Yasuaki Nakajima was walking down Chambers Street in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, when he saw the first plane hit the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Like the rest of America, he was shocked, but the event had a particular resonance for the young filmmaker, who was in the midst of making a film about a handful of survivors of World War III. In After the Apocalypse, a futuristic war has not only decimated society but also left its survivors without the ability to speak, due to poisonous gases. Nakajima, who wrote and directed the film, also stars as the nameless hero, who wanders the earth searching for the most basic needs: shelter, food, and companionship. On Sept. 11, Nakajima was suddenly convinced his story was coming to life. "I ran from Chambers Street to Soho, where I was doing an internship at a postproduction company to learn sound work to finish our film," he recalls. "I hid in the office of the postproduction company all day to avoid the gas. I was just like my character in my movie, hiding in the basement."
Nakajima eventually emerged from his office that day, and After the Apocalypse went on to play at several prestigious film festivals, including SXSW, the Los Angeles Film Festival, and the New Jersey International Film Festival, where it was co-winner of Best Film. Not bad for a 16mm black-and-white film with absolutely no dialogue that took the filmmaker five years to complete. Nakajima believes that it's the universal fears of disaster we all share that have drawn people to his film. "We always think, 'What are we going to do if we lose this modern society?'" he says.
The Japanese-born Nakajima was cleaning windows in high-rise office buildings in Tokyo in 1994 when he quit his job and decided to hitchhike through Australia for six months. "I spoke no English, I knew nobody, and I felt like a ghost in the desert—a person who just appeared out of nowhere with no past," he recalls. "But I realized that I needed to survive wherever I was. I needed to find food, a place to sleep, have sex, and make friends. I struggled because I couldn't speak the language, but I learned it is possible to connect with people in other ways—through their eyes and body language. That experience was my catalyst, and I always wanted to tell the experience with film."
While in Tokyo, Nakajima had previously shot a short Claymation film, Hand & Egg, on Super 8mm, but had never tackled a live-action feature before. Nakajima was deeply inspired by the work of John Cassavetes, and when he learned the director had begun as an actor, he decided to study drama. He also learned Cassavetes had been based in New York, so Nakajima began to make his way to the States. While awaiting a visa, he enrolled in the Lee Strasberg Acting Institute in London. After a year, he finally received an American visa and enrolled in the HB Studio in New York City. In his three years there, he took physical workshops with the theatrical group Flying Machine and was a member of American Mime Theatre. "I was obsessed with my experience of nonverbal communication that I developed during my stay in Australia," he recalls. "And I really wanted to tell the experience with art." This would become the basis for the nonverbal communication in After the Apocalypse.
Actors and Other Challenges
When he was finally ready to make the film, Nakajima came up with a 10-page storyline to work off and planned a three-month rehearsal period. To find his actors, he placed an ad in Back Stage saying he was looking for acting workshop participants comfortable with improvisation. He began the workshop with 10 people, but half eventually left because of the lack of pay and time constraints. The remaining five became the cast of After the Apocalypse. As for casting himself in the lead role, Nakajima says it was a matter of finding someone willing to dedicate himself to the three-month rehearsal process and two-week shooting schedule. "I was the only person I knew who could work the long period," he explains. "The choice came out good since I knew the story and circumstance so well. And I'm glad that the organic casting decision resulted in casting an Asian lead, because we don't see that often in the American media."
Principal photography began in November 1999, with cinematographer Carolyn McCartney using an Aaton LTR 54, a 16mm film camera. "Meeting Carolyn was a miracle," says Nakajima, who had placed an ad in Independent Film Monitor. "Most DPs did not take us seriously because of the experimental style script format. She has experience of experimental and commercial films and liked my idea of capturing these five survivors in nature just like a wildlife documentary. I took her to our rehearsal and spent a week blocking with a video camcorder. We discovered framing, lighting, and story arc from the process."
During the pre–9/11 shoot, Nakajima found that it wasn't difficult to shoot wherever he wanted. "There was an old factory warehouse near the East River, where the beginning of the story takes place," he recalls. "It wasn't difficult to get in those areas, but it was actually quite dangerous. Every time we went to rehearsal, we saw a different look. Those walls were corroding every day. But our DP and crew were excited with the post-apocalyptic look of the location and didn't care about the danger."
Another location that was frequently used was an abandoned hut in a deserted area in Long Island City. One day, while he was rehearsing a scene with actor Jacqueline Bowman in which the two had to push and pull each other, two police officers appeared out of nowhere and pointed their guns at the actors. "We were, like, 'No, no, no, this is a movie. We are just acting!' And I showed my informal script and explained what the theme of the scene was. They were, like, 'I thought you guys were fighting over drug dealing or something,'" says Nakajima. "I asked them where we could get a filming permit so we wouldn't get into this kind of trouble again. And they were, like, 'Oh, don't worry about it. Just keep shooting.' So we kept on."
On the final day of shooting, Nakajima arrived at the hut to prepare for the scene, only to find that the inside of the hut with all their props had been burned. "Somebody set fire to it," he says. "We immediately transformed the setting to the front of the hut instead of an interior shoot and kept shooting. But it was very shocking and scary to know that somebody who I didn't know was trying to disrupt our filmmaking."
Once principal photography was completed, Nakajima took four-and-a-half years to work unpaid internships at postproduction facilities to learn how to create the soundtrack and to have free access to the equipment on weekends. "If you are not in a hurry, there is always a way to get things for free," he says. "But if you think, 'Time is money,' my style of filmmaking is not smart." To help with the budget, he also borrowed money from family and friends, as well as "using whatever money I can find." But it was an investment he believed in. "I think people have to take a risk to challenge themselves once or twice in life," he advises. "Some people invest in a house, car, business, and marriage. I invested five years of my life into making a feature film. Basically, I didn't have a family or kids, so why not take a risk with something I am passionate about?"
Nakajima began editing a work print on a 16mm flatbed at Film/Video Arts, but when it closed for the winter he found someone in New Jersey from whom to rent a flatbed. "I paid him $50 a day to rent it," he recalls. "It was tough to go to New Jersey every day in cold winter while everyone is having vacation time." Once the rough cut was complete, he used Millennium Film Workshop to trim his cut. Foley, ADR, sound designing, editing, and mixing was all done with Digidesign ProTools for Soundworks.
Three months after filming, Nakajima visited some of the old locations, only to find that they had disappeared. A warehouse along the East River was gone, while the main hut and deserted area in Long Island City are now covered with construction. Another area near the East River is now fenced and inaccessible to the public. Says Nakajima, "The only way to find that deserted cool look of Brooklyn and Queens is to look at this film." BSW
For more information on the film, including upcoming screenings, visit www.aftertheapocalypse.com.