“A Dysfunctional Ninja Family In Modern Japan” Dave Boyle on Netflix’s ‘House of Ninjas’


I wanted to be a filmmaker for as long as I can remember,” says Dave Boyle. “I wanted to be a writer/ director, but after I made my first couple of independent films, I was making more of my living as an editor. I didn’t really start pursuing screenwriting as a professional until I had made a couple of micro-budget films.”

This would include films like Big Dreams Little Tokyo, White on Rice, Surrogate Valentine, Daylight Savings, and Man From Reno. “That’s when I became passionate about writing. I think it was always a passion of mine, but from the beginning, I had this omnivorous jack-of-all-trades approach until those things melted away.

This renaissance approach eventually led Boyle to the new Netflix series, House of Ninjas. The story follows the dysfunctional Tawara family, the last shinobi clan, who struggle to reclaim their ninja traits in the face of a major crisis threatening Japan.

As I started focusing more on writing, I wrote a couple of spec scripts and finished Man from Reno, that’s when I started getting more jobs as a screenwriter. The passion was always there, but it wasn’t the focus of my career for a long time.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Dave Boyle

Being an editor and director also shaped Boyle’s writing style. “You end up in trouble in editing because you realize if you had done this and this while writing, you wouldn’t be in this pickle right now. It definitely taught me a lot about structure. I was making some arrogant mistakes that I thought I could get through directing and editing.

This three-prong approach also changed the perspective of what he liked to write. “Eventually I realized the stuff that I was addicted to reading was the stuff I should be writing. Initially, I saw myself as a slice of life [screenwriter] for human dramas, but in everyday life, I love thrillers and detective stories. Genre, that’s my true passion and that’s what I should be writing, instead of fitting a square peg into a round hole.

Writing for Genre

I think what I bring to writing is a sense of suspense with a light touch. I once heard something else described as ‘sinister whimsy’ and I always liked that expression. I like suspenseful stories that wrap you up, but have characters that are human and frail. I can’t point to a single movie that has exactly that. I try to aim at things I don’t quite see anywhere else, but maybe sinister whimsy is a close description. I have a hard time self-evaluating.

House of Ninjas started as an assignment. The original idea came from the star of the show, Kento Kaku (Help of God, Al Amok). “He had this idea of a ninja family in modern Japan. He took it to Netflix and they wanted to make it. They asked me for my take on it. My take was basically not to focus on ninjas as stealth killers, but to think about ninjas as an identity.

They have these traditions that are passed down and they’re living by these out-of-date rules like arranged marriages and dietary restrictions. They don’t drink, so they feel really out of place and out of time. Historically, ninjas were always under-the-thumb and ordered to follow orders, blindly.

Netflix agreed that this was an interesting conflict and dilemma for modern times. “Seeing people, who by all appearances are ordinary, but living by an ancient code, there was something to mine there, character-wise.” Boyle was initially hired to write the story bible. Then he wrote the pilot, he became the director, and then the showrunner.

It all started with the phone call, Hey, do you like ninjas?

The fun part for me was imagining the ninja clans of five hundred years ago, If they had continued in secret, what might they look like and what sort of problems might that have? That felt like an engine with an endless series of stories to tell and unresolvable conflicts they all could grapple with.

From Movies to Television

“I didn’t have any TV credits up until now. I have written and sold pitches, but nothing that made it across the finish line. I definitely think it was a learning curve, especially since I was writing in Japanese, my second language. I had been in writers’ rooms before, but there’s not a writers’ room culture in Japan.”

It was a whole new process of collaboration and formatting as well. Scripts are different in Japan. I think there were a lot of challenges involved. It’s a short season, only eight episodes, so I wanted to make sure every character had plenty to do and each had their own individual storylines. There is a balance of how often each character appears in each episode and how much progress we let them make, but also keeping the pace up and not letting them drag out.”

Creative Screenwriting Magazine

Photo courtesy of Netflix

That said, the showrunner said he enjoyed the “broad canvas” of letting the characters “get lost in the hall of mirrors.

The show was also targeted to more of a Japanese than an American audience. “Hopefully, the tone translates worldwide, but the primary focus was for a Japanese audience. Netflix is a worldwide platform, so it’s meant to be seen worldwide. Once we got going, it became less about the audience and more about the tone.

We wanted to tell a family drama with lovable characters in a hard-hitting ninja show. It’s a mystery revolving around a conspiracy, where every unsolved mystery in Japan can be solved with the presence of ninjas. That’s the underlying basis of the show, but also a family that feels very real.

Writing Japanese Action Scenes

As we previously discussed with screenwriters like Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Into the Badlands, Shanghai Noon), action should move the plot forward with great detail, but Boyle found his action scenes — written in Japanese — were much less descriptive. “I was shocked when I saw that an hour-long episode might only be 23 pages.

Take for example, the Walter Hill (Aliens, 48 Hrs.) style of screenwriting, which is very sparse. The typical Japanese script might even be more sparse. It’s a lot of blank space on the page, but all of our action sequences, we tended to lay out the weapons, who against who, the environments, and the key beats of the scene with enough room for the action choreography to expand on it.

The action sequences in Episode 1 and Episode 8 are laid out in a lot of detail where in the other ones, it’s more like, ‘They fight’ and that two-word sentence might be 2 – 3 minutes of screen time.‘” For Boyle, this meant changing his “mode of thinking” about screenwriting in general.

There are different schools of thought on that. There’s folks on the production team who wanted to change Japanese screenwriting a little bit, but people here — screenwriters on X — will argue about screenwriting all day long. What I found in this job is that those arguments are universal.

Basically, it’ll have a line of dialogue that tells you the character is going to have a reaction and there’s going to be a close-up. It’s puzzling at first because there’s a lot of them. I’ve actually started to see some of that in American cinema, like in Killers of the Flower Moon (written by Eric Roth, Martin Scorsese, and David Grann).

While there’s not a clear cut solution, Boyle leaned into what already works in Japan. “It took me a moment to get into the rhythm of how scripts are formatted and thought of.” Also, instead of pink and blue revision versions, the scripts are bound and published as a beautiful book. “You can revise it, but you don’t have daily sides. You have a beautiful book with everything inside.

Building Confidence

With so many obstacles in his path, Boyle says he was able to embrace the “little by little shift.” He adds, “I was hired on this job to write a show bible. So I did it. Then I was asked to write a script. It’s like the frog in boiling water. Before you know it, you’re running the whole thing and have all these responsibilities but the greenlight is not an on and off switch. It’s on a fader, so I felt like I could do it, and I was thrown into the deep end, so I just had to sink or swim.

The other helpful aspect is that once they met, star Kento Kaku fully backed the decision to bring Boyle in as the showrunner. “His confidence gave me confidence. The first time he saw my name was when he got the show bible. He looked me up, watched my movies, and was the primary mover [in me getting the job]. It just takes a handful of people who are rooting for you and you can bring what they need for their project. That’s where you get the confidence and the big break you need.

In terms of advice for up-and-coming writers, he says he would have urged himself to read more screenplays and write more drafts. “I do feel like I had this insane confidence that young men often have and it took me a few years to match that confidence as an entrepreneurial filmmaker. The other thing is just to enjoy the writing for the sake of writing. I think of the many scripts I wrote that did or didn’t end up happening, and the writing itself was so enjoyable that all the rejections and crazy ups and downs stopped bothering me.

It’s arbitrary why one thing is greenlit and another isn’t. There are things you can help yourself do, but there’s a good deal of luck involved. So loving the craft and the act of writing has saved me when things weren’t happening. My last film came out ten years ago, so I’ve made it through that development hell for a long time. There’s something to say about persistence.

This interview has been condensed. Listen to the full audio interview here. 

[More: An In-Depth Chat with Marc Marriott, Brigham Taylor & Ayako Fujitani on “Tokyo Cowboy”]


Brock Swinson

Contributing Writer

Freelance writer and author Brock Swinson hosts the podcast and YouTube series, Creative Principles, which features audio interviews from screenwriters, actors, and directors. Swinson has curated the combined advice from 200+ interviews for his debut non-fiction book 'Ink by the Barrel' which provides advice for those seeking a career as a prolific writer.

Improve Your Craft