An up-close, warts-and-all look at an aging couple's marriage and lives as artists would be a challenging subject for any documentary film director, let alone a first-timer. With "Cutie and the Boxer," Zachary Heinzerling not only took on the task, he took it on in a language he doesn't speak — Japanese. The movie, which he filmed largely at the immigrant couple's New York loft, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, and Heinzerling won for director there. Now open in Los Angeles, the film has a 97% fresh rating on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes.
We sat down with Heinzerling in Los Angeles last week to talk to him about the film.
Q. How did you capture your subjects, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, so well, given that throughout most of the film they are speaking Japanese?
A. I don’t speak Japanese. I can understand a little bit. I would have a general idea of what they were saying. But for most of the scenes that were used in the film, there was no translator, it was just me filming them and their conversations. Sometimes it would just be hours, I would just film the entire conversation and have it translated, and sort of script the scene out of the entire conversation. Later, I had interns and subtitlers — a team of four or five that were doing different things.
I think working this way allowed Noriko and Ushio to have the peace of mind that when they said something, they didn’t know what was intriguing to me and what wasn’t, they didn’t know what was more important than other things. It’s a very inefficient way to make a film because you end up just having massive amounts of material, and you have to do everything after the fact to really determine the story. I also found it peaceful, getting into the rhythm of their life and their speech patterns, and not worrying about what it looked like and sounded like, and the tone of the scene as opposed to concentrating on, 'Oh, I need to move in on this moment.' And instead of being more of a conversation between me and them, it was more of a conversation they were having with each other, with me being relatively absent and not asking for something to be repeated, or ask for clarification on something. Then I would go back. … I think the movie really rests on those quieter moment and those conversations that are very real. That was what was most attractive. But you also have to have a story.
Q. How long did you spend with them, and how much footage did you gather?
A. I met them five years ago. The first year, I didn’t shoot much. The footage from the movie was from the last two years of shooting. It’s really their life over the course of two years, with a year of editing. I ended up with about 300 hours of footage, plus archival material.
Q. Some of the most poignant moments come from archival footage from the 1970s. Where did you get that?
A. All those home videos came from a trove.… Ushio had this friend that came over from Japan in the early '80s and brought over this Sony Hi-8 camera. He filmed a month of parties, them getting drunk. Their loft was like ground zero for crazy artists, Japanese expats, also Americans. They would just have these wild, late parties. He would set the camera up and film them in their entirety. And he made a documentary out of it, but it was more like a home video project and it never aired. I saw some of it and it was so much more raw than any other footage I had seen of him. There are a lot of more explicit scenes in that footage than I used. But the scene of him breaking down is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie, and I didn’t shoot it.
Q. When you showed them the film at first, what did they think?
A. Ushio didn’t like the film when he first saw it. We turned the movie off, and Ushio said, 'Is this a love story?' And I was like, 'Yes,' and he was like, 'Yuck!' ... He thought it was too much about Noriko. I had shot all this other stuff with him, and he was like, where is this, where is this? Why isn’t there more of my art in it? And Noriko would try to chime in and explain what had happened. He wasn’t angry, he was just critical, but never to the point where he was, like, you have to change it. …
Every time he sees it he has something new to say about it. He talks about their relationship in a new way, he talks about Noriko’s art in a new way. ... His favorite scene is the one [from archival footage] where he’s crying and breaks down. … He thinks it’s the most honest point in the whole movie, mostly because he doesn’t remember it and wasn’t necessarily conscious of acting during that period.
He’s also talked about how the [film] crowds have energized him. There have been some standing ovations. In the art world, everything is very quiet and measured and he likes the kind of gut reaction that the film can induce.
Q. Did you ever worry that your film might cause the breakup of their marriage?
A. People ask me that. It could go either way; I think it strengthened their marriage, probably. That’s my own opinion. But I’m never worried that they’re going to break up. It’s been too long. They’re very kind of fatalistic. She’s like: I chose Ushio, I made the sacrifice, I had a child with him and she’s sort of been standing by ever since. Because her psyche has been so determined by her relationship to him and his world, that’s who she is. Which is another interesting thing I’ve thought about.
I can’t really say that Noriko could have been something else, or could have changed or made the wrong decision or something. Because I only know her as this person who has been defined by him. I'm not sure she even thinks of it in terms of regret, or not – it’s just the way it is. In some ways, it’s like it couldn’t get much worse. But it’s also really good in some ways. The film has made them think about and see the breadth of their relationship. … I think they’ve seen their relationship in a new way because of the film and it’s never something I intended. The film was primarily for other people; it was never intended as a form of therapy for them. It was probably more therapeutic for me than for them.
Q. In what way?