew and all the people that made this happen.
AARON: There are (honestly) too many people to thank and mention. Our wonderful producer, Lauren Brunswick, helped us put together a very talented cast and crew. many people had never done a film before. Some were emerging artists and crew members, lots were seasoned professionals and every single one of them had a geek-like passion to make this crazy dream come true.
Dom: Lauren’s been instrumental to pulling this bizarre thing together – she even coined the term ‘Onion Theory’ to help herself understand how the various layers of the film intersect. SBS Viceland, SBS Comedy and in particular Neal Downward were all so incredibly supportive in letting us do this. I think they liked having something celebrate a part of their history.
How did you convince your crew members all of these ideas, props and sets were achievable?
AARON: There was a lot of sleight of hand to convince people that everything was achievable on the budget we had, which was basically the standard budget of a TV half Hour, for a 90min Feature film. We begged, borrowed and stole as much as was humanly possible in order to turn 2015/16 Perth into 1991 Japan, though a lot of that was assisted by actually shooting on location in Japan too.
DOM: Funnily enough, for a lot of it, we just didn’t explain anything. It was shot in a bizarre fragmented manner between Australia and Japan, and I think a lot of the time the crew looked at what we were shooting and went, “What the fuck? How does this work?” We just kept saying, “Trust us. It’ll be sick.”
How was the project funded? Was the film self funded at all?
AARON: We were financed through Screenwest, Screen Australia, SBS Australia and some Gap Finance, as well as putting some of our own wages back into the film in order to achieve the look and feel of everything we wanted.
DOM: That, and a very resourceful crew. We really had to make it stretch – historical period pieces spanning several centuries is, funnily enough, more costly than you’d expect.
How did you find Toshi Okuzaki and the rest of the crew?
AARON: Toshi auditioned for us. He’s a school teacher and his only other acting role was as an extra in ‘Paper Planes’. We also auditioned Masa Yamaguchi (Hacksaw Ridge/Ghost in the Shell) for the same role. Initially we thought we could only cast one of them, and there was something about Toshi, this innocence and awkwardness that made him irresistible to watch on camera… but we loved Masa too, so we wrote a whole new role for Masa and he basically became our second lead and our Stunt Supervisor and all round super human on set. We were also lucky to get some of the best crew in town in between shoots. ‘Hounds of Love’ was shooting the same week as us (right around the corner from us most times) and we had a small window in order to get some of that crew before they jumped onto Ben’s film.
DOM: It was a hard film to cast, particularly shooting out of Perth. Much of our key cast came from or were shot on location over east. Our other lead was Mayu Iwasaki, who played Mia. When Mia’s story began to appear in the script she quickly became one of our favorite characters, but we knew it would be an incredibly demanding role. We needed a ninja, a pop star, and actress all in one, and Mayu crushed it. She did so many of her own stunts, learnt dance choreography, and really threw herself into the role. Her energy on set kept everyone moving, it was great.
How is the film being received in Japan?
AARON: Those who have seen it have really enjoyed it, but it’s yet to get a wide release in Japan, so — ya know — if there are any Japanese distributors looking to take us on, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org 😉
How do you keep control of a project like this and what were the most stressful moments during production?
AARON: I think, luckily, we had an amazing crew that had our backs. We’re in a very collaborative industry and everyone is really focused on creating the best possible piece under extreme time and budget constraints. I think the most stressful moments just came down to communication. It’s a massive crew. Speaking two to three languages. We certainly learned a lot about what we can and can’t do on a tight budget, and even in the toughest times, we all look back and (hopefully) grow from the overall learning process.
DOM: Yeah, there were definitely tough days, and times where you just had to accept compromise on your ideas when you often don’t want to. That said, given how difficult we’d made things for ourselves, our crew really worked hard to bring it to life, and the stresses were really quite minimal. It’s taught me so much about making big films and made us all better filmmakers. We’re really proud of the finished film, and so very thankful to everyone.
How was deductive reasoning employed on set?
AARON: With an iron fist and ball of titanium.
DOM: Our deductive reasoning was actually part of our Deductive Reasoning Project. That’s where our deductive reasoning pays us to be a free intern on our set.
Was the script completely finished when you started shooting? Did you add scenes as you had more crazy ideas or is everything we see exactly as you intended it? I guess I want to know if you “jammed” on set?
AARON: The scripting process was probably the most complex. We initially wrote the script as six episodes with the idea of leaving a cliffhanger for a second season. then we were told there would only be one season. So we wrote eight episodes. Then we found out that we didn’t have enough budget to do all eight, so we wrote six (but really the page count stayed the same.. we just reduced the margins.. sorry Lauren) the we joined all of those scripts up into one massive feature screenplay and did a polish draft of that. From there we then got Dario Russo (Danger 5) in to give us notes and feedback on that screenplay. From there we then did a writers room where we broke that script up into two distinct sections. The documentary section and the “show-within-the-show” section.
We jammed with a bunch of amazing local writers and our storyboard artist and then spend another month refining the script. Next, we went about creating an entire animatic of the movie with myself and Dom doing all of the voices and using the storyboards to fill out the scenes.DOM: The animatic was pretty key. I’d already helped put together a couple of other feature documentaries: Hunter: For The Record, and Meal Tickets, which is also playing at Revelation this year. Knowing the format and how hundreds of hours of tape gets whittled down into a narrative, we kind of thought building the film backwards from the edit was the easiest way to figure out our coverage and shot lists. It became the visual story board that everyone used. Then we translated it into Japanese, which changed the meaning and pacing of a bunch of things.
AARON: The final rewriting was in the edit of the entire film. then it became like an actual documentary where we would rewrite scenes and intentions of scenes to mean different things and use photographs and candid interviews that we got at ComicCon and Supanova to make it appear like we were watching a “real” documentary. Basically the writing never really stopped until we delivered the film.
This film has fuckin’ everything, which gives me the impression you were able accomplish every single one of your crazy ideas and no man was left behind.
AARON: my buddy’s died face down in the mud to… sorry, what was I saying? It’s like Vietnam dude. I swear.
DOM: No, actually. We murdered so many of our idea-babies on this one.
What do YOU feeling is missing from the film?
AARON: There is a lot on the cutting room floor. But it’s hard to tell if that would have made the film better or worse. I think what’s missing from the film is perspective and time away from it. Ask me this question again in 10 years, when I can watch the film objectively and I might have a more nuanced answer.
DOM: Mmmm, yeah, it’s too fresh. There’s heaps more I would’ve liked to have done in theory, but it’s hard to look at it objectively so soon after finishing it.
Is there a scene that was too difficult, did anything get left on the cutting room floor? or not make it out of the prop department?
AARON: We shot an advertisement for Sutaffu Sunscreen. Basically… well the cream ejeculated on someone. It was tame, by japanese standards. I personally love it. But that’s gone. It now sits in a vault with the original unedited Zapruder Film.
DOM: There were actually several more Sutaffu commercials actually, and originally a lot more shots and substance to the ones that made it into the film. There was heaps more for the Sunscreen one we didn’t get to shoot, plus commercials for Laser Disc Players, Cars, and so many other fine Sutaffu products.
You put a lot of effort into convincing the general public TKD was a real television show. Are there people out there searching for VHS tapes of Ronin Suirai Tantei?
AARON: We dumped the footage to VHS manually. It was a very analogue and old school way of doing it. it was also fucking painful and time consuming. NEVER AGAIN! But yes, there are a few people, some festival directors also, and many of the general public who believed it was an actual TV series and we were just making a documentary.
DOM: We never really made many direct attempts to fool people. We figured in this age of comedy that most people could tell real documentaries from fake ones like Spinal Tap. That said though, we tried hard to stay true to shooting things in a technically accurate manner to their respective time periods. I think, between the VHS, the references to old shows, the mesh of small details – we kinda hacked peoples brains a bit. A lot more have been thrown by it than I ever could’ve expected.
What was the appeal in making this as mockumentary?
AARON: I wanted to play with the documentary format. I love delving behind the scene of something and finding out something I never knew about a film or TV series I cherished. There was a lot of inspiration taken from Peter Jackson’s ‘Forgotten Silver’ but also from actual documentaries like ‘The Jinx’ and “Shintaro!” I think mockumentaries allow you to explore subjects and topics in a different way, and by presenting them as “real” you get to open up new and exciting dialogues with audiences.
Has there been any interest or demand in you returning to this project as an actual series? I’m sure there are people who would kill to watch whole episodes of Top Knot.
AARON: There is a part of me that wants to dive back into that world. Maybe even do a Timestryker series. there is a part of me that wants to do an episode of Ronin Surari Tentai. There is also a part of me who wants to do “My Little Italian Stallions” (the bonus trailer that plays after the end credits)… but then there is another part of me screaming to do something new and different and unexpected and not get boxed into what audiences “expect”. Who knows.
DOM: We’ve definitely had a lot of people come to us asking if there would ever be full series of any of the properties featured in the film – but we’ll have to wait and see. We’ve spent a long time in this world so far and there are so many other worlds to explore.
What advice do you have for people with big crazy ideas who are afraid they won’t be able to bring their imaginations to life?
AARON: Just do it! Do it and fail. Learn from your failures. Get up and do it again. Keep doing again and again and love every minute of what you do. Then… someone out there will love it and share it with the world and (hopefully) you’ll get to do that thing you love for the rest of your life. Also… don’t EVER have a Plan B. If you have a Plan B, then you should do that instead of film.
DOM: The artists you idolise at one point all fucking sucked at the thing that makes you love them. They just kept doing it over and over, fucking up over and over, until they stopped fucking it up and got it right. Do that, and you can do what you want – just always be sure to learn from those fuckups and adapt.
What would you say the moral of the film’s story is?
AARON: Treat everyone with respect, because one day they might frame you for murder.
DOM: Having a gift is special. Being a dick is universal.
What would you say the moral of your personal story is?
AARON: Learn a second language.
DOM: Always, always, always do things the hardest way possible.
AARON: I’m currently attached to ‘Crooked Little Vein’ which is an adaptation of the debut novel by Warren Ellis. It’s on that long road to securing cast and finance right now, so fingers crossed. Other than that, I’m writing… always writing and doing the festival circuit with Top Knot Detective… and other than that… just living every day as it comes.DOM: Hopefully we’ll be doing some festival travels this year to get Takashi’s story up and out into the world. I’m working on a bunch of new scripts and projects at the moment getting ready for the next big film adventure. The next big date though is July 9th at Luna Leederville. Come get Top Knotted on the silver screen.
TOP KNOT DETECTIVE Screenings are: Sunday July 9th at Luna Leederville (7.30pm), Wednesday July 12th at Luna Leederville (2.45pm)
Thursday 13th July at Luna On SX in Fremantle (6.45pm). Tickets can be purchased from the link below: http://www.revelationfilmfest.org/film-information-new.php?filmId=717