Will (Winston Duke) and Kyo (Benedict Wong) spend their days in a remote outpost watching the live Point of View (POV) on TV’s of people going about their lives, until one subject perishes, leaving a vacancy for a new life on earth. Soon, several candidates — unborn souls — including Emma (Zazie Beetz) and Kane (Bill Skarsgård) arrive at Will’s to undergo tests determining their fitness, facing oblivion when they are deemed unsuitable. But Will soon faces his own existential challenge in the form of free-spirited Emma, a candidate who is not like the others, forcing him to turn within and reckon with his own tumultuous past. Fueled by unexpected power, he discovers a bold new path forward in his own life. Making his feature-film debut after a series of highly acclaimed and award-winning short films and music videos, Japanese Brazilian director Edson Oda delivers a heartfelt and meditative vision of human souls in limbo, aching to be born against unimaginable odds, yet hindered by forces beyond their will…
We recently chatted with director Edson Oda about his incredible feature directorial debut Nine Days starring Winston Duke, Zazie Beetz, Benedict Wong, Tony Hale, Bill Skarsgård, David Rysdahl and Arianna Ortiz. The film had its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 where it won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. It is now available on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital, and you can find our review of the Blu-Ray disc here.
In the following interview, Oda discusses the experience of having a film play at Sundance, the unique qualities that Winston Duke brought to the lead role, the emotional journey of having the film finally being released into the world and much more.
GVN: I had the distinct pleasure of watching your movie way back in 2020 at Sundance Film Festival. All year in 2020 I proclaimed it to be my favorite movie of the year, and then it got delayed and it is still my favorite movie of this year. You have created a very beautiful movie. Going back to the Sundance screening, can you describe your experience there, especially since it is one of the few you have been able to attend in person with this movie?
Edson Oda: Yeah, it was amazing. Pretty much my whole life my dream was just making a movie and having it premiere at Sundance. It was as spiritual as the movie is. Having people watching it, not just screening the movie at Sundance but also the reactions we had. Just having people coming to me and saying how much the movie meant to them and some people saying “This movie changed my life or saved my life.” For them sharing some experience they went through or talking about trauma, talking about loss, talking about loneliness. For me, it meant the world because somehow I think when you make a movie you want to connect and give something and even get something from the audience. That’s exactly what I think happened at that film festival.
GVN: I know it has been a long journey from that festival to getting this film in theaters. In that time, the themes of social isolation that it deals with in part have grown in significance. Has the film taken on any new meaning for you during this time? Has it evolved with you at all?
EO: I think so. It’s interesting, I think I evolved with it sometimes. Having a deeper understanding of isolation and loneliness, you know? I went through my difficult times during the pandemic. Seeing my isolation, my loneliness. I think everyone was in their own isolation and loneliness – that lack of connection. There’s a scene in this movie – I’m not sure if people have watched it yet – but it’s kind of a reenactment of a day on the beach. I remember at the beginning of the pandemic that no one would go out for anything, and then it was like, oh okay, we can go outside. I went to the beach and I just felt the water on my feet and the wind, and I cried. I felt this is something we take for granted and when I was experiencing it at that time I just felt it was very valuable. I think those kinds of things you kind of rethink what you do and what you have been doing and hopefully when people watch it they will somehow take something from that.
GVN: I know a lot of audiences may look at this film and recognize a lot of actors known from bigger franchises. I know you are a person who is very deliberate about your casting, not just going for the biggest names. What in particular about these performers did you see in them that perhaps audiences are not aware of that side of them that they bring to this movie?
EO: Yeah, specifically with the character of Will, ever since I had the first conversation with Winston [Duke] – we talked for like four hours – it was interesting with Winston. For me it was very important that the character wouldn’t be judged by the actor, that the actor would have empathy for the character because the character is based on my uncle who took his own life. It’s about my uncle, but also about me, our connection and how we are different but in some sort of way the same. To me, it was essential to have someone who knew where that character was coming from. Winston has a huge heart and empathy. I could feel that he would respect that character and would not judge that character. It meant a lot. I think that Will at the end of the movie is someone, and the Will at the beginning of the movie is someone else. I wanted to cast someone who I could see as the Will at the end of the movie, Winston felt like the Will at the end of the movie. He was bigger and full of life, and my job as a director is to figure out how I can hide it and compress it until he explodes and becomes himself.
GVN: After finding the performers for these roles, did any of the characters change in any ways to fit who you cast?
EO: What I learned is that you cannot have an image or a very exact idea of who your character is going to be. It’s almost like a living being for the actors. They just start shaping the characters according to what they felt about them. I think as a director you just have to guide them to stay in that sandbox and not go to a place they shouldn’t go, but other than that it is more like they are creating the characters, and I am just guiding them. In some ways, they become very different from what I had in mind in the best way possible. They just add some stuff, some lines and ways of behavior. That was just amazing because there was a character that was on the page, but it wasn’t alive yet, so when they add their take and experience then the characters were like living beings.
GVN: In the movie, the character of Will has to choose which characters get to have the privilege of moving on to life, and through some of his own baggage he is guiding who he believes would be worthy of going to that next step. How does what Will feels exemplifies who could survive in this world line up with how you personally feel about it?
EO: My views on the world are not necessarily the same as Will’s. Sometimes when you look at the world, you feel frustrated in what we in society as human beings are pushing towards. Who are we following, who are the leaders? You feel frustrated, and I feel for Will he has been through a lot of bad times when he was alive, and he wants to make sure the person he chooses is strong – that they will survive. I think that the way he does that, he sees himself as a weak person who was unable to survive in this world. He wants to choose someone who does not look like him, who has traits that are the opposite of what he has as a human being. He thinks of himself as too sensitive or too weak or too caring. Not that he is choosing bad people, but he is just giving privilege to someone he knows is going to survive.
GVN: As one final overarching question, Hollywood has set up this system of wanting to position success as what kind of franchise they can give over to a director. Can you touch a bit on how you personally feel about juggling artistic integrity with ambition and where you want to see your career going moving forward?
EO: That’s a hard question. There are amazing blockbuster movies that changed my life. They are magical and they made me choose to be a filmmaker. It is hard to make this kind of separation. To say these movies are more artistic or another type is. I think there are good movies on both sides. I would be happy one day making bigger movies. I think no matter what I do, I want the same type of reaction I had with Nine Days. To have people watch it and have a deep connection with it. They come to me and talk about real things. I don’t know those people, but I feel that we are the same somehow. It’s crazy, but it is spiritual somehow. I feel whether it is bigger movies or smaller ones, that is kind of the feeling you want to have.
Nine Days is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital through Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
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Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.