Richard Shepard — known for directing some of Girls‘ best standalone episodes like this year’s “American Bitch” and 2015’s “One Man’s Trash” — didn’t think he would ever get Elisabeth Moss to star in his short film, a romantic story set in Tokyo, appropriately titled Tokyo Project. But with the help of executive producer Lena Dunham and the promise of a seven-day trip in the Japanese city, Moss was sold.
So with that, the Handmaid’s Tale star, who just won her first Emmy for her powerful performance on the Hulu drama, and Girls’ alum Ebon Moss-Bachrach set off for Tokyo with Shepard and a tiny crew. They ate and drank together each night and piled into two vans to get around the city in an experience the director, who also wrote the script, calls “a blast.”
“I couldn’t have made this movie without working on Girls,” Shepard says, explaining with a laugh: “It was a Girls residual check that paid for the entire movie.”
That’s not the only thing he has to thank Girls for, though. Shepard got the idea for Tokyo Project — which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year and will debut Saturday on HBO — when he accompanied Dunham & Co. on a trip to Japan to shoot season 5 episode “Japan,” where Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet) gets used to her new life abroad.
“I wasn’t directing that episode, but I went with the production anyway, and the entire time I was there, I was just seething with jealousy at Jesse Peretz, who was directing the episode,” Shepard says. “I went and instantaneously was like, ‘I could live here.’ I love the chaos of it and the peacefulness of it.”
Shepard made a point to highlight those qualities in Tokyo Project, a 30-minute film that takes viewers through both bustling alleys and serene shops. He wrote the script with both Moss-Bachrach and Moss in mind: He adored working with Moss-Bachrach on Girls and wanted to show “a different side of him.” “Ebon was so funny on Girls, but he was sort of a doofus, and I knew this other side of him, which was sophisticated and sensitive,” Shepard explains, referring to Desi, Marnie’s musician husband-turned-ex.
As for Moss, he asked for Dunham’s help in securing a female star and she asked for his wish list. “I said, ‘Well, I want Elisabeth Moss, but we’re never going to get Elisabeth Moss.'” Dunham gave her a call anyway and proved Shepard wrong. “I guess that’s what happens when you’re famous!” Shepard says. “Famous people can just call each other. It doesn’t happen to the rest of us.”
Which brings us to the movie itself: a reflective, visually stunning piece about romance — its complications, its mysteries, and its beauty.
“It’s a hopeful movie, but it’s also a sad movie,” Shepard says. “I’m someone who likes mixed-genre movies. I like movies that aren’t always so black and white. It is a romance, and I hope people feel like they’ve had a 30-minute trip to Tokyo after watching it — if they finish the movie, and they’re like, ‘We should go to Tokyo,’ or at the very least, ‘We should order sushi,’ either one will work for me as a reaction.”
Tokyo Project — also executive-produced by Jenni Konner — premieres on HBO Saturday. Watch an exclusive clip above.