Today: April 23, 2024

Cutie And The Boxer – Director Speaks

Focusing on the unlikely partnership between 80-year-old ‘boxing’ painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife and assistant, Noriko – whose ‘Cutie’ illustrations depict their chaotic 40-year marriage – Cutie And The Boxer is that rare thing. A documentary that is bigger than the sum of its parts. FilmJuice’s James Hay spoke to Director Zachary Heinzerling about his dazzling documentary and debut feature and the complex story of art, sacrifice and love it tells.

What first attracted you to the Shinoharas as the subjects for your film?
My first introduction to them was 2008. They had an open studio day in New York. I walked in there and it was … very cinematic – I knew visually it would be really interesting. As soon as you meet them their personalities jump off their faces. They just have this energy, there was just so much there and they were such a bizarre couple, the sort of characters you don’t really find. So the initial attraction was really being a part of this spirit of the pure artist, the struggling artist, this ‘art at all cost’ spirit that they had maintained through a New York that’s vastly different to how it was when they arrived.  This idea of the ‘70s New York artist, which defines American modern art in a lot of ways, and how they’ve maintained that today, it’s like a time warp walking into that studio. So I just wanted to learn from them a little bit and I was eager to tell their story.

Did you feel any affinity with that idea of the struggling artist? Was that something that attracted you personally as a first time director?
Yeah, I mean Ushio has this insane work ethic and only cares about art and obviously that’s caused issues in other aspects of his life but there is something inspirational about that. And the way they live and the optimism that they have, even though things sometimes seem dire, they have this feeling that things are going to work out in the end. And they’re happy, you know? They eat really well, they exercise, they have this routine and there’s something really magical about it.

Although Ushio is apparently the focus of the film, Noriko has a large part to play in the story. How did Ushio feel about this shift in attention?
There wasn’t really one specific moment [when the focus shifted]. It was gradual. I think the reason the film started as more about Ushio was because he was the more forthcoming in front of the camera. He wants to be watched, he’s a very entertaining guy – performance is his life. He didn’t really realize what was going on with the film. I think he’s pretty naïve to things that don’t involve him. He was surprised when he first saw the film that it wasn’t more about him. He wasn’t angry, just surprised and a bit taken aback, and he didn’t like the fact that it was a love story.

Really? Although it’s not a romantic relationship – it’s more a marriage of companionship and sacrifice – it is a love story. Do you think that’s what true love is and what you were trying to show?
It’s absolutely a version of love. These relationships work for reasons you can’t explain, I think people try to figure out why a relationship works or doesn’t but I think a lot of it is based on time and commitment and practical reasons. Noriko’s identity has been formed in a way by being the wife of Ushio. Certainly [within] the group of people she’s surrounded by in New York … They show that love is a very difficult thing to pin down and I think the audience can see their own relationships in them and make their own judgments.

The cinematography plays a big part in the film. What decisions went into shaping that process?
I wanted to make a documentary that was much more akin to a narrative. To have the audience be a guest in the house of the Shinoharas and experience their lives first hand. So we did a lot to create a more distinct consistent tone throughout the film, which was a challenge because we shot over a number of years, sometimes using different cameras. So we did a lot of work in post-production to keep that consistency.

As a documentary, was your approach purely observational or did you try to push the narrative towards the areas that interested you?
It’s not an observational documentary. I wouldn’t say it was pushed [towards the areas that interested me] during the shooting of the film so much as during the edit. It’s tough to call it purely observational as you’re manipulating your subjects to some degree in the edit process. It’s all very subjective, as you’re trying to find the aspects of their lives that are more interesting to you.

Are you happy with the finished film?
Yeah, it’s this thing where you race to the end and you finish it and you get it out there and I think there are always going to be certain things that annoy me about it but as a whole I’m happy with it.  I always look back and think we should have done this or that but that’s probably just the perfectionist in me.

Finally, what’s next for Zachary Heinzerling?
I’m still looking for other documentary subjects. Nothing concrete has come together yet but I’m writing a narrative screenplay and eventually I’d really like to make a fiction film.

Cutie And The Boxer opens in UK cinemas from 1st November.

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