With a Little Help from His Friends

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By MIA NAKAJI MONNIER
Rafu Staff Writer

By day, Akira Boch works at the Japanese American National Museum’s Media Arts Center, making documentaries to go along with the museum’s exhibits.

For the past five years, though, he’s steadily worked to bring to life a project of his own: “The Crumbles,” an indie film about a trio of passionate but floundering young musicians in Echo Park, who get together to form the film’s eponymous garage band.

“I used to play in bands, all through high school, in college, and after college,” says Boch, “so I know intimately what it’s like to be in a garage band and not get very far with it. But we always had a lot of fun doing it.

“What honestly inspired me to start writing [‘The Crumbles’] was that one of my friends was having a really tough time in his life, he was seriously into drugs, and I wanted to make a film that reminded him of the good times, when things weren’t so heavy in life, to try to sort of pull him back… That’s why I wanted to keep the whole thing as light as possible.”

“The Crumbles,” though light, shows the difficulty of making a life as an artist of any medium, of being young and in search of purpose, or of just navigating through the human experience: maintaining friendships, learning resilience, and translating abstract hopes into reality.

In other words, it’s a story parallel to that of the film’s own making. “The Crumbles,” like the band it portrays, had a rocky start when Boch put it aside to work on another project, one that he had to abandon when it became clear that it was written for too high a budget.

“After that, I came back to ‘The Crumbles’ determined to make it happen. I purposely wrote the script knowing that there wasn’t going to be any real money, but I was determined to do it myself with the help of my friends.”

Luckily, Boch had friends in all the right places. JANM co-workers and former co-workers, UCLA film school classmates, and a musician for whom Boch had made several music videos, all came together to make the film. The most built-in crew member of all? Azusa Oda, the graphic designer responsible for East West Players’ playbills, and, incidentally, Boch’s wife.

“Everybody really did everything,” says Gena Hamamoto, the film’s producer. “So, for example, Azusa did the set design, she did all of our graphics, and conceptualized our website. But also, if I had to go to work, she’d basically do everything the producer does. And it was like that for everyone: everyone was just filling in where we needed it.”

Even props and wardrobe were improvised from materials the cast and crew already had at hand, including Hamamoto’s apartment. “It was a little crazy because I’d wake up and literally be on the set,” she laughs. “Azusa came in one day and rearranged things and put up different art, but a lot of the stuff we used was our own. So it was kind of funny to see it on the big screen, and be like, ‘Hey, that’s my table!’”

Despite the tight budget, Boch and his crew knew that they had to find actors who could play instruments well enough to bring The Crumbles to life, not to mention a composer capable of creating a distinct sound for the fictional band.

“If you’re doing a film about a band, there’s no way around that,” he says. “I knew that other things in the story could be limited in terms of how much they would cost or how much trouble they would be to actually shoot, but I just accepted [the music aspect]as one of the main challenges we were going to have to face.”

Teresa Michelle Lee, a classically trained pianist who stars as the flaky but charismatic Elisa, presented an interesting dilemma for the director. “The original idea was for her to be a keyboardist, but that’s so visually uninteresting that we decided to make her play the keytar.”

Meanwhile, composer Quetzal Flores, musical director of the East L.A. band Quetzal, worked with Boch to create the music of The Crumbles, inspired by the eclectic, rebellious sounds of early 90s bands like The Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine.

This sound—quirky, unpolished, and proud—makes the band a perfect fit for Echo Park, a neighborhood that Boch calls “one of the funkiest in L.A. It's such an odd milieu of people and cultures, I think our characters would really fit in there.”

Because Boch lived in Echo Park for several years and Hamamoto lives nearby, the crew was able to film in locations they already knew intimately, places they knew would be quiet, or wouldn’t have too much traffic. Local food truck Tacos Arizas has its own cameo, and the owner of Good Girl Dinette (located in Highland, not Echo, Park) offered the crew her keys to the place, in a moving gesture of trust.

With familiar materials and locations, the “Crumbles” crew worked to create a Los Angeles they could recognize: a landscape full of gritty personality, remarkable in its cultural diversity.

Despite the large number of films shot in L.A. every year, very few accurately portray the ethnic mix of the city. “The Crumbles” does, and with rare lack of agenda.

“We had no descriptor in the casting call or script that said, ‘We want an Asian American, we want a Latina, we want an African American…’” says Boch. “I think we put something like, ‘All ethnicities welcome to apply,’ because a lot of times actors will read these casting calls and they’ll be very specific. They’ll say things like, ‘Black, best friend; Asian, massage therapist…’”

The cast of “The Crumbles” was ultimately assembled based on chemistry, not race; after all, it's the characters’ relationships with each other, in all their awkward realism, that give the film its resonance. Boch describes the world of “The Crumbles” as a “slightly stylized reality,” distinguished from our everyday reality only by its deliberate, poetic pacing.

“I know it’s not perfect film,” he says, “and I don’t care. It is what it is. The approach that I want to take is that it doesn’t matter if it’s ten people or 1,000 people. I just want to play it as much possible, and have as many people see it as possible.”

In March, “The Crumbles” had its premiere at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, where it took the Audience Award. Boch recalls taking the award home and displaying it in his house, where not long ago he’d been screening rough cuts of the film for friends, festivals still a faraway hope.

But he doesn't see the accomplishment as an end point. “I keep thinking to myself that if this were a marathon, we’d probably be at mile 18 or so,” he jokes.

Hamamoto agrees, admitting that the next challenge is to secure funding for distribution. “A lot of people think, ‘Oh, you shot it, you’re done.’ But we’ll probably be working on this for another year or two, and it’ll continue to have a life of its own—hopefully!—for a long time.”

Tomorrow night, “The Crumbles” will make its L.A. debut at the Directors Guild of America in West Hollywood as part of the Los Angeles Pacific Film Festival. Tickets are $12 for general admission and $10 for students and seniors. For more information, see the official “Crumbles” website. To purchase tickets, click here.

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