Interview: THE RED TURTLE Director Michael Dudok de Wit Talks Studio Ghibli and More
Dutch animator, director and illustrator, Michael Dudok de Wit is the first foreign director to collaborate with Studio Ghibli as the Japanese animation house embarks into foreign waters and international production. After years of making award winning shorts (how many folks can claim to have won an Oscar, a BAFTA and a César? He can.) Dudok de Wit spent nine years bringing his debut feature, The Red Turtle, to fruition. The result is the rarest of cinematic things, an animated feature aimed more at adults than children. As Ryland Aldrich noted in his review, the film is "a sublime examination of what makes us human." The imagery, ideas and emotional storytelling contained in the film are nothing short of magnificent.
I got the opportunity to sit down with Dudok de Wit, discuss his past and current work, and delve into the craft, ideas and journey of making The Red Turtle, on the eve of its North American festival premiere at TIFF. During our conversation, he was perched forward on a large-and-low leather chair, with his legs crossed as if something significant might at any moment occur. His laptop was positioned askew on the small glass table in between us, and I noticed a complex array of pencil markings on the aluminum shell; not unlike the walls of bamboo grass on display in his film. He commented that he uses the laptop often as an early 20th century slate.
The gallery space where we met and spoke was quiet. The emptiness making the time we spent talking feel like calm glade in the middle of the more typical festival chaos. This conversation has been transcribed below. It has been lightly edited for clarity and flow, and there are perhaps (as these things go) minor *spoilers* contained therein as well.
Kurt Halfyard: You worked with Studio Ghibli in getting THE RED TURTLE made. As a fan of all of their work, the one thing in common with almost all of their films is the harmony and disharmony of people and the environment. The sound of cicadas are burned in my brain from their films. They somehow capture both the mundanity and magic of it.
Michael Dudok de Wit: *smiles* Have you been in Japan in summer? It is the first thing you will know upon arrival.
What was the process of Studio Ghibli providing you a space (and the space) for you to do your work in France. How did you work with them?
They said in the beginning, they do not want it to be in a Japanese film. Or, I probably asked Takahata-san if they wanted it in a particular style. He, along with Suzuki-san, was often the spokesperson for Ghibli.
He said in the beginning, “forget about Studio Ghibli, and propose a graphic style and a story.” I thought about colours. Colours that were not typically what they would use. And they said, “That’s fine.” They did not want me to work in Japan. There is not one Japanese artist working on the film.
I asked for some, because the Japanese have a particular talent to express nature in very simple ways. Many animators from all over the world consider Studio Ghibli films, and the very simple, very economical, very expressive way they create atmosphere. But they felt very strongly about not imposing anything during the production. They had opinions, they offered feedback. Takahata-san would always end by saying, “This is what we feel, but this is your film. You decide.”
Wait. Does that create less pressure or more pressure?
I see your point. Interesting. I felt the pressure right from the beginning; that they had high expectations of me, and I had high expectations of myself. So, that pressure was normal, and I did not even think about it.
Looking back, I realize that they were very respectful. I tend to be like this also, with my collaborators. It is not about fighting with opinions, that one person is wrong about something, but creating a relaxed space to discuss. When you ask a friend, ‘what do you think?’ Some are quite intense with their opinion, and possessive, because it is their opinion.
I am the opposite of that. I would say, ‘let’s put some opinions on the table and look at them, and see what works, and choose the really nice ones. It does not matter who they are from, as long as they are good for the film. And Studio Ghibli was like that too. And that I feel comfortable with. Because some opinions are very sensitive. You are vulnerable because you cannot always verbalize them.
So in that sense, you do not want a competition. And I have had collaborators and producers who would be less subtle with their opinions, and that is life. You deal with it. Here we had some core people who you can discuss and step back and think about things, and get a general impression. With my short films, I had total freedom, because there is no market for that. But I have also done commercials, and I am very aware that there is an audience. You do not make a feature film in limbo.
But if a producer said, “Look. This is too obscure. This will not work with an audience. Can you do it a different way?” Or, “This music is too experimental, or can you rethink the music?” I listened to that. I didn’t say, “I have my idea, shut-up and that’s that.” I do not feel that I was selling my soul doing that. I wanted it to be like a Ghibli film in the sense that it is full of character, and work with a nice big audience.
Going wordless, not free of language, but free of spoken words, that must help in the case for a global audience.
Originally we did have some dialogue in the beginning of the film, and when he spoke French, some people said, whoa, whoa, I didn’t know he spoke French! When we did it in English people would say the same thing. And it felt like he was dissociated from ‘him.’ It didn’t feel him. We worked a lot on changing the words and changing the sentences, and in the end, we just dropped it and then it felt good.
There is a ‘frustrated longing’ expressed as emotion in your work, in your many short films, and here in THE RED TURTLE.
Yes. Father and Daughter is vaguely about longing, and that was my trigger. I really wanted to express that and it was the starting point. In the The Red Turtle, it is one of the themes, not the main theme, but yes, he does long to go home.
When I think of longing, I think long-term, not what you want the next day, but aspiration or nostalgia. You long for a quality that is deep in the future or in the past. That is something I am conscious of. You may have everything you want in life, but there is something else. I find that very beautiful, very fine, and very real in my experience.
I also believe, although I cannot prove it, that even if it is not conscious in other peoples experience, it may be there subconsciously. And they translate it to idealism, or finding the perfect partner, or a promotion in a job or such things. In The Red Turtle, I had several emotions, one was a deep awe for nature. Not just nice animals and beautiful landscapes, but the grey sky and the rain. Death and growth. When we walk in nature, I wanted to explore that. That is what excited me. But this also includes human nature. I really wanted to explore my respect for the human being.
The film starts off with the lead character as a blank state. Everyone can relate to battling nature and the survival instinct. But fairly early on, it takes a turn into something much bigger, a lifetime, and the myriad of human truths that go with that.
That excited me too. I wanted to demonstrate it in a subtle way how he comes to peace with nature, how he realizes that he has never been separated from nature at all. He is nature. But I do not like big flags or big messages, so if the audience feels that subtly then I would be happy. I like that a lot. The other thing I wanted to explore was beauty. Beautiful grey skies, beautiful muddy landscapes. You might think this is obvious. All animators want to make nice drawings. I think it is very dominant in my motivation for the film. To make something ‘breath stopping.’
There is an unconventional way you have, of looking at things. The landscape is quite muted, certainly for a tropical island. It is almost post-apocalyptic at times.
That excites me. Doing the holiday brochure with beautiful palm trees and inviting beaches, that would be nice too, but I leave it up to the travel agencies! It was an immediate choice to eliminate palm trees, for instance, as it is so often seen. My belief as a background artist is to keep it simple. The simplicity of a bamboo forest, I thought, was interesting. Just vertical lines. No flowers or orchids, or tropical birds. It sounds like a contradiction, to keep it very simple and very pure, but to draw a lot of details.
I think I understand what you are saying, all the sprouts and grass, how it goes right out of the frame, almost implying forever.
Yes. Exactly. That I find beautiful. It just grew. I tried it with simplified bamboo leaves. It looked too abstract. Then we explored drawing every leaf, but still keep some basic elements. Not large palettes of colours. Keep one colour, maybe a second, and that is all. When we started exploring that, I did some backgrounds to see the style, but also with my collaborators. And at this point, we realized this is the style. And I am very pleased. We had to find it in the process. I did not have a clear visual example of the film at the beginning. You search as you go.
Usually ‘beauty’ (particularly in human faces) is defined by symmetry. Here there seems almost a rebellion again this. The island is asymmetric and always framed that way. There is always one element, even in the downpours of rain, that seems to ‘refuse’ symmetry.
I will say it differently. It may surprise you. When you make a film, you have some basic shapes which come back again and again. I love diagonal lines. It is what we call power lines. They kind of create graphic power, not necessarily the power of what it represents. A shadow that crosses a screen diagonally is a very present thing.
Even if you do not look at the shadow, you look at the person that creates the shadow. The visual sense that I wanted to use right at the beginning, the curve of the carapace, the shell, the waterline. You come back all the time. The lack of symmetry comes with that, if I had chosen another dominant element, I may have gotten more symmetry. I never discussed this with the background artist, in particular, keep it ‘asymmetrical,’ but I think it was a natural thing that we did.
I was intrigued with how you use water and fire as action in the film, a bonfire and the Tsunami. Could you comment on how at times you bring these elements foregrounded elements.
The bonfire is a bit bizarre, because in the film you have not seen any fire up until this point. There were several reasons for that. It may surprise you, but I had a graphic reason. I needed a big orange presence at that moment. Something to offer closure for the Tsunami sequence. Something completely different, dramatic (orange!) And then we can come back to the green island.
It may sound superficial, but we worked on that on one level. Story-wise, we needed to establish at that moment that it was a nice relationship to his parents. Because the son is not leaving the island because he is fed up with his family, as it were. He just leaves because the moment has come for him to explore the world.
You mean because that is the part of the cycle?
That’s right. For them to be at the bonfire, for them to look at each other, to establish they are fine, and that there is an nice harmony between them. And then the story can develop from there.
The Tsunami in a way was the same. After the Tsunami, the son had matured. If he can rescue his father, now he is ready to leave the island. He is not just a fresh adult. He has gone through an experience and he is ready to leave the island in that sense. The Tsunami was chosen for its beauty. And I say this with respect because these things kill people. But it is a beautiful phenomenon.
It is also to show that the island is not a pretty little paradise. It is also a part of the rhythm of the man leaving island and coming back (and leaving the island and coming back.) The son then takes over the cycle of leaving the island.
Your work is deeply concerned with rhythms and cycles. And it suggests that you can push against the cycle somewhat, but you have to respect the renewal, and that things have endings.
I love that, and I want to explore that more. When working on the film, I realized we found the right balance with fewer cycles. Originally I had written in the script that the man tries to leave the island more often. And every time was different and that would be interesting. But fewer times worked here, because there is a lot of other things to do in the amount of time we had.
I find cycles very beautiful. I get moved about generations following each other. A baby is born, enters the world, in a network of other people, grows up, becomes a woman, then an old lady, and disappears. And then the next generation. And so on. When I see that in different contexts, in photos or novels, I find it incredibly moving. I wanted to play with that in the film.
Does this notion drive the distance of the camera in the film? There are a lot of really long shots here, and I do not see that very often in animation…
That is personal taste. I wanted to show people in context. In that landscape. Some standing alone on a big beach is beautiful. You know he is alone on the beach, and you do not have to show it that way, but still, I find it beautiful.
The other reason is that I really like body language. In animation, the rule is to show the emotions. Show it on the face, and show it in the eyes. I agree. Show the emotions. But you can show it in the behaviour of people. Or, just the way they stand somewhere, or lay down. That interests me.
For inspiration, I watched a lot of performances of modern dance. I would sit far away from the stage and it could still move me to tears. Graphically, you do not want a close up of the man or the woman or the child, because it is crude. It works at a distance. If you are close, the eyes are too graphic. Or you would have to stylize it a lot, like Mickey Mouse or something.
I find the face very complex. You have stylize or be super-human, incredibly skillful, because there are so many little details going on in the face. We love close-ups in live-action films because the actor or actress gives so much information. But in animation, it’s too much. Even if we were conscious of all the little details, it would be too much. So I would have to stylize like hell or not do closeups. I prefer the latter.
On a final note, please allow me to indulge in a bit of my childhood. I noticed that you are credited on the 1981 Canadian movie, HEAVY METAL, the Den and the Lochnar segment with John Candy.
*Laughs* Yes. The original artist was Richard Corben and I nearly worked on that in Montreal. They offered me a job. I came to Montreal, and said to the director, Potterton was his name, can I have a job on the feature? And he said, sure, but you have to go back to Europe and get a visa. I couldn’t get a visa in time. However, they were also working on the film in London, so I just knocked on the door there, and asked to work. They were almost done by that time, and I just worked on the last few elements of that segment. Otherwise, perhaps I could have become a Canadian!
Stranger things have happened.
The Red Turtle is currently playing in select U.S. Cities and is opening in some Canadian markets on January 27. For those not in those markets, there is this lovely French Blu-ray Box Set (Ard showcased it here) which is available now.