Filmmaker Interview: “Etienne!”

On May 30th, Rooftop Films will show the New York Premiere of Etienne! a charming and quirky road trip movie about a man and his hamster.

Etienne! tells the story of Richard, a shy type who spends his days taking care of his best friend, a dwarf hamster named Etienne. One day Richard finds out that his hamster has terminal cancer. The veterinarian recommends euthanasia. But before he lets his best friend go, Richard decides to take Etienne on a bicycle road trip to show it the world.

This adorably off-beat comedy is director Jeff Mizushima’s first feature film. It features a fantastic soundtrack, including the band Great Northern who make a special appearance in the film.

Rooftop Films spoke to Jeff about reinventing the road trip movie formula and how to get a winning performance from a hamster.

Rooftop Films: Give a brief description of your film for those who haven’t seen it.

Jeff Mizushima: My film is about a guy who finds out that his best and only friend, a dwarf hamster named Etienne, has terminal cancer, so he takes his pet on a bicycle road trip up the California coast to show Etienne the world before he dies. Along the way, the two meet a variety of characters that teach them about life, friendship, and happiness.

RF: Where did the idea for a road trip with a hamster come from?

JM: I felt like a road trip movie would be fairly inexpensive to produce for my first film, but I didn’t want to make your typical “two guys and a girl in a vintage car” road trip movie, so I thought a dwarf hamster on a bicycle would be something people haven’t seen before. Also, dwarf hamsters are freakin cute as all hell.

RF: What’s it like trying to get a performance out of a hamster?

JM: Hamsters, like most animals, perform when you dangle a piece of cheese in front of their face, much like my lead actor, Richard Vallejos.

RF: The film features a lot of older technology, like cassettes and pinhole cameras, and has a lovingly nostalgic look to it. What was the emotional effect you were seeking?

JM: I like placing childhood nostalgia into my projects, even if it’s something that no one will understand. There is a sense of timelessness that I was hoping to achieve in the film. One of the props in particular was a music box my mother had since forever, probably dates back before I was born. We used it in the movie and then I lost it. Don’t tell my mom.

RF: The film starts off almost as a spoof, but ends up being very genuine and heartwarming. How did you achieve the balanced tone, and that progression?

JM: The tone was tricky to pull off and it became a process of trial and error in the editing room. I’m still not sure if it’s completely successful, because I have been told many times how uneven the film plays. Sometimes I think they tell me that just to hurt my feelings. For the most part, I tried to direct the film like a drama, and that’s when I think I was successful with the tone, but as soon as I tried to be funny, it fell apart.

The ending in the script is actually much darker than how the movie ends. I don’t want to say exactly what was different for people who haven’t seen the film yet, but I will say that if you ever saw Easy Rider, the original ending of Etienne! was very similar.

RF: What I love about Etienne! is that it’s both a silly film about death and loss, and a serious film about weirdos and their obsessions. What can this film teach us about life?

JM: Wait, you think this film is silly?  Dude. . . .

Umm, there is something to be said about people who obsess over animals and treat pets like people. Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven was a documentary that inspired that idea for me and also, just being around pet lovers, there is something hilarious about these human-pet relationships that at it’s core is very sad, very very sad, but beautiful.

RF: You have a lot of great music in the film. Can you tell us about it?

JM: Much of the music was written into the script, most of which we couldn’t afford to license, but we used as reference. Then, we had a composer, Mark Bachle, write the title song and a few of the other memorable tunes. It also helped that the band, Great Northern, act in the movie.

I wish we had the money to get all the tracks that I originally wanted, though. It would have been filled with amazing 60s french pop songs.

RF: Are you a full-time filmmaker? If not, what else are you up to?

JM: If by “full-time filmmaker” you mean unemployed, then yes, I am a full-time filmmaker. In addition to being a full-time filmmaker, I also run my own video production company and produce event videos and promotional media in Los Angeles, but don’t ask me to film your wedding, I hate doing wedding videos.  I hate it more than anything.

RF: Tell us about your next project.

JM: It’s a wedding video. No, just kidding.  For the past two years, going on three, I have been shooting a documentary on Japanese artist, Lunna Menoh. She designs wearable art, paints, plays in an electro-rock band, and is a true performance artist at heart, similar to Yoko Ono. It’s taking forever to finish because I’m doing everything myself: directing, operating the camera, sound mixing, editing, handing out release forms. . . I hope to complete it some time before I die.

RF: What excites you about having your film screened at Rooftop?

JM: Beautiful New York skyline. Hip crowd. Strong support of independent film and filmmakers. Cocaine. And it’s something different and fresh.

Come learn the fate of Richard and his hamster, Etienne, on May 27th in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.

Tickets and more information here.