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Zachary Heinzerling on the Challenges of Documenting an 'Incredibly Complicated Relationship' in 'Cutie and the Boxer'

Photo of Nigel M Smith By Nigel M Smith | Indiewire August 12, 2013 at 10:54AM

Zachary Heinzerling came to this year's Sundance Film Festival as a newbie filmmaker with his debut "Cutie and the Boxer." He left Park City as a doc filmmaker to reckon with after landing distribution with RADiUS-TWC and the festival's Documentary Directing Award. 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. It opens August 16.
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Zachary Heinzerling
Zachary Heinzerling

Zachary Heinzerling came to this year's Sundance Film Festival as a newbie filmmaker with his debut "Cutie and the Boxer." He left Park City as a doc filmmaker to reckon with after landing distribution with RADiUS-TWC and the festival's Documentary Directing Award. The intimate and artful doc (out in select theaters August 16th) 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.

[Editor's Note: This interview was originally published during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.]

What's Up Next: "I really want to work on a narrative film," Heinzerling told 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."

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.

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"
"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.

Did Ushio ever express concern that you would take sides with Noriko in documenting their history together? The film is told from her point of view for the most part.

"Cutie and the Boxer."
"Cutie and the Boxer."

I think he was convinced that the film was more about him the entire time. Ushio, he doesn't really care. He's after any sort of promotion in a way. I think he understood that my film, because I had spent way more time with him than any other documentarian, he understood that there was greater depth to it. He was very willing to sort of go where I wanted to. He never was concerned that the movie was about one or the other. I think that he was a little bit shocked when he saw the movie, but not in a negative way; just more in a curious way.

What was the experience like, sharing the finished film with them?

Noriko loved the movie. And Ushio’s reaction… he tried to explain this to me yesterday, so I think I can speak for him. A lot of the documentaries that have been made about him, they focus in on his personality and the boldness of his performance. His whole mantra is you can't think when you're doing art, you just do it. So my film, which is slightly more contemplative, I think he was a little bit bored by it. His comment was he thought it should be shorter and it should have more of his art, which is sort of understandable.

The film showed a side of him, a vulnerability, that he wasn't used to. He's very open about his struggles; it's part of his art. But I think the film looks at that a little bit deeper, and I think that caught him off guard. But he thought the film was really well edited, which I thought was really funny.

Well edited, but overlong.

Yeah (laughs).

"Cutie and the Boxer"
"Cutie and the Boxer"

What did you learn about yourself after being embedded with this family for five or so years?

I think a lot about it. I think what I learned in the film, and this might sound clichéd, is that love is incredibly difficult to define and that relationships work or don't work for reasons you can't articulate. I was trying to portray an incredibly complicated relationship. I don't think when you come out of the film you have a concrete answer about why they love each other. In the film, not to give it away, but just the idea of "love is a roar." What is a roar? Roar is an explosion. It's good; it's bad. It's basically heaven and it's hell. It's a love-hate relationship.

I think that if you look at it objectively and you think of all the terrible things she's been through, you probably wonder why she stayed with the guy. But then you look at her life and you see how influential and inspirational he was to her. And what a pure and passionate artist and dedicated guy he is to self-expression. That can't be overlooked either.

For me personally, I think I try to analyze my own relationships and try to look to the future. I can be very analytical in a way. I think what you learn in the film is that you have to just sort of give in to the strength of the bond and stop trying to define it. It's a feel thing.

This article is related to: Cutie and the Boxer, Zachary Heinzerling, Sundance Film Festival, RADiUS-TWC, Documentary, Filmmaker Toolkit: Documentaries, Interviews, Futures