The film noir trope of the alluring femme fatale existed before and endures since Lana Turner’s white, white turban and matching short shorts seduced John Garfield to murder in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). What distinguishes the now-familiar story of a woman leading a man into temptation is the quality of each particular actress inhabiting the role. Barbara Stanwyck and her application of lipstick (Double Indemnity); the baleful nature of Gene Tierney's caprices (Leave Her to Heaven); Anjelica Huston's noir-est mother love (The Grifters). The list goes on. Unfortunately, updates rarely add something fresh or vital to the genre.
Man from Reno, directed by indie filmmaker Dave Boyle and shot in and around a fogged-in San Francisco, switches up the genre in this new melancholic thriller. To explain away the particulars would spoil the plot and pleasure of watching each character come in and out of their own psychological fog. In this noir, the landmarks may be familiar, but the femme fatale is not. Boyle sat down with me to discuss the arc of his career and the creative evolution that inspired this film.
Are you based in the Bay Area?
Dave Boyle: For a long time, I was not really based anywhere... Wherever I had work I would go. I ended up in the Bay Area quite often during a five to six year period, from 2007 until 2012, on and off for a long time. I like shooting up here and a lot of the people I collaborate with – the musician Goh Nakamura, the cinematographer Richard Wong – are San Francisco locals. I found myself drawn back here even though I never officially lived here. San Francisco, especially for Man from Reno, was the perfect backdrop to the story. I have a hard time saying no to shooting here.
The film is in Japanese and English. How did you learn Japanese?
I learned Japanese the same way everybody does. I was sent to Australia on a Mormon mission for two years (laughs)... I [went] with the specific goal of learning to speak Japanese and working in a Japanese Mormon congregation down there. A lot of what I did was volunteer work, translating for Japanese people who were in trouble with the police, or teaching free English classes... It was a huge eye-opening experience just in terms of how diverse the world is.
I am a very liberal Mormon, and it's still a part of my life. But I don't see it as mutually exclusive from being a filmmaker... For me, being a Mormon missionary in Australia prepared me for being an independent filmmaker. Just the sheer amount of hard work for what sometimes feels like very little results was a great experience.
What was the first movie you saw that made you want to become a director?
From the moment I first started to see non-kids stuff, I can remember thinking "I could do this." It's a little bit of a weird example, but my parents let me rent that Woody Allen movie Manhattan Murder Mystery from 1993 ... I saw it and I was used to seeing the Hollywood blockbusters, the Disney animated movies, so seeing something that was more modest in scale, it was all shot with a hand held camera in this couple's apartment, it expanded my mind of what was possible in terms of storytelling.
From one film to the next, how have you evolved as a director?
I'll be totally honest: directing is a job. You have to learn how to do it. There's a reason that [for] so many of the great masters, like Kurosawa and Hitchcock, you look at their filmography and there's twenty films before the first one that you've ever even heard of.
After four movies of somewhat modest ambition, I was ready to tackle something out of one of my favorite genres, that earlier in my career I would have been afraid to screw up. I embarked on making a mystery.
How do you balance the tension between controlling and setting up a scene and then making that scene live?
On my first movie, I felt like I was flying blind to a certain extent. But then once it lives on the page... I like to see what the actor’s natural instinct is. Oftentimes they'll see something in the text that you didn't necessarily think of and that might actually be better than what you planned, and then I like to adjust from there.
As a general rule, wherever you end up watching the rehearsal from, just naturally where you're observing, that's where the camera should go... I feel like directing is a process of gratefully accepting or rejecting suggestions or ideas. Creating an environment where people are able to do their best work, but also where it’s focused on a very specific vision. There has to be pre-planning. You have to know what every scene is about.
In the case of a mystery: the audience needs to retain the information of a scene in order for them to keep with the plot. That essentially determines every choice you make – from the size of the lens to the camera placement, to the direction of the actors.
Why did you want to make a film from the point of view of someone in mourning?
I love a movie where there's a rich subtext... We talked a lot about having Aki (Ayako Fujitani) and her new lover Akira (Kazuki Kitamura) as two sides of the same coin. There are parallels to their characters that will hopefully become apparent to viewers by the end of the movie. She's a very strong woman, but she is, as you say, a woman in mourning, for reasons we'll figure out as we go along. We wanted the tropes of the mystery genre to aid us in this higher artistic goal of having a character study of this woman.
The way the film is shot often feels like a tug of war between day and night.
As a child I loved the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. One of the things we wanted was for this to feel like a somewhat innocent mystery and continue further and further into darkness. And by the same token, the sheriff (Pepe Serna), when the film opens, he's lost in the fog. Which is something we deliberately did in as surreal a way as we could. Then in the end he's lost in fog again out on the docks.
I read that Patricia Highsmith is one of your favorite writers. What are your favorite film adaptations of her novels?
I think Hitchcock's Strangers on a Train is my favorite. I like The Talented Mr. Ripley. I remember seeing it as a teenager and it had a huge emotional impact on me, especially having read the book, which is a much more chilly, distant affair. The interpretation that they brought to it, which isn't probably what Highsmith would have envisioned, was very cinematic, a great and valid interpretation of the source material.
What do you learn about amorality by reading the Ripley novels and creating a character like Akira?
With Ripley, I learn about a mode of behavior... I think that in the particular case of Akira, the idea that he is able to get away with it because a lot of the people that he's victimizing are so marginalized by society, which is a subtext I wanted to lay on with a real, real light brush.
Akira is a shape shifter. You want to see more of him by the end of the film.
We puzzled on how to put that ability across. In the end I decided to have him suggest it: to have him play the role pretty straight instead of having him do any disguises. And you may get your wish. He and I would love to work together again.
There's a reason it's called Man from Reno, instead of Aki or Sheriff del Moral. It’s a non-traditional origin story. At the end, we're just unwrapping it... You need an actor with sufficient psychic weight that while they're off screen you still feel their presence. I feel that he was the only person who could have pulled it off.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited and condensed.