In a short period of time, Keiko Sugihara has managed to build an impressive foundation for her entertainment career. This Japanese-Chinese American filmmaker from Chicago, Illinois, has been a Writers’ Assistant on Marvel’s Helstrom as well as worked in Honolulu on Hawaii Five-0 as a Producers’ Assistant before moving to Los Angeles to work as a Writers’ Assistant on the same show. Sugihara also earned first place in the 2020 Branches Interactive Script Contest for her original genre pilot, Nikkei Curse of Yokai. In addition to all this work, Sugihara also wrote, directed, and starred in her short film, Vampire American. Wanting to learn more about Sugihara’s career and Vampire American, I was able to interview her for ScifiPulse.
Nicholas Yanes: Growing up, what were some stories you loved? Are there any you still enjoy revisiting?
Keiko Sugihara: You’re asking if I enjoy revisiting Spongebob? Haha! Yes, yes I do. But let’s see. I’m a 90s kid, and we had cable. Which meant that I watched everything. But I loved Pokemon, Dragon Ball Z, and we had The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Space Jam on VHS… Unfortunately, I don’t revisit these stories much because my queue is infinite, but I recognize that these are some of the shows and movies that shaped my storytelling voice and interests today.
Yanes: When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in entertainment? Was there a moment this goal crystalized for you?
Sugihara: I studied film production at the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa, and I think declaring my major was a way of saying, okay, I’m gonna try this out. During my last semester, I had an internship with Hawaii Five-0, doing PA stuff. And as I did, there was a growing comfort that the sight of basecamp brought, and something electric about working on a buzzing set with crew that became friends that became family…and over the course of that experience, I knew that this was the industry that I wanted to be in.
Yanes: You are from Chicago. How do you deal with people who disrespect Chicago style pizza?
Sugihara: Haha! How do I deal? Well… I am not friends with those people. I guess that’s how I deal. Nick, don’t tell me you are one of those people. It’s not a casserole.
[Editor’s note: Because I’m a coward, I refuse to pick a side in this debate. However, I look down on people who order from chain pizza restaurants when most cities have great local pizzerias.]
Yanes: I learned about you from your short film Vampire American. What was the inspiration behind this story?
Sugihara: Well, this film was originally sparked by my frustrations about whitewashing, the lack of representation, and misrepresentation of Asian people on screen. And obviously those are issues that are still being worked on. When I was thinking of the concept of the film, I was asking myself, how can I take a sensitive topic that’s angering and heartbreaking, but also make it entertaining? How do I say something without making people feel like they’re being hit over the head with it…even though I want to hit them over the head with it? Haha.
But people like vampires, and people like to laugh. So, I thought this would be my take on a vampire story that was personal, but also hopefully a story that people of horror and humans alike would enjoy.
Yanes: Given the variety of people of horror that exist, why did you a select a vampire for this story instead of another type of creature?
Sugihara: Because vampires were the most budget friendly. Haha! Seriously though. I thought about zombies, werewolves… really. But I did not have that budget. In fact, we shot this film on a potato with shoe strings and duct tape and the hearts and souls of my faithful friends who got paid in hugs and thank yous. So I guess feasibility was a thing. Other than that, vampires are popular and familiar creatures in movies. I thought a vampire could be accessible to viewers and felt like the lifestyle and metaphors would translate well on screen.
Yanes: The main character of Vampire American does mention a werewolf existing. If you could expand this story into something longer, what other creatures would you incorporate? Are there other paranormals you think work with the metaphor of the story?
Sugihara: Yes, her friend Jo! Joseph? The werewolf! Let’s see, lots of creature logic still to solidify, but I’d definitely include werewolves – as a metaphor for African American folx. Um… humans touch their hair without asking but that’s not something they should do. Yikes. I’d also like to include skeletons for Mexican Americans, inspired by the Day of the Dead… Ghosts could be senior citizens… Mermaids could be differently abled people… Centaurs could be mixed-Caucasian. They’d say something like, “My parents got together but it was very controversial.” Frankensteins could be of many intersectionalities… Oh, zombies. What could zombies be? Probably teenagers.
Yanes: On this note, if you had the opportunity to expand Vampire American, what are some other elements you’d love to include?
Sugihara: I’d love for viewers to meet Lauren’s family and see what they’re like, along with Lauren’s friends and their dreams and goals. Like, what is it like being a werewolf or a skeleton or a mermaid in this very “Human” world, and how do Lauren and her friends support or clash with one another? I’d definitely have to include the details of Lauren’s romance situation. Lauren on dating apps? Could be its own movie.
Yanes: Vampire American was first released in 2018. Reflecting on its production, how do you think it helped you become a better creator?
Sugihara: Hmm. So, there’s two parts to this for me. First, acting and directing at the same time was a big challenge, and it only made me gain more respect for actors and their craft…and then those who can do both…?! Because it’s so difficult. Which is to say, I feel like it helped me as a director to better understand an actor’s process, which is important to start learning early.
That said, I don’t think the production of the film necessarily helped me become a better creator…but it was post-production and seeing with fresh eyes what we’d actually shot, for better or for worse, and piecing the film together, and getting feedback…I had a mentor who told me that learning comes not by experience, but by reflection of the experience, and there’s nothing like watching your film for the hundredth time in post to make you reflect on how you would’ve done it differently, or how you’d like to change it. And it’s those reflections afterwards that have helped me become better at that the process of creating.
Yanes: When people finish watching Vampire American, what do you hope they take away from the experience?
Sugihara: I hope people laughed. Gosh, I hope they laughed. One time I watched Vampire American with people who, I swear – didn’t laugh at all throughout the film, but at the end said, “That was funny.” And I was basically internally combusting hearing that. Beyond that, I hope Asian American viewers feel seen. And I hope that everyone might feel lighter… hopeful… and even motivated.
For me as a creator, my goal is that the heaviness of a topic never outweighs the hope and determination that people have to make progress happen. Because that’s literally my life, and the life of my friends’ and colleagues – living in Los Angeles and being on the grind because we want to tell stories that matter.
Yanes: You currently working on One Thousand Cuts. What can you share about this project?
Sugihara: It’s a genre short film that I wrote and directed. It’s about a young Asian American woman that works in a corporate office, and begins to discover these mysterious cuts on her body after experiencing microaggressions. What else can I say… it stars Miki Ishikawa, who gave a fantastic performance and is also a quality human being. I so enjoyed working with her. We recently shot it and we are currently in post-production.
Yanes: Finally, other than One Thousand Cuts, what else are you working on that people could look forward to?
Sugihara: I am currently working on some things I probably shouldn’t talk about… at least not with a journalist or on the Internet. So, I’ll refrain. But I can tell you that I’m working on the One Thousand Cuts feature script. So… I guess all that people have to look forward to for now is One Thousand Cuts, related… well, that’s not true, I can also say that I’m working on myself. And I think that is something we can all look forward to.