How ‘Girls’ Led Director Richard Shepard to the ‘Tokyo Project’ (Exclusive)

Tokyo Project

The ‘Girls’ director explains to ET how his new short film was inspired by the HBO series’ trip to Japan.

Set in Japan’s capital, Tokyo Project tells the story of a mysterious romance between two strangers (played by Elisabeth Moss and Ebon Moss-Bachrach) as they explore the hidden treasures of the city. Written and directed by longtime Girls collaborator Richard Shepard, who helmed several of the HBO series’ standout episodes, the new short film is his way of satisfying an itch for a “pure creative experience.”

In fact, it was his time on Girls that led to Tokyo Project. While on the set of the Tokyo-based season five episode (“Japan”) directed by Jesse Peretz and written by girlfriend and executive producer Jenni Konner, Shepard was inspired by a mix of love for the city and envy about not being involved in the production. 

“I was watching them shoot and wishing I was making something cinematic,” he tells ET. “I was motivated by some jealousy that I wasn’t directing the episode.” Responsible for two episodes a season, Shepard directed “Hello Kitty” and “The Panic in Central Park” of season five, he was ultimately fine knowing that Girls creator and star Lena Dunham handpicks the directors for very specific reasons, leaving Peretz to handle the Tokyo shoot. In the end, “while they were shooting, I was in the hotel writing,” he explains. 

What Shepard came up with is a romantic story crafted around his love of Tokyo. “I thought it was ripe for telling this sad but romantic love story. It fit perfectly with what travel was and specifically what Tokyo is to me,” he says.

Because it was a completely independent experience from Girls and HBO or any of his other film projects, Shepard was responsible for financing the production. Unsure how he was going to pay for it, he was surprised to receive a residual check for Girls. “It literally paid for the movie. So, it was the perfect situation where a bit of the work I had done ended up paying for a creative experience,” he says.

While he wrote the script with Moss-Bachrach -- Marnie’s tumultuous lover, Desi, on Girls and upcoming star of Netflix’s Punisher -- in mind, Shepard turned to Dunham for help finding his lead actress. Ultimately, she passed the script to TV’s busiest star, Elisabeth Moss, who agreed to do it. “I think Lizzie was intrigued by the story and intrigued by Tokyo,” he says. 

Ebon Moss-Bachrach in the 'Tokyo Project.' - HBO

With the project financed and his stars in place, it was just a matter of filming in Tokyo. “We'd drive around in a van and jump out and do a scene and then jump back in,” Moss-Bachrach says of the guerrilla-style production, which consisted of 12 crew members and the two stars. “We were sort of a spectacle wherever we went—but a small one.”

Moss-Bachrach, who had very little time to get over the jet lag before filming, says the entire experience was “very dreamy and very beautiful.” While a fan of Japan, he’s not as familiar with Tokyo and viewed the experience not only as a film shoot, but as Shepard’s guided tour throughout the city.

Not normally a fan of short film projects (“You don’t exactly know what the point of them is sometimes”), the actor did Tokyo Project for Shepard and was pleased to discover it “felt like a real piece.” The short unfolds like a bottleneck episode of Girls, Shepard’s specialty, with the novelty an unexpected twist-ending. “The movie has a sort of kaleidoscopic quality,” Moss-Bachrach says. 

And for Shepard, the film “100 percent” succeeded in scratching the creative itch and experiment with storytelling and filmmaking. “It was extremely gratifying making the movie,” he says. Ultimately he credits his time on Girls, which pushed him to go “off road” more than he ever did before in the past 10 years of his career. “No one is doing it for the paycheck. In a short film, where there’s no responsibility to myself and those involved with it, the risks for me were worth it,” Shepard says. “I'm so proud of the movie.”

First premiering at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, Tokyo Project will make its TV debut Saturday, Oct. 14 at 10 p.m. ET on HBO.