Set amidst the vibrant cityscape of Japan, ‘Dreams on Fire’ tells the story of Yume (Bambi Naka), a young girl who moves to Tokyo in the hopes of becoming a professional dancer. Along the way, Yume meets many different people and discovers brand-new performance styles, all of which play a significant part in influencing her journey. As she navigates through the dual worlds of working as a hostess and training to be a professional dancer, Yume realizes she has a real chance to make her dreams come true. The film recently had its North American premiere at Fantasia Festival, and I had the opportunity to sit down for an interview with its writer and director, Philippe McKie.
Hayley Paskevich: I had the opportunity to watch Dreams on Fire, and it ended up being one of my favorites that I’ve watched so far in the festival. So I’m thrilled to have the chance to speak with you today.
Philippe McKie: Thank you so much, I’m so happy to hear that.
HP: You’re very welcome. So Dreams on Fire captured my attention in part because of its gorgeous visuals, which really make you feel transported into the world of the film. Did you have a favorite scene to bring to life?
PM: Now that I think of it, I definitely have one. So did you dig the nightmare sequence?
HP: Oh, yes, I do remember that.
PM: Yeah, some people [thought] that was weird and other people really dig it. I find there are two sides. [Laughs] That scene was a lot of fun to shoot, because you have basically three artists coming together. You’ve got Bambi. You’ve got her grandfather played by legendary theatre actor Akaji Maro, who performs in the style called butoh. It’s full body paint that they wear, [and] it’s a really unique form of theater. You also have this rope art in that scene, which was made by a very famous Japanese bondage rope artist, Hajime Kinoko. So just being able to work with those three artists that I really admire and creating that very surreal nightmare sequence is definitely a scene that I loved shooting. In the final product, every time I see it, it’s always shocking in the best of ways. It even scares me even though I’m the one that made it. [Laughs]
HP: I understand that you’re a Canadian filmmaker living in Japan. Can you talk about your experience of how you first discovered and fell in love with the Japanese dance scene?
PM: I was really into dance my whole life, especially as a teenager. I was performing as a dancer a lot, as a breakdancer and in tango. And at that time, I [was] very happy to be from Montreal. I think one of the great aspects of Montreal is that there’s so much art. There’s always a lot of shows and festivals going on. The first time I was truly exposed to Japanese dance was at a show in Montreal called Dancing in Japan, which I went to when I was a high school student. One of my dance partners was like, “I know you love Japan, Phil, let’s go see this dance show.” And basically, that very first scene with the women dressed in red is the same choreography by the same dance company that I saw in Montreal fifteen years ago.
HP: Oh, no way. That is super cool.
PM: It changed my life when I saw it as a teenager. So fifteen years later, I sought out that dance company. I went to the leader of the group, and I told her I wanted to start the film with her choreography and wanted her to play the mother in the film. So Yume’s mother is played by the director of that dance group.
HP: I was curious how you ended up casting Bambi Naka as the film’s star. What is it about her as an artist that made you feel she would be the right fit to portray Yume?
PM: I’ve been a fan of Bambi for many years, so working with her in any way is a dream come true. I would even go so far as say that she’s a muse for me. So when I learned that she was coming onboard, I knew that she would crush it in terms of the dance performances. She’s got a very unique style to herself, which I wanted to bring into the film. But it’s her first time as a lead in a film and that was like a gamble, you know? But in the end, she blew us away. From the very first day of shooting, everyone on set was just like, “Wow, she is crushing it.” I actually rewrote a lot of the film to match her vibe. Because when you’re writing a film, it’s not always certain that you’ll be able to get the cast that you want. So when I wrote the character, my dream was that it would be portrayed by Bambi but I didn’t know if that would be possible. Once I learned that she could join, I was like, “Hell yeah, this is perfect. I can’t imagine anyone better.”
HP: Because the film features a variety of different music genres and dance styles, from hip-hop to metal music, is there a particular artistic/musical style you enjoyed incorporating into the film the most?
PM: I’d say there are two. The first that’s more known is drum and bass. There is a scene in the film where she does the live go-go dancer audition in the club; that style of music playing throughout that scene is called drum and bass. I was able to collaborate with two of the biggest labels of that genre, Hospital Records and Shogun Audio, and with an artist in particular called S.P.Y, who is my number one favorite drum and bass artist. It’s one of my favorite electronic music genres; as a DJ in Tokyo, it was one of the main genres that I would play to audiences. And I’ve been waiting my whole life to hear drum and bass in a film. [Laughs] The other genre is more underground and is just starting to break out and become more known. It’s called wave. It’s a very underground style right now, and many of the top artists in that genre have made music that appears in the film. If I would say to check out just one source, check out vibe.digital. That’s a wave music label that we were able to work with, and many of the artists on that label made music in the film.
HP: It sounds like it’s a combination of working with artists you’ve really admired as well as introducing these more underground sounds to audiences.
PM: Whether they’re super famous or they’re underground artists that are just starting to break out, I am a fan of them all.
HP: So it really was like a big passion project, getting to combine all of these together.
PM: Like a dream come true on so many levels, and being able to shine a spotlight on all these artists that I really, really admire.
HP: That’s super fitting, because the film itself is about dreams. Because performance is a major part of the film, as Yume is seen observing and entering various competitions throughout, which of the dance sequences were the most technically challenging to shoot?
PM: I’m definitely going to go with her final solo. I wanted to shoot the entire solo, which I think is really rare [to] see in a film a start-to-finish full solo. And it’s a really hard piece for Bambi to dance, you know? By the end when she’s sweating and on the ground panting, that’s real. She put everything into it. I was the camera operator, so I was dancing onstage with her; it’s like fifty pounds of gear that I’m moving around with her, capturing her performance. I knew we were only going to be able to do it a couple times, and I knew that it was a climactic scene. So on many levels, [it] was very, very intense to shoot.
HP: That definitely sounds daunting. You could see the intensity in her performance there: It was so bold, and every move was very intentional and fierce. She was really giving it her all there, and that was fully conveyed.
PM: And props to Bambi because that’s also her choreography. I gave her full creative control over that choreography. I gave her a few tracks, and she was like, “This is the one.” Then I [said], “Okay, good choice. We’re gonna show up on that day of shooting, and you are gonna give us your Yume choreography.” And she did. [Laughs]
HP: And speaking of influences and inspirations, why did you choose the crow to be Yume’s inspiration for her onstage persona? What specific traits do you feel the two have in common?
PM: That’s a funky story in the sense that the name of Crow is something I came up with in early stages of writing the story. In an early version of the story, it was not going to be one girl’s journey—it was going to be two. One girl coming to the city, meeting another girl, becoming almost like sisters, and then together pursuing this dream. But then as the film progressed and Bambi came aboard, I’m like, “It’s gonna be just Bambi, it’s gonna be Yume’s journey.” That name of the girl that got absorbed was Crow. When that was in the script, Bambi [was] like, “I freaking love crows. I wish I had a crow as a pet.” [Laughs] That’s one of the things that I rewrote, how Bambi meets the crow because [she] totally has these crow vibes—just all black, sleek, raven hair. So once I knew that she was onboard and she was gonna be Yume, it’s things like that that I was able to write to really [make] this is her story.
HP: And even though it was Yume’s solo journey, something I noticed and really liked was how she always had support from the women around her as she faced various challenges in different environments—Sakura at the hostess club, and even in the dance studio, there were always other young women who had her back. Why was having this constant of female friendships such an important thing for you to depict?
PM: I think the most important thing for me, and a very important theme in the film, is that we aren’t alone when we’re going toward our dreams. There are those people that are alongside us who have their own dreams, all these friendships that we make along the way and that support that we get. So certain lines in the film are basically me telling the people that I’m working with. For example, the sound designer and all the sound mix of the entire film is one person. He’s one of my best friends, Rémy Sealey, and he has been the sound designer of all my films since film school, and even before that.
HP: That’s like a lifelong career partnership.
PM: Yeah, exactly. So many times he volunteered to work, and always going above and beyond. We have this camaraderie when we work together, and [he’s] that person I’ve been working with for years and years. Then people like Bambi [and] everyone that came onboard were doing it out of the purest intentions and wanting to make something special that we’re proud of. I am so thankful for every single one of them. And so in the film, that’s a theme—being thankful for those people that are beside us on our journey. And we are beside them on their journeys, too.
HP: It’s this mutual gratitude and admiration and support that carries through.
PM: Yep. After the screening at Fantasia, it was the first time I saw the film with a real audience. That was mind-blowing: For the first time, I got to hear comments from audience members. So far, a lot of the things that I was hearing about the film are people that were writing reviews after seeing the film at a festival. On Letterboxd, the release that we had in Japan, people posting on Twitter—things like that. But hearing it from another person, face-to-face, is a different experience. One comment that really blew me away was this musician that had come to the screening: “In all these dance movies that we see—and a lot of American films—it’s almost like they are competing with others and they want to destroy them. It’s like, ‘I gotta fight. I gotta beat the opponent.’ But in Dreams on Fire, she’s not really fighting anyone. All these other dancers are like her.”
HP: There’s a real feeling of community as opposed to a rivalry. Even when you do have groups that are stricter about who they let in as members, it’s not “Oh, we don’t like you”[but] just “You need to work harder, you need to be more professional.” Everyone is wanting to elevate one another.
PM: Exactly. Even in the first battle sequence, she gets beaten [and] gets kicked out of the first round? What does she do about it? Are you going to give up, are you gonna keep going? And she chooses to go and take lessons from the girl that beat her. So that’s definitely something important for me, and I think that’s true to life. I don’t see other people as rivals; I know that we’re all on our own journeys.
PM: That’s a really great answer. I read that Dreams on Fire was the first ever film to be shot inside Black Rose, the famous S&M bar. What was it about this specific location that you felt would lend itself well from a cinematic perspective?
PM: Let’s just say that I’m almost like a regular; it’s a place that I’ve gone many times. And all those girls that you see in that scene, except for Yume? All of them are actual people that work there. Tarantino had actually gone there during the shooting of Kill Bill, and he said that he wanted to shoot there. They told him no, and I think that’s representative of a certain aspect of Japanese culture where it’s not about the fame. It’s like, “Does this person understand the spirit of my place?” The reason [the owner of Black Rose] let me shoot there is he believed that I will stay true to the spirit of Black Rose. I’ll give you an example: When I was choosing the music for the choreo, they made it very clear, “It has to be rock. Black Rose is rock.” And I’m like, “Understood.” [Laughs] Black Rose is a really special place and very representative of Tokyo in the sense that it’s niche and hardcore. But that’s such a Tokyo thing. Another thing that I really wanted to show about this true spirit of Black Rose is that they have this motto there, which is that “Women are queens, and men are dogs.” [Laughs] So when you go there, if any dude is acting inappropriate in any way, they’re straight up gonna put them in the cage, you know? I feel like it’s a nice counterbalance to her early experiences in the film.
HP: What was the research process like for the film? Was there anything you found surprising while learning about what it takes to become a professional dancer or successful hostess, because those are the two career paths that we see Yume navigate through?
PM: In terms of the hustle to be a dancer, I didn’t want it to be a film only for people that are dreaming to be dancers. I wanted anyone who has a dream, or is a hustler, to relate to the film.
PM: To have that kind of universality to it.
PM: Exactly. Her tale is definitely a mirror to a lot of my own experiences as a filmmaker. So when Yume is hustling, that’s very much me telling my honest story. As for being a hostess, though? [Laughs] That required some research.
HP: You didn’t have experience? [Laughs]
PM: The interesting thing is all of my experiences regarding the world of hostesses are not through being a customer but through being friends with girls that have been in that line of work, and learning all about that world and that craft through the people that are working in that environment. For example, when [Sakura’s] teaching Yume the sa-shi-su-se-so trick, that’s real hostess-like tricks. You’re not gonna learn that as a customer; you’re only gonna learn that from talking to someone that is in it. So most of my research of the hostess world was done in that way.
HP: That’s really awesome, the fact that you were able to actually talk to some girls who have had experience in that line of work and pick up on things that you could incorporate into the film.
PM: From day one of living in Tokyo, I have sought to meet people that are living on the fringes, or just interesting people in general; I just love to talk to people and meet people. And I’m really into subcultures and the underground, right? I have so many good friends that have worked as hostesses that were like, “I’m a hostess, I’m proud of it, and I want to be the best.”
HP: I thought it was really cool that you did have the women helping each other in these environments to become more empowered. Even when the man running the establishment was very strict, all the girls were still helping each other out and wanting to make sure that they were taken care of.
PM: There’s definitely a couple of girls that don’t give a shit about Yume. But as long as there’s one good person, sometimes it’s all you need—one ally.
HP: Right now, the theme of the month over at Flip Screen is hope, and Yume is a character who very much personifies that. What do you ultimately hope the audience is able to take away from watching her journey?
PM: So an expression that I heard recently from someone who had watched the film is that they said Yume is encountering these challenges and is failing forward. I think that’s a really beautiful way to put it. I definitely think that if you have a dream and you’re working toward something, it’s probably going to be a bumpy road, right? So embrace it. Embrace the pain if you can when it happens. If you’re going toward the top of the mountain, it’s very easy to look up and be like, “Oh my God, I still have that much further to go.” But don’t forget to look back at the journey you’ve done so far and where you are now. Past you is probably proud of where you are now in some way, so be conscious of that. I think everyone’s journey is different. My motto for a while has been “Plan, attack, learn, repeat.” Set a goal, plan something to try [and] reach it, attack, and then learn from the results. It might not be what you expected, [but] then the next time around, you will be sharper and better than the last attempt, which hopefully will get you closer to what you want to do.
HP: Thank you for taking the time to chat with me about the film, Philippe. And I wish you the best of luck with Dreams on Fire.
PM: Thank you so much.