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Oscar Nominee Zachary Heinzerling on Why 'Cutie and the Boxer' Was the Right First Feature to Make

Photo of Ryan Lattanzio By Ryan Lattanzio | TOH! January 16, 2014 at 12:07PM

Director Zachary Heinzerling discusses his Sundance award-winning documentary "Cutie and the Boxer," opening this Friday, about Japanese action painter Ushio Shinohara and his stormy marriage to wife Noriko.
Cutie and the Boxer

How did you balance your creative interpretation as a filmmaker with the obligations of making a documentary and portraying the stuff of real life?

There's a level of this being a story. It confronts their relationship, but I hope that's honest and that they're actually how they're portrayed in the film. In my search for intimacy in the film, I thought about answering the question of why they're still together, which is what I'm most curious about. But it's really not something Ushio and Noriko think about in everyday life. It's always difficult when you're portraying someone else's life onscreen, because the film will have some effect on the rest of their lives. That's a big weight that I didn't necessarily prepare for when I started the film. Ushio has leveled in popularity but it's not necessarily a popularity for his artwork as much as it is for his lifestyle, which isn't always pretty. There's nothing here that's not true. It may have been pushed in the direction of my sensibility. Somebody else wouldn't have made the same film. Anybody can paint their own portrait of this marriage.

Why did you want to make a film about the art world in New York?

I was less interested in Ushio and Noriko as artists than as characters. I took art history classes, and I'm very interested in the arts and I pay attention to the art world. The art scene today is defined through this idea of SoHo [in the 70s]. It wasn't just plastic art, it was musicians and dancers. That's what you think of when you move to New York, and [Noriko and Ushio] have that same spirit today. For a young person to be out of school and to be part of that was really cool.

In the past you've mentioned the Maysles Brothers and Yasujiro Ozu as influences. How did those filmmakers come into play while making "Cutie and the Boxer"?

Essentially it's a vérité film, in the style of vérité, which the Maysles really coined. I always wanted to make a film in that style, such as "Grey Gardens." That is very different from my film, but both have the rawness and cockiness of two characters holed up in a space where they seem like they're from another planet. Japanese neorealist film is something I wrote about in school. In those films, the anticipation is more dramatic than the actual plot, as are the subtle reveals, level of patience and a level of conflict you see in the characters' faces.

What has been Noriko and Ushio's reaction to the film since you premiered at Sundance in January?

The first time I showed it to them was before Sundance. I was nervous. Ushio had the first reaction: "So this is a love story." He gave this look of disgust and then proceeded to critique the film and said it was too long, there wasn't enough of his artwork in there. But he appreciates the craft. It was always clear that this was my interpretation of their relationship, and they respect that as artists. I had the sense that he thought it would be a different film. Noriko really liked the film and has embraced it, and thinks of it as more fodder for her battle with her husband.

This article is related to: Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.