Cutie and the Boxer is Zachary Heinzerling’s marvelous directorial debut and a rare dual portrait of artistic souls, Ushio and Noriko Shinohara. The title refers to Noriko’s illustrated journal of her life with her husband, dating back to their separate migration to Japan, chance meeting, and marriage of nearly forty years. Ushio, a famous artist in Japan, earned his “boxer” title for his unique fevered approach to pop art, literally punching a white canvas with boxing gloves laced with paint. His other art comes in the form of abstract collages of color, sometimes consisting of paper mache sculptures of kinetic animals and giant motorcycles. About his work, as narrated in the film, “American collectors usually say, that’s a wonderful image, but not my taste.”
Heinzerling spent five years documenting the couple in the extremely close quarters of their Dumbo apartment and studio across the street. Beneath their daily struggling to make ends meet and find buyers, is a love story told from Noriko’s point of view. Her marriage was filled with suffering, tempering her husband’s alcohol abuse with raising their lone son. Their history is told through her artwork, illustrated stories of the couple’s rollercoaster life in New York City. It is also a story about Noriko’s redemption as an artist, creating a name for herself in wake of her husband’s acclaim, becoming independent and still finding time to support Ushio in his search to sell his work.
I spoke with director Zach Heinzerling about his beautifully and intimately shot film regarding his filmmaking process, capturing the couple’s story in New York, and thinking about the Shinohara’s eclectic artwork.
You come from a background in sports documentaries (Lombardi and Namath), so what made you latch on to following this artistic couple? Those are two seemingly disparate genres.
It wasn’t really about the genre for me. I started working in New York at HBO and the director I was working for happened to specialize in sports related documentaries. A few years after HBO I met the Shinohara’s and thought they were really fascinating subjects for a longer treatment. So while I was working at HBO on slightly more traditional style of historical documentaries, I was off shooting Cutie and the Boxer on nights and weekends and I think that was really feeding my creative needs in a more substantial way. It was something I was controlling and directing, something I was experimenting with, but I had time, which was nice. The big difference is this is a verite, contemporary style documentary following the story as it’s unfolding and I had never worked on films of that nature before. The films at HBO were all interview based. So, this was a real project of waiting, catching moments, and figuring out the narrative along the way and focusing on different aspects of their personalities and their life little by little.
On his desire to follow his subjects…The reason I was drawn to them is because I thought I could make a really different style film that had a real mood and a catharsis of visual and aural tone. In their space, there’s so much purpose in what they do, whether it’s eating or making art, or Noriko’s dancing, or Ushio’s swimming, whatever it is, there’s so much character you can see and reveal just through watching them. They also represent this lifestyle I’ve sort of romanticized. They’re the last of a dying breed of what in my mind is a pure artist that lives only for art. They feel so anachronistic, out of place and time, and that was a fascinating place to spend time in. I didn’t now where the film would go when I started it, I didn’t know it would be more about Noriko or her story, but finding that was sort of a process of my relationship with them and them becoming more comfortable with me.
In the five years filming this- I’m assuming you didn’t have a huge budget- what was the evolution of that process? Did you ever think, “This isn’t going to work out like I hoped?”
There was really no budget. It was me and a few of my friends who bought a camera together, so I would go over there [the Shinohara’s] on my own sometimes with the camera and shoot. Initially it was a side project and I started accumulating material and cut a trailer together about two years in and applied for some grants. I think the first one we got was from Cinereach and that kind of changed things because that made it a much more serious project. Now I had to go forward with the project and finish something. I was able to hire our first editor at that point and I could sort of start shaping the story and we continued shooting and finding grants and it was really kind of a rolling process. There’s a lot of things like the music and the animation and we had a really long edit that we knew would be expensive that would be impossible until we got some of this grant money. It took a good amount of hope to pull something like this off, but from the beginning it was sort of a no-budget project and, essentially, the budget was defined by how much we could raise through the grants.
What do you enjoy about directing a documentary that’s fluid like this and where you don’t know what will happen each day?
I think one of the reasons I was able to stick with this couple for so long is that they were kind of continually bizarre to me. I think as this project evolved my expectations and first impressions were kind of shed and more and more of their essence was revealed. They have this very charming, up-front personality and they’re quite funny upon first seeing them. I put a lot of that in the film, but the goal is really to find what was beyond that, where the core was. How much of Noriko’s reconstructing of the past in her artwork was true? How much was it her creating an identity as a victim? Who was the victim in this relationship? And was Ushio really concerned with not being successful…does he really care? These are questions that took a long time to answer and I don’t even know if I answered them as much as really approached an answer. It became a process of figuring out where the core was and what made the relationship work because I think the two are very much related. Wherever their vulnerabilities lie was also the thing that was beating this dependency and this relationship. The subjects always change, the direction always changed in their lives. It’s an evolving enigma of a relationship and it never stops being new or interesting.
Were they open to your filmmaking process, being filmed throughout several years in the intimate space of their apartment? It’s a very tight space.
I think that helped though because they just became more and more aware and used to me. I was there all of the time and when I first started shooting, they would ask why I was coming every time, they would want a specific reason for what we were going to talk about and where we were going to film, and eventually they just stopped asking. They weren’t concerned with what I was filming anymore because I was filming everything equally. It wasn’t as if they were trying to play up certain aspects of their life because they knew I was interested in the mundane and the art, and whatever else they thought I wanted to film.
What was it like filming in NYC, knowing the neighborhoods, the people, and how did that shape the story?
[With] the idea that they came to New York and struggled financially and at the same time Ushio is a very well known and highly regarded figure in Japanese art history, the question was “why don’t you move back?” They just connected and were inspired by New York in an interesting way. Life in Japan for them was boring and Ushio was able to be free of [the critics] in New York. I think for me, obviously that rubs off. These characters can kind of only be in New York in a way, it’s very a quintessential New York story in some ways. As an artist you find a niche here, and hole up in some crazy loft space. They live this authentic Japanese lifestyle but at the same time, in New York City, it’s possible for them. So I think of New York as a character in the film, it’s role in the 70s scene, what that’s like then and now, what Dumbo is like then and now, and all of those are additional things of interest for me.
The animated sequences of Noriko’s work are beautiful, but they also serve as the historical narration. How did you come up with that concept?
That idea essentially came from Noriko. She told me at one point that she dreams about her comics as animations. The goal is to show this story from her point of view and to transport the audience into her mind and see how she’s reconstructed her past in this twisted way, and view it as if it’s Noriko’s re-creation, not viewed so literally. It became this archival footage, this alternate story that I was going to weave back and forth and seamlessly match with the contemporary footage. There would be these scenes where you could think about how things are the same or how things are different just by juxtaposing past and present. Having it animated made it all the more cinematic and seamless in a way and once she saw it she really liked it. I was a little bit scared that I was changing her art. I was. But she sort of got what I was doing and now she wants to make her entire comic an animation [laughs].
I’d imagine that spending all this time with them, you must have liked Ushio and Noriko’s artwork?
Yeah, I mean Ushio kind of is his artwork. His performance is his artwork. I was drawn to that more than kind of the aesthetic aspect of his work. I think the boxing paintings are really beautiful in [themselves], but seeing him make something is sort of this performance art and I was more attracted to that than the result. And I was attracted to Noriko’s art just because of what it was saying. But it was less analyzing the art, their influences, and the history and how they arrived at it, and so much more about them and their personalities.
During this whole documentary did you ever get a desire to pick up a brush and start painting?
I actually do paint. I did some in college. I minored in art history. I’ve always been interested in the arts. They didn’t affect that side of me as an artist, but they gave me the urge to put on some gloves and punch a wall with paint on it.
’Cutie and the Boxer’ opens in New York and Los Angeles August 16 and expands the following week.