This year has seen an unusually large amount of excellent documentaries make the scene, and one of the very best, "Cutie and the Boxer," opens this weekend (here's our review). It's the story of Ushio Shinohara and his wife Noriko, two New York artists who bicker with the best of them but who have maintained, in their 40-year marriage, a kind of harmony that few couples enjoy. Ushio is usually known for his giant papier-mâché motorcycles and large paintings made by putting on boxing gloves, dipping them in paint, and walloping the blank canvases. When Noriko, a fabulous artist in her own right, gets a section of the gallery devoted to a retrospective of his work (her artwork is turned into animated sequences in the movie), it is a perfect entre into the tumultuous dynamics that define their relationship. What makes "Cutie and the Boxer" even more miraculous is that it is the work of a first-time feature director, Zachary Heinzerling. We talked to the Texas native about why he decided on the project, the mixing of traditional documentary practices and more narrative flourishes, how he settled on this story, and how difficult the animated sequences were to accomplish.
"Cutie and the Boxer" is many things—it's a time capsule of the New York '70s art scene, a celebration of unbridled creativity, and a biographical tale, laced with cautionary insight about an artist who perpetually seemed on the verge of a mainstream breakthrough but still lives in the same dumpy apartment he always did. But more than all of that, "Cutie and the Boxer" is a love story. It's one that is always relatable, even when it's at its wildest and most unhinged. And that's maybe the most powerful thing about the movie—divorced from its trappings, it's a really amazing love story.
What made this story so appealing to you as a director?
A lot of the stuff I had worked on before was in the traditional vein of documentary but the subjects really presented themselves in a way where you could use narrative and documentary techniques. The subjects are very cinematic and live this very cinematic life. They live in this space that's very beautiful and is full of their history; there's so much personality in everything they do and it didn't need to be an interrogation between the subject and the filmmaker. In some ways they're interrogating each other and I could just watch it. And that was really appealing because if you're making a film about artists you have more of a license to be creative, I think. In the same way that they're creating their own art and presenting themselves in creating their own way, I was given more room to do things that wouldn't make sense with other subjects.
It became a real ideal project for me, one that I could work on over a long period of time. They live relatively close and I could just come over and hang out and make it look and feel a certain way and have a distinct tone, which isn't something you can always control with documentaries. With this one, I had a lot more control, which was very appealing.
How did the project start? Did you know their work separately and together? How did this whole thing kick off?
I didn't know about either of them. A friend of mine from school is a journalist and a photographer and had met them and said, "Hey there's this couple, they might be good to make a short film about." And he came over and we made a day in the life short and showed it to some people. The same energy and charisma and tension that's inherent in them was also striking to other people. I knew there was something there and that I wanted to be around these people and they have a real open door policy.
It also came from me having this romantic idea of an artist in New York in the '70s and New York culture in a lot of ways is defined by the downtown art scene and these people were a part of that and also living in it today. So you can transplant yourself back in time and live still in this same style that's romanticized now. They're last of a dying breed. They live in this shambled loft surrounded by a totally different New York. It was like being in a time warp.
When did you know it was going to hinge around this art show of hers? Was that there from the beginning?
No, not at all. It started off with a bunch of interviews about them and their life. I always found these scenes of them bickering really interesting but to make an observational film that doesn't have interviews, you have to have some events to hang the structure of the film on, and I didn't have that until very late. Initially I thought it was going to be more about Ushio and he had done all of these interviews with a lot of his contemporaries and interviewed Noriko a lot but when the first show came up and then the second show, it was the perfect situation to examine their relationship through and it brought up all of these things that they didn't talk about in the interviews. Ushio was forced to deal with Noriko's art and Noriko was put in a position of power in a way she had never been before. So their reactions to those things was what I was able to observe and that idea is ultimately what became the film. This whole idea of "love is a roar" couldn't have been more accurate for the relationship I observed but took on this greater meaning with this show. You film all of this stuff but in the edit you understand what the film is.
What was the process for the animated sequences?
Yeah it was something I had talked about but it's one of those things where you have an idea but you don't really know how it's going to work in the film. It was only during editing that we wondered about animating these drawings. She has a whole series of them so we had to decide which ones we would animate and the idea was to transport the audience into Noriko's head through this art. We wanted to suck you into her mind and the most seamless way to do that was to transition from her to this animated, playful world, where you're not working at the world so literally but through this twisted, subjective point of view. It's playful and comical and exaggerated a lot and you have to figure out what's true and what's exaggerated and how bad was it. There's obviously a lot of pain in there and that happy/sad tone is the kind of tone I wanted to reflect in the movie. They were really funny and playful in a lot of ways but there's this underbelly of sadness and resentment that pokes out occasionally.
The animation was one of the most difficult parts of the whole post-production process. We had a graphics company that worked pretty tirelessly, because you wanted it to still feel like her artwork. You didn't want it to feel too jarring of a jump. We wanted it to feel like her art but have enough movement to suck you in a little bit more. Noriko saw the animation early on and was really excited about it, so she wasn't going to freak out about it.
Do you have any favorite documentary filmmakers that you looked to while making this?
My influences were actually more in the narrative world. I love the kind of classic vérité Maysles style film where they're just following a story as it's happening, but for this movie I was trying to do something different with things like the music and the animation, to just really put you in their world and pull you into the drama of their everyday lives. Any sort of Japanese neo-realist films that I was super into in school clearly influenced this film. I wanted things to be shot on a tripod and nicely framed and have these very simple things to make up the body of the film and the audience would really be anticipating what would happen so the whole thing would feel much bigger in result of that anticipation.
And what do you want to do next? Stay in documentaries or move over to narratives?
I'm trying to move over to narrative. With this film the subjects were perfect in a way. If I found another subject like this I would do another documentary. I am writing a script right now. It's just tough that you have to categorize your own movies. But with this film it was like "What's the best way to tell this story?" This just felt like the best but I feel like it has aspects of fiction and nonfiction. For my next project I'm trying to create a story and characters. We'll see how I do with that. We'll see. It's a tough transition, because with documentary you're given the world to work within and in narrative there are endless possibilities. Hopefully it'll be interesting.
"Cutie and the Boxer" opens this weekend.