Jamie Grant (36) is a director, producer, and photographer. He is also founder of Farpoint Productions, an independent production house based in Oxfordshire, UK.
This week I interviewed Grant, Director and Producer of Masters of Mahjong, a documentary chronicling mahjong and its spread throughout the world outside of China. Grant and his crew has been following and interviewing players around the world, did extensive filming at the 2017 World Riichi Championship in Las Vegas, and continues to produce what he aims to make “the definitive mahjong film for our time.”
Masters of Mahjong has now released a cut of some of the footage gathered from WRC 2017! While planning, filming, and production continues, Grant has taken the time to offer us a significant look into his background, goals, and the state of this anticipated documentary.
So you started you started a lot of your career, or your interests, in doing video game content?
Well, I was actually working in video production before I worked in video games, but if I’ve ever had a career in my life it would be a video game career. I lived in Japan for some time after university which allowed me to really gain a professional level of Japanese, you know, a fluent level and able to work with Japanese companies. And since then whenever I’ve needed work or wanted to move around into different fields I’ve found it easy to gravitate towards Japanese companies because I’m very familiar with the culture and the style of business.
But after I worked in Japan for about three or four years I came back to the south of England and worked in London in video production, and that was making factual television and documentaries for mainly cable and satellite channels. A lot of niche content; a lot of stuff about minorities and sort of underprivileged groups, and it gave me a great window into how you put together a piece of video content. But unfortunately that company didn’t really last in the long term and the owners got out of business when they could. Which was a good decision and I was, you know, young enough to be able to bounce back, which is when I went to Nintendo in Germany. I spent a little bit of time as a translator there but then soon became localization producer and I was working on…I was actually in the Pokémon division which is easily the hardest division there in my opinion. Other people may disagree but it’s…a behemoth, it’s a monster, it’s…you know, there’s so many companies, so many developers, a lot of offices, strange working hours, really, really hard schedules. It’s got a little bit of everything, but it was mainly a project management/producer kind of role and that’s where I really got to grips with big teams, long projects, stress, pressure. And, you know, after that, I think I did that for about four years, and then I was like, “Right. I’m going to just go on my own.”
Is that is that when you transitioned into documentary film making, or feature making?
Yeah. I mean, I knew I wanted to get back into doing video production somehow. But my first gateway back into it was to concentrate on photography. I’ve always been very passionate about photography, but I hadn’t really explored it on an absolute professional level. And so I did. I started to push myself to get work in photography, and I did, and I really started to understand cameras, technology, composition, artistic direction, light shadows, you know, those kind of things. And then I was like, “Okay, I’m ready to make this step up and be a director.”
I’ve been producing little pieces of work, corporate stuff and working with other creatives in my network that I really like, but I hadn’t done any directing because it’s just a completely different discipline. And I was like, “ You know what? Sod it. You know, I’m not even going to start small. I’ll start big. I’ll do a feature length doc. I’ll try it.” At the time I was living in Istanbul (which is another story for maybe another time.) When I came back to London I met with Gemma Sakamoto—you know the pro player and organization leader at WRC. We had worked at Nintendo together years ago. And I said to her, “What’s going on? What are you doing in your life?”
I knew, actually, that she’d done a lot of mahjong because she was teaching people at Nintendo when she was working in Frankfurt. But I didn’t really know the whole world and what she described to me was just unbelievable. I was like, “This is so, so rare, really.” And when I heard her story I instantly knew there’s something here about the world or the people of mahjong that can be made into a movie.
You mentioned before that a lot of the short video productions and interest pieces that you did for television were sort of very niche information and presentation. Mahjong is, in a Western environment, still very niche in its appeal; in its community. Is that what drew you to doing this as your first feature documentary?
Yeah. The simplest way to answer that is yes. Documentaries have to do a few things. They have to show a unique world from a unique perspective. And mahjong, I think in the modern day mahjong in the West, does that because it doesn’t matter what kind of mahjong you play in the West, you’re in the minority. It’s definitely niche, it’s definitely something special and that instantly hit me because it’s important when you do a documentary. You can’t just do something that you like.
And I do I do like mahjong. I have played it before—my parents owned a Hong Kong mahjong set. I hadn’t played that much to be honest with you. So I had to I certainly had to learn riichi mahjong for the first time after I met Gemma. But it’s really interesting because, well, I’m working with one of our executive producers, Candida Bradey, and Candida is a veteran documentary and narrative drama director and producer. When I was trying to explain to her about the unique nature of this world, the thing that she threw back at me to describe what I just said to her was that it sounded like a game that half a billion people play but no one has ever heard of.
I think that’s the best way you can sum up mahjong right now. There are lots of people playing, say, American mahjong in America, right? As we know there’s hundreds of thousands because lots of people buy the National Mahjong League’s card every year. But it’s still something that nobody really knows about. And even if you do play it you don’t know everything about it. Where is it from? Who made it? There’s a lot of mystery and mythical things out there.
Quite frequently I run into individuals who play mahjong that think what they’re playing is the only way, or aren’t really aware that there is a broader international appeal or spectrum to what they’re doing.
Yeah absolutely. And I think it’s kind of, let’s say “cute”, that many mahjong players who play only one type and are only familiar with one type will often tell you that their mahjong is the best mahjong. And I find this cute. I think other mahjong players, when they hear that, they might get defensive like, “No, my mahjong is the best.” But for me its just interesting that people are so…they have taken ownership of this game in a true sense. They’ve made it their own. I think if you look at the history of mahjong in, say, America, the American style mahjong known as the National Mahjong League rules, I think these kind of players would say that Mahjong is almost, you know, American. The way they play it, the way they feel about it, the people that they play with…there’s no connection to China or Japan. And I think that’s great. I think that it’s evolved and it’s formed its own culture.
Whatever your mahjong style is, whatever your community is, whatever your group is, wherever you are in the world, I think that lots of different people want to see that, not only mahjong players. I want this film, and the things that we reveal in the film, to be appealing to non-mahjong players because I think that’s a great goal to have, as well as to open the game to a completely new set of people; a new generation.
And you will know, and I’m sure lots of mahjong players today will know, that board games have become much more popular recently. There’s been a boom with them and I hope that mahjong can ride that wave, or create its own wave. I don’t know, but I think that’s definitely achievable with this film. So I’m looking to kind of…I mean in the footage that we’ve taken so far and what we filmed, when I show it to people who know nothing about mahjong they are much more open to the idea of finding out what it’s about when it’s explained to them through that lens—that it’s a board game, well it’s a tabletop game, and, you know, it has similarities. And of course it has all the strategy that more complicated games have, like chess.
Let’s turn a little bit more towards your actual production of the documentary. What has been your largest production challenge for this project?
Oh, it’s a great question. I think the first one…I’m going to pick first and then move up because there’s probably a couple. The first one was figuring out how to film mahjong, like, the actual game-play because as anyone who is a fan of mahjong knows, there is four players sitting at a table all looking in a completely different direction. And there’s a lot of things going on in front of your hand, behind your hand, to your left, to your right. You know, you’ve got people pon-ing and chi-ing, with tiles moving around from the middle of the hand to the edges of the hand. You cannot cover this properly with without a huge amount of cameras. I found this problem out on my first trip to Japan to film mahjong. We were lucky enough to be invited by the Japanese Professional Mahjong League to film in their studio which is where they film their lives games and tournaments. And so I had at this point got myself a list of things that I’d love to show people, you know, in stylistic ways because we’ve got to offer up something new. There’s a lot of people who film mahjong streams and they’re done in professional ways. But in a film way, in film terms, that might not be the best way and it might not be that engaging.
Because they are filming with no less than five cameras.
Exactly, and that’s the first thing you notice. You realize, when you watch a stream, you’re watching about four or five cameras. And that’s the other problem with mahjong. And I’m probably going to ruffle some feathers by saying this but let’s take Japanese mahjong for a second. The hanchan can be quite long, especially in a tournament. The style of directing of the footage is very sedentary—the camera stays still. And you’re fixed on those four players, plus maybe you can see the discards if you’ve got the top down, bird’s-eye camera. And over a long period, this can be a little bit…boring.
Especially when you consider that, although the players sit there with this very intense, focused concentration, there’s not really a whole lot happening there either.
No. And if you know, and since we’re taking the example of the Japanese mahjong, the pros are taught to minimize their gestures for various reasons. For politeness, for example, and for fairness. I think if mahjong had as much money and coverage and popularity as, say, poker then you’d have all the flashy cameras. Then you’d work into the whole thing. You know in poker, pro poker is televised, and you’ll have people bluffing for like 10 minutes where they’re deciding whether or not to raise the other guy or call him or whatever. Maybe if we get to that point then mahjong can work on those things.
I mean if you see a Mondo production, they’re great at capturing some of the those moments…you’ve got to be quick. The director has to be very quick. It’s like a sport. I mean imagine how the directors and the crew work on filming football, for example. You’ve got to be, you know, milliseconds fast in decision making to capture those moments when, say, a really famous player starts bashing the table with his tiles because he feels like he’s going to win. But with smaller productions you can’t do that. You’ve just got your fixed cameras and I thought, well, we need to do something differently. We don’t want to do the same thing because we’re not offering the fans anything new.
So that was the first hurdle, like, what do we do? So the first thing I thought was, you know, I’m never going to have…there’s never gonna be an opportunity in the film to show an entire match—it’s too long. We’ve got enough things to get on with in the film. So if we shorten down the games to the point where, well, we don’t understand who’s discarding what and how the flow of the game is going tile by tile, then what should we focus on? And the answer was, “Well we should focus on the players. What are they doing? How are they feeling? What are they looking like?” So I started to explore more close ups and, you know, working with the cinematographer, Sam, trying to get their raw emotion and feeling through the lens from how they’re feeling from moment to moment; how are they reacting. Because that’s more interesting and I think a lot of players feel like they don’t want to show any emotion at the table because, you know, they definitely don’t want to show the tell. They don’t want to have the tell.
Do you feel like you’ve been successful in capturing that so far?
Oh yeah. At WRC I’m sure a lot of people tried really hard to kind of emulate that professionalism and stuff, but everyone has a tell and the camera does not lie. The point is not to expose people’s tells, but I think, when people are frustrated, when they’re tired, or when they’re excited, when they think they’ve got a good hand, it comes through. And I think from that you can build a really exciting picture of what’s going on in the match; in the hanchan. So that was kind of the first, biggest problem we had. Like, how do we represent mahjong in an exciting and new way? And what it made me think of when I was going through this whole process was, “Man, I wish this was an anime!” Because in anime you can do anything you want. You can speed up time. You can slow down. You’ve got any angle you want.
So what was your number two challenge then?
Well number two is frankly getting to all these places because, you know, we are a UK production at heart, although every time I film anywhere I use local professionals and creatives. I mean there’s so many places and so many people that I want to film. The question is do we have the budget and resources to be able to do that—to go everywhere. That’s a huge ongoing challenge to be honest with you. Because we want to go to lots of tournaments; we want to go to lots of clubs. We won’t make them all, I know that.
So in the face of all of that, what’s been your most rewarding experience or your biggest revelation personally?
Rewarding experience—I’ll start there. Well I think the most rewarding experiences has been meeting all the different types of people who play mahjong. It’s certainly opened my eyes about what they think and how they play. Some people were more passionate than I could ever have imagined. Truly absorbed in this game to the point where I think there are people out there (and they know who they are, I’ve met them they know me) who will be practicing mahjong every free moment of their day. They’ll have a practice routine, a training routine coming up to a tournament. They’ll spend all their money on travelling around to go to a tournament. And those kinds of people sharing with me their lives, where they come from, who they are, how did they get to that point where mahjong was the thing that they do. That’s been the most rewarding thing because I could go to as many tournaments as I like, but I wouldn’t be able to make a great film and persuade people of the greatness of mahjong if it hadn’t been for people opening up their lives and their passion for the game. And so it’s a huge reward for me that they do that and I’m ever appreciative that they do that. That’s easily the single biggest reward.
On lots of different levels, smaller levels maybe, I get to see mahjong from a perspective that even players don’t. You know, I get to walk around the tables constantly. I mean, maybe refs know this best. I get to see all the hands happening live, and I get to see the behind the scenes too. I get to see players being nervous, being frustrated, being very excited when they win. You’ll see a few of those moments in the film. Those are some of the nicer moments, definitely.
So how about how about a revelation. This could either be, you know, something personal to you as a director/producer, or something specifically related to this project.
The biggest revelation is probably that for some people mahjong goes way beyond. I thought I could wrap this film up a little bit quicker than, in reality, I will take in terms of time. And the reason is because a lot of the people that I want to film, and I’ve met, and I continue to film…their lives are much deeper than I ever imagined. I didn’t think that this world would ever be as big and deep as it is, and the roots it’s taken in people’s lives, and the generations of their family and the culture, and so on and so forth. To be honest with you it’s much more than a hobby.
A lifestyle, would you call it?
Yeah, it is a lifestyle for some people. And I think that’s special. There is no one out there who’s organizing their life and their schedule and their weekly or daily routine around, you know, solitaire. I mean this is a game that, you know, it requires a lot of time, practice, patience. You need four players to play it when you play it live. Obviously, you could play online or, you know, on a piece of software. But I think it goes a lot further than what I ever imagined. This isn’t some kind of dying game that just happened to pop up in humanity over the period of a couple of hundred years, including now. It’s something much bigger than that now.
So if you had expected initially to have this done a lot sooner, in a nice package, where are you now with your overall production?
It’s hard to quantify; it’s hard to answer that. But I always imagined that a great climax and a great structure for this film and how it would end would be centered around a tournament. To follow the lives of a select number of players around the world and see, as they work towards getting better, and then appearing in a tournament, and then whether they win it or lose…that structure, that film, that was the initial idea that I came up with and that would be great. But it’s not going to. It didn’t work out like that.
I had a brief conversation with you at WRC, and you seemed, I don’t to want to say despondent, but very thoughtful and that’s what you mentioned. Do you want to talk about that?
Yeah. So to answer your question then, that’s where I thought we were going, and where we’re really going now is, rather than it being a film based around the competitive nature and obsessive nature of the players around, say, just Japanese mahjong, we’re going to take this pretty much global, or at least think of it in terms of the different mahjong types out there that are really, really popular right now and try and bring everything to light. So the best way I can sum this up is I want this film, right now, to be the definitive mahjong film for our time. I want this film to last for the next few decades as the film that a couple of generations of people will go, “Oh, you need to watch this film if you want to understand mahjong,” because we’re going to feature the history of mahjong; the history in America, and how it got there. The Japanese pro leagues, the anime, the manga. The difficult living of mahjong life in Japan, being a pro, and what it takes.
You will have known, if you’ve if you’ve been following us, that we’ve followed both Japanese players and the foreign pro players like Garthe Nelson and Jenn Barr. We’ll obviously feature European players and what it’s like going to a European tournament. And we’ll definitely focus on the history of the Chinese game, but I want to stress that we can’t feature everything, and I made a decision early on this isn’t about mahjong in China. China can make its own mahjong films and they are a lot better than what I’m going to make. You know, they make drama films, they make documentary films. For them it’s like…I’m sure that there’s probably, you know, as many mahjong clips online as there are football clips in the West. I don’t need to go into that space; that’s covered. I want to get mahjong in the West documented and recorded for history. So that’s where I want to take it really. The ins and outs of what is going to feature in the film will largely depend on the characters because I also want this to be a very character driven film. I want this to be about their lives and their connections to mahjong. I don’t want it to be just, you know, a very factual PBS style documentary.
Do you know what your next step is? What your next practical, logistical step is?
Oh, yeah. That’s a very easy question to answer. The next practical step is getting money. We are not fully funded. We’ve got this far through investment, through some very passionate, very helpful, very supportive American investors. But we’re ever on the hunt for funding to get this done and I think that’s going to decide a lot of what we do in the approach to it.
The direction is set. I know what this film is. But you know like I mentioned earlier, where are we going to go? Who are we going to film? And over what period as well? Because we can keep filming for…some documentaries take 10 years to make, you know. So we also have to decide that timeline. And I don’t I honestly don’t want it to be that long. I think there’s enough going on. It’s so rich and active right now in the community that I think there’s a lot to film.
So, let’s not neglect the people that work with you. What can tell me about your crew? Your supporters and inspirations behind this project and as a filmmaker?
Yeah sure. I think probably we have to start with Gemma Sakamoto because, as I mentioned before, it was a lot about what she’d experienced in mahjong, what she’s doing right now; that kind of inspired me to come up with ideas for this film and that got us going, you know. Her connections, her inviting me into the community, in UK and Europe, and allowing me to meet so many people in the States and Japan. She got me in the door with Japanese Professional Mahjong League. So, the film is massively, massively improved because Gemma is a big part of it. So, she’s one of our executive producers. And the other executive producer is Candida Bradey. You can look up Candida Brady’s profile on IMDB or wherever, but she’s worked in film television for about 20 years and her last couple of films are fantastic. She’s worked with Jeremy Irons on a film about garbage; it’s called Trashed. It’s won so many awards all over the planet. That’s great. She’s also done a great drama film recently about…it’s an adaptation of a book based in the north of England about this group of homeless kids and it’s about…
Urban and the Shed Crew?
Urban and the Shed Crew! Yeah that’s it. And that’s, you know, that’s out right now. You can buy it; you can rent it. But she’s phenomenal at basically understanding the ins and outs of the film business. And so, she’s a great supporter. She thinks the world of mahjong is really interesting and it needs to get out there, so she’s supporting on so many levels.
We’ve had lots of support from people, investment wise. I won’t go into detail about all the people that have given us money. But in terms of WRC of course we’ve worked very closely with David Bresnick, and lots of different people from NARMA and USPML, so that’s been fascinating. A few of them went out to Japan while I was there, which was great. So that’s when I first met them and that’s why some of them end up in the first trailer that we released last year. But since then I’ve also been working with PML, the Pacific Mahjong League, and LAPOM as well, in California. I could go into detail about everybody who wants to be a part of this, and I want them to be a part of it, and you are helping us right now. But I can’t. But yeah, from Seattle to Florida we’ve got people in the States who are being very supportive. In Europe we have, you know, people like Tina Christensen and EMA that are really helping out. So, I hope that we can film a lot more in Europe as well in the coming year. But…sorry you’re probably going to ask me about, I know you said the second part was like inspiration’s as a filmmaker. Is that right?
Inspiration, either for this project (obviously we already know that Gemma is a big part of that.) Or just anybody else that you want to recognize.
I think then if I can recognize one more person it would be the chairman, Moriyama, at JPML for giving us the support to film his players and their organization. Because I think that’s a big thing. I think a lot of riichi mahjong fans want to see more of that organization and what they do. And yeah, it was a real treat and a pleasure to be able to film behind the scenes at their studios. So, I’m hoping that makes it all into the film.
Thank you, Jamie, for giving us this opportunity to interview you about Masters of Mahjong!