Studio Ghibli’s The Red Turtle, their first international co-production (handled in conjunction with Wild Bunch), screened at this year’s Filmfest Hamburg, and we had the good fortune of sitting down with the its director, Michaël Dudok de Wit. The feat he’s achieved with this picture is significant. As we said in our review at Cannes, “De Wit excels at producing compelling drama from such extreme self-imposed limitations. Indeed, despite there being no dialogue and very few characters, the film consistently celebrates the excitement of exploration and invention while also keeping the audience aware of the man’s growing frustrations, like the awful finality of falling down whens there’s no rope or ladder or hand to help you up.”
For a look into the creation of 2016’s finest animated endeavor, read on below.
The Film Stage: This is Studio Ghibli’s first international co-production. How did it come about?
Michaël Dudok de Wit: There’s a press kit that describes their version of how it happened but I can tell you the story from my perspective. Well, they approached me, saying, “Let’s work together.“ And it was one of the biggest shocks in my life. I mean, you just don’t expect to receive a letter like that – not from the country where I live, and certainly not from Japan. They wrote me, “We liked your short film, Father and Daughter. Have you thought about making a feature film with a similar sensitivity? If so, we would like to produce it — or to co-produce it with Wild Bunch from France.“
That was so bizarre, because you ask yourself, “Why me?“ And this is Japan, too, where they tend to make films within Japan. So I actually asked them, “Can you explain why you chose me? Do you want me to make another, longer version of Father and Daughter?” And they replied, “No, no, no, please propose a story.” And I said, “Should it be a Japanese-style film?” And they said, “No, just propose a story, a graphic style, and we’ll take it from there. It may not work, we are not promising anything. We might find after a while that it’s not working, but we’d like to try.” It’s a long story, but that’s basically how it started. So from one day to the next, I started asking myself, “Oh, my God, what story am I going to tell?” I had to think very quickly. I needed a story.
How involved were they during the subsequent creative process?
They were quite involved during the writing, meaning also doing the storyboards and animatics, which, altogether, took about five years. That sounds long, but the script took me three or four months to write, and I had to proof it and make some changes. Then I had to do some still images. Then came the storyboards, which you can’t do fast. And, of course, you take a look at the whole thing and it doesn’t always work, so you have to keep trying out different things. So I literally worked every day for five years to develop this story. Sometimes it was just me sitting at my desk, inventing ways to turn the verbal scenario into a story told with film language. There I often encountered difficulties. During that process, I sometimes visited the Ghibli team in Tokyo. I went there to show them the latest progress, discuss some details, etc.
So they were involved in the development of the story as well.
Yes, but they’ve been very careful. They told me early on that they didn’t want to interfere. They were even surprised I asked as many questions as I did. But I told them I really needed their feedback. The project was too big for me alone. I needed to learn — at full speed. And, also, I didn’t just want to make a film that works; I wanted to make a film that they would be really proud of, that I can be really proud of. So I visited them and wrote to them from time to time. They were very careful. They always said, “These are just our opinions, what we would suggest” – and sometimes they don’t necessarily agree among themselves – “but it’s your film. You decide.” Their studio head said, “In our studio, the director decides. It’s always been this way.”
And how did you come up with the story?
Literally on the day I received the letter, I thought to myself, “I have to have some idea to get back to them. I need that first spark.” And I had a couple of those sparks. First of all, the theme of a castaway on a deserted island was very present. I’d already written little things based on that theme in the past, but they didn’t work for short films, so I left them in a drawer. As a child I liked the black-and-white TV series Robinson Crusoe, made in France in the sixties, a lot. The idea of being alone in nature was very appealing to me. Moreover, the theme is symbolic of life in general, “Who am I, really? What am I doing here?” It’s like, you get born, you live your life, and what happens at the end of the film? Well, let’s find out. So that’s the idea I started with.
Secondly, I’m a person of nature and I wanted to express my love for nature. By that I don’t mean love for beautiful plants, sunsets, rabbits, and horses, but more basically and subtly, “What do you feel when you’re in nature?” We all feel certain emotions when we’re in nature. What’s the ambience when you find yourself in snowy mountains or just in a city park? The way we see how light falls and follows the shapes on the ground. The way we feel about death, of course, and about growth. How things start from nothing, grow into something, and eventually disappear again. All that. It’s a film that expresses my love for nature — and not as a message, but just a pure, simple expression.
Was the decision that there’s going to be no dialogue in the film made early on?
At first I actually thought it needed some dialogue. I mean, I was happy with the protagonist not talking to himself. I’ve seen Cast Away with Tom Hanks, in which he’s alone on an island, sometimes talking to himself. I thought it’s brilliant. But that’s Tom Hanks and he can pull it off. For my film, I was less worried about the parts where the protagonist is by himself. But when he meets the woman, I thought there had to be some kind of talk. I thought it’d be nice if the woman is silent — not necessarily handicapped, but simply silent because she comes from nature — but the protagonist would surely want to know who she is. So it’d only make sense that he would say something. And later, when they have a son, something would be said also. So I wrote dialogue for those parts, but it didn’t feel right.
So you didn’t set out to do a dialogue-free movie.
Correct. I initially wanted some talking. People helped me with it but it never felt 100% right. After the five years of development there was a one-year break, while the producers secured the investments. After this break, the whole team came together to make the film. The story was finished by then — in the shape of an animatic, which means the film made with fixed drawings, like a blueprint — so you could already see the film in a primitive way. But then it still had to be animated, with the backgrounds and the special effects. That’s the big challenge.
Just before the team arrived, Studio Ghibli called me and said, “We’ve been thinking about the list of words that are supposed to be spoken in the film and we think you should drop the dialogue entirely.” I said, “Wait, he has to talk to his wife there, otherwise we wouldn’t know what’s happening.” They said, “We think it can work, if you alter the story a bit to make it clearer.” At the end of that discussion, I thought, “They’re right.” Dialogue can be a little silly in animation. Instead, we could express everything with body language and cinematic language.
So that decision was actually made relatively late.
Yes. And even after everything was animated at the end of 2015, we were recording voices for the coughs, laughs, breaths etc – not dialogue, just human sounds. And there’s a point in the film where the son calls his parents, we thought, “Well, here, he needs to say something.” He needs to shout something like, “Mom! Dad!” So we asked the voice actors to scream those words. We also asked them to invent a language to say something simple, but not in English or French. I looked at it with the editor, the sound people, and the producers, and we agreed it didn’t feel right. It felt like, “He speaks English!” And why wouldn’t he have said something already? So we called back the actors and we just asked them to scream. It became less specific, but we thought it was better not to hear any specific language. So with that, the very last trace of spoken language was erased from the film.
With no dialogue, you take away an essential tool from a storyteller. How do you compensate that loss?
Well, first of all, I think it’s not that drastic a move to do without dialogue. In short films, for example, it’s quite common not to use any. I used dialogues in all the commercials I made, because that’s exactly where dialogues are needed, but, in short films, you often tell a story in different ways. The main substitute language is obviously the acting, the body language. In this movie, the storyline is very simple; it’s a linear story. It’s not like, “Meanwhile, this other thing is happening.” We basically follow the same characters the entire time.
So we just relied on the behavior, the acting done by the animators, the cinematic language, the editing, the sound effects, and the music, obviously. By sound effects I mean, for instance, you hear the characters breathe. That creates empathy. Even though the breathing doesn’t say anything, in a way, it says something subtle. It brings a character closer to you, and, when it’s closer, a lot is already explained. In these ways, we tried to compensate for the absence of spoken language.
As an example, there’s a scene in the film where the son grows up and starts wondering about the outside world. His father sees him and, without exchanging any words, understands what he’s thinking, and we the audience too understand what both of them are thinking. How did you know that would work?
Actually it took us a long time to get that part right. It was the three of us who worked on it — me, my co-writer, Pascale Ferran, helping me, then, with this difficult part, and the editor, Celine Kelepikis, who was also, like, a writer because she could say, “This scene is good but we need a different camera angle, can you re-do the storyboard drawing, etc.” In this scene, we need to clearly communicate that the son is happy on the island, that he’s mature and that he’s ready to leave. Even though he’s happy being where he is, he doesn’t hate his parents, he’s not leaving them out of spite, he’s leaving simply because he’s ready to leave. It’s a natural desire to leave the island and go into the big wide world.
We worked on it a lot, including a sequence early on where you see the son at a young age looking at his parents’ drawings in the sand. That’s part of the narrative, because the son has to feel there’s more to the world than the island. The discovery of a bottle also makes him realize there’s more out there. So when the moment comes, we have to have established he’s happy with his parents – you see them eating and walking around the bonfire together etc., little hints like that I can go on naming forever. But when the father sees him at night, he doesn’t go over and say, “Hey, son, you want to talk?” Instead he just lets him walk on and be by himself, I think that’s expressive.
And when the son later sits down with his parents and, without saying anything, just gives them this look.
Did that work for you?
It broke my heart.
Oh, that’s great. That was one of the last dialogues that we dropped. The animators spent a lot more time on the performances. It wasn’t even, like, sign language or anything — just people looking at each other’s faces.
Were you inspired by particular mythologies, tales, or philosophies when writing this movie?
I don’t have a simple or very precise answer to that. But, as a child, I read a lot of fairy tales; I was obsessed with them. Also Greek mythology. Secondly, as soon as I said yes to Ghibli, they recommended me a book to read called Kwaidan. It’s a collection of short stories, kind of like fairy tales or ghost stories. It’s very Japanese but actually took an outsider, Lafcadio Hearn, to write them. I didn’t use any of the stories but they carried very intense emotions and were very interesting to read. So that also inspired me. The essence of Zen Buddhism also appealed to me, ever since I was a young adult. And not because it’s lovely, pure, quiet. It’s all those things too, of course, but mostly because it resonates with me deeply. You don’t need to be oriental to recognize that.
The Taoist philosophy and its relationship with nature inspired me as well. That relationship with life and nature you can also find in other cultures, like with Native Americans in North America and with the African cultures. I also have a thing for marine turtles. I had never used them in a story before. But even as a child, when I was, like, nine, I wrote a story about them where a marine turtle — leaving her home and infinity behind — crawls onto land with great effort. She digs a hole on the beach, lays eggs and, after doing this, using her last strength, she returns home, returns to infinity. It was just something she had to do. As a child, I could really identify with that. It’s an archetypal idea.
Are you aware of the Oscar buzz surrounding this film?
Yes, I do know there’s some Oscar buzz. If I had made a 3D computer film, I would have said forget it, because in Hollywood they can make the highest-quality computer animated films. But this is a hand-drawn film, so I guess it suddenly has a chance. In this profession, I guess also outside of it, there’s still a deep love for hand-drawn animation. Maybe the fact that it’s simply a beautiful fairytale will also help, but we’ll have to see. It’s very quiet film and most Academy members are from North America and they love dialogue — with passion. And they love humor and entertainment, etc. Ours is a quiet art-house film, made with a modest budget compared with Californian budgets. So I have to be realistic. It faces very strong competition.
If a Hollywood studio approaches you to make a big studio film, would you do it?
With some hesitation. I wouldn’t say “no” outright. I’d love to talk and find out if it sounds interesting. I’ve had a couple of offers in the past, but it’s a totally different world. Someone like the extremely talented Pete Docter, who’s an established director, thrives in it. But for a newcomer to big studio films like me, whatever strong idea I might have, I’ll have to pitch it to them, and I’m not good at that. Studio Ghibli, they make director’s films, not studio films. If a director has a deeply felt but somewhat unusual idea that he or she can’t necessarily explain, they will likely still let the director try it out. In America, I’ve worked a little bit with Disney before and everything has to be tested with an audience and explained and I must say I’m not very good at that.
The Red Turtle screened at Filmfest Hamburg and will open in the U.S. on January 20, 2017.