How To Love Creative People – Interview with ZACH HEINZERLING, the Director of CUTIE AND THE BOXER

A while ago, Ideas Tap published a very amusing article on “How to date creative people” and the advice was: give them space, don’t compete, get creative with your dating ideas, don’t plan too far into the future, lower your expectations even further, etc.

All very sound advice… And then? What happens after the dating stage?Any hope for a “happily ever after” dénouement?

cutie_and_the_boxer_biggieCUTIE AND THE BOXER, winner of the documentary directing prize at this year’s SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL, offers one of the most surprising answers to this dilemma.

Imagine this “stranger than fiction” scenario: You are a super cute Japanese 19-year old girl, an aspiring artist, and you move to New York to start your art education. A few months later you meet Ushio, a very charismatic artist-provocateur,  21 years your senior. He asks you on a dinner date, sparks fly, then you go back to his place to see his art among other things. Then the following morning he asks to borrow money to pay his rent. And because you’re nice and he seems trustworthy, you part with the tiny allowance that your parents gave you to get by in New York lest poor Ushio get evicted. Six months later you become pregnant with his child, which forces you to give up your art education as the money doesn’t stretch to cover both… And you become Ushio’s full-time wife, cook, assistant…Thus began one of the most enduring romantic and artistic entanglements we ever heard of: 40 years later Ushio and Noriko are still making art, love and especially war…

Zachary_Heinzerling_Headshot

Zach Heinzerling

In an interview taken on October 18 at the Filmmaker Afternoon Teas, Mayfair Hotel, as part of LONDON FILM FESTIVAL 2013, the film’s director ZACH HEINZERLING tells us more about his most endearing subjects…

Dana: How and when did you first discover Noriko and Ushio, the “Cutie” and the “Boxer” of the title?

Zach: I like taking pictures and I was in Dumbo one day, this is a neighbourhood in Brooklyn that a lot of artists used to live in, art studios are still there but it’s become very posh and expensive. They have an open studio day when you can walk in and meet artists. A good friend of mine speaks Japanese, we went together and he introduced me to them. I was an art student, I’d just moved to New York and I was interested in getting to know them, they are very welcoming, they want to share their art, their art is about their lives and you get personal very quickly, which I think for a documentary subject is really interesting because you don’t have to work very hard to understand what they want to say, it’s out there and they are projecting it and drawing on it. First I made a short film about them, kind of a day in the life. Then, I just kept going over there, sometimes with a camera, sometimes not.

Dana: Did they welcome the idea of you making a documentary about them immediately or did it take some effort to convince them?

Zach: Yes they welcomed the idea immediately. Ushio is obsessed with being filmed, he’s a performance artist, his art results in paintings but it’s the performance really that is the art itself, so the idea of being watched is important for him. Noriko was more shy but with my interest in her art she really opened up for me and that became the basis for the film, it’s more her story as opposed to his.

Noriko and Ushio Shinohara

Dana: Their relationship sounds very interesting, there’s a bit of dominance/submissiveness going on…

Zach: Yes there is, they’ve been married for over 40 years, she met him when she was 19 and within six months she was pregnant and basically taking care of him. He’s sort of the classical drunk, egotistical artist, the “only thing important in life” kind of guy, and I think she was wooed by that and fell in love with him for his purity but then had to sort of clean up after him.  And I think there’s an element of, you know, in Japanese culture, sticking with your spouse through thick and thin, and she suffered through most of their relationship…The film is about them now in the present and how that past affected them today. And the resentment she holds against him, but also the power that she’s trying to extract back. She is the dominant personality now, she very much wears the pants in the relationship, she’s very strong, fierce, competitive. It’s always very interesting to have two headstrong artists, when you combine them something beautiful is created, and complex, and I think that’s really what the film is about, it’s about what’s created from the two of them as opposed to either one of them individually. The tension is drama and that’s what the film is.

Dana: How did they receive the film?

Zach:He didn’t like the film. When you see the film you’ll understand why, he only really cares about his art and the film starts out to be more about him and then transitions to be more about her. And he expected the film to be more about him, for his art to be more featured. And the film is not only about art really, it’s about this relationship, and love in a way, and he doesn’t enjoy love stories. But he wasn’t critical of it, this is something I worked on for five years and we’re very close, we’re like family, so his reaction wasn’t like “You have to change it”, it was more like “I didn’t expect this”. But he’s since come to really appreciate and compliment the film and he’s supportive of the film because it’s essentially promoting his artwork which he likes. She’s always loved the film, she takes ownership of it and uses it in a way as more of a weapon in their battle…

cutie at work

Noriko at work on her Cutie paintings

Dana: What made you choose to focus more on her, is it because you found her the more interesting character, or is it because she is kind of the “underdog” and you wanted to side with her?

Zach: Yeah she’s definitely the more complicated character, she’s layered, there’s a complexity to her.  And she’s got a fascinating story, she moved to New York when she was 19, and she was kind of taken under the wing of this crazy personality and she lived in this bubble that he’s created ever since. And she’s now 60 and looking back on her life. The film’s title, Cutie, comes from this comic that she’s created, the Cutie character is basically her alter-ego, she’s created herself as this 19 year old girl with pigtails, and part of it is tied to this longing for a youth and an innocence that was taken from her at a young age and she’s trying to recreate it through her artwork and deal with a lot of her problems through her artwork. So it was fascinating, she wears her pair of pigtails today as a 60 year old woman, she has this kind of ageless beauty to her and a real strange way of dealing with things. So yes I think that her character has legs and it was also something that over the course of the film would shift and I could observe that shift…

Dana: It sounds almost like a feminist film, a woman who really comes into her own…

Zach: Yes, in her art now she creates drawings of herself dressed as a dominatrix and whipping her husband who’s in chains, she’s revenging against her husband …and she’s this cute Japanese woman so it’s crazy…(laughter)

Ushio_Zach_Noriko_at studio

Zach with Ushio and Noriko in their art studio in New York

Dana: How long have you spent with them to make this documentary and what were the challenges?

Zach: I met them five years ago so it’s technically a five year process but the film really takes place over the last two years. Early on, it was a film more about art and more of a slightly traditional style of documentary where I was using other people to kind of contextualise them and their art, historians, and their friends and curators. And then it shifted to being only them, observational in style, where they were sort of interviewing each other. But there’s no interviews in the film, it’s just reality observed, reality sculpted obviously, the editing process creating a story out of these two years where she starts to gain the respect of others and the relationship shifts from her being the assistant to her being a real artist in her own right. And the challenge was that I’m not fluent in Japanese and the film is almost entirely in Japanese. So a lot of time when I was shooting I had no idea what they were saying but I could generally understand the idea and I would just film scenes in their entirety and then get all of the footage subtitled and recover scenes from that…It’s an inefficient process but I was interested in things other than exactly what they were saying, the rhythm of the scene, or what it looked like, or what it sounded like…And I shot the film too, trying to get that kind of intimacy that’s needed for the kind of scenes that I wanted…And it took that long, it was only after three years that I started to get scenes that were natural…and to observe them in more vulnerable situations. So obviously that’s an immense amount of time, I was working on other projects throughout but the film is really as much about my relationship with them as it is about their relationship…

Dana: Are you in the film?

Zach: No, I’m not in the film.

Dana: Because you mentioned the word “observational” and I was wondering whether you put yourself in the frame in the style of cinema vérité or whether your film is purely observational in the style of direct cinema?What was your approach?

Zach: I wouldn’t describe it as purely observational.Traditional cinema vérité is this whole idea that you don’t direct at all, it’s just the camera as is. […] But the genre shifted and these sort of hybrid films were created. I mean everything that happens in the movie, happened, but the order that you place it, the way that you shoot things, we use music in the film, we use animation, her comics are animated, there’s a level of me deciding which stories to tell. And even cinema vérité is subjective, nothing is observed reality, it’s always sculpted reality so I constructed it slightly more than say 60’s vérité films, but that was always the intention, you turn something into a cinematic experience to make people understand your version of the story, this is my version of their relationship. They understood that and that’s why they weren’t critical of it because they knew it was my version as opposed to the real version or…

Dana: What they wanted to project…

Zach: Yes…when you film artists, a lot of the time that’s a benefit because there’s a sort of understanding that “ok, this is my art”, even though it’s about them, they are more exhibitionists…(laughter)

Dana: This is your debut feature film and you made shorts before. I was wondering what you have lined up for the future, will you continue to make films?

Zach: I think so. I went to arts school, I studied philosophy, I didn’t go to film school but I do think I’ll probably continue making films, I’m currently writing a script for a fiction film, so my ambition is to create and construct a story. I would do another documentary, this documentary was special because the subject lent itself to an interesting and creative style of documentary, you can’t find that in every subject…

Dana: What would be the main themes you would like to explore?

Zach: I think I’m most apt to continue exploring this sort of morally complex relationship stories, smaller personal stories are what I’m most interested to catch on film…Why I like cinema is that you can approach this idea of something or someone without having to define it, you can make an audience sympathetic to a character then turn around and make them disgusted by that character. It shows how complex people can be and you can shatter people’s preconceived notions of why someone does what they do, I think that’s the most interesting thing about film, it’s very difficult to find another medium that doesn’t rely on specificity. Ambiguity is something that is sometimes scary and hard to sell but if you can make a film that is ambiguous but also engrossing, I think the audience feels perhaps changed in some way or their perspective is shifted. So it’s those kinds of films, with characters that you might not always like. I mean in this film Ushio the husband is kind of demonised at the beginning and then by the end maybe you feel differently.At the beginning, one of the lines in the film is that he is a genius and his wife is average so it’s her job to support him.

Ushio boxing

Ushio performance art

Dana: Oh no!He really said that?And you left that in?

Zach: Yeah.So you might hate him. But then there are other things that you might like about him.

Dana: Did he know he was being filmed?Didn’t he say it as a joke?

Zack: Oh yeah, he knew…Well, she wasn’t there but no, it wasn’t a joke. He laughed and the camera was on… As you’ll see in the film, there’s no place he won’t go, his life is to be as exposed as possible but the irony is that you never actually feel like you get to his core, it’s always a performance with him, he’s always kind of acting in a way, so I think that line is probably a version of acting and finding out what he really thinks. And he definitely cares more about his art than hers and he definitely thinks he’s a more important artist than she will ever be, and based on what he’s done, he was part of a 60s post-war Japanese group that’s very important in the art history of Japan, so his paintings are all over the world. But now he’s actually not selling at all, he’s not known for his work of the last 30 years, so in some ways he’s sort of this washed-up artist who’s not really relevant anymore. She is the more sort of fresh, with something to say, you know. Whether he actually respects her or not is still a question, and whether she actually respects him or not is a question…

Dana: Why are they together?

Zach: I don’t know (laughing), that’s the subject of the movie…

If we managed to pique your interest and you want to find out the secret to Ushio and Noriko’s enduring love, don’t miss out on the film’s cinema release, Cutie and the Boxer is screening at ICA and other cinemas in the UK starting today.

To book your ticket at the ICA click here.


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