Let’s Talk To Stephen Kijak, Director Of The New Rock Doc WE ARE X

The director of WE ARE X talks about working with one of the world's biggest bands.

By now, I'm sure you've already read my interview with X Japan's Yoshiki. Now it's time to speak with Stephen Kijak, the film's director and something of an expert as it pertains to rock documentaries: this dude was commissioned by the Rolling Stones to direct Stones In Exile, worked with David Bowie on Scott Walker - 30th Century Man, and directed the cult hit Cinemania back in 2002. 

The guy's got chops, in other words, and I was curious to hear what he had to say (at the end of a very long day's worth of interviews) about working with one of the biggest bands in the world. Here's how that went.

BMD: How many of these (interviews) have you done today?

Stephen Kijak: I've lost count! They're nonstop. 

I mean, I'm just breaking the ice here. But does it drive you crazy? I think I'd go nuts.

Eh, not really. People come at it from different angles, with different perspectives. And I kind of try and make it fun for myself. I have to try and remember, have I said the same stupid thing like a hundred times already? There's many ways to come at an interpretation of a film. So I try and mix it up.

I just came from interviewing Yoshiki. That dude's pretty cool.

Great, isn't he?

Y'know, I didn't know what to expect. I think when you've achieved that level of fame and celebrity, odds are good that you're going to be warped by it. 

Oh, yeah.

But I was really impressed how down to earth and chill that guy was.

Exactly. I mean, in some respects he's a god walking the earth, right? But he carries it in such a humble and sweet way--

Gentle, is the word I'd use.

Very gentle. I think he just saves all the rage for the stage, y'know? And I mean, my god. That dude is metal as fuck, as they say. He burns it down every night.

When did you first become aware of the band?

About a week before we started making the movie.

Haha, really?

Yeah. My producer just phoned me up out of the blue. He'd just got off a crazy call with a Japanese rock star who wanted to make a film. This is John Battsek, of Searching For Sugar Man fame and a few others. We were looking for something new to partner on. And he got this call and was like, "Music? Better call Kijak." And yeah, didn't take much to get me into it. I always say it's like strip-mining. You first see the visual aspect - it's like KISS, it's like Bowie, it's punk, it's glam, it's drag, it's all these crazy fucked-up thing mashed together. Then there's the music, which, honestly, at first I kind of recoiled from. Like, ack, crazy Japanese speed metal? Not really my thing. But the more you listen to it and the more you research it, you realize: this is a classic composer making speed metal, but also, this is also a guy who made a classical album with George Martin. What is going on here? This is fascinating. I mean, you've met him.

Yeah.

And he's just sweet and thoughtful and smart and gentle--

Magnetic.

Yeah, magnetic. There's just an aura there. And then we discovered that the first album we both bought was KISS' "Love Gun", and I thought, OK, here's a little common ground. Somewhere we can start as people. And then, at the base of it, it's just a really emotional story. It's tragic, y'know? Too crazy to be true. To me, this is like my rock opera. It's just a box of jewels for a filmmaker.

Speaking of which, Yoshiki mentioned you were shocked by the amount of footage you guys had to work with on this movie.

It was amazing. Sony, in Japan, had a ton of stuff from the early days. (Yoshiki) has a ton of footage. It's a very well-documented band. I was shocked by it. The archive for band was huge, I'd never seen anything like it. The Stones are really well-organized and own a lot of their own materials, but this was on another level. It wasn't just concerts and documentaries, but boxes and boxes of tapes of, like, people just following Yoshiki around. Going to his car. Sitting in dress rehearsals. Just all the ephemera of a rock star's life that, in some cases, was just epically boring. But then every once in a while you'd come across a tape and be like, "Fucking hell, he's naked on a beach being directed by David Lynch!" 

I did a double-take when Lynch popped up in the movie.

Yeah! But then it's also a lot of banality. It's footage of him just napping all day.

How many hours worth of footage do you think you looked at?

Can't even put a number on it. Couldn't even estimate. I mean, I love archive. I love these kinds of projects. I'll end up doing a lot of it myself. I mean, sometimes I'll have assistants mine for something specific, but there comes a point where I just wanna see the shit myself, so I'll just grab boxes of Beta tapes and just zip through hours and hours and hours ... sometimes the stuff was very well-labeled, sometimes not. The Lynch thing was a complete surprise (ed. note: see the Lynch-directed video for "Longing" above), just sitting in a box of unmarked tapes.

Of all things.

Haha, right? Oh, and if I can just geek out for a minute - and other documentarians will love this - their last concert, "Last Live", there's a DVD. And it was edited in the late 90s or whatever. It's super chopped-up, super crummy. You can't work with that. But guess what? They had something like 35 cameras shooting that show, and they had all the masters. So I could go back in there and be like, "Find me the close-ups of Hide or Yoshiki" and really recreate the drama of that show. It was amazing. Truly incredible. I kind of went down a wacky rabbit hole.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about the band or Yoshiki thing while you were filming?

That question always stumps me. Hm.

Let me rephrase: in learning about the band, there must have come a point where you were thrown a curveball.

Well, the history's written. The story is already out there, so--

But you only became aware of the band a week before filming, so you couldn't have been that familiar.

Well, suicide and death and the brainwashing cult ... learning about the cult was really shocking. And to think that he went into all that and came out the other end, still rocking out, is pretty shocking. I think the most surprising thing was just how moved I was by the story of these guys' friendship. These guys met in kindergarten and survived all this stuff. That's amazing. And that we got that graveyard scene on-camera. I mean, it's super goth.

But super appropriate!

Super appropriate. 'Cause it's really meditative and, y'know, the film's kind of a little shrine to these people who have passed. But to see him and Toshi there at this kind of reckoning, that they're at the grave of yet another fallen friend, was really moving to me. I got that tingle, like, this is really something special. It was extraordinary, and I think they were kind of having a revelation about it at the same time.

OK, final question: a lot of people are unfamiliar with this band. I was unfamiliar with this band, until the movie came along. For people like that, who don't know anything about X Japan, what is your pitch to them? What do they need to know about this movie?

Psychedelic violence crimes of documentary shock. That's what you're in for. That's the slogan of the band, it's the slogan of this movie. I also gotta say, I wasn't a fan, but I've had this experience that's kind of changed my life. Meeting Yoshiki, getting to know him. It's a dramatic story about one guy's salvation through music. It's a triumphant story, really. It rocks really hard, but it's gonna move you. If you're interested at all in a creative life ... I mean, it's hard to boil it down and it sounds kind of cheesy, but it's an incredible story and he's an amazing character. It's less about getting to know a new band than it is about getting to know an artist. I mean, we've lost Prince, we've lost Bowie. What a horrible year. But here's one of the greats who's still walking the earth, still doing battle for us on behalf of art. He's a magnificent creature and I think people should get to know him.

Wow. You really stuck the landing on that one.

Haha, thanks.

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