Why ‘Drive My Car’ Director Rewrote Haruki Murakami for His Surprise NY Film Critics Winner

TheWrap magazine: “There wasn’t enough material to fill a two-hour film,” director Ryusuke Hamaguchi says of the celebrated Japanese novelist’s short story he adapted

Drive My Car
"Drive My Car" (Sideshow/Janus Films)

A version of this story about Ryusuke Hamaguchi and “Drive My Car” first appeared in the International Issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

“Drive My Car” is the second Asian Oscar entry in the last four years to have been adapted from a Haruki Murakami short story; “Burning,” a South Korean film which was nominated, was the first. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour drama about a theater director who is staging a production of “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, and the young woman who’s assigned to chauffeur him while he’s there, won the screenwriting award in Cannes this year. And last week, it was also the surprise winner of the best-film award from the New York Film Critics Circle.

Hamaguchi spoke to TheWrap through a translator.

Murakami’s short story is only 30 pages long. What was it about that story that made you want to expand it into a movie?
This started with one of my producers asking me if I wanted to make a movie from one of Murakami’s short stories. He was known for not wanting feature films from his longer works, but there had been previous adaptations of his short stories. “Burning” was one of them, and another Japanese film, “Hanalei Bay.” When my producer said this, I suggested “Drive My Car,” as I had read it about eight years ago and found some resonance with motifs that I had dealt with in my films: conversations in cars, performance, those aspects.

But I knew that I would have to expand things, because there wasn’t enough material to fill a two-hour film. And the original ends in the middle, so I also needed to work on the ending.

Was it clear the ways in which you could change it and expand it into the film?
Basically, I was really interested in the relationship between the two characters. But I knew that I would have to expand things, because there wasn’t enough material to fill a two-hour film. And the original ends sort in the middle, so I also needed to work on how the ending. Also of much importance was presenting the unique worldview that Hayao Murakami has in his work.

The original short story has a lot of flashbacks, but you tell it chronologically.
I just felt that the flashback was a technique that I couldn’t use very well. That was really the main reason. Flashbacks are basically used to explain what has happened, meaning that you’re looking from a future point in time and you’re going back. I don’t know if that’s really the richest way to use time, to use it for explanatory purposes. So I created this movie so that the flashbacks would be created by the viewers themselves.

Ryusuke Hamaguchi
Ryusuke Hamaguchi photographed by Kris Dewitte

You made the unusual decision to have the credits roll about 40 minutes into the film, after a lengthy story about the director and his wife.
That idea was always in the script. I wanted to give the audience a little bit of a breather between the initial section and what came next. If I didn’t do that, I thought the burden on the viewer would be too heavy.

What are the challenges when much of the movie takes place in the confined space of a car?
The moving car is a limited space — but because it’s moving, that actually allows for the expansion of space. If a scene were to be set in a room, there’s a limit to how much the space can expand. But if you’re in a moving vehicle, as opposed to being closed off, it’s actually a space that can be expanded. So for the viewer, it’s not that difficult.

However, for the actor, it does place a burden for them to maintain their focus in the closed-off space. I try to do the preparation for these scenes as quickly as possible, and convey to the actors the importance of the scene before we go into this limited space.

Did COVID affect the shooting?
We were in the middle of shooting and had to stop. We had already shot the 40-minute section that takes place in Tokyo. The rest was supposed to be shot in Busan in Korea, but because of COVID we were not able to use this overseas location. So we had to transition to Hiroshima, to a domestic location.

Has Murakami seen the film?
Yes, and it seems like he was a fan of it. He did not come to the premiere, but I heard that he watched it at his local theater, and I heard that he enjoyed it. He said he was not sure which portions he had written — which came from his original work and which hadn’t.

Read more from the International issue here.

Hand of God Wrap magazine cover