SFIAAFF'S Closer Goh Nakamura Talks Music, Movies

Adam Hartzell March 14, 2011

Ending the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival with a cheeky kiss to its host city, Surrogate Valentine offers a view to parts of SF not often seen on the big screen, from the Inner Richmond’s Blue Danube to the Mission’s Doc’s Clock. It’s also a pleasure to see our local indie icon Goh Nakamura propelled into a wider media market. I met up with Goh at a signifying San Francisco eatery, a Mission taqueria, and then on to drinks at the aforementioned Doc's Clock, to talk about what this meta-narrative was like for him, playing someone like himself teaching an actor hired to play someone like himself.

SF360: I want you to sing all the answers.

Goh Nakamura: You can Auto-Tune this later.  [Sung by Goh as if run through Auto-Tune.]

SF360: How did this collaborative relationship with the director Dave Boyle begin?

Nakamura: I met Dave down in San Jose when he was screening White on Rice.  I didn't really know anything about him except that he was a really interesting guy.  He seemed very articulate.

He actually came up to me.  He was, like, ‘Hey!  Are you Goh?!’  I was, like, ‘Yeah, you're the director, man.  That was awesome.’  He was, like, ‘I heard your music before.’  And for some reason I was really surprised.  ‘What?!  When?’  Here's this Mormon dude from Salt Lake City who somehow knows my music, which seemed pretty amazing to me.  We hit it off.  We ended up having dinner together afterwards at Gordon Biersch with a bunch of the film festival people.  At that point we talked about possibly collaborating on a music video, which later turned out to be a song I would write for the DVD of White on Rice as an extra.  We shot a video in black and white around the Richmond District in San Francisco near 9th and Clement on my friend’s roof across the street from Walgreens. 

I actually didn't want to be in it though. He said, ‘Naw, I want you in it.’  It was done super quick.  We were done in like two hours.  After that we kept in touch and out of the blue he asked me, ‘Hey, man, you want to act in my movie?’  And I said ‘Alright, sure.’

SF360: There was no hesitation, like, do I really want to get involved in this?

Nakamura: I thought initially that it'd be something like a short film.  But later he says we'll write this feature film.  It was then I was like ‘Holy Crap!’  We were talking a lot via Instant Messenger, comparing stories about the road, awkward situations we were running into.  Saying ‘Yeah, we have to put this into a script.’  It kind of evolved from that.  Surrogate Valentine is a blending of the both of us.

SF360: Did Dave say what attracted him to you as a muse?  Or knowing him, do you have an idea?

Nakamura: I think our temperaments are kind of the same.  We both try to work very fast.  It takes me a long time to get started but once I get into a studio or something, I tend to pump songs out, pump the album out.  And he's the same way.  He'll start an idea and he'll be like, ‘Ok, I'm gonna do this.’  And he has this reputation for saying he's going to do something and then a year later he's like 'Ok, here ya go.'  And you're like, ‘Man, how'd ya do that?’  I feel very fortunate that he asked me to do this.

SF360: You said most of this script was panned out on IM, and you mentioned to me before this interview that some of it happened on Facebook too.  How was that for you?  Did you feel there was a distance or was it part of what was helpful for you to feel comfortable taking on this new adventure?

Nakamura: It was actually super helpful. It was like sitting down in a coffee shop and trying to write a script, except I had someone who was listening in real time.  Which is kind of cool.  You can send links super fast.  ‘Look at this guy’ or ‘Look at this song.’  As a result, it was a very quick process.  We did get together a couple times.  He would be in San Jose and we would sit at Peet's and we would run through the script.  But that was more fine-tuning. 

SF360: How much were you and other San Franciscans a part of making sure the scenes representing San Francisco feel like San Francisco.  How did that evolve with the project?

Nakamura: Locations tend to fall through at the last minute.  We had some spaces that we wanted to film at, we'd get permission, but some kind of circumstance would happen [to thwart it].  There was one thing that happened where we were trying to film in the Mission outside and there was another film crew down the street.  Super annoying, looking like this really bad movie.

SF360: It's kind of like two buskers battling for business on the same block.

Nakamura: Exactly.  They had this really annoying assistant director with a bullhorn yelling.  It just wasn't working and they were super aggressive. 

SF360: I know you told me that story before about running into a little trouble when filming that scene in Potrero Hill.  Are you comfortable telling that for the record?

Nakamura: Oh yeah, sure.  So we were shooting that scene for a couple hours outside of this house on Potrero Hill.  We were three-quarters done and this guy opens the door to the house and says ‘Excuse me, excuse me, what are you guys doing here?!  You guys didn't get permission, what are you doing?! ’ So Dave walks up and tries to explain it, the producer comes out, tries to explain it.  The guy's clearly not having anything to do with us, getting kind of angry.  And then this other head peeps out the door behind the guy and he's like 'Dave?'  'Dave, what are you doing here?'  And it turns out he's a guy from the Cleveland International Film Festival [where Dave Boyle will be spotlighted this year as ‘Someone to Watch 2011’], or somebody that he met there, and he told the angry guy that he'd vouch for Dave.  This [Cleveland] guy was just a houseguest for the weekend and ended up being this deus ex machina, something you couldn't script.

SF360: What was it like for you to play you, but not you?  Was it tough for you to get some sort of division?

Nakamura: It was like making this alter-ego.  A lot of times I was just thinking of Dave because we were blending these stories.  I kind of know how he would react in certain situations just based on our conversations.  I knew that Dave was going to edit together the best-of parts.

The other part of it was trying to imagine there wasn't a camera there.  I was actually relating it to audio recording when there's a mic on and you're just trying to get through the tempo and the beats and the dynamics.  Sometimes I'll record with the headphones off and I'll just record with the mic on so I'm only hearing what's going on in the room.  It's not immediate feedback.  I was trying to play off the other actors’ tempos. 

Actually, that's what made it really easy.  He surrounded me with professional actors.  It was as if I had stumbled on to the set and there's these actors there and I'm just playing along. 

SF360: Could you talk about how you incorporated the songs into the film?

Nakamura: To be honest, most of the songs besides ‘Surrogate Valentine’ were added in post-production.  But there were some songs in the script that were just referred to as ‘The Epic Song.’  This thing that I'm working on throughout the movie.  I didn't actually write it until after the film.  It's called ‘Over.’  You barely hear it in the movie, actually.  It's super quiet.  There's another song that I'm working on that was a contender for the epic song.  It's when I'm at the apartment in front of the computer and that's a song that still isn't finished.

SF360: How was the sauna scene for you?  Not being an actor and having to be there with your shirt off . . .

Nakamura: It was super awkward.  It was actually a lot of fun, also.  It was the last day of shooting.  So it was just nice to drink some beer and sit in a hot tub.