Koji Steven Sakai on writing, zombies, and dystopia

Koji Steven Sakai

Koji Steven Sakai

As a child, writer Koji Steven Sakai’s number one dream was to be a baseball player when he grew up. His backup plan was to be president of the United States. Although he played baseball through middle school and studied political science in college, he did not make it to the minor or major leagues or become POTUS. His path to being a screenwriter, producer, and publishing his first novel while working a full time day job as vice president of programs at Japanese American National Museum (JANM) began with writing bad poetry during high school.

“It was a very tumultuous time,” says the South Pasadena native and resident. “My father who had been sick all my life had just gone through another illness. The poetry helped express what was going on.”

Sakai, 37, had an overall great childhood in South Pasadena in a mostly Asian and Asian American neighborhood. “I never felt any of the Asian American struggles or stereotypes that those in other areas felt. I always felt like I was one of the majority. I always felt very positive about at least that part of my life,” he laughs.

A self-described talkative class clown, he would make up stories in middle school about himself and what he had done, and tell those stories to people at school. “I remember my water polo coach telling me I should be a writer. I remember that distinctively being a pivotal moment where I thought maybe I could write stories and I should do something about that.”

Sakai dreamed about a major league baseball career

Sakai dreamed about a major league baseball career.

Sakai in grade school

Sakai in grade school

He studied political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, with plans to become a lawyer and eventually go into politics. He continued to write on the side and began to write longer pieces. “They were horrible too,” he says of his writing. “Back then I mostly wrote about my relationships and things I was going through.”

After he graduated in 1998, he worked at various jobs including one at a Robinsons-May department store. “I hated my job. I hated going to work every day. I was making good money. That was the ironic thing. I realized right away I didn’t want to be in the corporate world or do something I didn’t want to do. I realized I should pursue my passion.”

He applied for graduate writing programs around the country and began the two-year University of Southern California Master of Professional Writing program in 2000. “I wanted to write the great American novel. The good thing about the masters program was it was very diverse. I was able to do poetry, screenplays, and plays. Graduate school gave me the opportunity to learn my craft in a way I’d never really given myself room to before because I was trying to do other things.”

Sakai in July with former Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo (photo by Michael Palma)

Sakai in July with former Dodgers pitcher Hideo Nomo (photo by Michael Palma)

A year into the program, Sakai considered quitting. “I wasn’t really writing anything good. I wasn’t moving forward in my career. Nobody wanted to read my stuff and obviously no one was publishing it.” Then, he discovered and fell in love with screenwriting when he took a screenwriting class on a whim. “Once I started really learning how to write screenplays, it helped all my other writing as well.” He wrote a screenplay in one week called Prisoner’s Dilemma. “I showed my teacher and he said it was really good. That was the first good feedback I had gotten in general. I hadn’t spent that much time on it. I thought this is something I should pursue and continue.”

After he graduated in 2002, he worked in the television and film industries as an intern on various sets and agencies toward his goal to become a screenwriter and full time writer. Since most of the industry opportunities were unpaid, he worked on the side in retail and as a substitute teacher. “At that point, I knew what I wanted to do and where I wanted to be.”

His first milestone was when he became a rewriter for a horror film originally called Death Ride later titled Haunted Highway (2006) – the first movie he worked on that was filmed and distributed by Lions Gate DVD. “It was an amazing experience to have all these people on set working on something I wrote. It blew my mind that people were spending their day trying to make what I created come alive. At that point I was taken a lot more seriously.”

The best professional advice he received was from showrunner Ehrich Van Lowe for whom he interned. “At the time, I was trying to write everything. If I try to write everything, I can’t get great at anything. He recommended I focus on screenwriting. If I become good at that I can do other things.”

With actor Jason Tobin and director Stanley Yung of his film "Chink" (2013) that he wrote and produced

With actor Jason Tobin and director Stanley Yung of film “Chink” (2013) that Sakai wrote and produced

A day in his life consists of getting up around 3 a.m. to write until around 6 a.m. – whenever his three-year-old son wakes up. He works at JANM the rest of the day, goes home, spends time with his wife and son, eats dinner, and starts to write again after everyone is asleep. He works on about a half dozen projects at a time. A morning person and coffee drinker, he says he gets four hours of sleep on a good night. There are days when he and his writing partner attend a meeting at a production office. Sakai, who has worked at JANM for over 10 years, says the museum has always been supportive of his career. “They’ve allowed me to go these meetings. I wrote a book this year. They allowed me time off to write. I shot two movies at the museum.”

He first started working at JANM because he needed a job with guaranteed hours and pay. His friend who worked there told him about an open position in the education department. “I was working a lot of production jobs. They’re 15 to 16 hour days. That didn’t leave me a lot of time to write. Once a TV show or movie ended I had to look for another job.”

One of the biggest challenges he has faced in his journey has been learning to value his time more and being pickier about the projects he takes on. “Would my son be proud of me in the future since my name is on this? Spending time away from my son is something I can’t get back. Before if anyone approached me, I’d write anything. Enjoy and appreciate your time before you have children because everything changes once you have children.”

Sakai on set of his film "Monster & Me" (2013) with producer Berenika Bailey

Sakai on set of his film “Monster & Me” (2013) with producer Berenika Bailey

On his writing process he says, “The difference between professional and amateur writing is an amateur waits for inspiration. If you have to wait for when you’re inspired, the inspiration may never come. You’re just wasting your time. One of the worst things you can do as a writer is not write. When I’m in front of my computer about to write I get inspired. I set writing goals for myself every day knowing at some point I’ll finish. The moment I leave the computer, I’m no longer inspired by my writing.”

His soon to be released debut novel Romeo and Juliet vs. Zombies (published by Zharmae Publishing Press’ fantasy imprint Luthando Coeur) – which will be available through major book retailers – started as a screenplay. “I wrote the first draft in two months. It was way faster than I should’ve written it. At that point I’d never written a novel before. When I first started writing, I thought I could write 10,000 words a day. I took a week off of work. I wrote 3,000 words a day and realized I couldn’t do any more than that.” The novel was inspired by his love of the Shakespearean classic and all things related to zombies and dystopia. He has several scripts in progress that revolve around Romeo and Juliet. “When I was young and stupidly, hopelessly romantic, it was the quintessential love story. It’s really spoken to me at different ages and different stages. This was the first opportunity I was able to put both loves together.” He says the dystopian genre allows him to take a break from real life.

He wrote his first Romeo and Juliet screenplay, Romeo, Juliet, & Rosaline, with Emily Brauer Rogers, his writing partner of over 10 years. The screenplay was one of his most successful projects and was optioned by Amazon Studios in 2012, but the script was never made.

The biggest milestones in his career thus far include his feature romantic comedy The People I’ve Slept With (2009) and his novel. The film – which played at prestigious festivals, had a short theatrical run, and was released on DVD by Maya Entertainment – was the first one he produced and that he was really proud of. “Being Asian American, I’ve devoted my life to AA issues and history. I believe the film’s important because it’s a move away from the traditional AA movie which often has been about inter-generational conflicts, historical, or identity. It was a movie where the characters just happened to be Asian American, but they could have been any race and it would not have made a difference.” Publishing Romeo and Juliet vs. Zombies brings Sakai back full circle to his original intent to publish a novel and toward his goal to write stories that entertain and educate.

At a film festival with "The People I've Slept With" team: director Quentin Lee, star Karin Anna Cheung, producer Stanley Yung

At a film festival with “The People I’ve Slept With” team (L-R): director Quentin Lee, star Karin Anna Cheung, and producer Stanley Yung

At "The People I've Slept With" 2010 Minnesota Asian Film Festival  screening

At “The People I’ve Slept With” 2010 Minnesota Asian Film Festival screening

On success, he says a fellow former student in his USC program that sold a million dollar screenplay considers Sakai’s career a success. “If you talked to me 10 years ago, I would say where I am in my career is super successful, but looking at my life now I don’t feel like I’ve reached where I want to be. It’s always a moving mark especially in a field where there is no true success in a way. I know even if I sold an Oscar-winning screenplay I’d wonder what’s next. It’d be a different struggle at that point.”

The best part of his job is every day has the potential to be the best day of his life. “We could sell a big script. I could quit my work and be a full time writer. The flip side is it’s a profession where there are no guarantees of success. You could write what nobody would ever see.” He says being in the AA filmmaking community allows him to experience unique camaraderie in a tight knit group. “That’s something I really appreciate about being in the Asian American film world and one of the reasons why I’m able to make Asian American movies.”

To those who would like to do what he does, he says with a laugh, “I would tell them to do something else. I’m kidding. I think the biggest thing is especially in Hollywood, in this town, a lot of people talk about writing and not a lot of people are actually writing. In order to be a writer you actually have to write. In order to be a filmmaker you have to make movies. Less talking, more writing is really the key for most people.”

Connect with Koji Steven Sakai and get his latest updates via Facebook, Twitter, and his website. For updates on Romeo & Juliet vs. Zombies, visit this Facebook page.

Sakai regularly contributes to 8Asians.com, teaches screenwriting at Visual Communications and Pasadena City College Extensions, and is developing several scripted television and feature film projects, including a film that will be shot in Asia in 2015.

{Photos courtesy of Koji Steven Sakai}

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One response to “Koji Steven Sakai on writing, zombies, and dystopia

  1. Pingback: Savor the Good: KOJI STEVEN SAKAI ON WRITING, ZOMBIES, AND DYSTOPIA | Koji Steven Sakai·

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