Tokyo: 'One Cut of the Dead' Director on How the Zombie Hit Made 1,000 Times Its Budget

Courtesy of Nikkatsu Corporation
'One Cut of the Dead'

Shinichiro Ueda talks about how word has been spreading at home and the movie is seeing growing overseas success.

Microbudget zombie comedy film One Cut of the Dead (Camera o Tomeruna) is enjoying a run that directors of independent cinema can usually only dream of. Made in eight days for about $27,000 with a cast of aspiring actors that director Shinichiro Ueda found in workshops, it initially opened at three Tokyo theaters in June.

It has now sold more than 2 million tickets, bringing in almost 1,000 times its budget at the box office, and won a slew of awards both at home and abroad.

One Cut of the Dead's 37-minute opening single take, multiple layers, twists and numerous riffs on the zombie genre, along with its offbeat humor, have been wowing audiences, who have spread the word about the indie sensation.

The film will screen, appropriately enough, on Halloween at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter just before walking the red carpet at the fest's opening screening of A Star Is Born, Ueda talked about working with an unknown cast, the prospect for sequels and his next project.

When did you first think the film could become a hit?

Well, there are various levels of "hit," but two or three weeks into its first run at a small Tokyo cinema I started to realize something was happening. The first week was mainly older guys, regular indie film fans, but in the second week there were more younger people and women. Then I started seeing people in the street with One Cut of the Dead T-shirts on and heard people talking about the film. I've been doing indie films all this time and until now I never experienced anything like that.

Was there a particular point when you felt it had really become a big success?

It just kept exceeding our expectations. Five thousand admissions was my original target, which we hit in the first few weeks. Then I thought 10,000 would be good. Next people started saying it could hit 100,000. Now we’ve passed 2 million. The level of "hit" just kept going up.

I heard it got an incredible reaction at the Udine film festival in Italy. Did you notice any differences in the way audiences overseas reacted to the film?

That was actually before it got a proper release in Japan. It got a five-minute standing ovation in Udine, which is an experience I'll never forget. During the first 37-minute one-take part, the audience in Italy was already clapping and cheering, whereas in Japan, they were completely silent during that section. Then they quieted down in the second section [that is also fictional and about the making of the film] in Italy; that was different.

How many countries has it now been sold to?

I don't have the list on hand, but South Korea, France, Hong Kong, Taiwan and so on. In Taiwan, it's the biggest Japanese film of the year and is close to being the biggest one in 10 years. It's been screened at 60 film festivals and won 18 awards so far. It's opening in Hong Kong soon and they've got buses wrapped in advertisements for it.

The box office is nearly 1,000 times the production budget, which is kind of unthinkable. Are you going to feel pressure due to that? Are you worried expectations will be too high?

Yes, you're right; the budget was around 3 million yen ($27,000) and it's heading for 3 billion yen. I'd be lying if I said there was no pressure, but at the moment I'm too busy to feel it, I don't have time to think about it. I want to enjoy that pressure, just the right amount is good.

Most of the cast for the film were largely unknowns you found through acting workshops, do you have any plans to work with them again?

Nothing scheduled, but it might happen in the future. We are close now, though, and will meet up when, for example, one of us gets married – or if we make a sequel.

Are you planning a sequel?

There is no concrete plan, but it would be good if we could do a [No.] 2 or 3 with a slightly bigger budget, but not too big. If it got too big and too many people were involved, then we would lose some of the freedom.

Can you talk about your next project?

I'm working on a film with Shochiku Broadcasting [a subsidiary of studio and distributor Shochiku]. It will be an original script, which I'm still writing, and I'm holding auditions this winter with the aim of starting to shoot in spring next year. Beyond that, I'm not announcing anything yet.