An Interview with Michaël Dudok de Wit Director of The Red Turtle
Date: 2017 May 22nd Monday [15:49] | Posted By: Joe
In a change of production the much loved Studio Ghibli decided to look overseas for a director to create their latest film - The Red Turtle. They teamed up with Oscar winning director Michaël Dudok de Wit who wrote and directed the animated feature. We caught up with him for an exclusive interview to talk about the film, which hits UK cinema screens from Friday 26th May 2017.
This interview is spoiler free.
From our understanding Hayao Miyazaki himself wanted you to make a film after seeing Father and Daughter. What was it like being head hunted by Miyazaki?
Well there's an edge to this story, because he never told me that. He told my other producer Vincent Maraval from Wild Bunch in Paris. Then Vincent told me. Consequently he was never involved in The Red Turtle. He probably expressed a desire, but moved onto something else. At that time Suzuki and Takahata decided a year later or so to approach me and Suzuki later told me it was his idea initially to work with a non-Japanese director. Then he convinced Takahata to be part of it. Takahata knew my work and more than that, he uses one of my films Father and Daughter to give talks to students at university. He told me numerous times he liked my work. That simulated them to invite me to try. They didn't say straight away, "We're going to make a film, let's do it!", they said something like "Let's take it step by step", to see if it works, it may not work, it's new for them, it's new for me. Initially it was purely an experiment, which I totally excepted.
Some people are not born feature directors. I could have collapsed easily! Or have a nervous breakdown or something, but once the story was developed, the animatic was done and everybody was happy then Studio Ghibli said now we're committed until the film is complete.
Takahata is credited as artistic director, what was his influence on the movie?
Basically Takahata and I talked a lot about the story during the development phase. I asked him for his advice. Initially he was a bit surprised he didn't expect such eagerness from my side to have his opinion and to discuss details with him. So he literally asked me one day
"Just to be clear, you want our opinion?"
He said "our", as he was also the spokesperson of Studio Ghibli, he spoke for himself. Of course being highly experienced, but also highly cultured, he thinks about symbols and metaphors a lot. He doesn't just spontaneously say something that he feels, he will think about it in depth. So in that sense we had very solid conversations.
So he was spokesperson for Studio Ghibli and he spoke for himself. Sometimes he did not agree with Suzuki. They have different points of view, which is fine. They were very honest about that. It was not about a unified opinion from Studio Ghibli, but ideas that we put on a table and see how it works.
What was your inspiration for the story? Why did you decide to set the movie on a desert island?
The inspiration for the story was clearly a castaway on a desert island. It's a premise I'd seen already as a child in a film version of Robinson Crusoe. I was bowled over by it as a child, it stayed with me for the rest of my life. Not just because I liked the idea of the setting. You're all alone there on that tropical island. I liked the suspense of it. I even remembered at the time, I liked the Man Friday, the element of it, the relationship between the two, although now I don't anymore.
Later as an adult I thought about that particular story, not because it's a just nice story, but it reflects the question who are you really? As simple as that. It's a question I thought a lot about myself, not just as an adolescent identity crisis, but also searching for what the essence of being human. What is the essence of being me Michaël, as opposed to someone else? Etcetera, the basic self knowledge question. A desert island reflects that, because if you're all alone and there's no-one there, who are you? How do you behave? What do you think? Crucially, what is your relationship with the environment? So that fascinated me and that stimulated me to write a story.
Secondly I was thinking of telling a story about one guy alone on an island. That's a challenge. It's very interesting, but I'd find it more exciting if he meets a woman. That would make it interesting. So I combined the two and very quickly the whole story developed from there.
Did you intentionally make it impossible to pinpoint when it is set? There's no indication what era the movie is set in. Why did you decide to do that?
I chose the story to be no reference to time in history and no reference to culture. I'm very glad there's no dialogue, because we don't even know which language he would speak. I like the purity of the idea that we're just with him from the moment as someone who tries to live on the island.
For instance if he was a dentist or a ballet dancer or a carpenter before we don't need to know.
I gave myself a time period because I was looking for neutral clothing that would be a bit timeless, but that doesn't exist. Every century has different clothing, so I looked around and I thought early 1800's , when there was a war between the English and the French. They wore clothing which could be very neutral. I was inspired by the film Master and Commander by Peter Weir. I looked at some characters in the film and I thought look at those trousers, those are interesting trousers! So purely for that reason I set the story in the Napoleonic Wars, but honestly it could be anytime. It's defiantly not 20th or 21st Century because the beach would be littered with all kinds of plastic objects and there would be airplanes in the sky. That's very clear and that's important.
Was it a challenge to write a movie without any dialogue?
Yes and no. Originally I had some dialogue and it didn't work. I mean intellectually it worked but it didn't feel right. One reason is, as soon as one talks verbal language, not a grunt or a laugh or a cough (that sort of thing), but real verbal language he or she conveys a lot of messages, not just the words, but his nationality of course (or more or less), but also his education, his maturity. Very fine messages come through the voice. I felt that's too much information.
Secondly I felt in this story we see the main character for a full third of the story without dialogue because he's alone. So we're totally established to the fact we don't hear dialogue. So when he finally would speak it would be a bit of a shock, like "Oh my god! That's what his voice sounds like!" That shock I thought was not useful for the story. It was not comfortable, so let's just keep it dialogue free. It's slightly odd at times, but also pleasantly surreal at times.
The shipwrecked man is unnamed. Did he have a name internally for production? Did any staff members give him a name? Is he known by different names by different staff members?
That's an interesting question! He had a few funny nicknames. but was basically Man and the woman was Woman.
Did you have any influences for the character design?
Yes, I'll say this carefully, because it was not on purpose. Part of his inspiration is myself. I'm average build, with average size, well I'm a bit obese now, but when I was younger! The character in the film does a lot of things I would never do. So he's not a reflection of myself in that sense. The proportions of his body are quite average and I like that. I didn't want to make him tall, tiny etc.
I'm influenced by Western European comics a lot, also some American comics. I'm thinking of Hergé (the Tin Tin Books), Moebius the fabulous French comic artist, Sempé not for the design initially, but for the charisma and charm of his characters. Mézières, Winsor McCay, many, but those are just a few that come to mind.
The music was a really powerful part of the story. Was it part of your initial vision?
I had some frustration there, usually with my short films I know which music it will have before I even start storyboarding. I conceive the story, I immediately think, OK and I like the story but where's the music? Then I'll find an existing melody or recording and think "Yes! That's the kind of music we want!" Then it'll be recomposed or re-recorded. The music would be the inspiration for the animation, for the ambience, for the timing.
With this film I didn't have an idea for the music at all. I knew what I did not want, but I didn't have an idea of melody, the choice of instruments, the particular ambience of the music. So I felt really frustrated. After years and years and years it still didn't come. So by the time the composer came on board, he was chosen out of a dozen he made a proposal, which was beautiful. When he came on board I asked him, please propose anything you like, I don't like this, I don't like that, I don't like that, but otherwise I don't know what would be exactly right for this film. He was capable of composing beautiful, beautiful melodies. He was chosen because that was one of his talents.
Also because he came quite late he had virtually the finished film to watch and to feel and to understand before composing the music. I think that was really useful, that he would be in tune with the film because of that. Usually a composer would compose in the very early stage. He would base his music on the sketches he sees and the story and the script that he reads. But that's very different.
The movie has lots of different layers to it, and there are several ways to interpret the story. Did you deliberately leave it ambiguous?
You can't just casually make something ambiguous, well you can and maybe you do it in music too and poetry and maybe in the lyrics of the music and that's fine and I respect that. With the film I think the spectator would get angry if he just feels casually manipulated, you can interpret things in a couple of different ways and it doesn't matter. On the contrary we spent a lot of time refining the story and refining the openness of the story. The story at some point is totally, totally explicit in guiding the spectator and there's no doubt. But at other times it says to the spectator, now it's up to you. We chose that very, very carefully. I looked at the faces of the producers when they saw the works in progress and I looked at collaborators. It sounds corny, but I want to respect the viewer. The viewer needs to feel respected that he is not losing time on this film. But it's tricky as there's always viewers who want to be told the story very explicitly and that's fine, that's nothing to do with their intelligence or sensitivity, it's just the way that they are. In that sense the film may be challenging . I know from experience and from myself there are many spectators who see the film indeed as something rich that's open to interpretation, not only my film but many other films, including big ones like Kubrick's films etc, and many spectators enjoy that. They like to do some work when they are watching the film.
Can you tell us more about the use of symbols in the film?
There are people who don't know much about animation and they ask really obvious questions. I understand that, because let's face it, many readers don't know much about the process of making animation. So it's interesting for them.
The film has lots of symbols and metaphors. Interviewers tend to avoid questions around that. They don't want to go there. You've just asked a question about ambiguity. Only few interviewers like to ask that question because already that is too sensitive. Or I think there may be other reasons. I don't know.
Literally going into the philosophy, the symbols and the metaphors is quite rare.
I've asked myself, gosh this film is nearly a year in circulation, it was premiered in Cannes last year and there are some questions I expected people to ask. They've never done it. Yes, it's about symbols and what they symbolise. Not necessarily as an academic subject, but more like how to do you feel, what do we feel? What does it represent, how cultural is it? Etc.
Were you surprised when Father and Daughter won an Oscar?
I'll be very honest with you, I thought the film was Oscar compatible. If you'd ask me did I make the film with an Oscar in mind, I'd say this totally honestly, I didn't. I didn't make the previous film The Monk and the Fish, which was nominated for an Oscar and that was a big surprise. I knew very little about Oscars. I've never seen the ceremony and bizarrely I wasn't interested. Neither Oscar, neither César, neither the BAFTA it was not my thing.
So when someone said my film was on the long list to be nominated, I thought "yeah, that's great, OK fine, thank you for letting me know". An American was sitting next to me. He jumped in the air "Oh my god!" Then he explained and he said "Yeah you must go! It's tinsel town!"
Then I started asking questions and so on. Then The Monk and the Fish was nominated and I though this is interesting. Only when I arrived there, I thought this isn't an award ceremony this is their religion. This is their national passion. The top prize of the top culture of American Civilisation.
So when I made Father and Daughter, when I wrote the story it was quite a serious story and I said to my wife it won't do as well as The Monk and the Fish because it's very serious because I really, really believed a film needed healthy doses of humour. So I didn't see it as a big contender, but I saw it as potential contender. Yes of course I jumped in the air when I heard it was nominated, then on top of that it won! And it won against two other films (there were only three), and the two other films were very different and very strong. So I had no idea to guess if it would win or not.
What are you going to work on next?
I don't know yet. I'm full time in promotion. I want to make another film, but I need a holiday. I haven't had one in many years.
Otaku News would like to thank Michaël for being giving us time to interview him and giving such great answers to our questions. We'd also like to thank Studio Canal and the BFI for helping us arrange this interview.
You can catch The Red Turtle in UK cinemas from Friday 26th May 2017. We suggest you catch on the big screen to see the film in all it's glory.
Is the movie any good?! You can read our review of The Red Turtle.
You can also read more about the production of The Red Turtle on this press release