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Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Chatting With East Side Sushi's Anthony Lucero

Posted By on Tue, Sep 15, 2015 at 12:30 PM


How many single Latina mothers do you know that make killer sushi rolls? If your answer is none, then you should really go out and see E​ast Side Sushi​, an empowering new film shot entirely in the Bay Area that opens on Friday, Sept. 18. The story focuses on Juana, who is destined to become one of the most inspirational characters in modern­ cinema. After she experiences an unfortunate setback while running her fruit cart on the side of the street in Oakland, Juana applies to work as a prep cook at a busy sushi restaurant to support her father and daughter. There, she finds a new mission in life and takes a stand against the oppressive nature of tradition ­ all while developing a tasty new style of fusion cuisine on the way.

We got a chance to talk to visual effects wizard Anthony Lucero who wrote and directed ​East Side Sushi ​as a passion project with a purpose ­ and a big heart.

Let’s talk about the genesis of the film’s story and ​East Side Sushi​ in general. Where’d you get the idea?

I was actually at a diner, I was just watching this guy wash dishes and I thought, I wonder what this guy aspires to do with his life. Does he enjoy washing dishes? Maybe. Well, maybe he wants to be a cook here at this restaurant. Maybe the lead cook has his domain. “You can’t touch the stove, this is my world.” Then I was eating sushi, and I was like, "Maybe he wants to be a sushi chef instead of that greasy spoon restaurant." Then I started writing about this Latina that wanted to become a sushi chef.

Then I realize that there’s no woman doing this job so I thought, "Okay, it’s much more compelling if a woman wants to do this." So I switched the roles and the original screenplay was called Konichi­Juan. You get it? That was funny. Then for a minute it was Konichi­Juana, but it didn’t quite roll of the tongue right. I like the original title.

What was your writing process like for this? Did you have to learn how to make sushi yourself?

In studying what does it take to become a sushi chef, I spent months, like 6­8 months. I stopped writing and started concentrating on the research. So, not like every day, of course. I had Post-its and notebooks. Tons of notes everywhere. I went up to a cabin in Tahoe, where there was no internet access, no phone access. I brought all my food up there, and cooked and wrote. Then I did it a second time.

Did you cook sushi?

[Laughs] No sushi. It was like pancakes and top ramen or something. The writer’s cuisine. I did bring cookbooks. I brought sushi books for reference, so I’d go through those.

There’s a line in the movie that Juana, the main character, says about how at every good restaurant, there’s a great Latino in the back cooking and making it all happen. Was this one of the first statements that came to you?

No, it came later on. As I was hanging out in these restaurants, and in any restaurant, or most restaurants in California and across the country, there’s all these Latinos in the back making the food. And it’s weird, why are they always in the back? They’re not in the front, seating people. It’s just odd to me. It feels like they’re shunned away almost. Behind the curtain, behind the door. We’ll get these other people to escort the patrons to their tables.

But there’s so much talent. They carry everything.

Exactly. And they can make any food.

You filmed a lot of this at sushi restaurants in the East Bay, right?

There were two different restaurants for the film. For the front of the restaurant, we filmed at Coach Sushi. They’re open for lunch. Sunday and Monday they were closed. So we filmed there Sundays and Mondays. For all the kitchen scenes, we filmed at B-­Dama on Tuesdays. Very difficult to organize that.

Let’s talk a little bit about the casting process for this movie. How did you find Diana Elizabeth Torres (who plays Juana)?

I tried to cast in the Bay Area. I wanted everybody, all the crew, all the cast of the Bay Area. And part of it I couldn’t afford to bring somebody from L.A. But in the end, I had to go to L.A., because you have such a huge pool of people auditioning. At first, I thought Diana was not the right person for the part. She wasn’t the right look, too young. But she was the best actor. She was really good. And we were also thinking, let’s try to get somebody semi­-famous for the role, which is very difficult to do. But I thought, no I like Diana. She was just the best actor. 

As someone who has a VFX background, it’s like you knew the acting would be the special effects for this.

Exactly. So I needed to lean on that quite a bit. So she gained a little bit of weight for the role. She gained about 15 pounds. She showed up to set all nice and plump, and I said yes! That’s what I needed. You were too thin.

Do you have hours and hours of sushi making B­-roll?

Yeah, yeah I do. And I’ve got scenes that I’ve cut out of the film too.

What’s one of the scenes you cut that you really wanted to leave in, and it was really hard?

There’s scenes in the script that were cut that were never shot that I’m really disappointed we didn’t shoot. Just because of time and money.
I wrote this scene of Juana and her dad and her daughter, they go to Cinco De Mayo in Fruitvale in Oakland, and Aki and his sister and their kid go to Japantown to the festival. Because there is a festival that takes place on the day of Cinco De Mayo, called Children’s Day.

That would have been amazing to see.

That would have been amazing! And I had it scripted to where there’s Taiko drummers and Aztec drummers, and it goes back and forth between the two. It was cut, it was gone. It was too expensive.

So there’s a scene in the film that encapsulates the struggle of people like Juana who want to transcend their circumstances and have better opportunities pretty well. A white American customer sees her making sushi up in the front. He goes up to the strict owner, Mr. Yoshida, and complains that she compromises the authenticity of the restaurant.

[Laughs] I didn’t want a white guy to be a bad guy in the film.

Right, but that is totally something that would definitely happen in real life.

I think most Americans, when they walk into a sushi restaurant, would say “Why is there a Mexican woman up front? This place isn’t authentic.”
I like that about the film. What is authentic food? Is it where you’re from? Is it your sex? To make Thai food, do you need to be from Thailand, or is that something that’s learned? Can you learn to make great Thai food?

And can you learn to make your own cuisine at the same time?

Exactly. Can you put your own spin on it. Can somebody from Poland make good Mexican food? Is it learned, or is it in their blood? I like people thinking about that.

Anything you really want to share about your experience making this film?

Had I known it was going to be this much work to make the film ... the marketing, the film festivals, getting the film out there ... This is the part they don’t teach you about in filmmaking. It has been the most difficult to do. I know all the other aspects, I know how to make the film and edit the film. That’s the easy part. And it’s not easy, trust me. This next step of getting it out there into the real world, it’s like I’m learning as I go and that’s difficult. It’s like learning how to be a parent. I wish people would stress a little bit more about the importance of marketing your film too.

What’s one truth you’ve learned from making this film?

The one truth is that Hollywood, we’re talking about distributors, acquisitions, they want films with famous people attached. That is the one truth.

But it was so captivating and refreshing to see real people in a movie and carry it so well.

Thank you, I wish other people would think like that. I wish the people that were in the position of buying these films and distribute them, I wish they had that same attitude. I like the smaller films.

Says somebody who worked on the SFX for ​Star Wars: Episode II​ and ​The Avengers.​

[Laughs] Right, but that’s a job. I put that money into my passion projects.

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Stephen Harber


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