Plan 75 writer-director Chie Hayakawa on her very indirect route to becoming a filmmaker.

I was about 13 years old when I first started to think about becoming a filmmaker. I have never wavered in the conviction since. I remember I wrote an essay in high school about my future dream of becoming a director. As there were not many colleges in Japan that had a film department, I decided to study filmmaking in the United States. I preferred American indie films to Hollywood movies, so I decided to apply to schools in New York. Colleges required people to submit a screenplay for application. I had never written a script before and did not know how to write it in English. The internet was not widely used at the time, so I went to a foreign bookstore to look for an example of the form and bought an English-language screenplay, which was, if I remember correctly, I Shot Andy Warhol. I wrote my first screenplay inspired by a newspaper article about a man found naked and dead in an elephant cage in the zoo. Months later, I got a letter of acceptance from the film department at the School of Visual Arts.

A self-portrait by Chie Hayakawa taken during her time studying photography at SVA.

I flew to New York with anxiety about my new life in a foreign country. I was advising myself to “leap before you look” and “stop worrying.” I rented a small studio apartment at the edge of the Upper East Side and was looking forward to going to school. On the first day of the class, a professor asked each of us what our favorite film was. Ten out of the 16 students said The Godfather. No one mentioned any European or Asian films. I suddenly realized that I had come to the wrong place, that a person who loved European films should have studied in Europe. But it was too late.

There were only two female students, including me, in my film class. The other one was a tall Russian girl who spoke fluent English. I was a small, skinny and extremely shy Asian girl who was often mistaken for an elementary school kid because of my baby face. My English was poor. I could not follow the fast-talking professors and classmates. Often, I could not even understand what the assignment was. During screenwriting class, we sat in a circle and someone read an introductory line to a story which was then continued by the next student. I did not understand what stories my classmates were telling, so when it was my turn, I could only say, “I will pass.” I felt incredibly pathetic. After attending the first week’s classes, I was totally intimidated. I could not imagine myself making a film, teaming up with those masculine American boys who loved The Godfather and Scarface. (I later watched those two films and loved them.) On the fifth day, I decided to leave the film department and switched my major to photography, because in that program I could work alone.

Another self-portrait of Chie Hayakawa from the same series.

Fortunately, I became very absorbed with photography. I stayed in the school darkroom printing until four in the morning every day. It was fun to learn about fine art photographers and contemporary artists and I went to see numerous exhibitions. I loved the world of photography, but my desire for filmmaking never went away. I bought a digital video camera and started to shoot moving images. As I did not have any filmmaker friends, I made video art-style shorts by myself. I learned shooting and editing through self-study. After making some shorts, I came to realize that I wanted to tell stories and wanted to make a film in Japan, where I grew up.

After graduating from SVA, I worked for a Japanese television company in New York for a year with a practical training visa. Upon the expiration of my visa, I was thinking of going back to Japan to become an assistant director to work on a set or study filmmaking at the new film school in Tokyo. However, things don’t always go as planned. I found out I was pregnant. I had to revise my life plan and put my dream on hold. For the next several years, I worked at home as a translator and raised two kids. My daily routine was to take my kids to a children’s playground in our Queens neighborhood, miles away from Manhattan. I often would get caught in a negative mindset and regret my choices; I felt like crying.

A still from Chie Hayakawa’s 2013 short Niagara, which played at Cannes in 2014.

Before long, I went back to Japan and started to work at a broadcasting company. I felt better having a full-time job and got used to my new life in Japan with my family. But I still had a desire to make a film and was frustrated with myself for not making a move. I always looked for an excuse for not trying: “Because I have kids … Because I am working full-time.” But the truth was that I was afraid to start making films, fearing I might discover I had no talent.

In 2011, when the great earthquake hit Eastern Japan, I was living in Tokyo. I was not directly impacted by the damage, but watched a live broadcast of the devastating tsunami and was overwhelmed with what had happened in Tohoku. It made me realize that anything could happen at any time. Life is not infinite. I saw how precious ordinary life is. It clicked in my head: “I should not wait.”

Chieko Baisho in Chie Hayakawa’s debut feature, Plan 75.

Shortly after, I signed up to a one-year night school film program. A year later, my thesis film was selected by Cinéfondation to play at the Cannes Film Festival, which opened doors to me in the industry. Eight years later, I made my first feature film, Plan 75, and premiered it at the same festival that had seen potential in my amateurish student film and encouraged me to keep going. It has been 25 years since I voluntarily dropped out of the film department.

Chie Hayakawa’s debut feature, Plan 75, is out in select theaters this week through KimStim. Born in Tokyo, she studied photography at School of Visual Arts in New York. Her short film Niagara was selected by the Cinéfondation at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, won the FIPRESCI Award at Vladivostok International Film Festival, two Grand Prizes at International Women’s Film Festival in Seoul and PIA Film Festival. Her short film version of Plan 75 was the acclaimed opening segment of feature anthology Ten Years Japan, executive produced by internationally acclaimed director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Ten Years Japan screened as a world premiere at the Busan International Film Festival in 2018, followed by successful theatrical releases and an international festival tour.