Few animation studios have a success rate quite like Studio Ghibli – and generally speaking, the Japanese animators create their myriad of enchanting, moving endeavours from their home turf. But for The Red Turtle – who they cooperated with Wild Bunch on – they’ve entrusted their brand and reputation in the hands of Dutch filmmaker Michael Dudok de Wit – and when we interviewed the talented director in Paris earlier this year, he couldn’t quite believe his luck…
I have to say it’s very strange, because they don’t need people outside Japan, they work amongst themselves and there’s a lot of talent in Japan, it’s a big industry. So when they wrote to me to ask if we could work together, it was so bizarre I couldn’t believe it. My first reaction was yes, I would like to work with you, but I needed them to explain a bit more because I wanted to make sure I didn’t misunderstand, it was so surprising. They said they liked my short film Father and Daughter, and said if I was thinking of making a feature film, they would love to do it together. That’s all, bang, in one little paragraph. I’m a huge fan. I immediately knew I was going to say yes. Not just because I like their films, but they make director’s films. They respect the fact that once the director has started to make a film, he or she has the responsibility until the end, and the final word on the film. You can see that, and feel that in their films, so I knew if I would work with them, they’d respect my particular artistic side, and not ask me to fit into their style. But I asked them anyway, if there was a story they wanted to tell, or if I should make a Japanese style film, or if I had to work in their studio and they said no every time, I had to propose the story, the design. They thought it was more appropriate for me to make it in Europe.
Do you think that sub-consciously you injected more of Studio Ghibli than you might’ve had they not approached you?
I think, but the word sub-conscious is right, because I didn’t try to please them. I mean of course I wanted to please them, but I didn’t have to compromise on what would please me. I couldn’t make a film like Spirited Away, that would be artificial, but there are elements in their films, the respect for human beings, the respect for nature, I was at ease with that. But they kept saying they liked Father and Daughter so I felt they wanted me because of my style, not because technically I could be a good director, but because they wanted my style. They also said it might not work, we took it step by step. For them it was a risk working with a non-Japanese artist and they knew that if you make short films it doesn’t mean you’re a good feature film director. I could have been crap at making a feature film, and we would’ve stopped very quickly after the beginning. So we took it step by step, and they approved every step and I continued only after that.
Why did you want to tell this story with such minimal elements?
That’s my personal taste. Aiming for simplicity, and that includes the rich moments in the story, with lots of details in the background, I wanted to keep it simple. So the script was much richer because you start with a lot and you take the weakest bits out, it’s a very common process and very common to have that preference also, I don’t think I’m unique. But that’s my talent and my passion, if someone says they like my film because it’s simple, I think that’s fabulous.
So how about the decision to be dialogue-less? Was that in place from the offset?
Not from the offset. Initially I put some dialogue in the script, just a little, to hear them talk. But it didn’t feel good, so I thought it was my words, so I co-wrote it with a new writer, and it was okay, intellectually it was fine, but the feeling was not right. So I thought it was because we didn’t have the final voice actors, but still the new background artists and animators said that when they watch it, it’s strange hearing the character talk suddenly. You’re so used to the fact you don’t know his nationality, you don’t know anything about him, when you suddenly hear him talk in a language it’s a bit of a jump. We were all happy with the final script with very little dialogue, but when waiting for money to come in, I got a phone call from Studio Ghibli and they said they’d been thinking about the film, and they thought it would be stronger without dialogue. I protested because there was a very important line, and I thought we’d lose empathy if we don’t hear their voices, and they said no – they thought it would be even stronger. Suddenly I thought, dammit, this is really exciting. They were right, and okay it wasn’t easy but it was an exciting challenge.
Did that bring out the more creative storyteller in you?
Yes, exactly. And the creative animator. There was one scene in particular where there was a very important line with implications, but the animator instead had to portray that by an exchange of looks on faces and that was difficult. It took much more time to animate those scenes.
Naturally when presenting an animated film, it does attract a family audience. Was that a challenge to make this accessible to a young crowd? Because their attention spans aren’t quite like an adults.
Yeah it was a discussion point at times, but for me the model was Studio Ghibli films. Even Ponyo, which is very child-friendly, is very accessible for adults. I knew from the beginning this film would be more for adults than for children, but it should be accessible for children. I find the quieter moments was where I hesitated, because a child used to being quiet will be okay, but many children are over-excited nowadays, for a number of reasons, they’re used to very active children programmes, extremely active. So I thought it might not work with children, and when the film was finished, two times I went to see it at a cinema in Paris where there were lots of children, and I was reluctant because I didn’t think it was a film that should be aimed at children but the cinema made that decision to have the film be part of a celebratory event for children. But the children concentrated, and they were whispering to their parents and asking questions. In another screening there was a paper bag with sweets on every chair, and I thought it would make a noise, all the kids eating sweets, it would be a disaster. The children came in and sat down and there was lots of rustling and then I thought, hang on, that sound of rustling will indicate how concentrated they are. The more noise they make the less concentration they have, and that was really useful. They were really concentrated, and as soon as the film finished, it was rustle, rustle, rustle. So then I thought the film works for small children, but they do have questions, so it’s nice if the parents can watch it with them.
How important is it this film remains timeless? It doesn’t belong to anywhere, to any time.
Not only was that my intention, but it’s what motivated me. I wanted to create a film that is visually beautiful, I wanted to tell a story that motivates me, but that special quality is elusive, you can’t always know if it will work or not because it’s very fine – is the biggest motivation, that’s what excites me. I’m very happy with the way it’s coming over.
Like a fable?
Yes, or a myth, a legend. Not everything is explained, and it happens with lots of stories, but with this one, it’s consciously left open. I thought that was a real challenge because for some people it’s too unexplained. Some people are very rational, and some are emotional and intuitive when they watch films, and I’m the latter, I like to just let myself be carried by a film. But I had many conversations with colleagues about that, about the mystery. I would always check with them what they thought about it, so I felt confident it would work.
It must be quite fun hearing people’s different interpretations?
Fun, but also sometimes it’s not very nice. Sometimes you get too many opinions. I made the film in France and a lot of people I worked with were French, and they are aggressive with their opinions, it’s part of their culture; the person with the strongest opinion is the winner. As opposed to in England, where you put your opinions on the table, you look at them, and you wait patiently until the other person has finished talking. It’s a very different culture, but I like the British approach more, the French are competitive with their opinion. It’s okay from one person, but when you hear it every day for a lot of people, it’s not easy. But at the same time I invited them, I always kept asking what they thought. The cinematically uneducated people were very important, those who know nothing about films, they just go occasionally to the cinema, they don’t work in films. We have totally different professions and I really needed their opinions too.
If you were stranded on an island, what would be your one luxury item?
I can’t think.
Want me to come back to you at the end?
Is it particularly important now to remind people about the importance of the relationship between humans and nature? Because it’s broken in many parts of the world.
Actually, no. But at the same time yes. I don’t see this as a film with an ecological message. I never saw it that way, the word ecology was never used. This is just a film that expresses my deep love and respect for nature. Not just lovely animals and plans, but all of nature, the destructive bits, including the presence of death. That’s because I had a lot of nature around me when I was a child and intuitively I feel it’s so deeply in us, it’s so much a part of us, and we’re so much a part of that, it’s obvious I want to put that forward as much as possible in a film, just my deep respect for nature. That could lead to people thinking I had an ecological message, but the film doesn’t present an answer, and I don’t want it to be a film with a message. If it does have a message, because all art does, I didn’t want it to be moralistic like some Disney films can be.
That said – was there a Disney influence? Particularly Pixar – their short movies, and also Wall-E came to mind.
Pixar not so much. I respect them but they have their language and they’re style. A lot of comic strips inspired me. Visually, from a graphic style, I looked at comics. It may sound a bit abstract, but if there’s one thing that really excites me, I’m a big fan of experimental dance. I’d go to see a performance, because I love the movement, choreography, light, the emotions, the grace – all that I find so inspiring for filmmaking, deeply. I come out of there glowing every time. And also live action films are more of an influence than animations.
Can you personally ever see yourself going in to live action directing?
No, I need to draw, I’m an illustrator. I don’t think it’s my field. Animation is stylised reality, much more than live action. Even when semi-realistic, like The Red Turtle. Stylising and simplifying and playing with the graphic strength of an image, that is my territory.
So, did you think about that luxury item?
Can you play, or would you want to learn?
I can play. But it would be out of tune within a week.
Out on DVD and Double Play now – and you can read our 4* review here.