The TDF Interview: Michaël Dudok de Wit

A castaway on a desert island dreams of escape and constructs a raft made of bamboo, sailing out to sea his raft is torn apart by a mysterious creature, a red turtle. As he encounters the turtle again and again, ideas of life and freedom are brought into question and a magical beauty is revealed in the natural world around him. A film that explores the grace of simplicity through exquisite animated realism, gorgeous colour palettes and gentle harmonious sound, The Red Turtle is a welcome break from a barrage of bombastic, over-stimulated cinema.

10 years since an invitation to direct a feature from Studio Ghibli, in co-production with Wild Bunch, Michaël Dudok de Wit's The Red Turtle is being released in UK cinemas Friday, The Digital Fix was fortunate enough to chat with the director about his move into feature film-making, East Asian culture, the strange beauty of simplicity and the wonder of nature.

The central characters in The Red Turtle become displaced from their homes and have to investigate and make new relationships with their environments. I wanted to compare that with your experience of working with a major studio (Studio Ghibli) and your first feature length project, how much did that impact on the story?
Oh I see, to go to Japan could have displaced me from home (laughs) I didn't look at it that way. I admittedly have to say that it was totally new for me to work with Studio Ghibli but I'd been in Japan as a tourist before that, several times, so it was not a huge culture shock to return to Tokyo and to meet the producers from Studio Ghibli. But yeah there was an element of loneliness for me working with them because sometimes I would travel alone, sometimes with a producer coming with me, but all focus was on me, on the decisions, the creative decisions all came back to me, even though I exchanged opinions with the Japanese producers. So yeah, there were times when I felt like 'this, this is intense' (laughs) and not always unpleasant. Personally I've got a very strong independent streak and to share everything with two or three people etc. at that point maybe would have been just, just too much.

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It is apparent in your work there has always been an Eastern influence, in Father and Daughter especially, and always these isolated figures like the monk trying to catch his fish and the daughter pining for her father.
The theme of loneliness comes back, or rather alone-ness, because its not about the sadness of loneliness, my work. It is at times, in The Red Turtle the man wants to go home, he doesn't want to be alone, but in a way it also explores what it is to be alone and what the main focus becomes at that point when you are really alone.

The timeline in which the film was made seems evident in it's construction, every element is refined down to its simplest form. Could you describe the process and importance of achieving this simplicity, the small details and the broad strokes?
There's a strange beauty in simplicity, I've never understood why. Or let's put it this way, I'm not being philosophical, but in a down-to-earth way, our whole lives are incredibly complex and many people - me included - like to see the simple part of it; the natural laws, the cycles. We like to see the simplicity behind the complexity of life and in art. Maybe art is a reflection of that, first of all there is the stylisation, even in prehistoric art you see people don't go into very detailed naturalistic painting, they simplify the mammals, the pythons and the horses etc. It seems to be deeply human to find the essence of the subject and to draw it as simply as possible, and for me when people say of my work 'there is a simplicity in it' its a huge compliment because that’s exactly what I find beautiful in so many other artists. The people of the Far East have understood that for many centuries, we understand it in all cultures but in the Far East it is somehow more conscious. They really have refined the art of simplicity in traditional art, not necessarily in all art, I mean some animated features like the latest feature from Makoto Shinkai, Your Name, for instance or works by [Hayao] Miyazaki, you can't say they're simple (laughs). But there's an underlying search for simplicity in their interior decorating, their fashion, gardening, architecture, food etc. and for me its just been a pool already from childhood. I remember when it started, very clearly, I was a small child probably about ten and my mother was quite artistic, but never did anything professional with that, my mother was looking at line drawings made by the painter Rodin which were incredibly simple and she showed them to me and said 'look at that, this is a great artist, the beauty is all there and yet its just one very simple line' and that made an impression on me as I recognised what she meant. I recognise it in other art, in very diverse art, music, poetry etc. That's the best I can say (laughs) no one has ever asked that question and its huge for me.

And its huge for the audience too, it was refreshing to see a film like this, it is detailed in its way yet masked by simplicity, working as a unified whole. It reminded me of the work of people like Hergé and Mœbius.
Thank you, Mœbius had very simple comics and very complex comics, I was inspired by the simple ones. My brief to my fellow artists, especially the landscape artists, was to draw all the details, make it really present and interesting and that you feel you could be there, but at the same time keep it simple. Its not a contradiction because a bamboo forest, for instance, is incredibly simple, just lots of vertical lines and that’s why we didn't choose a tropical jungle with all kinds of plants and flowers and so on. The simplicity of a bamboo jungle, you can draw it in great detail but there's a simplicity.

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Staying with the idea of simplicity, one of the key aspects The Red Turtle is becoming known for is it's lack of dialogue and is being labelled as a 'silent film.' I would argue however that the dialogue in the film is found more in it's music and the way the characters and rhythms of the film form around the score. How would you describe the relationship between The Red Turtle and its music?
That's big for me, in fact it was not easy in this film because in my short films I had to have a clear idea of the music before animating. The music needed to inspire me, mostly for the natural rhythms of the composition but also the ambience and the different emotions. In my short films I felt extremely guided by music and a short film is simple because you can start at the beginning of a musical composition and finish at the end. It feels complete. With this feature of course I realised I couldn’t use the same approach, it wouldn't be one long composition, there would be many absences of music. So I didn’t have an idea of the music at the beginning, the composer (Laurent Perez del Mar) came onboard very late and that kind of threw me, I wasn’t used to that. But at the same time, in this film, it was very clear that a tight synchronisation between music and image, which I've done in the past, would not work in a feature, it would attract too much attention to itself. Its very nice to watch, its like the characters are dancing, but it would not work with this film, so I could allow myself the luxury of having a composer quite late on this project because we didn’t need to synchronise the animation. When he came in the end, he was chosen out of a few dozen French composers, I basically told him "propose me something." He was chosen because he proposed a beautiful little melody which immediately touched me, but when he started working on the film I just told him a few things I did not like and a few essential things, but basically asked him "just give me an idea and propose anything you think will work for the film." He understood the silence between the music, which was a long conversation we had because the sound effects are very present, if you don't have dialogue you're more aware of the sound effects and of the music...

The inherent naturalism.
Yes, my brief to the sound effects guys who were veteran professionals, was no cartoony sounds, they had to be genuine, always man-made, man-mixed, but make them relatively natural and authentic. I left lots over to them, I had a few suggestions for some bird calls heard in the tropics. The choice of music was not always to describe emotion that we see, but to add an extra emotion if appropriate, so not necessarily always descriptive music, often also an added emotion. I don't see them film as silent, but more as dialog-free because they make noises, they make human noises. We had actors doing the coughing, laughing and vomiting, the simple human noises. And interestingly one of the sound experts said 'let's record all the breathing of the actors.' We synced it into the soundtrack and the reason is just to simply create even more empathy with the characters, because if you don't hear their voice you miss a whole possibility of creating empathy, but if you add breathing that brings you a simple intuitive closeness to them.

It makes them more physically present in the environment.
Yes, exactly that.

On the theme of naturalism, what is your personal relationship with nature?
Its actually quite wonderful (laughs), for two reasons: first of all I grew up with nature, I had to cycle through nature to go to school and we had a garden, we had lots of different domestic animals. My hobby as a child was to keep aquariums and a couple of ponds, I liked the fresh water, aquatic life, not just fish but also insects and amphibians. I feel very comfortable with nature, with the night, I like walking in nature at night. On another level I think we in general underestimate our relationship with nature because we are city people, we are used to spending most of our lives literally between bricks and concrete. But nature is also just so sensational of the ambient temperature, it’s the way the light falls in your room, the sounds at night, all the little everyday moments of nature, for me that’s just as important as the beautiful beach or a silent forest. So I try to somehow integrate that, not as a big message, but just as a natural ingredient that the little everyday things of nature are important too. One moment in the film the man is very tense because he hears a strange noise and it turns out to be just the rain falling, for me that’s much more believable for me than what you see in many films where there's a huge creature, which is great too, I've enjoyed many of those films, but as soon as they've introduced fantasy creatures and monsters into a film then somehow you have killed all the sensitivity to the everyday suspense.

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How do you feel about animation now compared to when you first started work on The Red Turtle ten years ago? Are feature length projects what you want to go forward with?
Interesting question. I must say that is was really, really, really wonderful to make a feature. It was not a main ambition in my career, I was into short films, I've seen thousands over the years and they're so powerful and individualistic, they are like very personal songs or poems. Whereas features are definitely made for a market, otherwise people don’t give you the money to make one (laughs) and that's fine, but it feels different. I learned to delegate with this picture and I'm more the sole artist who wants to control everything and literally do everything. I see a parallel in music, which works for me, I've had collaborators and there were many things I could not have done without them, but in features its different, you can't do the majority of the animation or even half of the animation and I did zero of the animation, that's a new experience. It made me a bit nervous at the beginning because supposedly there's no alignment between the animators and me, then I have to somehow have to make compromises which were unexpected, but we were actually on the same wavelength and not only that but most of the animators were just really strong. Animating relatively realistic animation, its not cartoony, they don’t bounce and they don’t stretch, animating realistic movement is not something many animators really enjoy or want or even can do because most animators love the craziness of the cartoon. But there are animators who love realism and it took us a long time to find them, they passed the tests, and when they started at the very beginning I was really tense, I thought 'I really hope' - this sounds arrogant but its what I thought - 'I really hope that they are as good as me' and well, you can guess, I realised pretty soon that they were much better than I am (laughs). So that was a really nice feeling, they proposed things that I absolutely wouldn’t have imagined which were brilliant, so in that sense it was a new experience which worked very well. Telling the story of a feature, its magical because you can really explore the location more, which I wanted, I'm almost more of a background artist than an animator. The joy to show one location, that island and the surrounding ocean, in different lights, angles and ambiences, you can hint at that in short films, and I did with Father and Daughter, but its a luxury when you can do that in feature film. Of course, you can explore the people a bit more, even though it was not my intention to give them a rich psychological portrait, but even so you could explore them. Also, this is something people maybe don't realise, when you make a film you have the important scenes to make the story and you have the secondary scenes that create little pauses, that are not essential for the story, in a short film you are very limited because you have to stick to the essences, the main gag or the main story, in a feature film we could introduce many scenes where you just see the treetops or the branches or one insect and that’s a great joy. By themselves they are a bit flat because they don't really tell the story, but in the flow of the whole film they're moments of taking a little breath, a little pause.

Talking about expansion, The Red Turtle expands on some of the themes and motifs of your previous work, such as the presence of water.
To be honest, I don’t know why there is water in all my films. It can graphically be very interesting, because when you create a reflection you create a synchronised double image which is naturally pleasing for the eye, it can create extra ambience. Water is also a great symbol for the unconscious, because you see the surface but you don't see what is underneath, in a simple way not an intellectual way you feel the mystery of what is under the surface. Paradoxically, you can play with the transparency of water, in The Red Turtle you see someone swim underwater, the water is crystal clear, it feels like the person is floating which I think can be very attractive. Its funny, because only yesterday my wife went through my old documents and there were some texts that my mother wrote when I was a baby, I think two-years-old, and she described my character, one thing she said about me is I really liked to be in a bath and I would get very angry when it was time to leave the bath (laughs)...

Its an ongoing obsession!
Somehow from birth I've been conditioned to really enjoy water!

The Red Turtle is released in UK cinemas Friday 26th May.