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Seattle band, filmmaker hope to make it ‘Big in Japan’

The Seattle band Tennis Pro stars in the semi-fictionalized tale of their efforts to make it "Big in Japan." (John Jeffcoat image)

Seattle band Tennis Pro has been kicking around for more than a decade, but the trio has never been able to break out. So the guys figured they should head for Japan for a last shot at stardom before giving up.

Their quest is kind of chronicled in the semi-fictionalized new film “Big in Japan,” making its hometown debut this weekend at the Seattle International Film Festival.

While the film follows band members David Drury, Sean Lowry and Phillip Peterson and their exploits in Japan, director and screenwriter John Jeffcoat says “it’s absolutely not a documentary.”

“It’s a little confusing because it’s a real band that’s sort-of playing fictionalized versions of themselves but in a narrative story that’s loosely based on reality.”

Jeffcoat, an acclaimed Seattle filmmaker best known for his SIFF award-winning “Outsourced” — which was made into an NBC sitcom several years ago — says the inspiration came when he was introduced to Tennis Pro while shooting a series of documentaries on local bands for the MTV series “$5 Cover.”

“They were just really frustrated with Seattle because the music wasn’t catching on, and wanting to just go to Tokyo because for whatever reason they felt like their music, which is more of a fun, pop music, would be more popular over there,” he says.

While Jeffcoat was eager to make a rock and roll road movie, he wanted to do something different. And what he came up with couldn’t have been any less conventional.

Jeffcoat traveled with a tiny crew and the band to Japan in 2010 to shoot a series of shows. But he admits he didn’t have a script, or really any concrete idea of what to do. Instead, he just shot a number of their performances and their travels around Tokyo.

“There were definitely late nights that were absolutely exhausting and just riding home on the train, I’m thinking to myself ‘what the hell is going on, how is this going to be a movie?'”

Jeffcoat returned to the United States with some great footage, but ultimately decided it wasn’t enough. After two years, he crafted a script and returned to Japan with the band to finish the film.

Luckily, the band hadn’t broken up, but Jeffcoat had the added challenge of marrying the footage shot in 2010 with what was shooting in 2012. The guys had grown a little older and looked a little different. “Luckily it worked out pretty well and I don’t think anyone realizes there’s a two year gap in a lot of the footage,” he says.

The result is a fun, sweet, funny and revealing look at the trials and tribulations of pursuing your dreams while faced with the daunting reality of everyday life.

“I think it touches on a lot of the aspects of what it’s like to be in a band, the struggles you have, the decisions you need to make and the challenges that are ahead of you as you try to pursue your goals,” Jeffcoat says.

Tennis Pro still hasn’t made it big in Japan, or Seattle for that matter, but Jeffcoat says the band gained an enthusiastic following in the neighborhoods and clubs around Tokyo where the film was shot.

“In the neighborhoods that we played, the band started becoming known and there were times where we’d be shooting in the streets, and people would come by and recognize them and give them high-fives in the middle of a scene that we were trying to shoot,” he laughs.

Jeffcoat is currently showing “Big In Japan” at film festivals and is making plans for commercial release. He hopes to show the film in Tokyo later this year. And maybe the tagline for the movie will come true: “If you want to make it here, you have to make it somewhere else first,” he says.

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