April 7, 2020
Alumni Spotlight: Edson Oda '15
By Jason Ng
In 2012, Edson Oda decided to move to Los Angeles and study filmmaking at USC despite having already established himself in the advertising business in his hometown of São Paulo, Brazil.
Upon completing his Masters of Fine Arts in the Film and Television Production program at SCA in 2015, Oda was selected into the Sundance Institute Screenwriters Lab which ultimately led to his passion project, Nine Days.
Nine Days is Oda’s feature directorial debut which premiered at Sundance 2020. The incredible script which Oda wrote won him the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at the film festival. Nine Days has since been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for distribution in North America.
In addition to Nine Days, Oda has a huge body of work that ranges from short films to music videos. He’s won numerous awards, including the special Jury Award in the Seattle International Film Festival for his short Malaria which creatively utilizes and combines various art forms to tell a story.
Nine Days is a really important and personal project for you. How did you grapple with pouring your innermost feelings into an art form for everyone to see?
I think one of the most important things for a writer is to really care about what he or she is going to write about. Since writing requires a lot of mental energy, time, and effort, and it’s not something that gives you an immediate reward, I always need to make sure the nature of the project I’m writing will keep me going, otherwise it’s easy to give up. I usually ask myself, what’s the story that would never exist if I didn’t exist, the story that only I can write. The fact that the story I’m writing could never be told by anyone else in the world really motivates me to keep writing it – and to write it in the most personal way I can - because if I don’t bring it to life, no one will. I think pouring my innermost feelings into something has to do with that. It comes from my desire to make my story alive, because I’m the only one who can do it.
As a writer-director, do you separate the two roles when you are in the process of working on a project?
That’s a really good question. Yes and no. Yes, I think it is good to separate those roles when they limit each other. For example, sometimes the technicality of thinking like a director restrains your imagination when you are writing – because you are thinking in a more pragmatic way instead of letting your imagination flow. The same way, I believe if you think too much like the writer on set, you miss opportunities of letting other people help you write the story with you and come up with new creative solutions. But having said that, I think those two roles can also complete each other. For example, thinking like a director while I write my scripts allows me the ability to jump ahead in the filmmaking process and think “what would that scene look like in a movie?” In a similar way, thinking like a writer while I direct gives me total control to rewrite the scene on set or in post-production. I always try to find a balance between them, because – if they interact in a harmonious way – the combination can be very beneficial.
Nine Days was widely praised at Sundance, earning you the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. What did it mean to you to have your first feature so well received?
That means the world to me. As a filmmaker you always want the audience to connect with your film. You want it to have an effect on them. It was such a special experience to me, and I’ve never imagined such a great reaction. But I think the thing that moved me the most were the people who talked to me and contacted me after the screenings. Most of them shared similar struggles to the ones in the movie. They talked about their own experiences, about people they love, and how the movie inspires them to keep going, keep fighting and possibly enjoy more life. Those were the most powerful moments I’ve ever experienced as a filmmaker.
You are Brazilian of Japanese descent and are now based in Los Angeles. Can you tell us how has moving in between and sometimes across cultures affected you as a person and influenced the kinds of stories you want to tell?
I think one of the best things about being familiar with different cultures is to identify what is universal between them. When I’m writing or directing a film, I’m always looking for those universalities: those little or big things that we all share as human beings, no matter who we are or where we are from (I’m stealing a Backstreet Boys’ quote here!). I think that my background makes me more willing to write stories not thinking so much about one specific place or one specific ethnicity.
You had a decorated career in advertising and won many awards prior to your transition to filmmaking. What made you want to switch?
I think as much as I loved working in advertising, the thing I missed most was to be able to tell my own stories. In advertising you’re inevitably telling a story about a product, or a company, or a service, while as a filmmaker you have more freedom to tell more personal stories. I don’t mean you can’t be personal in advertising – I still direct commercials and they are definitely an interesting art form that I also respect a lot, however with films you can go into very deep places, and connect with audiences in a way that’s more difficult to connect through ads. Of course, having two hours instead of thirty seconds or one minute also helps a lot!
Your portfolio includes features, short films, commercials, and even music videos. What has each taught you about the various ways to tell a visual story?
They taught me that they are all different but somehow all the same. It’s interesting because besides the scale, directing a feature film and directing a short film are not very different from each other. The intensity is different, but the craft isn’t. In my experience, making shorts, commercials, and music videos were the best way to learn how to direct a feature and express my voice. And directing a feature taught me great lessons that I’ll use when I direct my next shorts, music videos and commercials. They are about storytelling, but in different formats.
I’ve had the pleasure of watching your shorts The Writer and Malaria which I find to be like watching performative art. Can you share the creative process behind making these, especially Malaria which utilizes various art forms in order to tell the story of a mercenary’s confrontation with Death?
In regards to the technique I used, Malaria and The Writer came from my passion for comic books but mainly from my lack of big resources and money to produce a film. However, I think those limitations worked in my favor, because they motivated me to come up with a different, but very simple, visual concept. I think simplicity is one of the most powerful tools in storytelling, and even though I tend to overcomplicate things sometimes, that lack of resources guided me to go for simplicity, for the minimal.
And as far as I remember the budget for The Writer was $0.00 and for Malaria was around $1,000.00.
You still return to USC to write occasionally. What is it about being on campus that helps you write?
I think it’s a mix of habit. I’ve been writing there for years and years. Combine that with the love I have for USC and it’s like I’m home there. At the libraries, at the gym’s reception, on random benches, at SCA, at the University Village, it just feels good to write there among so many excited students willing to make a difference in the world.
COVID-19 has completely upended our usual day-to-day activities. As a filmmaker, how are you adjusting to this new normal?
As a writer, I feel very lucky and fortunate to have a job that allows me to work from home. For the past weeks I’ve been focusing on reading, watching movies and writing my next feature. Of course, the routine changes one hundred percent, but trying to use the time I have now to do research and to write.
Do you have any advice for current students who are in pursuit to start their filmmaking careers?
If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a director, direct. The scale, the budget of your film, those things don’t matter. You think they do, but they really don’t. Just keep doing it, and if something doesn’t turn out the way you wanted, do it again.
It’s great if you can do it with all the love you have, but don’t feel bad for the moments you hate doing it too. Being a filmmaker can be tough sometimes, but the good thing is that you can transform the frustrations and the pain and the struggles you went through into a better art. I felt like my life was a big mess when I wrote Nine Days. And you know what? If my life was perfect at that time, I would never be able to write that script.
And finally, don’t underestimate yourself. I’m not saying that you have to be arrogant, but have in mind that you are a very unique human being who has something very special to say. It is something that no one else can say. And it doesn’t matter the numbers of “No” and “Yes” that you get. No matter what people say, believe that you have a voice and be humble to work really hard in order to express that voice the best way you can.
Hope it helps you somehow, and I can’t wait to see your amazing movie in the theater some years from now.