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Fan Film Spotlight: Sailor Moon & the Return of the Shadows

A banner that reads "Sailor Moon and the Return of the Shadows". You can see a cropped image of actress Sam Ross's face on the right.

Over the past ten years, Hollywood has been pumping out the live action superhero movies left and right–and it looks like there’s no end in sight. These movies has given us plenty of dude heroes, but not many lady heroes. It’s rather embarrassing–Batman, Spiderman and Superman have several movies each while the most recognizable American super heroine, Wonder Woman, has never appeared on the golden screen in the flesh. Finally, that will change in 2016. 

To improve the number of lady heroes, a live action Sailor Moon movie would be a logical choice to bring to the big screen. In fact, in this recent interview with Naoko Takeuchi and Osabu, they reveal that Hollywood did approach them (probably in the late 90s) about doing a movie. However, they took a pass on it because they didn’t think it could stay true to the original. While that news is disappointing, we have quite a few fan films to satiate our thirst. For one, we have a beautiful short that covers Sailor Moon’s awakening. Meanwhile, Sailor Moon: The Movie attempts to condense the whole first season into one movie. For fans of the fourth season, there’s a fanfilm out of Australia which re-imagines the Dream Arc. It looks like there’s another in the works based on the first season. (Also relevant: I think this Madoka Magica short is absolutely amazing!)

The most recent Sailor Moon fan film to grace the internet is Sailor Moon & the Return of the Shadows. I had the pleasure of meeting the writer and director, Christina Neno last year at Senshi Matsuri and was able to chat with her recently about the completed project. [Editor’s Note: Interview has been edited from it’s original form for clarity.]

Anne: How did you get the idea for this project?

Christina: It’s a complicated answer. I was introduced to Sailor Moon in the 8th grade on my birthday. When friends came over to my house to celebrate with me, and one of my friends brought a VHS tape that had the American dub episodes 30 and 31 [Editor’s Note:  A Crystal Clear Destiny and A Reluctant Princess, respectively]. Like most, I started with the English dub but soon discovered that I enjoyed the original Japanese version more. Eventually, near the end of high school I was spending time at my friend Rachael’s house (she’s our Sailor Jupiter) and I was talking about how much I wished there was a live action Sailor Moon film. Rachael encouraged me to make my own, and we began making costumes for ourselves! At the time, it was just her and me – Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Mercury. The story line of the film was not anything like what it is now, because I kept adapting it for the number of people able to help create it. We did a lot of filming that was never used, and a lot of cast members changed between the conception of the film and the final realization of the film.

Anne: Had you seen PGSM (aka the tokusatsu) at that point?

Christina: I can’t remember! We began the project in the summer of 2009, my sophomore year in college. (Wow.) I suppose I had seen PGSM before we started the project. It didn’t influence any of my film making decisions, that I can tell – although I greatly enjoyed PGSM, it felt like it was still targeting a very young audience, and I wanted to create a more serious adaptation. I mainly drew from the anime and manga, and mostly from the anime. And I have really enjoyed watching all of the other amazing fan films that have been created online.

Anne: Me too! They’re so different! It seems like these fan films take a VERY long time to put together.

Christina: I think the trouble with fan films is that most people creating them have full time jobs or go to school full time (or both!) and they pay for most expenses out of pocket. Even for film projects that do raise a significant budget from fan donations, you’d be surprised how much expense is still left over. And all expenses are invested in the supplies, generally, and oftentimes cast members are volunteers and unpaid with a few exceptions.

We were all still living at home during the project, and our parents schedules often dictated when we could work, too. Some days I would have all cast members on set, and cameras ready to roll… and an actress would have to leave because of family obligations. I never faulted anyone for having to leave for such reasons. Everyone in our cast was as dedicated as their lives would allow them to be – be it work schedules, school schedules, broken-down cars, or parents delaying work.

Anne: Did you ever get to a point where you thought it just wasn’t going to happen? And what made you keep going?

Christina: Yes, there were a few moments we weren’t sure we’d be able to finish. But I refused to abandon the project, my heart was too set on it at that point. I loved the dream of a live action project. But more importantly -the support my friends gave me. Their encouragement. Their willingness to continue filming and do whatever it took to finish the project. I’m still absolutely amazed by their generosity, and what they’ve done for the project. Not everyone is willing to wear a sailor costume in below freezing weather on a parking garage roof at midnight! Not everyone is willing to run in high heels. (I’m thinking of Melissa in particular, our Sailor Mars.)

Anne: Speaking about that parking garage, I just wanted to say, I really liked that choice–PGSM did the big reveal  in…I don’t know what you want to call it–a banquet hall? I’ve always been disappointed by that!

Christina: I like the idea of something extraordinary happening in a dirty, every day place. I think that concept is very important to Sailor Moon. An ordinary girl with lots of human flaws, being confronted with a huge, magical responsibility.

Anne: Were there any other scenes or artistic choices that you’re very proud of?

Christina: Yes. My favorite moment in the film is probably the last twenty seconds. When Serenity dips her fingers in Tuxedo Mask’s blood right after he vanishes, she sort-of blacks out temporarily and sees a vision of her past, and then comes back to reality and remembers Endymion, and says his name aloud. My favorite part. It is exactly as I’d hoped it would be, given our resources.

Anne: I really like that moment too. Sailor Moon needs more blood!

Christina: Indeed! More blood. They are fighting, there needs to be a sense of mortality – a real threat. I am also very proud of the first scene with Queen Beryl and Zoicite. I love Sarah’s portrayal of Queen Beryl. She’s one of the few in our cast with acting experience, and although I believe everyone did a fantastic job taking on the challenge of acting for the first time, Sarah never fails to impress me. Sinead and Dylan (Luna and Artemis respectively) also have acting experience, and I really enjoy their moments in the film, although you only hear their voices.

Anne: I really liked how Luna and Artemis were actual cats–was it a pain to film with them?

Christina: Yes. They were one of the reasons I questioned whether we’d finish the project or not, honestly. I was determined to use my cats instead of a puppet or CG animation. Getting them to look in the right direction, or to even stay put in one location long enough to be filmed next to a character, was a challenge. We would try to bribe them with sandwich meats and get them to look at noise makers over our actors shoulders. Ultimately they’d dictate a lot of the cinematography, because we’d have to film where they were most comfortable. They are such divas.

A brownish cat sits on a table with a Sailor Venus costume laying on it.

Frodo, Christina’s cat who played Artemis.       Credit: Christina Neno

Christina: I considered using green screen with them instead at one point, however that ended quickly. They liked the green cloth too much and one almost pulled it all down into one of my mom’s lamps. It could take a full three or four hours to just get a few seconds of usable cat footage, but it was worth it. I’m grateful that our cast and crew was patient enough to wait around for that!

Anne: I had a question about casting–I guess it is kind of a sensitive topic. I’ve noticed that Rei is often played by an Asian actress in fan films. Did you purposefully cast an Asian actress for the role and did you have trouble finding someone?

Christina: Our Sailor Mars wasn’t hard to find; we literally recruited from our close group of friends. We didn’t do any casting calls, we didn’t have the budget to hire talent, and so we cast ourselves in the roles needed. Honestly, I think Naoko intended all of the characters to be Japanese, but we clearly didn’t have that option even if we had wanted to make that casting decision. Melissa (Sailor Mars) is not Japanese, but from our group of friends that could help us with the project (you’re literally looking at the cast we have on screen) she resembled Mars the most, having dark long hair. I don’t like wigs, aesthetically, so this was somewhat important. But most importantly, I knew she could portray Rei’s personality. I think she did a great job in the part.

Anne: Did you consider casting any of the other roles with actors or actress of other ethnicities? (I suppose I shouldn’t make any assumptions though–some cast members could very well be biracial etc.)

Christina: I wish we’d had the luxury of considering casting other ethnicities, but the truth is as soon as we found someone in our friends group that could afford the commute and the time to film as a volunteer, we went “oh thank god!” A very limited pool of people were available to work on this.  If I found a stranger to play the role of a character, ethically I would feel very obligated to compensate them for their time. We couldn’t afford that. I owe my friends so much for being interested in this project and caring about it as much as I do, that they could spend so much time on a fan project like this.

But theoretically, I would definitely consider casting other ethnicities in any of the roles. I don’t care if the original version is clearly an all-Japanese cast, we are filming in America with limited resources and I think that offers a beautiful opportunity to offer these inspiring roles to anyone who can portray the spirit of the characters. Ultimately it should be a character’s personality that defines them, right? Adaptations are rarely literal copies of the original material – otherwise, what would be the creative point? Its important to consider what details make a character iconic, and what details you must keep and which ones you can modify creatively. Every fan will disagree on what details in a character’s identity are absolutely essential – and each fan’s version of a character is sacred. I could never disagree with someone’s view of who Sailor Moon is, she belongs to all of our imaginations. She’s our hero.

I’ll be honest, when you mentioned casting being controversial, I expected you to address Sailor Moon being a redhead!

Anne: ROFLOL. Well, I just figured if you didn’t want to go with a wig, you didn’t want to go with a wig.*shrug*

Christina: We’ve had some criticism on that subject. It’s really interesting, considering what details make a character “iconic” in the eyes of fans, and what details fans are willing to sacrifice and which ones they aren’t. Every fan will have their own preferences, of course, and for myself, I really love Sam’s red hair. I think its cute and a new twist. But I respect every fan’s ideal vision for Sailor Moon – that’s a very sacred thing.

And yes, I didn’t want to use any wigs in the production. That wasn’t a budgetary decision, it was an artistic one. In retrospect, being able to afford to have a professional hairstylist on set constantly would have been the ideal! Hair is very, very difficult. Especially if you’re running around a lot and recording with limited light or video quality.

Anne: I really loved how the promotional photos turned out–especially the one where Sam is sitting on the moon a la the manga image. The red hair definitely works in that!

Actress Sam Ross sits on a crescent moon in the sky as Sailor Moon. "Sailor Moon and the Return of the Shadows" reads at the top.

Photographer: Mark Palmino

Christina: I love the photographs. They represent what could have been, in my mind, if I’d been able to afford professional lighting (and a hair stylist!)

Anne: I think limitations force you to be creative–that’s half the fun! Oh! I had wanted to ask–the film ends on bit of a cliffhanger. Do you think you’ll ever make a part 2?

Christina: Overall, I am satisfied with the project. I have certainly learned a lot in the process of making it – it was my very first film project. Are there things I would do differently if I did it again? Most definitely. But I’m just gonna look ahead rather than behind and appreciate the work we put into the project.

There will not be a part 2 of that particular project. It is a stand alone, isolated cliff-hanger of an episode! Unconventionally. However! It might not be the last Sailor Moon fan project I do. I’ve been considering doing a fan trailer with a new cast. The advantage with fan trailers is that you can concentrate your efforts in a 2 minute video, and invest your money and time into 2 minutes, capturing the atmosphere of your ideal film and allowing editing tricks to suggest glimpses at scenes that, in a short film or full length film, you’d have to figure out how to create in their entirety.

Anne: Oooo! I can’t wait! Any last words before we wrap this up?

Christina: The only other thing I’d like to say about the project is that I owe everything to the cast and crew. Everything. Without them, the film would not exist. I have no idea how I can ever repay them. Filming until 2 in the morning, or in freezing weather, or while a midnight car creepily shows up and drives slowly past us for no reason on top of the parking garage… running in heels, changing in and out of costumes in cars or train station bathrooms…Teaching me how to sew. (I still can’t sew by the way.)

Oh! I need to mention Mark. Mark – this guy. This guy. He’s been with us since the beginning. Our cinematographer and photographer and camera man – he took all of the promotional photographs, and he’s been with us on set every day for each scene, barring once when his car broke down.

Anne: That’s dedication! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me about your project, Christina.

Christina: Thank you so much, I’m honored you wanted to know more about the project.

Anne: So, without further ado, Sailor Moon and the Return of the Shadows!

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