We’ve all heard the stories about a good Samaritan finding a wallet or envelope stuffed with money and then turning it in. To the person that had the money and wallet returned, they are forever grateful and hold that good Samaritan in the highest regard. When we hear a story like this, it can cause us to pause and question our own ‘right and wrong meter’ because we might be in a precarious situation that only money can fix. If you struggle with the thought of returning an envelope or wallet full of cash – what would you do if you found a bag full of cash? Is it dirty money and does that make your decision easier? Things I Do For Money is about two cello-playing Japanese Canadian brothers that steal a big bag of money, and all the woes that go along with it.
Warren P. Sonoda is an outstanding and incredibly busy Canadian director – he co-wrote the film with Gary R. D. Nolan. Warren is better known for Coopers’ Camera, Swearnet: The Movie, 5ive Girl, the iconic TV show Trailer Park Boys, This Hour Has 22 Minutes, Murdoch Mysteries and has made over 160 music videos, 70 episodes of TV and 11 feature films. Warren also has 4 MuchMusic Video Award wins, 2 CCMA wins and also received the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for his contributions to Canadian cinema, knocked Martin Scorsese out of the Guinness Book of World Records and was the first person of color and youngest DGC member elected as the Directors Guild of Canada’s National Director Division Chair, representing DGC Directors from coast to coast. He is also a champion of independent Canadian film as the Chair of the Canadian Film Fest and sat on the inaugural advisory board of Women In View x2 More, the Film & Television Professional Advisory Council of Sheridan College and the Canadian Academy’s Rules and Regulations Committee.
The two lead actors in this film play cello performing brothers Eli and Nick Yaguchi but they are actual brothers Maximilian and Theodor Aoki – and are very accomplished cello players. Interesting enough, this was their acting debut but they were in good hands. I’ve had the opportunity to watch this film that included a very diverse cast. I sincerely hope that more feature films will continue to find great actors of all ethnicities to fill integral roles, rather than the colour of actors. Filmmakers have the power to impact society and we can all play a role in creating change.
I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to speak with Max and Theo about their first soiree into film and their incredible cello playing. It was a little difficult to tell them apart on the phone, so for the purposes of not misquoting the brothers, I have not designated who is answering.
“You two are incredible cello players. Were you cello players first or actors first?”
“We started playing cello at 4 and 5 yrs. old. We started training classically through the Suzuki School of Music as well as participating in solo lessons with Rebecca Morten, who is a cello teacher out of Toronto… but we were really just musicians. We’ve been playing the cello together now for 5 years since 2015 and began taking it to a more professional level – doing lots of gigs, lots of weddings. Gary R. D. Nolan (co-writer) came to us 2 years ago with the story/plot about 2 Japanese Canadian brothers from Hamilton that play the cello; we happen to fit very cleanly into that category.”
As very accomplished cello players, these brothers can now add accomplished actors to the page. The cello playing and the relationship between the two brothers are both integral to the storyline. Max and Theo Aoki both put on an incredible performance while carrying the weight of the story.
“One of you were involved in an onscreen romance with a figure skater in the film. The scenes were shot in a very beautiful way.”
Oh, that was me (Theo Aoki) I played Eli Yaguchi. It was so great working with Yodit Tewoderos (Laura – figure skater). She’s an amazing figure skater and it was awesome to be able to collaborate with her. There was an ice-skating scene where Eli is daydreaming and playing music with fantastic choreography going on that Yodit created with her coach.”
“Considering you are both accomplished players, were you able to offer any input on cello songs/arrangements?”
“In the script they needed a daydream sequence, so we started making an arrangement of a daydream/romanticized song that Eli was going to play. We brought all of the elements together with Warren (P. Sonoda) when we started shooting and prepping. It was very much a collaborative process, even the scene where we were busking outside of a stash house and the performance inside the mansion in the final act. We were talking before the script was set regarding a 5-page action scene – we had to create an original song that would fit into the space as well as match the tone, the narrative and the present action. On that shooting day, we went down there with our two cello’s and we did our thing… which is a lot of fun.”
“Have you played other instruments in addition to the cello?”
“We started on the cello at the age of 4, it was our main instrument for approx. 15 years but by being part of the music community we’ve dabbled in other instruments. We’ve played a little piano – our mom is a pianist, we’ve played a little guitar, a little drums but for the most part we prefer the cello.”
“In the film you do a rendition of a few popular rock songs on the cello that sound outstanding. Do you also perform modern rock songs in your personal lives?”
“The idea of versaCello (their two-cello group) has very much been about arranging contemporary music for two cellos – we’ve done Counting Stars by OneRepublic or Rihanna songs, Tom Harris, Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift songs… whatever might be trending at the time and we also make fun videos to go along with it. We started doing more and more weddings where people wanted the two cellos outside of a classical format but with more contemporary songs that people recognize – we developed our style into one that drifted away from classical to more rhythmic. In the film we perform a cover of July Talk – Guns and Ammunition, which was a good fit for our style. The final flagship song in the movie, we call Monument is very much influenced by our classical training combined with our contemporary aggressive style.”
Since most weddings are currently postponed or have been downscaled due to the Covid pandemic, the two brothers (versaCello) have had events and bookings either cancelled or rescheduled, but they are committed to restarting performances once it’s safe to do so. In the meantime, they’ve transitioned into online concerts – many of their friends in the McMasters Student Society will put on virtual coffeehouses, where they’ll come on for 20-30 mins. They were part of the virtual McMaster Engineering Convocation graduation ceremony as well as the Relay For Life ceremony.”
“You’ve established quite a following and demand for your performances before this film, correct?”
“Over the past 5 years we’ve been lucky enough to have many people follow our journey to see where it goes next and we’re very grateful for that.”
“Since it seems like you were both naturals with the acting and look great on camera, will there be more films in the future?”
“(Both) Thank you very much. It’s not something we’re actively pursuing. We don’t have an agent and we haven’t had any other auditions… but it was a fun experience and if another opportunity presents itself again, we’d definitely be up for it. The timeline for our vesaCello events combined with McMaster Engineering – we play music as a hobby but more professionally… and this film was really something we happened to be prepared for when the opportunity came by. I think our plan has been and always will be – that we jump on every opportunity that comes our way, as long as we’re prepared for it. It was so much fun being in front of a camera and making music for a film… getting involved in another art form that we don’t have a lot of experience with that is so fascinating to be part of. It’s been so much fun working with my brother, as well as the many years performing cello together. It was great working on a movie with him and it would be great working with him in the future.”
They add that, “having a musical background and playing together for so long keeps us very close, so you have to be able to communicate and understand each other to be able to play in sync while creating music with this other person; that has led us to being very close.”
“Would you agree that the discipline you learn from years of cello training is comparable to the same discipline a martial artist would acquire from years of training in martial arts?”
“We definitely did gain a lot of discipline in those many child years of practice and are especially grateful for being trained classically… even though we’re more interested in more of the modern genres now. Having that classical background – knowing the foundations and having the proper backbone to the technique is something that helps us every time I pick up the cello. In the first 5, 6, 7 years you’re learning your scales and building up the framework of cello technique that you’ll be utilizing at any high level. It’s been almost 15 years and now we’re prepared to begin exploring more artistic endeavours with other creatives in a professional environment, in an industry that’s very demanding. There’s definitely an amount of discipline that’s accumulated to the point that you’re able to do something with it.”
“Have either of you played in an orchestra?”
“We both have, we started in the Centre For String Playing on Main St. in Hamilton, Ontario. In high school, we transitioned to the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra under the direction of Colin Clarke, who’s a fantastic music director. It’s also helped us to solidify a basis for us in being part of a musical community in Hamilton and the Greater Toronto area. The music community in general is not very large, so it was a huge bonus in getting us connected with other people that have the same passion as us.”
“Where was this film shot?”
“It was filmed in Hamilton. I think it’s the first time the city has played itself. We grew up in Hamilton and they used some very well know locations such as Blinks Bar and Grandads Donuts. The locations all elude to The Niagara Escarpment (large wall/hill of limestone, sandstone and shale).”
“How long did it take make this film?”
“In Feb. of 2018 we started talking about it – then we jumped onto the project a couple of months later. In July, they pulled the trigger on it because they had the green light to go into production. From July to August we prepped and had the crew onboard and had locations. The producer did so much work to ensure it was going to happen – we needed to film before school started in September because we had fulltime classes. We filmed the entire thing in 13 days in August, with the exception of a couple pick-ups. There were 35 locations. Everyone that worked on that film had so much passion for the project and trusted Warrens’ vision. We were all on the same page, it had nothing to do with the money – we wanted to help Warren make this film, which was his passion project. We wanted to have fun with it, the cast and crew were amazing to work with.”
“Can you tell me where the public will be able to watch it?”
“Currently it’s available on Apple TV, iTunes, Gotogo Bell, Cineplex and Vimeo. It was originally going to be a 9-city release but because of Covid-19 they had to pivot to digital.”
“This is really a diverse cast in this film. Is there a bigger message in this story?”
“From the beginning, Warren (director) had the idea to tell a story about a Japanese Canadian family that was relatable but to also make a very collective diverse movie. The Things I Do For Money travels along the movement of having more representation in film. Apart from a few Japanese phrases and customs I believe the roles of the brothers could’ve been played by anybody and I really hope it’s the way movies are changing, where the parts are open to anyone.”
“If you had to choose, would you rather go bungee jumping or white-water rafting?”
Max answers, “Oh my god, I’m not really a fan of water or heights… so I guess white-water rafting.”
Theo answers, I would say bungee jumping because I’ve always had a fascination with jumping out of airplanes. Our dad (Ed Aoki), who plays Just Jimmy – a hitman from Japan and is very tough in real life; he works at a boarding school. He’s jumped out of airplanes… so if I had to choose, I’d go bungee jumping.”
“If you had to compete in one or the other, mud wrestling or arm wrestling? Which would it be?”
Theo answers, “I personally am going to go with arm wrestling. I’m a fairly big guy but I don’t think I have the agility it takes to successfully win in the mud. Arm wrestling is fairly concentrated and I can focus my training on producing huge biceps (laughing).”
Max answers, “I think I’ll personally go with mud wrestling. I’m not really a tall guy, so I don’t think I’d have an advantage – but I think I could be sneaky in the dirt (laughing).”
This is an incredible film with a lot going on. The cello playing is as good as it gets and its not all classical – there are arrangements of popular modern songs, such as the Northern Pikes Jay Semko that collaborated with the brothers on one of their songs.
They scored the original soundtrack, which is quite a big feather in their hat. I certainly hope that we get to see them again in the near future.