Outtakes: Sundance helps Yogi finish film
BY MIKE GORDON / email@example.com
Christopher Yogi, a Hawaii-born filmmaker living in Brooklyn, N.Y., wasn’t looking for a story when he sat with his dying grandfather in his Kaimuki home.
Lung cancer had reduced the old man, a once-sturdy carpenter who built his own house, to an emaciated shell. At 86 he had outlived his wife and buried a son — Yogi’s father — but now it was time to stop fighting the disease.
“He was really sick, and he was calling out to people who weren’t there,” the 32-year-old Yogi said during a phone call from his home in Brooklyn.
“He mistook me for my father. He was weaving in and out of consciousness. I wondered what he was seeing. His memories from past and present were weaving together.”
His grandfather’s death in 2009 was such a profound experience for Yogi that he created a short film called “Obake” — a Japanese word for “ghosts” — and later a feature-length screenplay, “I Was a Simple Man.” In both versions, Yogi sought to explore the reckoning that comes at the end of a life.
“Being in the room with someone who is dying I found to be really haunting and but also really beautiful,” he said.
Yogi wrote so powerfully when he penned “I Was a Simple Man,” which greatly expands on the story, that the Sundance Institute accepted him into its intensive, monthlong Directors Lab that starts May 25.
Industry veterans will mentor Yogi and other first-time feature filmmakers, and professional actors will bring to life key scenes in his screenplay while cameras roll.
The goal is to help Yogi find a visual storytelling language for a finished film.
After the Directors Lab, Yogi will spend the rest of the year trying to raise money, a task that should be easier with his Sundance credentials. He doesn’t have a budget yet.
“The main thrust of the film is telling the story of this man’s life as he is on his deathbed,” Yogi said. “His family members, one by one, make a pilgrimage to spend time with him, and through the intersections with each family member, we get a different view of this man.”
In creating the main character, Yogi also drew on the life of his other grandfather and the legacy of Hawaii’s nisei community — the second-generation Japanese-Americans who grew up on plantations, fought in World War II and led the Democratic revolution that changed Hawaii’s political landscape.
They are complex men who accomplished much yet kept secrets.
Yogi draws on his local roots to inform his stories. He was born and raised in Hawaii, growing up in Kaimuki and Hawaii Kai, graduating from ‘Iolani School and the University of Hawaii, where he majored in English while taking business and filmmaking classes. A devoted creative writer, his senior honors thesis was a 300-page novel.
Yogi went on to film school at the University of Southern California and eventually wound up in New York, where he found steady work editing reality TV shows for MTV, Discovery and Bravo.
He has written and directed six short films that have been lauded at the Hawaii International Film Festival, the Big Island Film Festival, the Palms Springs International ShortFest and the Raindance Film Festival.
The stories have surprised people. Yogi, too. He’s found that his memories of Hawaii — like the Hawaii in “I Was a Simple Man” and “Obake” — don’t match what people expect.
“It sort of blew my mind,” he said. “The fact that you could live in Hawaii and feel alone, that you are surrounded by all this beauty and yet you can feel so sad. And when you are dealing with death and mourning, it becomes profound.”
Watch “Obake” on Yogi’s website.
Mike Gordon covers film and television in Hawaii for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter. Read his weekly “Outtakes” column Sundays in the Star-Advertiser.