Monday, May 22, 2017

"I think there is a thirst for new directions in animation." - An Interview with Michaël Dudok de Wit

Michaël Dudok de Wit received an extraordinary bolt from the blue in 2006 – a letter from the great Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli, inviting him to come and make a feature film with them. It was a gamble on both sides: Ghibli had never worked with a foreign filmmaker before, and Dudok de Wit had never made a feature, although he had made a name for himself with a series of short films, including his 2001 Oscar-winner Father and Daughter. Thankfully, the gamble paid off. The Red Turtle is a timeless, poetic and profoundly moving fable that simultaneously feels both classically Ghibli-esque and an exciting new direction for that venerable company. I spoke with the Dutch director in London recently about his long journey bringing The Red Turtle to the screen.

When you first received an invitation from Studio Ghibli back in 2006, was the idea of making a feature something you had in your mind or were you happy working in short form?

Both. I had a very vague ambition but it looked like it was a mountain, not so much physically making the film but convincing producers that the film is worth investing in and convincing them that all my ideas are the best ideas. What I'm saying is that I hear of colleagues who go to the States with proposals for a feature, and even if the feature is accepted it's taken over by the producers. I say this without judgement, it may be a  good decision or a bad decision, but that is not my idea. I'm very much into directors' movies. So when Studio Ghibli wrote to me, I knew from their work that they would respect the artistic choices of the director. They confirmed it at our first meeting and they even added that the film would be made under French law. The French law respects auteurs in a way that I like a lot, basically the director has the final say over the film. I'm not saying that is ideal because directors' films are also very fragile. If the director makes a bad decision, he or she can push it through right to the end, and then you have people saying, "It's a nice film but it's a pity about this or a pity about that." When a director's film works well it's fantastic, but when it doesn't it very quickly shows its weaknesses.

A film like The Red Turtle would never have survived that process of going through producers' approvals. I can imagine people asking for dialogue or narration or more backstory.

Exactly that. They would use test audiences and all the decisions would have been quite rational, and it would have probably been commercially a more successful film, but it's not very appealing to me. Like so many animators, I know what I like and I feel very strongly about that and passionately about that, but I'm not good at convincing other people that they should really listen to me. [laughs] I can do it in a subtle way but I can't do it in a pushy way like producers do, so I would face a very tough battle with them.

One of the things I like about your short films is their simplicity. They have an impressionistic quality, with a lack of detail in the characters and backgrounds, and they are very basic narratives on the surface. How did you feel about adapting your approach for a feature length film?

That's exactly what I love. I love to explore the simplicity of film even if it is very complex, I mean what you see on screen. Forget about the process, that's much more complicated, but on screen it has to look very simple. The passion for that drove me, that's like a motivation to make the film, the beauty of simplicity. What happens with the feature is that, much more than a short film, you have the time. You have the time to make sure it works, you have the time to ask opinions. I said earlier that it's a director's film, but because the producers trusted me I felt very comfortable asking them for a lot of feedback and suggestions. I really felt that it would benefit the film to get that feedback, or even what people say between the lines; the fact that people don't say certain things, the fact that people hesitate before answering, I would listen to that as well. But to come back to the simplicity, I listened to the producers to see how they reacted to that and I talked to my collaborators and the background artists to see how they felt about that, and so I felt very encouraged that the strength of this film was recognised by other people as well.

The lack of dialogue is something you've carried over from your short films. How much of a conversation was there about having this element in The Red Turtle?

There was some dialogue in the script, actually. I really believed the film needed some sentences for two reasons: there are some moments when it clarifies things about people's motivations, and the other thing is that I felt it would add an extra level of empathy to the characters. Somehow I imagined it would be totally obvious that the woman would not talk, that's just how she is. She would have a normal human intelligence and talk with gestures, basically, but the other characters would talk. In the script it worked and intellectually it worked, but it didn't feel right. There's a huge stage that we call the storyboard/animatic, which is like the blueprint of the film, you draw the whole film in very simple sketches and put a soundtrack on that, and when we looked at that over and over again we felt there was something not quite right about the dialogue.

At the end of the animatic phase I had a co-writer, Pascal Ferran, and she said the same thing, we had to work on the dialogue. Even though there were very few words in total, thirty or forty, I imagined that it would be a question of finding the right words, almost like the right words for a poem. We worked on that and it was better, but there were still lingering doubts, and one day it was the Japanese producers who found me and said, "We looked at your sheet of paper with all the words and we looked at the animatic, and we think we should drop the dialogue." I'd contemplated that and I told them that I didn't think we could drop it, that we needed it for the story, and they said, "We really think you can drop it, it will be clear enough." I was surprised and said, "You think it will be clear enough, but what about the person over there?" but they said it would be clear. Then something switched in me and I realised I was wrong, we don't need the dialogue, and then I was really excited because it's a challenge, especially when some members of the audience see a non-dialogue film as too arty and it's a challenge to communicate these basic things very clearly. The sensitive scenes received much more time from the animators, we spent a lot of time getting the body language right. Since we made the decision to drop the dialogue I never looked back. I'm really pleased we did that.

How did you find the physical experience of stepping up to a feature film production in terms of the additional time commitment, the management of a bigger team, etc.?

The physical experience nearly killed me. [laughs] No, I was in good health throughout but I've never been so exhausted. You can't imagine. Working right through the night is something you do when you are young but I'm not in my twenties, and it's also the extended period. Everybody can exhaust himself for a month or a couple of months, but for years, that really puts you on the line and it reduces your creativity, your sharp judgement, etc. That was my main worry. Of course, it's entirely my choice, the perfectionist side of me always wants to do more, work more hours, work more weekends to improve the little details. On the whole, I'm now contradicting myself, but the whole experience was actually really joyful, because to be surrounded by a team of people not for one month or two months like I'm used to from commercials, but for years, that's really nice. We were a very tight team, very close, all freelancers, mostly French but some from other countries too, and we made it in a small city where everybody lived within walking distance from work, so in our free time we could just go to a local bar a few minutes away, things like that. I really enjoyed that.

My biggest worry with this film was that I wouldn't find really talented animators. There are so many animators around but not everybody likes this kind of style and not everybody is experienced in this kind of style, this relatively non-cartoony style. So my worry from the start was that we had to find really good animators or the film will suffer a lot, because it's a small team, and in the first few weeks I still didn't know how good people would be because you have to get into the style, but after a couple of months I was reassured. Not only were they good but they were much better than I hoped.

I guess the challenge of working in animation is that it's such an incremental process and it takes so long to see results. How do you maintain a sense of focus and enthusiasm when you're working on a film that takes years to come to fruition?

I'm used to that. On my short films sometimes it was a very long process because I had to interrupt it to teach or do commercial work, so I had that kind of patience. The danger is that you lose your passion and only your professional attitude keeps you going, that would have been awkward and would have shown in the film, but actually I really liked what I saw coming out every week, the new scenes and the new backgrounds. In the early phase, the first five years, it was mostly development and writing, and that was tough because it was slower than I expected. I was worried that the producers would pull out. They didn't make any hints but they were totally within their rights to say this is not what we expected, let's call it a day, sorry, etc. They were in their rights to do that because it took much longer than we expected. Afterwards, when the film was nearly finished, I found out that there was no danger and they were really devoted to the project, but as I was working on it I wasn't so sure about that.

Did Studio Ghibli give you any indication of why they made this decision to work with a foreign director? It's a very unusual move by them.

It was shockingly unusual. They have got an adventurous side. There is something quite solid and stable about them but they have done things in the past which are adventurous: their museum, they made a documentary, the training of their animators, etc. They have got a very independent 'we do things our own way' attitude, very un-Japanese in a way compared to other studios, a slightly anarchist side! [laughs] So to try something completely different is not that bizarre. Right in the first letter they said it was because they liked my short film Father and Daughter a lot. They didn't say it lightly, the three guys from Studio Ghibli, Miyazaki, Suzuki and Takahata; Miyazaki told me later, not at that moment. Takahata is often teaching at university and he has used Father and Daughter over and over again in his classes to analyse.

Father and Daughter does feel like a very Japanese film.

That's what they said, and you can't receive a bigger compliment than that from Japan. It does have  a Japanese sensitivity and it's no coincidence because since my student years I've had a particular passion for their culture. There is something about that traditional culture that I find very, very inspiring, the use of simplicity and the use of nature, and that applies in other art forms too: in live-action films, in poetry, in architecture, etc. So I think it's that and it's also that they have a high sensitivity to nature in their films, Takahata and Miyazaki. The Japanese attitude to nature is slightly different than ours, in a way nature is less matter and it's more alive for them than it is for us, and that resonates. I grew up with a lot of nature around me, I feel a very strong bond, and I also feel a very strong pleasure in expressing my awe for nature, my love for nature in this film. So it's a combination of things. But they sussed me out first, because I gave a public talk in Korea a couple of years before they wrote me the letter, and I showed all my work and Takahata was there. We shook hands and it was really nice, and I asked him what he was doing there and he said he was just passing.

He was spying on you!

He was spying on me, yes! Understandably, you want to get some impression of the person and my admiration for animation directors has only grown after this, because it's such an impossible task, you need so many talents and so many sensitivities to do it. So I'm sure they looked at me and wondered, "Will he survive?" [laughs]

I'm interested in your relationship with Takahata because he is undoubtedly one of the great animation filmmakers but he doesn't actually draw himself, which is quite unusual. Did you get any insight into how he works?

He's very cultured. He doesn't talk about his private life, but I think that's normal in Japan, so I know very, very little about him, I only met his wife briefly on one occasion. He was very generous when talking about the different cultural things he has observed and admired, so we talked a lot about these things that interest him, but I have no insight into how you can become such a big director when you don't draw at all. My understanding is that he started simply and slowly, and just built up from that. You need the mind of an animator to direct an animated film, and he has that, I saw that very clearly in our conversations. I think it grew in him, and Miyazaki is interestingly totally the opposite, he can't stop drawing and his drawings ooze charisma, and they are translated in his films. Takahata has the freedom to change styles completely because he doesn't create the style, he just finds the right collaborator to get a new style for his film. I've seen it a little bit in commercials, I've seen directors who can't draw, and I've seen in France one director who can draw moderately but is a good director. It's not impossible but it is unusual.

On the subject of changing styles, your last short film before The Red Turtle was The Aroma of Tea, and that suggested you were moving into a more abstract direction with your work.

Yes and no, because even if the viewer may not see it this way, I look at the visuals in an abstract way. When I animate I make sure the character has the right emotions, is drawn in the right proportions, and all that, but I also very much see animation as a 'graphic dance', as it were, as graphically interesting shapes on screen. So to move from more descriptive and narrative work to The Aroma of Tea was for me not a very big step. Also, it was pure bliss when I was making it. I was purely guided by my desire to do something very simple like that, in a calligraphic style, it was so nice to do. I knew on the first day it would have limited popularity in festivals, that's simply how it is. I expected to have more positive reactions, and then I realised that many people who saw the film are people who would never go to a modern art exhibitions, who are completely outside the universe of experimental art and modern art. They asked me questions that baffled me, and then I realised that maybe I had overestimated some people's education in modern art. And that's life, that's how it is.

It's interesting that you describe it as a dance, though, because it seems that your approach with the short films was to take a piece of music and let that dictate the rhythm and style of the film. Is that right?

That's exactly how I worked with the shorts and The Aroma of Tea was simmering in my mind for years, but it was only when one day I suddenly thought of the music I should have for the score. Then I thought, OK, now I am interested to make the film. The music is the muse, it is the reason why I make the film in a way, like a music video. With this feature film The Red Turtle, I didn't have the music, I didn't have a clue really. I knew it would be not this, not that, not electric guitar, not piano, etc. But I didn't know what kind of melody and what kind of style or period, etc. That really disturbed me. It's different to have one piece of music for a short film and for a feature to have several pieces of music with silence in between. When the composer [Laurent Perez Del Mar] finally came onto The Red Turtle quite late, I told him, "I know what I don't want, but please propose something to me. [laughs]I can't think of a melody, I don't know what else to tell you." He was carefully selected from about a dozen composers, and his proposal for the style of the film was very, very nice, so I already had a strong expectation that he would understand what would work for the film.

I wanted to ask you about traditional animation's place in cinema right now, and what its future is. There is a lot of great animation still coming out of Asia and there are really interesting independent works being made in Europe and the US, but the major studios in America have turned their back on it completely. Even the future of Studio Ghibli seems to be very precarious now.

They have used CG since I think Spirited Away, but only in a very discreet way to serve the 2D hand-drawn look. This is a big subject because The Red Turtle has some CG in it. The turtles are CG, and it was totally appropriate because if they had been hand-animated they would have been slightly more clumsy. They are very difficult to animate and my brief to the CG artist - it was just one guy - was to make the final look blend into the film seamlessly, so only experts can see that it's CG and the audience will think it is hand-drawn, and he and the compositor did that. I stay with hand-drawn because that is my joy, that is what I enjoy doing. I admire computer-animated films a lot, especially ones that break new ground. I respect them a lot and there is a lot of talent in that, but I just love the slightly imperfect quality of hand-drawn animation. You can see the weaknesses of the artist, and in a way they are not called weaknesses anymore, they are the charming qualities of the artist. That's usually when they are a bit experienced, when the amateur weakness evolve into personal details and characteristics in his or her animation.

There's a tendency now with computer-animated films to stick to a very successful formula. Zootopia is a very successful example of that, Moana, Finding Dory, Sausage Party, Sing and umpteen other CG films that were trying to be nominated. It's a visual formula; the humour, the pace and everything. So I'm not surprised there were two classic CG films - made perfectly, strong animation and everything - then there was a hybrid film, Kubo and the Two Strings, and then there were two handmade films from Europe, including mine. I'm not very surprised because I think there is a fatigue. We've seen the CG films, they work, we enjoy them, they make a massive profit, but it's not the only way of making animated films. There is a thirst for other things, such as Aardman films or Studio Ghibli films. This morning I read that the American Academy has decided a new approach to increase selection of animated features, and instead of only the people in the animation section selecting the animated films now it will be open to everybody to select the nominated films. Now it is open to all the members there will be a stronger tendency to go to the big studio animated movies, which is bad news for people like me, but that is what they've decided.

There was something else I wanted to say about this. I went to a big convention in Bordeaux a few weeks ago called Cartoon Movie, where people pitch new projects, which are film projects, animation. A lot of them won't be made but I looked at most of the projects being pitched, mostly European, and there were a lot of hand-drawn films, and a lot of adult animated films with very serious subjects about refugees, war, etc. That's a new trend that I find very interesting. I think there is a thirst for new directions in animation. The funny, fast-paced, heavy on dialogue CG films work well, that's established, but there are other things that people wish to see.

You've reminded me that I just saw a trailer recently for a film about Van Gogh, in which every frame has been hand-painted to creating the sense of a living painting. That's another fascinating hybrid technique.

Exactly. I'm glad you mentioned the word hybrid, because even The Red Turtle is a hybrid because it has some CG in it, and there is much more scope for hybrid discoveries. I often draw a parallel with popular music, I mean prog rock, jazz and so on. It started live, it became electric, then it became electronic, and basically it is very hybrid now, with endless new possibilities and fusions of styles, mixtures of acoustic and digital, etc.

So having gone through the ten-year experience of making The Red Turtle, are you going back to short form now? Do you have another feature in you?

I really wish I knew the answer, because I like both. Right now I'm not developing a new project, things are just moving in my imagination. The promotion of this film is reaching a year now, I've been promoting it non-stop for a year and it's not a full-time job, it's more than that. I'm pushing it because I want the film to be noticed even in the smaller countries like Slovenia and the Czech Republic, so I go there and I enjoy the reactions from the audience, but I also enjoy the fact that if I go there the press gets more interested in the film, so in that sense I really give all my time for promotion. And it's just great to travel with a film you're proud of and do Q&As with audience, that's great. Two days ago I was in Birmingham, a big experience, and the same day at lunchtime I was at Aardman where the film was shown for the people from Aardman Studios, that was cool. But it's not my main profession. I know this is coming to an end and I need to sit down and think about another project, and a short film is something incredible because it is so individualistic and they can have so much character. I'm not sure what my next step will be but making a feature has given me a flavour. I've grown a lot, not just as an artist but as a collaborator, someone who has to delegate and work with other people. I learned a lot from that and I would enjoy that experience again.

Before we finish, I have to ask you one last question. Your first credit on IMDb is as an animator on Heavy Metal, which was a very strange project and about as far from The Red Turtle as you could get. What was that experience like for you?

Yes, to be honest I'm not very proud of it! [Laughs] That was my very first job after I left art school in Farnham, in Surrey. As an animator I was incredibly naïve and inexperienced because in those days you didn't learn about the animation industry, you just make a film and then suddenly you find yourself outside the art college holding a can of film and thinking, what next? My dream was to stay in animation and learn anything in any way, commercials or working on features, anything. I went to the National Film Board of Canada, because it is the Mecca of short filmmakers, with a storyboard saying, "Would you be interested in this?" and they said, "Well, that's nice but not really." I decided to stay in Montreal and stay in the vicinity of the National Film Board and get to know people to increase my chances, so I found a job. It was actually a British director, Gerald Potterton, who was directing the Heavy Metal movie. I knew the magazine, which was groundbreaking, I was very much into comics and I thought it would be a great experience. He offered me a job and he said, "We have a couple of months left to go, we are nearly finished, but you can come and work with us. You have to go back to Europe to get a visa." I went back to Europe to get a visa, but damn, I didn't get it in time and the Montreal job was finished, and then I heard that in London they were still working on the London section, which is Den by Richard Corben. They were still looking for animators so I went to work there,'s not my talent, it's very realistic animation, and the story...I didn't connect with it. But I had work and I was surrounded by colleagues and I was delighted to work there. My animation is really, really not outstanding, but immediately after that I got a job in a commercial studio and things just rolled from there.

The Red Turtle is released in the UK on May 26th