April 20, 2017
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East Side Sushi: Lucero’s Extremely Oakland Film
by Doniphan Blair
'East Side Sushi' director Anthony Lucero in front of Oakland's Coach Sushi, the owners of which generously allowed him to film there. photo: D. Blair
BREAKING NEWS, 7:00 WST, 3/17/14
"East Side Sushi" won the Audience Award at
, the prestigious San Jose international festival (see film's
for screenings & updates).
WHEN ANTHONY LUCERO WAS FIRST
covered by CineSource in 2012 (see
by Blake Wellen), for his feature about a Latino kitchen worker aspiring to become a sushi chef, it seemed a modest or even lack luster project compared to some of the other Oakland movies we were hearing about.
There was "Licks", directed by Jonathan Singer-Vine (2014), about a young man just out of prison and, of course, "Fruitvale Station" by Ryan Coogler (formally of Oakland). A powerful film which won nation-wide release, it should have been nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award.
What makes a great Oakland film?
This is a question we take seriously at CineSource. Last year, we declared an Oakland film movement replete with
—the Film Stammer (stammer suggesting confusion, trying to say many things) —and next month we will release our fifth annual Oakland issue.
I had met Lucero a few times, after being introduced by his producer and CineSource stalwart, Julie Rubio. One time, he invited me to break bread at the haute cuisine cafeteria at Lucasfilm's Presidio facility, where he sometimes works as a documentary filmmaker. Once past security, I was also able to purchase a staff-only sweatshirt, now the prize possession of my Maya-animation-program-obsessed 15 year-old nephew.
Juana, played by Diana Elizabeth Torres, takes on East Oakland muggers in 'East Side Sushi'. photo: courtesy A. Lucero
As we hung out, I could not help but notice that Anthony is a soft-spoken, words-well-chosen kind of guy and wonder if he had enough dominating qualities to direct a feature, let alone one about Oakland.
After finally viewing "
East Side Sushi
", however, just before it premiered to four sold out shows at San Jose's CineQuest in early March, all I can say is, "Remember the Third Agreement: Don't make assumptions!"
Using the Russian "Sleeper" system, as opposed to the "Car Chase" school of dramaturge popular in Hollywood, "East Side Sushi" eases you into the life and then mind of Juana, an Oakland street fruit cart operator, beautifully acted by Diana Elizabeth Torres, a conservatory-trained Mexican actress, who has done commercials and played opposite Salma Hayek.
Sick of struggling as an immigrant single mom, Juana sets her sites on the patriarchal position of sushi chef and the film grows with her. From its gentle beginnings of Juana wrangling a sleepy child or masterfully chopping veggies, "East Side Sushi" keeps expanding in scope and ramifications, getting more exciting and insightful, until the climactic ending.
This is in distinct contrast to the many features—first or not, indie or not—which blow their production values and plot points in the first reel and haven't the feintest idea where to go next.
Well acted, shot and scored, as well as scrupulously researched and romantically engaged with its characters—even if they aren't so much with each other, "East Side Sushi" is a great Oakland film.
No wonder, Lucero was born, raised and educated in Oakland's Fruitvale district, now of "Fruitvale Station" fame. After attending San Francisco State, where he graduated with a cinema BA, he started working as a commercial editor, first for the likes of Nike and Yahoo, then moving into effects editing at ILM.
Lucero confers with DP Marty Rosenberg on set, with producer Julie Rubio and Vicki Wong (seated) script supervising. photo: courtesy A. Lucero
While working on major motion pictures ("Star Wars: Episode II & II", "Pirates of the Caribbean", and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban"), Lucero kept making his own personal films, a true synthesizer of indie and commercial values, very much in keeping with the tenets of the Oakland Stammer.
Those projects included comic and serious shorts, "I Need My Mocha" (2005) and "Angels and Wheelchairs" (2007) and documentaries, notably "Not in Our Town", where he also did the camerawork.
Although he "enjoys making films that are multicultural," according to his press package, he avoids cliché and is not afraid to mix it up, both the stereotype and the anti-stereotype.
He was joined in this effort by a stellar local crew. In addition to the versatile Rubio, he had DP Marty Rosenberg, whom Lucero met at ILM while the latter was doing blockbuster FX cinematography, Associate Producer Vicki Wong, who has done of lot of stuff with Tippet Studio, and composer Alex Mandel, who had two songs in Pixar's "Brave".
Apparently, we at CineSource were one of the first outside the "East Side Sushi" team to see the final cut and Lucero appreciated our enthusiasm (you can, too, on their
Lucero's quest was exhausting and arduous right up to his worldwide debut at CineQuest, since the four DCP video prints he brought to the festival didn't work in their machines. 48 hours before showtime, they were still struggling.
Shot on a Red Camera in high resolution 4K, Lucero edited in Premier on his modest-seeming 15" Retina Mac laptop, into which he also downloaded camera files on set. Color-corrected by Ayumi Ashley, he reimported the 4K files into the Retina, added subtitles and mastered.
Although "East Side Sushi" comes in at the under-$200,000 mark, after adding the in-kind services, including family and friends volunteering as extras and pros working at 10-20% their day rates, the full production can be valued at one million.
Kind enough to come by CineSource's office, we started by discussing the difficulties of low budget filmmaking:
After some initial hesitation, Lucero opened up about 'East Side Sushi''s arduous journey. photo: D. Blair
It's hard to make a good film!
That is the one thing I wanted to take away from this: make a feature and not have it SUCK! Then I have done my job, because there are so many bad shorts and features out there.
There are so many that don't live up to their potential but yours does—especially your ending shot. It's a very Oakland film.
I really wanted that wide shot over the lake—that huge establishing shot—but I couldn't get it. I still could do it and cut it in. Instead, I show the Grand Lake Theatre and the people dancing on the lake, which is such a beautiful shot.
Obviously people associate Oakland with African-Americans but you only had two black characters in the whole movie.
It is funny you brought that up. They were my friend's parents. They do a little cameo ordering sushi at the restaurant.
It was scripted to have [Juana's] neighbor be African-American as well but that person dropped out, so we made that role Latino.
People associate Oakland with African-Americans but it's a story about Latinos and Japanese. Where are the African-Americans? How are they represented in this film? I guess, it doesn't bother me. Does it bother you?
Not at all, it's like you are exploring some thing else: Oakland as the meeting place of cultures. I think you handled that all very well. For example, Juana isn't going to sue for discrimination.
And you didn't establish that she starts a relationship with the sushi chef either.
That was also in the screenplay. I didn't want it to be an overt love story. I wanted it to be a back, back, back story, like maybe something happens... maybe.
Is there something between them or not? That is for you to decide. You see it in the tiniest looks. They don't have to kiss or anything like that. I kept that out. It wasn't that film.
What was the original idea?
Did you ever see the documentary 'King of Kong: A Fist Full of Quarters', [Seth Gordon, 2007]? It’s about a guy who wants to get the highest score in Donkey Kong.
Sounds boring but, 'Oh my god, watch it!' The filmmaker turned it into an epic story. He took a very narrow subject matter and made it huge. 'I want to do that,' I thought.
Indeed, Lucero finally going and is quite the raconteur. photo: D. Blair
Flash forward: I was watching this guy washing dishes in a kitchen at a diner and wondering: What does that guy aspire to be? So I thought, let me write that small story of this dishwasher who wants to be a cook and make it bigger.
Then, maybe that night, I was having sushi and I thought, maybe my character wants to be a sushi chef? So I started writing that story.
But then I stopped. After ten pages, I realized being a sushi chef is very technical, I needed to know a lot more.
I started researching. I took some classes and went online. I went to Japanese restaurants. I interviewed sushi chefs. I would sit in the back kitchen and see how that worked.
The guy washing dishes in my story was always Latino, as the workers in the back of restaurants often are. His name was Juan. The way you say good afternoon or welcome in Japanese is 'konnichiwa,' so the screenplay was called 'Konnichi-Juan'.
As I was doing all this research, I noticed there were no female sushi chefs. That's how the full story started.
You create a nice setting in the beginning of the film, working with the father. Did you research all that?
Every second of the film has been researched.
When they cut the fruit, that was at La Placita in Oakland. I had shot a documentary years ago following a fruit vendor. They had a kid and they brought her in and that stuck with me.
When I was doing the screenplay, we would sit with these fruit vendors for hours. My friend Juan, he would ask questions—he was Spanish speaking, I don't speak Spanish—on East 14th, on Fruitvale. There was a woman who sold fruit—I would come by every other day, she would give me a bag of fruit.
The details—like the decals she had on her fruit cart—I would make note. That's why I stuck the picture of the Virgin Mary on [Juana's] fruit cart. It was all researched.
Where did you find your actors?
I couldn't find my lead actors here, although we did a lot of casting. Then we went down to LA.
We tracked down Diana, the lead, and Yutaka Takeuchi [who plays Aki], the other lead, both in LA. She is from Mexico, where she was an actor. By the time we started shooting, she had been in the United States for a year and half.
Lane Nishikawa, the television show announcer, he is from San Diego. It is interesting you go to LA and all of a sudden there are hundreds of actors. Everyone else is local.
Juana (Diana Elizabeth Torres) starts to make her bones with the sushi master (Yutaka Takeuchi). photo: courtesy A. Lucero
In the sushi bar, did you have to have a lot of extras?
That is all family and friends. It is very creative, the way we shot that—can't do a lot of wide shots in indie films. Even [the lead] Diana plays a waitress walking by camera because we had so few people sometimes.
The first music was electric, later, it is piano. It goes all over without an orchestral theme.
That was intentional. I told Alexander Mandel, 'Don't stick to a style.' He asked early on, 'Should we have this theme?' I told him that doing a fusion of Mexican and Japanese music would be be expected so let's not do that.
Just do whatever feels right for the scene. There are even some steel drums, that is kind of Caribbean. It is multicultural, that is all that is. I told Alex, 'Sure, just put steel drums in there. It doesn't matter if it is not part of the culture. Just put in whatever we thinks works.'
There were a lot of hard scenes. I thought the second lunch scene had really good group dynamics. The scene at the Fruitvale Market, that must been hard but is a really good shot. Did you have minders, guards?
We had a friend of mine who grew up 47th Avenue. But even I was getting a little nervous when it was getting dark and people would start to look at us. Once the sun went down, I was, 'Alright pack it up!'
Wouldn't you consider that a good tip for Oakland filmmaking?
You can hire security for your film but it is expensive. I used to work for the Oakland police department so I still have a lot of friends there.
Other times, we just went out there with the camera. For the festival scene, we raced out there at the end of the day—'Let's just go!' The music is blasting. In fact, it is hard to hear the dialogue.
It was all steadicam; Vincent Cortez was the steadicam operator. That was a chaotic shoot: a mass of people, everyone was looking at the camera.
We'd go around and say, 'If you are looking at the camera, you won't be in the film, if you are not looking in the camera you will be in the film,' so people would stop looking. Still, almost every take someone would walk by and look directly into the camera.
And you didn't have any minders, so it was like a 3-4 man crew.
From the very start of 'East Side Sushi', Juana is shown as being very good with the knife. photo: courtesy A. Lucero
Probably on that day, 8-9 people, between sound and makeup. We had two minivans where we carpooled. We met at a house and went to the festival and the person dropped us off and then drove around. Total chaos that day—it was just nuts!
I am very impressed because that shot looks super solid, the father looks great. Is he a professional?
He's a playwright; he lives in Oakland; he was in a short film I saw.
It is hard to find Latinos in his age group—he was a tough find. He was in my friend Juan Rivera’s film, not a speaking part but he had a good face and moved well—that's a big part of acting.
So I asked Juan for his contact info. I am calling, emailing, and I don't hear from him. This goes on for two months: 'Where is Rodrigo DuArte Clark, is he dead?' I can't find him on the Internet.
Couple of months go by, I am shooting a documentary in downtown Oakland and he comes walking up the street—'Oh my god, that's who I was looking for!'
I stopped shooting and said, 'Rodrigo, I've been looking for you for months. I wanted to see if you wanted to read for a part in my film.' It was so random.
So you shoot a lot in Oakland?
I used to work for the Working Group, doing a documentary series that showed on PBS called 'Not in Our Town'.
It also seems you didn't shy away from some of Oakland's negatives like the Aki character is late for work because his car got broken into.
That's an urban plight.
But it's also very Oakland—the fruit vendor got robbed by Latinos.
It's a fine line. I don't want to make Oakland look bad either. [But] my DP Marty Rosenberg was robbed at gunpoint right after a shoot—this stuff happens.
After his filmmaking quest of seven years, Lucero is finally able to relax and enjoy the results. photo: D. Blair
A lot of Oakland people don't want Oakland to look bad. The big problem of art is whether it descriptive or proscriptive. You also had a lot of Oakland 'sounds' in the background. Did you put them in?
The BART sounds, the loud car radio, we put that in. It's just urban life, that is what you hear. A lot of the sound design was put in: some dragging muffler sounds.
How was it directing Spanish and Japanese?
It's not easy but once it is translated, I would follow in English. It wasn't too bad. After they have repeated it like ten times, they gang together, you memorize what they are saying.
Rodrigo would go off script sometimes and I would have to go back and ask him. 'Rodrigo you said a word in there, 'chamaca,' what does that mean?' He's like 'Oh, that 's how I call my daughters, 'Hey Chamaca.''
I noticed one time he says 'hombre' but the word 'man' is not in the subtitle.
It is not all translated. One time she says 'shit' but I put in 'stuff.'
Where did you find the little girl?
She is from San Jose and came on a casting call. The pool of little girl actresses is pretty good. Of the girls that came, there were five that were pretty good. It came down to who matches the mother.
Kaya Jade Aguirre [who played Lydia] was one of the most professional people on the set, she was ten at the time, but she looked eight. She was very professional; she worked for eight hours; she didn't complain; she hit her mark.
I saw her last night at the Cinequest film festival opener; she is a doll; she is so sweet; Kaya is just a dream to deal with.
So you were paying scale?
Part of the actors that were SAG, yes. Sag Indie, $150 a day plus taxes and fees to totaling about $220. The other actors worked for free. With in-kind and all the extra work, it's a million dollar film.
Which scenes did you shoot first?
The bedroom scenes of the mother and Kaya. Her at the cart at Fruitvale was the last shot.
One bedroom scene with the kid was very good: dark and evocative.
Juana dreams of greatness in Oakland's emerging Foodie Mecca—paralleling Anthony Lucero and his over-achieving film. photo: courtesy A. Lucero
That was day one. It's funny, [Juana] was a little heavier in that scene. I wanted her to gain weight so she gained about 13 pounds when she showed up on set—she had a nice plumpness to her.
The bedroom scene is when she is the heaviest and the cart scene she is the thinnest. About halfway in I told her she was loosing weight. I could see it in the monitors. She must have power ate.
I wanted someone heavier in the role. You look at the fruit vendors; they are big-boned; they are pushing carts, doing heavy labor.
It's taken you three or four years?
We started production end of 2012. Preproduction seven months before that and the writing process a few years—so yeah a good seven years from 2007 when I got the initial idea.
You have to be into the themes to be so dedicated?
Yeah, I love sushi and I grew up in the Fruitvale. I went to school at St. Elizabeth in the Fruitvale through high school [in the Catholic compound right off Fruitvale and 16the Street]. St. Elizabeth does a little cameo in the beginning, when Juana drops off Lydia, the little girl.
You obviously got a lot of participation from Oakland stores.
Yeah, Coach Sushi was amazing. I don't know how these doors opened for me. I went in there at 9:30 at night, as they were closing, I was so desperate. Perhaps he sensed the desperation.
I said, 'Hey I am doing a film and I wonder if I could shoot here on the day you are closed.' I showed him a little 4x6" card with some of what the film is about.
He said, 'OK, that is fine.' I said, 'What do you mean it's fine." He said, 'Yeah, go ahead.'
I was, like, 'Wait you don't even know me!' I didn't want to tell him how many people were going to be trampling through but I said, 'We are going to have a big crew, lights.'
He said, 'Yeah, that is fine. I will give you the keys to the restaurant.' What?!? He didn't know me from Jack. But he gave me the keys and the security code.
Then we went to B Dama on Piedmont and I said the same thing, 'We are shooting a film at Coach Sushi on their days off—Sunday and Monday—do you think I could film in your kitchen on your day off, Tuesday?'
He said, 'Sure, I know Coach. Yeah, that is fine. I will give you keys.'
Amazing generosity from those two guys. So the back of the restaurant is B Dama and the front is Coach Sushi.
I needed at least three days shooting and, between those two restaurants, we did it. The film was 23 days shooting, 6 days a week, close to a month. Fast and furious.
Julie Rubio put most of the crew together. I know Marty [Rosenberg, the DP], we go way back: ILM days.
And Justin Chin. Me and Justin would go out on day six and just shoot on our own. Justin is awesome. Between Marty and Justin, it was a real powerhouse of DPs. Crew was all local, friends and colleagues.
No one wants to work for free, even if they are friends, so I had to pay for all the crew but not much. It is like just a fraction of what Marty makes and he treats my film just as professional as if he is getting tons more. Did a great job, Master of Light: Marty Rosenberg.
Any permits from city of Oakland?
The time we shot in Fruitvale and when we shot the robbery with the gun on the street—that was a permit day as well. Everything else was no permit.
You found Oakland pretty cine-sympatico?
Oakland yes, even though there is no film office any more. Oakland was awesome to shoot in. I know the city, where to film and where to avoid.
Did you get any bad vibes?
No, but again I kind of know when to get in and out—when the sun goes down.
You ever have a feeling of ground swell of certain spirit of film in Oakland?
There was 'Fruitvale Station but that wasn't really an Oakland film [because most of the talent and crew were from LA]. That was just an incident in Oakland that they capitalized on, although the director [Ryan Coogler] is from Oakland.
There is the DSLR movement [shooting HD video with still-cameras] of course but that is not specific to Oakland. The reason why sushi works well in Oakland. is that Oakland is a food Mecca—there is such great food.
When I see a certain movement in Oakland, I will let you know. I don't want to make Oakland look bad, I hope the movement is to make Oakland look good.
I don't think it's about good or bad but: Can we dig into what we have—the complexities, the relationships—and come up with something fresh?
Right, I agree.
Which is why 'East Side Sushi' is a great film: It explores those complexities. But doesn't come on too heavy .
I didn't want to stand on a soapbox, 'This is sexist, this is racist!' It's all there in the film. It's apparent, I don't need to say it, until she blows up at the very end, that is the only time she really says anything. Aside from that, I didn't need her to be that.
It is not a film that is trying to change to the culture of sushi or anything like that. But I wanted people to look at it and say 'Yeah, that's interesting.'
You were able to find the dramatic themes there. Did that come to you in the course of your research? Like the uptight older sushi restaurant owner?
They are all based on real people from real restaurants. Mr. and Mrs. Yoshida, they are kind of the real people that I saw.
You have the annoying neighbor—.
He was supposed to be this comical character. He had another scene but we had to hack it.
You get two weeks into film and you go, 'Oh, my god, we are behind!' So you go through the script and you go, 'Ok let's loose that and that and that.'
Yeah, I did a pre-edit. I went through it: combined characters, combined scenes, threw out stuff.
It was 116 pages and I edited it to 104 pages before I shot because I knew we just can't shoot all of this on this budget.
In production, we were behind as well and there were some significant scenes I had to drop. One took place on a bus; we couldn't get the rights to shoot on a bus.
It sucks. You are in the middle of production, you are so stressed and you have to hack away at your script after shooting all day and you are exhausted.
It is horrible.
Yeah. It does hurt when you have spent years crafting this screenplay and you are in the middle of production and you say, 'I have to hack stuff. Let's get rid of it.'
Once you are in, you have a better feeling for it?
Kind of. You still feel like everything in the script, every word, is needed, 'This is what I wrote!'
It is kind of hard when you are in that bubble of production to know what is not needed. It is all so important. So yeah, you really have to be smart about it.
Plus, I am an editor, too. I would kind of start thinking about it ahead of time, 'If we cut that [other] scene, will it bridge with the other scene?'
Did you have a continuity person?
Vicki Wong, script supervisor and continuity, but it was hard. She couldn't do it all the time. If I had a bigger budget, I would have a continuity person.
How did you come up with that little touch at the end with the chopsticks?
That's just from researching Japanese culture. I forget where that was from perhaps the sushi book by Maya Deitrich. She talks about how to place your chopsticks.
50% of people get that and 50% don't. I asked a bunch of people. Some American-born Asians have never heard of it. If they are not American born it is taboo. It was one of those things to show that there are so many layers to Japanese culture—she will never be a part of that culture. It's a subtle point.
I think it is a great Oakland film, and a great CineSource film, especially because it finishes so strongly. A lot of indie films have their best scenes in the beginning and then don't know where to go.
This film is a little slow in the beginning but you need that setup: how mundane her life is. Then it starts to pick up, like 35 40 minutes in, and I am OK with that.
It certainly does pick up. It does have drama at the end—but you twisted it a little, it so it avoids any cliche.
The general public hasn't seen it —you are one of the first outsiders to see it, so thank you.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker, and can be reached
Posted on Mar 16, 2014 - 11:49 AM