Disbanding alternative dance act LCD Soundsystem in 2011, right at the peak of its commercial success, was a difficult decision for frontman James Murphy. But it's one that has allowed him to embark on a number of projects he never had time for when the group was active.
His latest and most creatively rewarding endeavor is "Little Duck," a short film he wrote and directed for the Canon Project Imagint10n film festival, coordinated by Ron Howard. Murphy had to pick nine photos from a stack of about 91 submitted by from contest participants, and use those images, along with a pic Howard chose of a snail balanced on a leaf, to inspire a 12-minute-long movie. Actor, musician, and comedian Jamie Foxx; actress Eva Longoria; Twitter co-founder Biz Stone; and fashion designer/actress Georgina Chapman also created movies for the festival.
At first, Murphy was stumped by the task. "I went in with a blank mind and in the beginning I was really confused," he admitted to Yahoo Music on December 5, an hour before the New York screening of "Little Duck" at a theater in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. "I was looking at stuff, going, 'I don't know. Nothing’s happening.'"
Over the days that followed, scenes randomly formed in Murphy's mind and a plot began to congeal. "In an obscure sort of way the pictures started giving me ideas for story, location, and place," he said. "I ended up coming up with an idea for a full two-hour film, and then I had to pare that down into a short. It's a segment of a movie, in a way."
"Little Duck" is a human-interest drama about a young man from New York who flies back to his hometown in Japan to visit his brother in jail. As important as the jail scene is, footage of the main character spending time with his brother's friend and recalling the relationship the three of them had over a decade ago is equally significant. "I'm really interested in the way people act around each other and the way people make each other insecure or confident," Murphy said. "I like to show how they behave when they’re being looked at, and who's looking at them, and how they act when they're not being looked at."
While the Project Imaginat10n photos factored into the setting and plot of "Little Duck," their relationship with the movie were more symbolic than literal. "There was a photo of a kid with a gas mask, and I had just been thinking about the  disaster at [the] Fukashima [Daiichi nuclear power plant]," Murphy said. "All of my friends are really anxious about the environment and my Japanese friends were especially freaked out. So that gas-mask image triggered that idea and made me think of Japan. And there's a picture of a snowy road. I had just been in Sapporo a few months before and seen something similar that was really beautiful. So that put the movie in Japan for me."
The idea of using brothers that had bumped heads over the years came from an even more tangential place. "There was a picture called 'Vigor Divided,' that shows two bucks on either side of a chain link fence and they're unable to reach each other," He said. "That's where I came up with the jail scene. Then there's a picture of a guy fishing. That became a subtext of the story – something the characters talk about, but you never actually see."
In addition to being inspired by the Project Imaginat10n photos, Murphy, a big film buff, was influenced by some of his favorite directors, including Jim Jarmusch and Yasujirō Ozu, who both focus on character and dialogue more than onscreen action. "I wanted it to feel like real life and people and the way they are; rather than, 'Oh, I've got 12 minutes to relate a life-changing event,'" he said. "Does a life-changing event need to happen in 12 minutes? I was happy not having major plot points and just having it show the way three people deal with each other."
That's hard enough to do when everyone speaks the same language. While Murphy has visited Japan many times, he speaks very little Japanese. Similarly, the actors in "Little Duck" spoke poor English. To add to the cultural divide, Murphy's script needed to be translated into Japanese and the inexperienced director had to audition experienced Japanese actors. Then, everything had to be shot, as Murphy strove to determine whether actors delivering their lines in Japanese were as good as they could be.
"I was out of my element the whole two months we were there," Murphy said. "But I had really good producers, and they ask you the questions you need answers to. I wasn't alone flinging my energy around. They'd say, 'What do you want to do? You have this much time. We have to shoot this by four. Do you want to do this inside or outside?' And I had a great director of photography. We had a lot of discussions about what we liked and what we didn't like, and what we believed in and what we didn't believe in. That made it a lot less scary because I felt like I was in good hands. In the end, it was really enjoyable. It wasn't nearly as stressful as my normal job."
Even so, there were other unexpected obstacles. To make "Little Duck" the necessary length, the director had to edit out a complete part that had been shot in New York. This left some actors completely out of the film. In addition, Murphy had to work with an American team that wasn't familiar with certain elements of Japanese culture. "I've been to Japan a lot, so I knew how not to be offensive, but that wasn't true for some of the people I was working with," he said. "I had to run around and make sure the Americans didn't wear their shoes inside the houses where we were shooting. The poor documentary guys were getting barked at by me all the time. They'd just come in, and I'd automatically go, 'No, no, no, no. Take your f---ing shoes off!'"
It might seem like Murphy's background in music would lend a certain aesthetic feel to "Little Duck." That really wasn't the case. Then again, Murphy also doesn't approach songwriting in a traditional way. "To me, everything's sort of its own art project, and this was no different," he said. "And it's about what do I like and what don't I like. I do that all the time, I just do it in different ways. But I think all the things I do feel the same to me. It feels like the same gesture, whether it's designing a sound system or making coffee or making a film or a record. It's all the same kind of idea. It's me going, 'I don’t like the way this is done, I’m going to do it another way.'"
With "Little Duck" completed, Murphy wants to work on a full-length feature film sometime in the future. He has a completed script he's considering and he's open to any offers that come his way. "I would like to direct other movies. I think it's a great form of expression. but I don't know if that's in the cards or not," he said. "I don't have a project that's on my desk burning. I'll just have to see what happens, but right now I'm really pleased with what we've done."