Behind every tortured artist is someone who has to do the housekeeping. Zachary Heinzerling’s documentary about 80-year-old Japanese action painter Ushio Shinohara, “Cutie and the Boxer,” centers on that very someone. In the case of Shinohara, it’s his scrappy wife Noriko, an artist in her own right who forsook her own dreams to support her unruly husband. Rather than create a biography of Shinohara as he originally intended, Heinzerling explores this codependent couple’s stormy relationship and fraught history of regret and disappointment. He lovingly paints Ushio and Noriko as two individuals overflowing with personality, at once enmeshed in the New York art scene and also holed up in their Brooklyn loft, toiling to make ends meet.
There are plenty of tempestuous artist couples in history — Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Ulay and Marina Abramovic — but Ushio and Noriko never achieved that kind of mutual recognition for their work. Known for his distinct style of using boxing gloves to produce expressionist murals, Ushio is well known in New York. But only now, as shown in this film, does Noriko, 59, finally experience her own artistic empowerment. Her “Cutie” series, a comic book-style collection of quirky illustrations depicting her early life and marriage to Ushio, is animated and integrated into the film and also in a final joint exhibit the couple unveils to the public.
Along the way, Heinzerling floats around the pair as a fly-on-the-wall, stripping his film of interviews and talking heads in favor of a close-up approach that resembles narrative filmmaking at its most intimate. I sat down with the Brooklyn-based Texan native to discuss this wonderful film, which won the documentary directing prize at Sundance and an audience award at Tribeca (trailer after the jump).
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Ryan Lattanzio: After you were introduced to Ushio and Noriko by your friend and producer Patrick Burns in Brooklyn, how did the documentary begin to take shape? Were you waiting for just the right first feature as a director to come along?
Zachary Heinzerling: I had been working on another documentary as an assistant editor and cinematographer. I wanted to learn about film and documentary, so I was constantly looking for subjects to film that wouldn’t require me to drop my day job. They live in Brooklyn, I live in Brooklyn, and I thought it could all take place in their space. So much of their personalities came out of these everyday things, whether it was making art or making dinner. Everything had this real sense of purpose and character, so as a cinematographer it was a dream project. As a character study, it was a project I knew had a lot of potential, but I had to wait for things to happen, and that’s really why it took five years, the time for a story and narrative to develop and for Noriko to open up and for the truth and vulnerability and deeper layers of her character to reveal themselves in front of the camera. Because they’re artists, I felt I had more creative license to do things different in the documentary genre, and to choose a distinct style that mimicked the artists. There was this magic to them and their relationship. They’re unlike anyone I’ve ever met. Their mentality was infectious and I just wanted to be around them.
What specific techniques did you use to get Ushio and Noriko to open up?
It’s a processing of realizing what I wanted to reveal and how to reveal it. I just came to them so often, and I became part of their household. Noriko calls me the rice cooker; I was just always around. I would float around their house, resting that invisibility and also realizing that interviewing is not necessarily the way to reveal truth. It was more about being around situations that created conflict, and I would be there to see their reaction, and in that reaction, you find truth. Being in a position of power, Noriko obviously wears the pants in this relationship and has from day one. It became less about me interrogating them and more about their interrogating each other. You can’t predict what’s going to happen. You can bring up a topic in conversation, but it made for a rather inefficient way to make the film because you couldn’t create drama — you really have to wait for it.
What was the shooting schedule?
We met in 2008. At the beginning it was once every other week. I would go on a Sunday or after work. Then as I drew out more of the story, specifically more about Ushio, I realized that this would be more about their daily life and relationship. Sometimes I would stay several days in a row. The shoot was 100 days exactly over the course of five years, but only the last year and a half made it into the film.
How did you balance your creative interpretation as a filmmaker with the obligations of making a documentary and portraying the stuff of real life?
There’s a level of this being a story. It confronts their relationship, but I hope that’s honest and that they’re actually how they’re portrayed in the film. In my search for intimacy in the film, I thought about answering the question of why they’re still together, which is what I’m most curious about. But it’s really not something Ushio and Noriko think about in everyday life. It’s always difficult when you’re portraying someone else’s life onscreen, because the film will have some effect on the rest of their lives. That’s a big weight that I didn’t necessarily prepare for when I started the film. Ushio has leveled in popularity but it’s not necessarily a popularity for his artwork as much as it is for his lifestyle, which isn’t always pretty. There’s nothing here that’s not true. It may have been pushed in the direction of my sensibility. Somebody else wouldn’t have made the same film. Anybody can paint their own portrait of this marriage.
Why did you want to make a film about the art world in New York?
I was less interested in Ushio and Noriko as artists than as characters. I took art history classes, and I’m very interested in the arts and I pay attention to the art world. The art scene today is defined through this idea of SoHo [in the 70s]. It wasn’t just plastic art, it was musicians and dancers. That’s what you think of when you move to New York, and [Noriko and Ushio] have that same spirit today. For a young person to be out of school and to be part of that was really cool.
In the past you’ve mentioned the Maysles Brothers and Yasujiro Ozu as influences. How did those filmmakers come into play while making “Cutie and the Boxer”?
Essentially it’s a vérité film, in the style of vérité, which the Maysles really coined. I always wanted to make a film in that style, such as “Grey Gardens.” That is very different from my film, but both have the rawness and cockiness of two characters holed up in a space where they seem like they’re from another planet. Japanese neorealist film is something I wrote about in school. In those films, the anticipation is more dramatic than the actual plot, as are the subtle reveals, level of patience and a level of conflict you see in the characters’ faces.
What has been Noriko and Ushio’s reaction to the film since you premiered at Sundance in January?
The first time I showed it to them was before Sundance. I was nervous. Ushio had the first reaction: “So this is a love story.” He gave this look of disgust and then proceeded to critique the film and said it was too long, there wasn’t enough of his artwork in there. But he appreciates the craft. It was always clear that this was my interpretation of their relationship, and they respect that as artists. I had the sense that he thought it would be a different film. Noriko really liked the film and has embraced it, and thinks of it as more fodder for her battle with her husband.