In EAST SIDE SUSHI we witness that years of working in the food industry have made Juana’s hands fast-very fast. She can slice and dice anything you throw at her with great speed and precision. When Juana gives up her fruit- vending cart in order to find a more secure job, she lands a position as a kitchen assistant at a local Japanese restaurant. It is here she discovers a whole new world of cuisine and culture, far- removed from everything she has ever known.
While working in the restaurant, Juana secretly observes the sushi chefs and eventually teaches herself to make a multitude of sushi. With her creativity sparked, Juana’s re-ignited passion for food drives her to want more from her job and her life.
Juana eventually attempts to become a sushi chef, but is unable to because she is deemed the “wrong” race and gender. Against all odds, she embarks on a journey of self- discovery, determined to not let anyone stop her from achieving her dream.
EAST SIDE SUSHI is written and directed by Anthony Lucero
Bijan Tehrani: In EAST SIDE SUSHI you are telling a new and refreshing story and you avoid following the rules of so called mainstream Hollywood productions, was this intentionally?
Anthony Lucero: It is slightly intentional, yes. I first want to tell a good story and whoever is involved in that story, whether it is nonconventional characters, immigrants, that’s what I want to tell a story with. I enjoy that I can tell stories that aren’t typically on the big screen. Yeah, part of it is intentional and part of it is that I personally want to know more about other cultures and show them on the big screen for others to learn from as well.
BT: In EAST SIDE SUSHI you deal with different cultures witch is always very challenging, how did you manage to overcome this challenge?
AL: I think a lot of it has to do with research. One way of avoiding clichés is to go out and talk to people that are a part of those cultures. Then, you get feedback from them in order to make sure your screenplay depicts the cultures properly. Also, I grew up in Oakland, a very multi-cultural city, and I was able to pull from my personal experiences and the people I grew up with my entire life.
BT: How did you go about casting your film?
AL: For the two leads, we went to LA and had a simple casting call with auditions. Everyone else in the film was from the Bay Area. Also, Juana, Diana’s character, was very difficult to find because I wrote the screenplay and I knew exactly who Juana was, what she looked like. When Diana auditioned for the role, she didn’t match the person I had written it for. Because I loved Diana and thought she was the best actor that auditioned, I wanted her to be in the film and modified the screenplay to match her age. We also made other modification, such as making her daughter younger and tanning Diana to make her a little darker. The reason we tanned her is because her character has a fruit-vending cart and fruit vendors are typically darker because they are out baking in the hot sun all day. From the get-to, Diana was not the right person for the role, but it was her acting ability that sold me.
BT: Funding independent projects is always difficult, so what is the story behind financing EAST SIDE SUSHI?
AL: EAST SIDE SUSHI was self-financed by me. I launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the film, but I was only able to raise a couple of thousand dollars from it. I then decided to put my own money in and get the film made. I ended up spending much more than I anticipated, but that’s how I’ve always done film. I work in film, I have a day job, and I would take that money and shovel it into my passion project. This film was no different than my other shorts and documentaries that I have done. Trying to do crowd funding for a project takes a lot of time and it didn’t work out for me. Although crowd funding does work for others, I don’t know that I would go this route for future projects.
BT: Did you have a complete script before you start? Did you go over many re-writes? Also, did you allow any improvisations?
AL: There was almost zero improvisation. I was fine with the actors improvising, but they stuck to the script. I would say that probably 98% is scripted. Part of it was that Diana had a lot of dialogue to memorize and she didn’t want to go off script. It took me a couple of years to write it, so it had been revised about 45 times. By the time we got to production, we had already worked out all of the kinks in the story and had a very solid script.
BT: How did you work with your actors?
AL: Although we had a very short schedule, working with the actors was great. The actors themselves had to bend quite a bit in order to be a part of the film. Because we couldn’t afford to accommodate them in hotels, I had them staying in my friends’ houses. They had to work under some extreme conditions because we didn’t have anything fancy to offer. All that mattered to them was to do a good job and that was it. As a director, they truly made my job very easy. Once they had the screenplay, they took it to a whole other level and made it much better than it was on paper. Working with Diana and Yutaka was amazing – it was so much fun.
BT: Please tell us about the visual style of your film.
AL: I have a background in documentary work, so I wanted this film to feel a bit like documentary (not completely). I wanted it to have a real feel to it, so I hired Marty Rosenberg as the director of photography. I would show him examples of both documentary and narrative films that I thought replicated the look that I wanted. I wanted everything to look natural. I didn’t want anything to look lit, and that goes down to the clothing they wore, their makeup, the props, and the house they lived in. Everything had to look very natural, as if we had walked into someone’s house and turned on the camera. Everybody from makeup, to the set designer, to the DP had to work together to make everyone look like real people and have the documentary feel. Also, most of the film is handheld, and that is why it has that documentary feel to it.
BT: EAST SIDE SUSHI has an interesting and entertaining story, how do you see the commercial success of your film?
AL: I wouldn’t categorize the film as a Latino or Asian film at all – it is just an American film. I think that when people see it, they will realize that. They will see that it is a film that can play with any other art house or mainstream film out there, although low budget. I think the story is an underdog story that everyone can relate to, and that is why I feel we will have some commercial success with it. It’s not just about a person that wants to be a sushi chef – it is about people who want to succeed and do what life is calling them to do. It’s about people following their passion, and I think we can all relate to that.
BT: What is your next project?
AL: I am writing a screenplay, but I never talk about it to most people. I always keep my stories secret because I don’t want to be influenced by others. I also have a screenplay that I wrote before EAST SIDE SUSHI, but it was too expensive to produce it, which is why I did EAST SIDE SUSHI first. I also have a documentary about tribute bands, bands that dress up as real bands and play their music, which I also need to finish.