Stephen Kijak is an American filmmaker who created the cult classic Cinemania (2002), which dealt with the lives of cinephiles in New York; after that, his docu-making took on a decidedly musical trajectory. He worked with none other than David Bowie to create Scott Walker – 30 Century Man (2006), then followed it up with The Rolling Stones in Stones in Exile (2010), Jaco Pastorius’ story in Jaco (2015) and Backstreet Boys: Show ‘Em What You’re Made Of (2015). This versatile music-docu’ palette was added yet another legendary name in 2016: We Are X, with the story of the X Japan and their leader, Yoshiki, which premieres tonight in London.
Stephen Kijak kindly took the time to answer a few of our questions.
You have previously created highly acclaimed documentaries that all seem to be about people who are highly driven by passion and emotion – what is the thing that first captures your attention when you consider a new project?
Compelling characters with stories to tell. Fabulous hair also helps.
Having studied under Ray Carney, how do you feel that influenced you and your approach to filmmaking and the film industry?
Well, he introduced me to the films of John Cassavetes, and this was before they were widely available on DVD. He had 16mm prints! Those films changed everything for me. It was a unique film language, shocking, strange and emotional, most of them built around these extreme performances of his wife, the legendary Genna Rowlands. Truly one of the all time greatest living actresses. Those films – from the shapes of their narratives to the originality of their performances to the very way they were made – defined independence in a way that doesn’t quite exist today.
You have mostly done documentaries, but you have directed a feature film before; do you prefer the documentary format or would you consider directing a feature again?
I’m actually about to shoot a narrative feature, but I think of all of the films as cinema. I approach each project with the aim of telling the story cinematically and finding the correct visual language with which to do it. After six docs in a row however, I am looking forward to exploring something with a predetermined beginning-middle-end.
Scott Walker, The Stones, Backstreet Boys, and now X Japan – you have jumped music genres a lot with your documentary subjects; what kind of music is closest to your own heart?
Don’t forget Jaco Pastorius! My producer and I did most of that film, another eclectic choice, a real under-appreciated musical genius. As for my favorite music, I will admit that I’m a child of the New Wave. My narrative film is based around the music of The Smiths. Of the documentaries I’ve done, Scott Walker was really my obsession. One of my favorite bands of all time is the Cocteau Twins. I could listen to them every day.
When making documentaries, do you prefer the objective approach or do you like to operate on a more personal level?
It really depends on the subject and the story. But in a way, every approach is personal. Or I try to find the way to make it personal. Otherwise, it’s hard to connect to the material.
You have previously stated that you didn’t know of X Japan before you considered them as the subject of your documentary – how did you come across their story, and why did you consider them as your subject in the first place?
My producer asked me if I would be interested in taking it on. Yoshiki’s team contacted him. He’s a great producer. I’d consider any subject he brought to me. It just so happened that this subject had an unbelievable arc, all the raw materials were there to make great drama.
Given the cultural significance of X Japan, did you feel any sort of pressure while working on this story?
You always feel pressure from somewhere. But it had to work as a FILM, the pressure is usually self-imposed, to push the film as hard as you can until you feel that it’s right. It’s a gut instinct. It’s about feel and tone. It has to be right and you know it when it happens. You have to capture the correct feel, the intangible vibe, and have it land. Until you have that in your grasp, you’re under pressure.
Tell us more about your creative process – how did it apply to making We Are X in particular?
Every film is like making a mix-tape. I made a lot of them in the 80’s. It’s a lost art. The selection of songs, the arrangement, wrapping it up in some homemade artwork. The films are like big mix tapes – I’m trying to give you something that will make you fall in love with some new music while taking you on an unexpected journey.
Did you have a different approach to the story in mind before you met with Yoshiki and his band in person? How did your perception of X Japan change while making the documentary?
Since I didn’t know them, my perception was forged more than changed. It was more of an unfolding.
What part of their story did you feel was the most important to tell, was there a part you wanted to stand out the most?
Well, obviously, Yoshiki is our main character, our guide through this world, so every element to some degree needed to be filtered through his perception to make narrative sense. But no specific part of the X Japan story was given more importance. What was important was the theme of death and rebirth that repeats in many patterns not just in the band but throughout the fan-base, in how they interact with the band’s history and how the music transmits its saving grace.
The intro of the documentary pulls you straight into the world of X – part of it is Yoshiki’s own magnetic pull, and the other is really clever editing. Where did the idea for such intro come from?
It quite literally came to me in a dream. I woke up with the whole thing sort of swirling in my head – the idea of colliding Yoshiki’s almost hypnotic inner-dialogue with a visual explosion (cut against “Jade”) that was an expression of their motto: Psychedelic Violence Crime of Visual Shock.
You have documented some truly amazing stories – how do you feel they have influenced your own?
They have certainly expanded my record collection! These stories are all, in some way, inspiring – I strive to have the films rise to the level of that inspiration.
Can you tell us something more about your future projects?
Yes – I am starting a documentary film about legendary Southern Rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd as well as a narrative feature, as I mentioned, that’s very much inspired by The Smiths.
Written and interviewed by Sanja Struna
Sundance Film Festival 2016 photo © Chris Pizello/ Invision/AP
Photo of Yoshiki & Kijak © Courtesy of the photographer
Featured photo © UK Film Council US Post Oscars Brunch (courtesy of the photographer)