‘Tokyo Project’

Your ‘Girls’ Withdrawal Cure: ‘Tokyo Project’ Reunites Star Players From the Series

Richard Shepard, the director responsible for so many of your favorite Girls episodes, debuts a new film at Tribeca that’s like a Girls family reunion.

Courtesy Giles Nuttgens

The first coping mechanism when a long-running TV series ends its run—particularly one as news-making and adored as Girls—is to seek solace in finding out what each of the parties involved have going on next.

Creators Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner will be embarking on a multi-city live tour in support of their Lenny Letter newsletter. Stars Zosia Mamet, Jemima Kirke, and Alex Karpovsky all have multiple film projects in the works, while Adam Driver will continue his Hollywood ascension with another Star Wars film and a handful of Oscar-baiting projects. And Allison Williams and Andrew Rannells are riding the wave of critical raves for their respective performances in Get Out and the Broadway revival of Falsettos.

But just as intriguing is tracking the people behind the camera who were responsible for creating the fabric of the show: its look, its feeling, its energy. With rare exception—like the series’ penultimate episode “Goodbye Tour,” which was helmed by Nisha Ganatra—Girls relied on a consistent stable of directors for the bulk of its episodes: Jesse Peretz, Richard Shepard, Jamie Babbit, and Dunham herself, each with their own specialty when it comes to capturing a certain spirit of the show.

Richard Shepard’s was the so-called “bottle episode,” which are the outings typically reserved for one or two of the series’ regular characters that almost seem like one-act plays and, on Girls, reliably incited intense debate.

There was “One Man’s Trash,” crassly known as the one where Dunham plays naked ping-pong with Patrick Wilson, and the sublime Marnie-centric “Panic in Central Park.” In the final season of Girls, Shepard directed “American Bitch,” one of the strongest episodes of the series, in which Dunham’s Hannah and a writer played by Matthew Rhys debate rape, consent, and male privilege—and all with the surprise appearance of a penis.

There are no penises, surprise or otherwise, in Shepard’s first big post-Girls project, a short film that premiered this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tokyo Project, which was in part inspired by Girls’ own sojourn to Japan in season five of the series, also serves to ease the withdrawal Girls fans might be experiencing now that the show is over.

Like much of Shepard’s work on Girls, it centers on an intense relationship between two characters, in this case played by Elisabeth Moss—currently making your jaw drop in The Handmaid’s Tale—and, to deepen the Girls connection, Ebon Moss-Bachrach, who played Marnie’s manic ex-husband Desi on the show. All that, plus Dunham and Konner are executive producers on the film.

The film follows Moss-Bachrach’s Sebastian as he repeatedly encounters Moss’s Claire while on a business trip in Tokyo. As their connection electrifies and they explore Tokyo together, the heartbreaking truth about their past comes to light.

With the film playing at Tribeca, we spoke to Shepard about life after Girls, how the show inspired both Tokyo Project and his work going forward, and the last Girls episode he directed.

Your last episode of Girls was the big Elijah episode “The Bounce.” So I have to say thank you for the gift of Andrew Rannells doing Smash on Girls.

He was amazing, wasn’t he?

God yes.

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That guy. The fact that HBO’s not doing a spinoff with his character is literally a crime. He is such a great character and he’s such a good actor.

Was that ever a discussion?

It was as much of a discussion as we were all like, “We want to keep you around forever.” That was the discussion.

How did working on Girls inspire or affect what you’ve done with Tokyo Project?

It’s very connected in a way, because I was in Tokyo when they shot the Tokyo episode of Girls, even though I wasn’t directing. I was basically seething in jealousy of Jesse Peretz the entire time he was directing there. Literally just fuming and being like, all I want to be doing is directing a film here. So while Jesse was off directing I was in the hotel writing this short film. Then I was like, OK, now I have this film but how am I going to pay for it?

Was there a Girls connection there?

I didn’t want to get a commercial sponsorship because I just wanted to do something for myself. Usually these short films can get a corporate tie-in, but the whole point of writing it was to do something for myself. So as I was sitting there wondering how I was going to pay for it, I got a residual check from Girls. It’s so strange—I’m not even joking—it literally paid for the travel for Ebon and Lizzie and myself and the DP.

That’s a crazy coincidence.

That was the only hard cost in really making the movie. We got everything else donated to us. What was stopping me from making it was the inherent cost of getting to Tokyo. And I wouldn’t be going to Tokyo if it wasn’t for Girls making me write this short and I wouldn’t be going to Tokyo if Girls residuals hadn’t paid for our plane ticket. It was a very kismet situation.

Did Girls inspire the writing or the story you wanted to tell?

Having directed a bunch of episodes for Girls like the one last season that was sort of a love story, I really wanted to write a love story. I was inspired by the episode to try my hand at writing something different from what I normally write and direct. From the creative standpoint, not only did I want to make the movie in Tokyo, but I wanted to make a love story. And I also wanted to do something that was ultimately the total opposite.

What do you mean by opposite?

Girls gives you a lot of creative freedom, but it’s ultimately Lena’s vision you’re trying to give the best suit to. And this was certainly a case where I wanted to do something for myself. At the same time, it couldn’t have happened without Girls and it couldn’t have happened without the experience I had directing on Girls. I wouldn’t have wanted to do that without having done some of those episodes that sort of inspired me.

You said it’s a love story. Is there a personal inspiration behind it?

I love the idea of strangers meeting in a foreign city. There’s deep romance in travel. I’m sure you feel this whenever you’re in another country, that whatever restaurant you’re in is the greatest restaurant there’s ever been. There’s something romantic about travel in general. I was interested in that. I was interested in the idea of falling in love with the place while also falling in love with someone else. I don’t want to give away a spoiler, but I wanted a story about intimacy, whether it’s with a stranger or someone that you know.

What is a film shoot in Tokyo like?

The actors arrived on a Sunday and were shooting on a Monday. Everyone was completely jetlagged. I mean deeply jetlagged, to the point where we were filming until like two in the morning and then finding a sake bar that was open and then drinking for two hours and then getting back to work. It was a very hallucinatory five days making that movie. But I think it ultimately helps the film, in a way. It gives an intimacy to it.

What was the biggest difference between doing this and an episode of Girls?

When you’re making a TV show or a movie, there’s so many people [on the crew]. There’s like 90 people. There are blocks of trucks. When I did “Panic in Central Park” and “One Man’s Trash,” and even a little bit when I did “American Bitch,” we made the crew basically wait downstairs. It was like a ten-person crew instead of a 70-person crew. I wanted that experience in Tokyo, where we had, ultimately, like 12 people total. There was no makeup person on set. There was no wardrobe person on set. We were just an intimate group of people. Lizzie was changing in the back of a car.

What was it like to work with Ebon in this capacity versus Girls? He plays such different characters.

I think Ebon is a brilliant actor, and he’s so fucking funny on Girls. He and Andrew Rannells probably improvise more than anybody. Oh my god, he’s so funny in that character. He’s an asshole and a weirdo. You love him and you hate him. He’s so great. I got to know him personally through the show and wrote the part for him. There are so many different sides to Ebon. I believe he’s a leading man. I believe Ebon is a sexy, sensitive soul but he may not always show that part on Girls and I wanted to give him a little showcase.

Is there a goal to expand this to feature length?

The answer is absolutely not. One of the things I wanted to do was just tell this story. I didn’t think there was a longer version to it. For me, I wanted to do this short at this moment in my life because I just wanted to have that experience. I said the only way I could do this in the future is if we visited this couple in 10 years and did it every 10 years for the next 30 years and made it a Boyhood kind of movie. What I like about the film is that it’s like a great short story. It leaves you wanting more but also satisfied.