Tempest’s Downpour – Anime USA: Interview with J. Michael Tatum

Posted on Dec 04 2011

At Anime USA this year, I had the pleasure of interviewing J. Michael Tatum in person. The last three questions were offered by fans.

The main sources of inspiration for acting, writing and directing:

He describes the inspiration as being “very circumstantial.” In a role, he tries to leave himself open so inspiration can come from anywhere. “The more unexpected, the better,” he said.

Music is important to Tatum in that it helps him get in-character, but it also helps him relate to the world. He said that if he can’t find the soundtrack to a series, he tries to make his own playlist.

Like any actor, he watches people and learns by example, but he said that sometimes the inspiration comes from nowhere – “it just clicks.” He called it a “bizarre little alchemy that comes out of me.” Most of all, he tries to keep his imagination well-fed on “weird stuff.”

When adapting a script, Tatum already has actors in mind for the various roles. Sometimes the actor he envisions winds up playing that role and still manages to surprise him. But sometimes, someone else gets the role. Tatum said that he is not so committed to a source of inspiration that he can’t let it grow and change. “I don’t like being an authoritarian writer” he said. “I like being surprised by what people will do with the words I’ve written.”

Tatum says he imagines actors for the roles because he needs a voice for each character. He has never written a script that he hasn’t been able to picture a voice for.

His inspiration for directing isn’t terribly different from the writing: he loves to be surprised. He said some directors know exactly how they want the lines to be read, but he doesn’t. He says he knows how the delivery should make him feel and to get a proper feeling, the actor needs to understand the context of the dialogue. He tries to give the actors all the information they need to do a take.

“Once the actors understand the context, I’m often surprised by what they come up with,” he said.

He described directing as a collaborative effort in that he can’t be too strict with how he wants the take, and he needs to work with the actors to bring forth the story.

Frustrations adapting someone else’s writing:
Actually, Tatum said that the frustrations are mild and they mostly come in the form of, “God, I wish the flaps of this line weren’t so short so I could have them say _____.”

He said he enjoys writing from someone else’s story because it gives him the chance to focus more on characterization. He wants to make the characters as 3-dimensional as possible. Even when writing original stories, he says he likes to treat the first draft as an adaptation of someone else’s work.

“I’m not interested in something that isn’t character-oriented,” he said. “Reading is getting to know people – it’s how you broaden your perspective on what it means to be human.” He cited C.S. Lewis’ quote: “We read to know that we’re not alone.”

Anime as a character-driven thing:
As a longtime anime fan, he credits anime for shaping his taste in storytelling style. The common cartoons when he was a child were simple, episodic with 2-dimensional characters. When he was introduced to anime, he saw it as an opportunity to dig into a fine new method of storytelling.

“Here’s something that’s very adult, with dark themes of love, death, valor, war, and it’s all presented in a very authentic way,” he said.

He said he never encountered storytelling like that, where you had to follow the plot week to week. He described it as “shaping the idea of what a story is and what it can be.”

Describing his dream anime:
Orlando by Virginia Woolfe was made into a film in the 1990s, but Tatum says that the better adaptation would have been in anime format. The story revolves around an immortal human who starts out as a man and by the book’s end is a woman. It delves into politics and gender, which Tatum described as a “potent idea.”

He said that rather than shortening an epic to two hours, a full series would provide a better time and space for it. “[Anime] would make it as intricate a tapestry for the viewer and give characters room to grow,” he said.

Anime offers long stories where viewers are meant to pay close attention and work to understand the story. “The story would avail itself perfectly in that medium,” he said. With programs like Ranma 1/2, the anime industry has proven to be very comfortable with subject matter like gender changes and politics, which American entertainment may not yet be ready to grasp.

What he would cosplay.
When asked what he would cosplay if he could, Tatum jokingly replied that he would want to be all the good-looking characters, especially Eneru from One Piece “if I had a body like that.” He said he would love to cosplay any character he voice acts for, but Isaac from Baccano! would be the most challenging, since Isaac cosplays throughout the series. He said that would be difficult to explain throughout conventions. “Are you Santa?” “No, I’m Isaac.” “Are you a cowboy?” “No, I’m Isaac.”

Where he would be if he did not find his way into the anime industry:
He admitted that he might still be working in advertising. However, he suggested that he might also have become an architect or a recital pianist.

His future goals:
As this was an open-ended question, he merely stated that he’d like to live near the ocean or in another country near the ocean.

“I never see the ocean that often,” he said.

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  • christmas4477 December 4, 2011 at 10:37 PM

    Tatum is a sexy sexy man.

    • Tempest Wind December 5, 2011 at 8:38 PM

      You said it, brother.

      Actually, though, I love how when he addresses a room full of people, you feel like he’s talking TO YOU. When he decides to become dictator of the world, he will be very popular. I will be one of his many followers.

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