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by Nigel M Smith
January 20, 2013 11:41 AM
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Sundance Futures: Zachary Heinzerling on the Challenges of Documenting an "Incredibly Complicated Relationship" in 'Cutie and the Boxer'

Zachary Heinzerling

Why He’s On Our Radar: Five years in the works, the Sundance Film Festival U.S. Documentary competition contender "Cutie and the Boxer" marks the directorial debut of promising New York-based documentary filmmaker Zachary Heinzerling. The intimate and artful doc profiles Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, married Japanese artists living in New York who have been together for 40-plus years. At the film's outset, the couple is in the midst of preparing a joint exhibit. Using the event as a springboard, Heinzerling delves into their surprising back-story to reveal a piercing look at the sacrifices Noriko made in order to further Ushio's career.

More About Him: Heinzerling, a University of Texas graduate, has worked on several feature-length films for HBO, including the Emmy Award-winning documentaries "Breaking the Huddle," "Assault in the Ring" and "Lombardi," as field producer and camera operator. In 2011, he participated in the Berlinale Talent Campus, and that same year he was selected as one of 25 filmmakers for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFP's Emerging Visions Program during the New York Film Festival.

Up Next: “I really want to work on a narrative film,” Heinzerling tells Indiewire. “I've worked on documentaries pretty much solely up to now. I'd really like to try my hand at it. With this film I was trying to basically make a narrative film, but instead of using actors I used real people.”

How did you first come across their story?

Five years ago, my friend and producer Patrick Burns introduced me to Ushio and Noriko. He's a photographer and had taken some pictures of them. They're an incredibly photogenic couple. They have these striking faces and there's a lot of character in their faces. I thought that there was probably something more.

"Cutie and the Boxer"

I met them in August of 2008. I was invited to their house and I brought my camera. We decided to shoot for just about a day. When you walk into their place, it's like this catacomb of the last four years of their life -- paint on the floors, old photographs, tons and tons of books. I knew it would be a great place to shoot. Their space is really a character in their story.

I knew right away I wanted to do this quaint portrait of this couple. I didn't quite know where the story would go. Visually there was something there. Then just immediately upon talking to them, Ushio is always acting for you. But it was Noriko who intrigued me more -- she was quieter, more reserved and a bit shy. But she showed me the works she was working on, these comics of her alter ego. I knew there was a lot of truth to the stories in the comic, even though it was presented in a really comical way. Where the line of fiction and reality was, was where I would find something in the movie. I knew I wanted the film to be about their relationship and not necessarily their art.

I think their art says so much about their personality. When you're making a documentary, you think visually, how can I present these characters? It was just fortunate that when you're working with visual artists they're presenting their lives in multiple ways. They're presenting in their everyday lives but then also through their artwork. Where those two things intersect, you learn something about them that could come from either of them.