Jean Noh talks to Hirokazu Kore-eda about his latest feature, which premieres in Competition at Cannes.

Tell us a bit about your past times in Cannes. Do you get nervous for Cannes competition more than other festivals?

With Distance, my first Cannes film, right before the official announcement by Cannes, it was decided that it was going to go into competition - everything was so hectic, everything finished in haste, so I couldn’t really enjoy it.

I had gone to Venice before with Maboroshi, and in comparison, I thought that Cannes offered more majesty and splendidness. It’s a very out-of the-ordinary event. Really a festivity, more than any other film festival. That’s why I get nervous whenever I have a film in Cannes. It’s really an honour to be selected, but at same time the audience has very critical eyes about the films.

Filmmakers need to be mentally prepared to be exposed to those critics and that tension that they receive from the audience. But because of that you can also feel the love they have towards the films and filmmakers in the festival.

Rather than having the film competing against other films, I think this festival gives the filmmakers the feeling that it honours the efforts that we put into making the film and also the finished product itself, so I’m very honoured to be in this position.

The second experience I had in Cannes was with Nobody Knows. I remember this well because I brought all the kids in the film. It was a treat for them after working hard in the film. I wanted to have everybody know what these kids had achieved, and for them to have a great time in the festival.

I was taking care of the kids the whole time. I remember I was taking them from the hotel to the Palais [for the official screening], and they weren’t used to tuxedos. One of the boys had trouble with his neck tie. He said: “Oh, my god, I’m gonna puke, I’m gonna puke!” So I was in the car, trying to find a vomit bag, opening a window and there was a bit of a panic. It was a mess, but it was really fun. We had so many kids we had to take two or three cars.

Right after the official screening, all the interview requests started to pour in. I realised having a good reputation is useful. I realised Distance wasn’t liked as much. I finally realised that with the reaction to Nobody Knows.

Having a good premiere and good reaction from that audience really opens up the path for your film. With Nobody Knows, it was really great. So that’s another reason why I get nervous. Cannes is not like other festivals where you get along with other directors, but you get a reputation, and you have the business side.

What inspired you to do this story about switched babies and fatherhood? Was there a particular newspaper story or incident in your life?

I had read a non-fiction book before that talked about switched babies. After becoming a father myself, I started to wonder what ties me to my child. Is it blood? Is it the time that I spend with my daughter? I remembered what I had read and I put my questions in with my own experiences. So the idea came from my everyday life with my family and with my daughter.

How close to yourself would you say the main character Ryota is?

The main character Ryota is very cynical. He likes to talk behind a person’s back. We have similarities. But I’m not as successful as Ryota. He’s really successful, lives in a mansion. I’m not as monetarily successful.

I’m not an authoritative father like Ryota in the film either. And the way that he has relationships in his family are nothing like what I have with mine. But Ryota is very close to me. The character is something that was created between me and [lead actor] Fukuyama Masaharu. Fukuyama says when he saw the film, he thought it showed the characteristics he doesn’t like about himself. But also, I think it shows some things that I don’t like about myself. So it’s something in between.

The only work in which I intentionally projected my personality into the main character is Still Walking and the first TV series I worked on Going Home [broadcast last year]. In each work, each character is “Ryota”, same name.

What was it like to work with Fukuyama Masaharu as your lead?

The project started with Fukuyama first and we started talking and I presented him with three projects which all had fatherhood in them and Fukuyama chose Like Father, Like Son.

When I worked with him I found he has a high understanding of others. He is very modest, great to work with for me as the director. He listens and tries to understand what you want to say, and also tries to communicate what he thinks the character wants to say.  

How did you find the other adult actors? What was the deciding factor in choosing them?

For Ms. Ono Machiko, the actress who played Ryota’s wife Midori, I wanted to have an actress who can change as the character changes in the movie. At first Midori is a typical Japanese house wife, respecting her husband’s opinion in every way, but she has inner strength. One day, the power balance between the couple changes, in the latter half of the movie. Ms. Ono can express that inner strength and those changes.

Mr. Lily Franky as Yudai, I wanted to have a character that I am not comfortable if they are around. Somebody who I think, ‘I am no match to him’. Yudai can make a living, but has no desire to climb up the social ladder. Ryota and Yudai have totally different values in life, but Yudai never thinks that he has a lesser life than Ryota’s.

On the other hand, Ryota always thinks of how high he can go, everything is to win or lose. For Ryota, Yudai is a loser, but Ryota knows that Yudai does not care about what he cares about, and sometimes Yudai looks like he has a better life than Ryota, in Ryota’s own eyes, and he realises that they are in different games to start off, so there is no way of winning or losing between them. So, that is why Lily was chosen. He is the perfect match [for this character].

Ms. Maki Yoko as Yukari, I wanted somebody who shows strong motherhood and womanliness. Both needed to be strong and acute. Yukari needed to look very down-to-earth, very motherly. But also, very feminine. Ms. Maki has both those qualities.

I wanted to make a distinct difference between these two married couples and families. One is a nuclear family, does not have a good relationship with his parents, has a place in a sky-scraper condo which looks like it forbids anybody to enter. The other family lives in a house where the land and the house was there before Yudai married Yukari and entered the house. They live with her parents, there is a family altar, neighbours come in, their work is there. Everything is in and around that house - their history, and future.

How many kids did you audition for the two boys in the film?

About 500 – 600. Rather than choosing somebody resembling the adult actors, I wanted to choose kids who’d make a contrast against each other, like strength vs. kindness, and whom Ryota would think “he has the strength I have and which the kid I’m raising does not have.”

Keita has this calm kindness that could look like weakness. Ryota wonders why Keita does not have the strength he has, and then he meets Ryusei who does have it. And Shogen, who plays Ryusei, also laughs in a particular way. So I met kids with bigger and smaller body sizes, fragile looking, strong looking, etc. I wanted to emphasise that contrast so that Ryota can naturally just see his blood in Ryusei.

How supportive is your team in Japan for getting your films made?

For the last three to four films, basically I work with the same producers/assistant directors on the set. They know what I want, for example how I want to work with kids, so it is really helpful. But it is not good to make a team just because [of that]. You are prone to get lazy about communicating with others, because you can live with it. But it is not good. You need to make efforts.

I always work with different companies and staff in each film. The project concept comes first when it comes to choosing the staff. It was the first time for me to work with Mr. Mikiya Takimoto. I always wanted to work with him. I thought he could film a man [to look] very sexy.

I worked with him back on Airdoll for stills. So I knew how strong his visuals were, and I was not worried about that. But it is a whole different story between a still and a movie of two hours, and you can’t tell a person has the sense of time [it requires] to create a two-hour movie from just looking at a still.

But I saw a one-minute commercial, and instantly knew this commercial director is the person I wanted for DP of Like Father, Like Son. I learned that it was Mr. Takimoto who did the commercial, so I called him instantly. The story is about a man – a father, and I wanted the coolness in the visuals which Mr Takimoto can create, so I decided to work with him.

What are you doing next? Any film projects in the works?

I’m planning to take a rest this year. I’ll think over what I have now, and mull over where I am heading next. There are some projects from the time before the 311 earthquake two years back [a.k.a. The Great Eastern Japan Tsunami and Earthquake which happened March 11, 2011], and there are some I thought of after the quake. I will decide within this year what to work on next.