Michaël Dudok de Wit's extraordinary new film marks the first collaboration between Japan's Studio Ghibli and a Western filmmaker. The Dutch animator recalls working with the legendary anime house and the moment he realised his film should be wordless
Over a decade has passed since Michaël Dudok de Wit received a letter that changed the course of his life. It was an invitation from Studio Ghibli, the venerable Japanese animation studio, to make a film with them. It was a bolt from the blue for the Dutch animator, who had won an Oscar in 2001 for his short Father and Daughter but had no experience in feature filmmaking. “I had a very vague ambition but it looked like it was a mountain, not so much physically making the film but convincing producers that the film is worth investing in and convincing them that all my ideas are the best ideas,” he says when recalling that extraordinary summons.
“What I'm saying is that I hear of colleagues who go to the States with proposals for a feature, and even if the feature is accepted it's taken over by the producers. I say this without judgement. It may be a good decision or a bad decision, but that is not my idea. I'm very much into directors' movies. So when Studio Ghibli wrote to me, I knew from their work that they would respect the artistic choices of the director.”
The Red Turtle is certainly a film that would never have survived the process of approvals and test screenings involved in a typical studio production. It's easy to imagine nervous financiers and producers asking Dudok de Wit to add a backstory for the main character, beef up the plot with a little more action, or allow us some insight into the protagonist's thoughts with narration. Instead, The Red Turtle resists all conventional storytelling choices as it tells the tale of a castaway, washed up on a desert island, whose every attempt to return to civilisation is stymied by the mysterious creature of the title. It's a gentle, patient piece of storytelling that has the timeless quality of a fable, and much of its strange power comes from the complete lack of dialogue, although this wasn't always Dudok de Wit's plan for the film.
“There was some dialogue in the script, actually,” he tells us. “I really believed the film needed some sentences for two reasons: there are some moments when it clarifies things about people's motivations, and the other thing is that I felt it would add an extra level of empathy to the characters.” Dudok de Wit's earlier shorts are all sans dialogue, and his attempt to express himself in words here proved to be a major stumbling block. “In the script it worked and intellectually it worked, but it didn't feel right. Even though there were very few words in total, thirty or forty, I imagined that it would be a question of finding the right words, almost like the right words for a poem.”
Ultimately, it was the director's Japanese producers who encouraged him to drop the dialogue completely, a decision that proved to be liberating. “Something switched in me and I realised I was wrong, we don't need the dialogue, and then I was really excited because it's a challenge, especially when some members of the audience see a non-dialogue film as too arty and it's a challenge to communicate these basic things very clearly. The sensitive scenes received much more time from the animators, we spent a lot of time getting the body language right. Since we made the decision to drop the dialogue I never looked back. I'm really pleased we did that.”
Although Dudok de Wit was determined to make a 'director's film', it's hard to ignore advice when it is coming from some of the greatest names in the history of animation. It was Isao Takahata, the director of Grave of the Fireflies and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, who first instigated contact with him having seen and loved Father and Daughter. (In fact, he loves it so much he now regularly teaches the film in his university courses.) Takahata has remained a close collaborator throughout this process, being credited as an artistic producer on The Red Turtle, so did Dudok de Wit gain any insight into his working practices?
“He was very generous when talking about the different cultural things he has observed and admired, so we talked a lot about these things that interest him, but I have no insight into how you can become such a big director when you don't draw at all,” he says. “You need the mind of an animator to direct an animated film, and he has that, I saw that very clearly in our conversations. I think it grew in him, and [Hayao] Miyazaki is interestingly totally the opposite, he can't stop drawing and his drawings ooze charisma, and they are translated in his films. Takahata has the freedom to change styles completely because he doesn't create the style, he just finds the right collaborator to get a new style for his film.”
Dudok de Wit's own style has evolved over the years through his short films and The Red Turtle, but he remains committed to traditional hand-drawn animation as his medium of choice. “I stay with hand-drawn because that is my joy, that is what I enjoy doing,” he says. “I admire computer-animated films a lot, especially ones that break new ground – I respect them a lot and there is a lot of talent in that. But I just love the slightly imperfect quality of hand-drawn animation. You can see the weaknesses of the artist, and in a way they are not called weaknesses any more, they are the charming qualities.”
The Red Turtle utilises some computer imagery – the turtle would have been impossible to animate otherwise, he explains – but in general it harkens back to a bygone age of animation and feels out of step with modern practices. In fact, one wonders what the future holds for traditional animation techniques when Studio Ghibli's status remains uncertain and the Hollywood studios have almost completely given up on 2D animation, throwing in their lot with polished computer-generated fare.
“We've seen the CG films, they work, we enjoy them, they make a massive profit, but it's not the only way of making animated films. There is a thirst for other things, such as Aardman films or Studio Ghibli films,” he says before citing a recent visit to the Cartoon Movie convention in Bordeaux, where new projects were being pitched, as a reason to be hopeful. “A lot of them won't be made but I looked at most of the projects being pitched, mostly European, and there were a lot of hand-drawn films, and a lot of adult animated films with very serious subjects about refugees, war, etc. That's a new trend that I find very interesting. I think there is a thirst for new directions in animation.”
It remains to be seen where Michaël Dudok de Wit’s career will go next. He’s finally reaching the end of the road with The Red Turtle, after ten years in production and a full year of promotion, but can he imagine another feature-length commitment or will he return to short filmmaking? “I really wish I knew the answer, because I like both,” he says.
“I know this is coming to an end and I need to sit down and think about another project, and a short film is something incredible because it is so individualistic and they can have so much character. I'm not sure what my next step will be but making a feature has given me a flavour. I've grown a lot, not just as an artist but as a collaborator, someone who has to delegate and work with other people. I learned a lot from that and I would enjoy that experience again.”