One of the great experiences of the Toronto International Film Festival so far was The Red Turtle, billed as the latest from Japanese animation powerhouse Studio Ghibli, producers of films like Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, Ponyo, Princess Mononoke, and many other visually gorgeous films about spunky young characters discovering their place in the world. But as the trailer forThe Red Turtle shows, the film doesn’t follow Ghibli’s house style at all, and it’s about a man alone on a desert island, rather than the usual kids interacting with a big, chaotic environment. That’s because The Red Turtle is something new for Ghibli: an international co-production directed by Dutch animator Michaël Dudok de Wit, and animated in France and Belgium by a series of animation companies. The wordless, immersive film is a unique experience. And so was the Q&A after the TIFF screening where Emily Yoshida and I watched the film. Normally, post-screening Q&As are short, messy affairs where audience members ramble through questions, too many of which start with “This is more of a comment than a question,” or “As a filmmaker myself, I’d like to tell you about my experiences.” And often the filmmakers are often just as rambling. Not Michaël Dudok de Wit. There’s so little information online right now about The Red Turtle, and his responses were so cogent, informative, and interesting, that Emily and I decided to transcribe and post de Wit’s responses. The film is already terrific, and the background just makes it better.
On the origins of The Red Turtle‘s story:
I had to think up the story straight away in one go. One morning I received an email from Studio Ghibli, especially from Toshio Suzuki, saying “If you’re ever thinking of making a feature, we’re interested in being the producer.” And my first reaction, obviously, was, “Oh my God, this is too good to be true.” But then what do you do? “You don’t have a feature, you haven’t thought of a feature. Now if I say yes, I have to come up with something straight away.” And there was a theme which I loved since childhood — the “castaway on a desert island” theme we all know so well. It’s archetypal. It’s more than about survival, it’s about life in general. I loved it as a child, and I thought, “That’s my starting point.” The second thing I thought was, “What’s the feeling? What’s the emotion?” And the answer was a profound, deep awe for nature. And I don’t mean lovely sunsets and animals, but for Nature with a capital N, for what you feel when you’re in nature, the ambiances. Just in light, the fact that light exists, grows, death, all that. Human nature, of course. And I thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to make a film where that is put forward, certainly not as a message, but just to celebrate that, and see if that works?”
On whether any version of the script had dialogue:
There was a little dialogue [originally]. There were a few sentences. I thought they really needed to talk at some point, to explain, or to ask questions. When a man meets a woman, he has to say something. And I thought the son had to say something about when he is ready to leave the island. The lines never felt right, and in the end, we dropped them altogether. And then I felt, “This is a great challenge, I really like this, I have to make sure the film is clear even if there’s not a word spoken.”
On his work with the composer:
Music was my inspiration for my short films. Until I heard the music in my imagination, I couldn’t make a short film. The music dictated the time, the mood, a lot of things. In this film, I didn’t have an idea for the music when I wrote the story, and I thought, “Oh, that’s odd, just wait, it will come.” A few months went by — still no music. A few years went by — still no music. And all the time, I thought, “Well, this is different. Okay, we will see. It’s a feature film, it’s not one song like my short films, it’s a succession of music and absence of music.” Then we’d nearly finished the animation, and I was worried. We had a composer, but it didn’t work out, and so we were looking for a new composer… One sent me the main theme, beautiful, very simple, very emotional, but not over-sentimental, and I thought “We found him.”
On working with Studio Ghibli co-founder and Grave of the Fireflies director Isao Takahata:
Of course I knew [Takahata’s] films. He and Suzuki approached me. [Ghibli co-founder Hayao] Miyazaki, was not involved in the film at all. He saw the film only recently, about 10 days ago. He made some nice compliments, and this is from someone who is very difficult. I had met Takahata briefly before. He was very nice. I never expected I would see him again, and certainly not under these circumstances. I had a deep confidence with Studio Ghibli. When we first sat together in Tokyo, I already had written a synopsis, some parts of the script. I start asking him questions, saying, “What do you think of this, what do you think of that?” Takahata was surprised, he said, “Hang on, did I understand properly, you want our opinion?” And I said “Yes, I really do, because basically it’s my first feature, you have lots of experience.” There were other things I didn’t say, but that were in my mind: he has a sensitivity, which I can relate to, in his films, to nature, to human nature. He loves the philosophical side of things. He loves talking about culture, symbols, the emotions, the finer things of film, and I like that, too. So in that sense, we worked well together.
And also, when you are a filmmaker making a personal film, which this was, you have a huge responsibility. Millions of dollars, big team, big story, big audience, bigger than the short film. And at the same time, you’re listening to the most vulnerable part of your creativity, which is very intimate. You have to protect that sensitivity. When you’re surrounded by people who don’t understand that, who just put pressure on you, or have very aggressive opinions or whatever, that doesn’t work. You need your space. You need really mature people. They may not understand what you feel, but you can have a dialogue with them. Takahata was very clearly that. So I needed some kind of reassuring senior figure to be behind the project, and I could ask him questions any time I wanted. The practical side is that we had lots of conversations during the writing, which took years. Conversations about little technical things, like movements, he’s very on the details, but he understands that some details are more eloquent than the big storylines. And you can really work with those details. So that worked for me very well. He was respectful, he always said, “Look, this is my opinion, I think it works like this, but you are the director, you will decide.” So to work like that without competition, without proving ourselves, that worked really well as well.
On coordinating the dozen-plus animation companies represented in the credits:
The initial spark was Studio Ghibli, together with Wild Bunch. So that’s two. They invested in the film big-time, and they gave opinions. Then when it looked like it was going to work, we needed an animation studio. We needed a producer who was following the project. Wild Bunch is not that kind of producer, and Japan is too far away. So we approached Why Not Productions, also in Paris, a production company of live-action films working very closely with Wild Bunch on many other films. So we had the producer, and the producer said, “Brilliant, we’re going to make a film. We don’t know anything about animation. We can do two things: we can make an animation studio for the film, which is often done, or approach an existing animation studio.” We did the latter. We choose Prima Linea, a French company. The film was mostly made in the southwest of France. Then we needed a co-producer, for financial reasons, so we teamed up with Belgium. The film was made for four months in Belgium, with Belvision. We had other producers as well, but these are the big ones.
On the inspiration for the magical turtle in the film:
As a child, I was a voracious reader of fairy tales and myths and legends. When I started on this, Takahata sent me a book called Kwaidan, by Lafcadio Hearn, which has Japanese traditional fairy tales about transformations of people and animals. Subconsciously I had a basis [for the story]… [the protagonist] wants to go home, the island is not his home. But he can’t. Why can’t he? I wanted a sea creature [to stop him], a shark, etc. Hang on — a turtle. Intuitively, it felt really good. My rational side looked at it a bit later, and the color came later, but at that moment, I thought, “Not only do we have our main character, but it’s probably going to be the name of the film.” So rationally, I can say I needed a mysterious sea creature that gives the impression of being immortal. It’s a peaceful animal, non-aggressive, it’s solitary, it disappears into infinity, which I find very important in this film. There’s something very moving about a turtle leaving where she belongs, the sea, and going on the beach with a lot of effort, digging, laying eggs, filling the pits, and going back. I’ve seen one doing it — I’ve seen umpteen video clips. It looks like they can’t make it, because it’s such an effort. For a moment, they become like us, mammals who breathe, with arms and legs. And then they disappear [into the sea] again, and become part of infinity. So that all clicked together beautifully.
On the ideas for the film that were harder to develop, and came less instinctively:
Do you want a whole list? Lots of things were difficult to figure out, and I was surprised, because in my short films, things fell into place quite easily. In this case, it was a big job, to tell an 80-minute story and not lose the attention of the audience. The audience stays with a short film because it’s only for a few minutes. So that, I found challenging. For instance, as you have just seen, at some point [in the film] there is a happy family. Everything is fine, there’s no conflict, no tension. That was hard to tell, because the film really had to describe that clearly, to create a harmonious moment. But at the same time, it’s boring. We really had to find the best way to tell that, and not lose attention. In a novel, you can describe that in a paragraph, beautifully. In a film, when they don’t talk, and they just have to tell it calmly, in an elegant, short way, I found that very challenging. The development of a female character was challenging, because she’s mysterious, she’s nature, but if she’s too mysterious, you don’t have enough empathy. At that point, I had help from my co-writer, Pascale Ferran. I had some dark knots in the story which I needed to unravel. She said, “The woman needs to be stronger in the film, to be more incarnated as a human being.” So we worked a lot on that. It’s not a big job. It’s very much a fine tuning. So those are a few examples of challenges.