You probably don't know the Seattle power-pop trio Tennis Pro, even though they've been toiling away for seven years. They're one of thousands of bands in this city struggling to get their songs into your ears, but your apathy remains steadfast. That may change once John Jeffcoat's shaggy, fish-out-of-water road comedy Big in Japan hits screens. The Seattle director/writer's second narrative feature (after 2006's rom-com Outsourced) portrays Tennis Pro's last-ditch attempt to make it by going to Japan, where they hope their effusive, Cheap Trick/King Tuff–like tunes earn them enough buzz and popularity to free them of their low-paying day jobs.
Managed in the film by former Green River drummer and Tokyo transplant Alex Vincent (aka Alex Shumway), Tennis Pro—Phil Peterson, David Drury, and Sean Lowry—get their bumbling asses to Japan after considerable financial and relationship strain, and find themselves in many humorous and baffling situations. Murphy's Law rules much of their trip, but against the odds, Tennis Pro serve some aces, too. They win some fans, make friends with Japanese musicians, get sensual baths, write new songs, and attract label interest. They also drink enough sake to stun Godzilla. If Tennis Pro's exuberant, catchy music and the band members' scrappy, self-deprecating charm don't win you over by film's end, you probably have terminal anhedonia.
Jeffcoat met Tennis Pro through Jane Charles, producer of MTV's $5 Cover Amplified documentary series. He was looking to shoot a rock-and-roll road movie/comedy deploying the techniques he honed while working on Amplified. "I was shooting all these documentaries by myself on these Seattle bands," Jeffcoat says in a phone interview while on a ferry from his Vashon Island home. "I was amazed at the quality I was getting when shooting in these low-light situations in bars and clubs. I was having fun hanging out with bands. I thought it would be fun to do some kind of dramatic film using a documentary crew. I thought if you shoot it like a rock road film with three people, it would be a great challenge and really fun."
According to Jeffcoat, the project was initially presented as a reality TV show by Peterson, Tennis Pro's bassist/vocalist, featuring his unpopular group going to Japan to catch their big break. Jeffcoat nixed that idea, but after hanging out with the band and listening to their music, he thought he could make an entertaining movie that blended fact and fiction. "When they first gave me their bios, I laughed and thought, 'That's pretty funny, but what do they really do?'" Jeffcoat says. "It turns out they were real. It was a hairstylist, a professional card-counter, and a prodigy cello player. The idea of working with nonactors was very scary. I felt like the closer I could keep it to reality, the safer it would be for everybody. I thought they had really interesting backstories. They weren't heroin addicts and seemed responsible enough that it wasn't going to make my life a complete misery traveling halfway around the world with them."
Jeffcoat put the onus on Tennis Pro to raise funds to travel to Japan, which they did through a Kickstarter campaign. He then enlisted former Maldives drummer Ryan McMackin and Adam Powers to do camera and sound work, respectively. Once in Tokyo, they worked quickly and unobtrusively with small Canon 5D Mark II cameras, and leveraged Vincent's connections to facilitate things.
On screen, Tennis Pro seem to possess natural comedic abilities, a gift that's surprising for nonactors. Jeffcoat agrees: "I'm a huge fan of some of those '70s films with musicians like David Bowie and Mick Jagger, Art Garfunkel, even the Beatles. Maybe they're not the best actors, but musicians do have this sort of charisma and character that comes across. Also, I think the audience is a little more willing to let certain things fly. They realize they're musicians."
Jeffcoat notes that the musicians required lots of "liquid courage" to act, but eventually relaxed into their semiautobiographical roles, with workshopping help from instructor Matt Smith. Additionally, Tennis Pro tapped into their "natural rapport" as longtime bandmates. "If we could capture some of that honesty between them, then we could get through the acting thing. Keep the situations as real and relatable as possible. A lot of the stuff that happens in the movie is taken from reality—things the band or Alex has experienced, or that we experienced traveling in Tokyo. As long as we kept the situations honest, my hope is that it would feel believable and interesting." Further helping Big in Japan's spontaneous feel was Jeffcoat and McMackin's habit of always carrying cameras. "We captured a lot of impromptu moments that we weaved into the regular stuff," Jeffcoat says. He cites Leningrad Cowboys Go America and Repo Man as inspirations for Big in Japan.
With their peppy, melodically winsome music, Tennis Pro probably should be bigger than they are. "It's funny how some [bands] just click, some of them turn the right corner and meet the right person and they're off," Jeffcoat says. "I've met a lot of bands that are really awesome and for whatever reason, it just hasn't clicked. Then the question becomes: How long do you keep at it before your wife starts giving you issues, like you can't pay the bills? How far are you gonna take it, to see if you can click? That's kind of what the movie's about."