Things I Do For Money: Warren P Sonoda goes home to Hamilton
Eli and Nick Yaguchi, two Japanese Canadian cello-playing brothers from Hamilton, Ontario inadvertently steal a bag of money from a horrific crime scene. Trouble ensues when a Vancouver-based hit man, who turns out to be their estranged uncle Just Jimmy, shows up on the scene. One thing leads to another and the brothers have to save their father’s life, steal an eight-million-dollar painting and fight for their lives to get into a prestigious music conservatory. Along the way they discover that everyone has a price and that family never bails on family, no matter the cost.
This is Things I Do for Money, the latest feature film from Hamilton-born director Warren P. Sonoda. The film, which premiered at the 2019 Whistler Film Festival, and is set for wide digital distribution in Canada as we go to press, is described as a humble, kinetic, darkly comedic, sometimes violent, small-yet-ambitious micro-budget crime/cello/caper movie with a Japanese Canadian cultural twist.
The Bulletin spoke to Warren at his home in Toronto.
Bulletin Interview: Warren P Sonoda
Your hometown, Hamilton Ontario, plays itself in your new film, Things I Do for Money. Before we get into the film itself, tell me how your family ended up in that neck of woods.
Well thank you first of all for this interview, I love The Bulletin, just recently saw your fantastic Hiro Kanagawa interview and I’m thrilled to be talking with you about Things I Do For Money. My mom and dad, Pat (née Yaguchi) and Roy Sonoda came to Hamilton after their internment in Greenwood and Bayfarm, BC respectively, along with their families, and met at Westdale high school in downtown Hamilton. My mom was the youngest of nine children – Shiggy, Susie, Mitzi, Buddy, Kay, Carol, Eileen and Jean, and my dad was the youngest of four – Mits, Judy and Sammy. I never met my grandfathers Nakaichi Yaguchi and Chuhai Sonoda, and only barely remember my grandmother Kinu (née Kono) Yaguchi and recollect a little bit more of Maki (née Yonehara) Sonoda from my childhood. I do remember Grandma Sonoda’s cooking though! And I loved going to see her because I got to eat, usually chazuke and whatever she had just made in her kitchen. My grandparents didn’t speak English, and my mom and dad’s Japanese is BC-slang-y at best, so I always wondered how they communicated with their mom and dad. But I guess that’s why big families are good, especially during the internment, when they would have to rely on each other for so many things. I myself am the youngest, with two older brothers, Ron and Bob Sonoda, whom I basically made this movie for.
You failed Ryerson Film School. Twice. You’re also one of Canada’s most prolific directors, with eleven feature films under your belt, as well as iconic TV shows like Trailer Park Boys, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Murdoch Mysteries and a whole slew of music videos. You’re also the first person of colour to be elected as National Directors Division Chair of the Directors Guild of Canada. Tell me about your introduction to film, and how you got your career started.
Okay, wow, well… It was really my two brothers, Ron and Bob, who bought me a super-8 camera when I was 10. In Mr. Allen’s grade 5 class at Fernwood Park in Hamilton I made my first film called Escape From Space – a 24-minute live-action/stop motion sci-fi film which was basically my homage to Star Wars. I got my entire class to help make it, and after that, I was hooked. I’m not sure if I thought I had a clear trajectory to film from where I was at in Hamilton, but Hill Park High School’s drama class with teacher Bill Cook changed everything for me. That’s where I met Jason Jones (from the Daily Show and The Detour) and Kevin Spencer (who starred in the touring company of Rent and was in the band Rhymes With Orange and The Misunderstood with Mary Beth Ancheta). In a lot of ways, Things I Do For Money is the extension of the little videos Jason, Kevin and our other friends made in High School called You Killed My Brother, which were just nonsensical homemade videos trying to pay tribute to Martin Scorsese, poorly (years later I would kick Scorsese out of the Guinness Book of World Records when my film Swearnet starring the Trailer Park Boys kicked Wolf of Wall Street out of top spot for Most Expletives In A Movie). But we had fun and in grade 11 I directed a Sugarless Chiclets campaign for J Walter Thompson Advertising (which starred a young Kathleen Robertson of Bates Motel, Northern Rescue and 90210).
Then in grade 12 I did a show for CBC called Life: The Program where I directed the “teen segments” which was just me videotaping my friends getting into trouble all the time, which they then aired on national TV and got nominated for a Gemini Award. I remember filming Jason Jones putting a crib sheet on the back of his calculator and then getting him in trouble for it after his math teacher saw the segment on the CBC. And then eventually, in first year Ryerson, I directed a music video for Kevin Spencer’s band The Misunderstood called Serene that actually got light rotation on MuchMusic and that really changed the course of my filmmaking career and led to doing over 160 music videos in the 90s and 2000s.
But really, my career started with my incredibly talented friends – I couldn’t have done any of this without being surrounded by innovators and creators at an early age (and even now), and being encouraged by my family, especially my brothers, to pursue filmmaking when it really wasn’t a realistic option for most Japanese Canadians in the late 80s/early 90s. But I’ve never really taken “no” as a final verdict for anything.
Friday the 13th of March immediately changed everyone’s plans across North America. Since then, especially after the tragic murder of George Floyd on May 25 and the world’s necessary focus on Black Lives Matter, the brutal police killings of Black and Indigenous people and the social unrest in our North American Cities, made us not only pause our film, but look inward in what we’re doing in our own personal lives. The film had to wait because there are much more important issues happening in the world, all against the backdrop of a global pandemic.
Things I Do for Money is the first Canadian crime film to not only be written and directed by a Japanese Canadian filmmaker, but to star four Japanese Canadians, and to be sold to the US. That’s a lot of firsts. Is this the first time you’ve worked with a JC cast, and was it a conscious decision?
So my 11th feature, Things I Do For Money, came out of doing some not-so-great film work while transitioning into some amazing television projects. As I got into my mid-career, it wasn’t lost on me that after ten feature films, I had never cast a Japanese Canadian actor in a leading role. That’s a terrible record to have while being on a pretty good run. And that’s all on me as a filmmaker – my fault alone – and I’m trying to make up the time. I think now, in hindsight, my reluctance to embrace or engage my “Japanese-ness” as a filmmaker or even as a person, is a very sansei-specific trait. The internment always seems to be the defining moment for many of us, even if we were born long after. The consequences of those racist and family-crushing policies during World War II are still being felt, generations later, even if the lasting effects seem subtle or subversively invisible.
After settling in Hamilton and starting a family, my mom and dad wanted to assimilate their children as quickly and as thoroughly as possible: we weren’t taught Japanese, we didn’t speak it in the house, except for some choice bad words (baka tada is used throughout Things I Do For Money as a tip-of-the-hat to my family’s use of Japanese), it’s not lost on me that Warren, Ronnie and Bobby are three of the most Western-y names you could go with, and outside of family, I didn’t have any close Japanese friends growing up (although thankfully, I do have so many fantastic cousins, aunts and uncles).
I know it was all to protect us, so my brothers and I wouldn’t be bullied, picked on or be “different” – and maybe subconsciously, silently, they still had the image of RCMP officers coming into their houses, confiscating their homes and imprisoning their families. I know they did, how could they not? But in rushing to be as “Canadian” as possible, we were cut off from much of what makes our story so special. That a film like Things I Do For Money, about two yonsei, cello-playing brothers from Hamilton, Ontario, which plays itself in the film, even exists is a testament to my parents and brothers giving me the love, encouragement and every possible chance to succeed. It’s also a testament to Canada, as flawed and wonderful as it is, that it could split apart my family, imprison them, take all their property and give it away, send the boys and men to labour camps in the BC interior, leaving the ones who remained and their children to keep things going, only to be released and dispersed East of the Rockies afterwards, raise a family and improbably see them rise in our communities as leaders, innovators and artists. This country that we should have every reason to be skeptical of, every reason to have contempt for, allowed someone like me to keep making movies and tell stories; this country that I love, and want to have a hand in making better. So yes, the long answer is: Things I Do For Money was a very conscious, deliberate decision for me to reconnect with my long-neglected roots. I don’t think this is a unique sansei feeling, either. I think we all feel this, in very real ways, especially as my generation gets older.
Theodor and Maximilian Aoki, two real-life brothers are also real-life cellists who also wrote and performed the original score, have their own duo versaCello. Their father, Edward, plays the character Just Jimmy in the film. Edward’s father – the brothers’ grandfather – was renowned Canadian educator and scholar Ted Aoki. Ted’s brother, Harry Aoki, is well known on the west coast as a music pioneer. That’s a pretty good lineage. What’s your relationship with the family?
The incredible Max and Theo Aoki came on my radar several years ago because my co-writer, Gary Nolan, who is also a teacher in Hamilton, knew their mother Elysia, also a teacher. Gary relayed to me how talented these two brothers were, maybe to make a music video with them or something. I checked out their versaCello youtube channel (go to Youtube and search versaCello) and was blown away by their ability, left a comment on their Counting Stars video, then never got back to them for two years (lol) as I got busy doing TV shows like Trailer Park Boys, Odd Squad, and 22 Minutes. At the same time, Gary and I had written over a dozen scripts together over the years, but none of them had ever been produced, and I was starting to feel bad about it – so in 2017, I told him, “let’s make a movie next year and not wait for permission to do it” – make it small so we didn’t have to wait or be declined by funding bodies and make it contained – one or two locations and four or five characters – so we could just go out and film it. But everything we were coming up with was horrible. Just garbage. Canada has a tendency to push its filmmakers working in the micro-budget world into doing “small” films (and, yes, some of them are PHENOMENAL) – but if I was going to do an 11th feature, I really wanted to swing for the fences, why do it otherwise? Our creative thoughts kept coming back to the Aoki boys, and we just really started thinking about centering a story around them as cello-playing brothers. “What if” they stole a bag of money? “What if” their family was tied up in a surreal criminal underworld in Hamilton, Ontario? This “What if” game continued until we came up with a story that had over 30 locations, 50+ speaking parts, six cello performances and five action scenes. Not small at all, but ambitious and genre-bending (a crime/cello/caper music-action movie) and the fact that the two leads, Max and Theo, were also yonsei, levelled-up my new commitment to explore my Japanese Canadian heritage. But there was only one problem – we had no idea if Max and Theo, a) could act, and b) would even want to be in a movie. So Gary and I quickly scheduled a meeting with them and Elysia to pitch our idea: give us your summer of 2018 (no small ask as they were both in McMaster University Engineering), and let’s go make a movie. I just told them, you have to audition first. They accepted the challenge with aplomb. I hope to include their audition on our DVD release later this year, because – and let’s keep in mind the context: they had never acted before in their lives – they were brilliant. Organic, truthful, charismatic and totally believable as brothers because they were exactly that. Max and Theo were cast on the spot as the stars and as a bonus to us, agreed to completely score the film themselves, also something they’ve never done before. I did previously ignore them for two years, but thankfully came back to them with a full feature film to make around their unique abilities and strengths.
You mention that Theo and Max were also the film’s composers and music is such a huge part of Things I Do For Money’s appeal. What was it like working with them on the music for Things I Do for Money?
The boys were up-and-coming musicians in the Hamilton music scene before I even knew them, so making and creating music was already in their wheelhouse, but scoring a feature film is incredibly different than performing in front of an audience. Also, they only had a limited amount of time – a couple of months – to write completely new, original, stand-alone cello pieces for the film because they had to perform them within actual scenes (in moviemaking, you pre-record all the music and play it back on set so the performs look to be “in-sync” with what they’re playing). This was a herculean task because the entire climax of the film centers around a six-minute tour-de-force two-handed cello piece they created called Monument and my only request to them as the Director was, “Write something that cellists would say: that’s amazing.” They wrote, I think, a piece that will become a contemporary cello classic. It’s spectacular and certainly has been rewarded with accolades during our Film Festival run, winning two Special Jury prizes in the US and a Best Feature nomination in the UK. But it didn’t end there: working with veteran Music Supervisor Micheal Perlmutter and industry vanguard Producer Byron Kent Wong the Aokis beautifully cover Guns and Ammunition by July Talk and most notably, interpret the haunting, iconic Northern Pikes titular hit song Things I Do For Money for a spectacular pharmacy shootout scene and the end credits, where Pike’s lead singer Jay Semko actually re-recorded his vocals for our cello-inspired version in the film. I did a music video for Jay back in the late 90s, so it was really great of him to come on board and give our film, and Max and Theo, a chance to re-record his legendary song. Along with Michael Perlmutter’s ability to get us songs from not only The Northern Pikes and July Talk, but also The Arkells, Jane’s Party and Peacemaker, the film works because Max and Theo’s music, masterfully produced by Byron Kent Wong, intricately weaves all our disparate elements: crime, violence, coming-of-age love, ice-skating and bingo all into a cohesive whole. Their music elevates the story Gary and I wanted to tell.
Things I Do For Money has been described as your most ambitious project to date. You’ve also called it your best film. How do you define ambitious? And what is it about the film that makes you so proud of it?
I’m just so damn proud of the entire team: from Max and Theo and their entire family (not only Ed, who as you said stars in the film, but their mom Elysia was at every location helping out, letting us film in her house, making food for us!) to the camera crew led by groundbreaking Hamilton cinematographer Christoph Benfey, our masterful and talented editor Anna Catley, our entire cast and crew, many of whom had never made a feature film before, all rose to the challenge of making this in a compact 13-main-unit-days, two-pick-up-days schedule during the hottest summer Hamilton had ever seen in 2018. But it was the perseverance of our Producers Avi Federgreen (Federgreen Entertainment), Emily Andrews, Laura Nordin and my amazing wife Jen Pogue (Filmcoop) and partners John Laing and Mark Gingras at Urban Post Production and the entire team at Raven Banner who were there from the very start, that got us across the finish line and to our Canadian Digital Release this month. I’m proud of the work everyone did on this, and the fact that this movie exists at all, is testament to this team. I’m proud that we were able to raise over $40,000 on our Indiegogo Campaign from our extraordinary film community, getting our friends and family and new fans to believe in our story and give us the financial ability to go out and make it without any grants or film funds. We simply couldn’t have done it without our Indiegogo believers. I guess I define ambitious as doing something hard the world has not asked for, or wants from you, but you do it anyway, damn the naysayers. Clearly, no one asked for a Japanese Canadian crime/cello/caper film set in Hamilton as Hamilton – but we made one anyway because that’s the story we wanted to tell, these were the people we wanted to work with. And that’s how you make history – by going somewhere no one else has gone before, to show others you can walk on a path you never saw in the first place.
The film premiered at the Whistler Film Festival (I’m actually sitting in Whistler as we speak). Has the city of Hamilton had the chance to see the film yet?
Whistler is SO GREAT, isn’t it John?! I’m so very grateful to have been able to world-premiere Things I Do For Money at the formidable Whistler Film Festival before COVID-19 changed everything for us. Who knows how long and how severe of an affect the pandemic will have on our ability to watch and enjoy films with an audience, but I’m so glad many of our cast and crew were able to make it to Whistler for their stunning, fun and dynamic festival for our team to enjoy. We had NINE Canadian cities lined up to release our movie theatrically, starting with the historic Westdale Cinema in Hamilton, which we were so excited to be able to do starting April 8. But Friday the 13th of March immediately changed everyone’s plans across North America. Since then, especially after the tragic murder of George Floyd on May 25 and the world’s necessary focus on Black Lives Matter, the brutal police killings of Black and Indigenous people and the social unrest in our North American Cities, made us not only pause our film, but look inward in what we’re doing in our own personal lives. The film had to wait because there are much more important issues happening in the world, all against the backdrop of a global pandemic. But now, as we look to launch the film digitally across Canada with Raven Banner, we have totally gone back to its roots in Hamilton with a wonderful, sold-out premiere at the Starlite Drive-In on July 22 that was just incredible to be a part of. We’ll also work with many Hamilton stakeholders like the Hamilton Film Fest, Lights Camera Hamilton, McMaster University and the Creative Theatre Company with Watch Party Zoom Events. But it’s not just Hamilton, we’re talking with organizations across Canada like the extraordinary The First Weekend Club, the UBC Film Society, Vancouver Asian Film Festival, Reel Asian Film Festival, Japanese Cultural Centres, Black Hole Films/That Shelf and BIPOC TV & Film to introduce the movie to our Canadian audience. I can’t wait for people to finally be able to see our film!
To bring things up to the present, how have you been navigating the quarantine and lockdown?
COVID-19 has changed absolutely everything, not just in our film & TV sector, but our world in general. I will say, I feel more safe going back to work and being on set, than I do going to the grocery store, but hopefully people will just start wearing masks in public on the regular. My fabulous wife Jen Pogue (and one of the producers of Things I Do For Money) and I got married last October, thankfully, well before the pandemic hit our shores. We’ve been locked down in Toronto with our dog Scruffie, trying to do our part by staying in and helping out when we can. I’ve been active and busy on the Directors Guild of Canada front, helping with our Return To Work efforts and Director Protocols, as well as taking advantage of this time off to do more training and mentorship programs and Zooms with the DGC and BIPOC TV & Film. Creatively, I was able to direct the first Canadian TV show to have been shot entirely remotely during the quarantine for Youtube Kids & Family Originals called Lockdown. Visionary creator J.J. Johnson and his team at Sinking Ship Entertainment quickly put together this project for us to do, and It was a surreal, exciting and just really great to have something creative to focus on during quarantine. I directed Episodes 3 and 4, but Episode 3 “Stake Outing” in particular (www.youtube.com/watch?v=HOP7VGErcAo&t=344s), written by the amazing Lakna Edilima, deals with racism during the pandemic and how our teenage characters deal with it. I was so proud to have been able to work on that project, and it kept me creatively in the flow for a bit while the whole word seemed to fall apart on the daily. But really, we’ve been glued to the news and our social feeds, trying to keep up with the health, political and social movements and policies that seem to change hour to hour. For a world that’s been shutdown for months, I’ve never been more busy or exhausted. My heart and thanks goes out to all the Frontline Workers and Health Care Professionals who are making us safe, trying to keep us healthy and sacrificing so much. They’re our true heroes.
Assuming we can get back to some semblance of normalcy, what plans do you have in the hopper?
I’m currently working on the amazing CBC show Murdoch Mysteries, prepping and getting familiar with all the onset COVID-19 Protocols, as well as releasing our film and setting up our special event Things I Do For Money “Watch Party” Zooms. Gary and I were JUST in the midst of writing the sequel to Things I Do For Money called Tokyo Aria, which was to be shot in Japan, but COVID-19 has set those plans aside, for now. In the meantime, please follow our socials to keep up with all our news and be sure to buy or rent our film on iTunes, Bell, Cineplex, Cogeco, Rogers, Shaw, Telus and Vimeo – available now!
Things I Do For Money – Greenband Trailer www.youtube.com/watch?v=moSWfuovQ0k&t=23s
Finally, any advice to aspiring filmmakers in the community?
Wash your hands, keep your distance from each other, wear your mask, mitigate risk. Practice compassion, patience, diligence, common sense and empathy during this unprecedented time. We all have to work together and do our part. The Japanese Canadian community also needs to work hard to help abolish systemic anti-Black and Indigenous racism. Don’t think we’re not a part of this movement, we can all do better. And mostly, don’t give up hope, be encouraging and kind to one another, tell the story you really want to tell and see it through your own distinct, personal point of view. Swing big and Shoot Good (Safe) Film.