'Lucy felt like a character I hadn't done or hadn't really seen before'
Based on a book, Earthquake Bird is a psychologically unsettling and atmospheric thriller set in 1989 Tokyo. Georgia Humphreys chats to stars Alicia Vikander and Naoki Kobayashi and writer/director Wash Westmoreland, to find out more about making the film
Quirky and goofy - that's how Alicia Vikander describes her character in mysterious thriller Earthquake Bird. She plays Lucy Fly, the protagonist of the film, which is based on Susanna Jones' novel of the same name, and is set in Tokyo in 1989.
It's a far cry from her last major role, as action hero Lara Croft in 2018's Tomb Raider.
But Swedish star Vikander (31) liked how enigmatic expat Lucy really felt "like a character I hadn't done or hadn't really seen".
"You don't know if you can trust her," notes the actress, who's married to Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender (his mother, Adele, is from Larne, Co Antrim).
"Part of the mystery of the film is realising who she is and why she's there (in Japan) and what she's come from.
"Because 1989 - for a Western woman to have travelled that far and to have created a new life is quite a big thing."
The story sees Lucy enter into an intense relationship with Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a handsome local photographer.
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But then a naive newcomer, Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), becomes entangled in their lives and ends up missing, suspected dead.
The feature is written and directed by Leeds-born Wash Westmoreland.
The 53-year-old lived in Japan when he was a student, and fell in love with "Japanese language, Japanese culture, Japanese history".
"I used to speak pretty good Japanese when I lived there and there's something about being in a history that's so different from your own - so fascinating," he says.
"It's so rich, the people of Japan's openness to share their culture and history with you. I just found it was one of the most joyful experiences of my life.
"So, when the opportunity came to return to Japan with this film and work in Toho studios, which is the centre of the Japanese film industry, that was a birthday present and a half."
Westmoreland has had plenty of experience of adapting novels for the silver screen, having previously worked on Still Alice, which starred Julianne Moore as a 50-year-old woman who suffers early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
He co-directed the 2014 film with his American husband, Richard Glatzer, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in 2011, and died in 2015, aged 63.
As Westmoreland points out, Earthquake Bird is actually the third film he has made in a row that is based on a book by a woman.
After Still Alice came 2018 biographical drama Colette, which saw Keira Knightley play author Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, and was "kinda based on Colette's writing too".
"It's really about interacting with the text to find the story," he continues. "And, with this, Susanna Jones was very open to both what I was including but also what I was reinventing.
"She was very supportive, and we had many discussions about the way it should be formed."
He reveals that the script for Earthquake Bird was actually written while travelling on the number 38 bus in London, while he was in post-production for Colette.
"I was living in Hackney and getting the bus into Soho every day. It takes an hour, and I was sort of like, 'Oh, this is boring'.
"So, I put on my headphones, cracked open my laptop and would write for an hour every morning."
When it came to casting, Kobayashi is already famous in Japan - he is a performer in two J-Pop dance and vocal groups, Exile and Sandaime J Soul Brothers.
But this is the 35-year-old's first English-speaking role.
"I'm so excited," he says. "This (acting) is my original way to express myself, so to see new people and create together and that's going to be making a great art... that's exciting for me.
"And especially Wash, he's so generous with his time to discuss about the character and the film, so the film connects with Japanese custom and culture, so I gave him some ideas for it."
There's a memorable dance scene in the film, in a nightclub, in which Westmoreland recalls "Naoki and Riley are really strutting it, and Alicia comes out and dances really badly".
What's funny is that Vikander actually trained as a ballet dancer at the Royal Swedish Ballet School in Stockholm; as the director puts it, "she's got moves".
"But you can see her almost like counting to four in her mind as she's dancing, to try and stay in time. So, I thought that was an amazing piece of acting from Alicia, to act like a bad dancer."
He reveals with a chuckle: "I think she met Michael Fassbender on the dancefloor - I think that's part of their story.
"I'm sure she wasn't dancing like Lucy."
Discussing what it was like working with Vikander, Kobayashi explains: "Of course, I speak English, she speaks Japanese - the culture exchange.
"Even in the scene, we could connect with each other as a character, but also as an actor.
"So she created the trusting atmosphere, that could make a great scene. And you said that kind of physical language..."
He looks to Westmoreland, who finishes the sentence for him by saying "...was very strong.
"With two people who are trained as dancers you can work out some of the physical stuff in the scenes very precisely."
Vikander had a totally different challenge up next.
She stars up in forthcoming biopic The Glorias: A Life On The Road, in which she plays American feminist Gloria Steinem at ages 20-40.
How was that experience?
"Terrifying! She's an incredible icon and woman. I knew a certain amount about her but doing this film... our film is going to go and help people go and find out about her history and what she's done and what she still does."
She adds enthusiastically: "She is still on the road and lecturing and doing what she does and keeps on this fight. She is just remarkable."
Earthquake Bird is showing in selected cinemas, and is available on Netflix