The Red Turtle: Michael Dudok de Wit gets back to nature

The Red Turtle: Michael Dudok de Wit gets back to nature

0 comments 📅25 September 2017, 18:59

MyM’s Roxy Simons talks exclusively with Michael Dudok de Wit about the excursions into the natural world that helped shape his Studio Ghibli-produced movie, The Red Turtle.

When Studio Ghibli’s Toshio Suzuki and Isao Takahata saw Father and Daughter, they knew they had to work with its director, Michael Dudok de Wit. Even though he had yet to make a full-length feature, his storytelling ability and the Oscar-winning short film’s simplistic-yet-beautiful animation was enough to convince them. Fast forward to today and we have The Red Turtle

“The fact that Takahata liked Father and Daughter a lot immediately created a common ground for us, because I like his films a lot,” Dudok de Wit tells MyM during a visit to London. “Suzuki is also more influential than we realise – he’s not just a business man, he can draw very well and he’s very influential on Miyazaki and Takahata. So his advice was important for me.”

The Red Turtle follows an unnamed man, marooned on an island. This silent animation about the meaning of life shows the connection between humanity and nature, and is also a moving love story – all themes often featured in Ghibli films, so it’s no wonder it has been co-produced by the studio. But the film isn’t an imitation of the animation company’s past works, it’s entirely Dudok de Wit’s own vision – with plenty of nurturing elements from the Ghibli team included.

“The Japanese connect with nature in a way I find very interesting. I understood that simply from watching their films. Initially Takahata and I didn’t talk about nature because we knew that it was going to be about a man stranded on an island, but somehow it became very clear that he liked that a lot, and sometimes he would make tiny comments about the bamboo in the film. When you see Kaguya, you see beautiful bamboo there. At first I drew broken bamboo and then he told me that it doesn’t break like that, and that’s important for him.”

The film’s main character goes through quite a spiritual journey. Why did you want to tell his story?
There were a few reasons. I remember at the time that I was writing it, I wasn’t motivated by having to pitch to the producers, it was about exploring my deep passion for nature and seeing if I could express that in a film. I don’t mean necessarily showing beautiful sunsets, that’s easy, it was focusing on the way light falls, the beauty of a grey sky, life and death, and also what you feel when you’re in nature.

I really liked the idea of a man and a woman meeting and telling that story very simply with no drama. I had never done that before in short film, and for me there’s something about visual silence and its simplicity that has a purity to it. We don’t know anything about the main character, he’s alone in nature and then what next? It’s interesting you say it’s spiritual, our sense of identity is very important otherwise we think we go mad, but we derive it from being with other people and what they think of us, consciously or unconsciously. So I wanted to know what it would be like if you’re in a space in nature with no one around you, facing yourself in a very simple and pure way, and that’s what I found interesting.

To prepare for this film, you spent some time with a tribe. What was that like?
I needed some very down-to-earth information. You can find everything you want to know on the internet but, for example, I didn’t know what the rain was like in the tropics on an island, what can be heard at night, or how the skies are different there – so I wanted to see it. I also wanted to get ideas for insects. I knew I wanted to use ants, spiders, flies and birds in the film, but I wanted to get inspiration on the spot and when I was walking on this island I saw a huge centipede. It was beautiful, and I thought I had to put it in the film. I didn’t expect to meet a turtle either, but I met two – one on the sea, and one on the beach – so that was really good, too. As a person, I’m into feeling these things myself and trying to translate it into the film in the best way I can.

It took Takahata 10 years to make The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, and it also took you a long time to make this film. Was there a particular reason you wanted to take your time with it?
He took a long time because he is a bit slow. He’s always been like that but I think he’s slowed down with age now as well. I took a long time because this was my first feature, and I had to learn a lot very quickly while it was being made. So I was always thinking about how I could tell a story like this in the best, clearest and strongest way. I did many scenes that I took out and it slowed me down, it took me by surprise because I’ve been fast on my short films and I was disappointed in myself that it took me so long to write the story.

Once the crew was in, I was a bit slow because I’m a perfectionist, but that’s quite normal. The story is so pure and simple that I struggled with the sense of it, and I found it difficult to tell it in a powerful way. At one point in the film there’s a man, a woman and their child, and they’re happy. That’s difficult to tell because stuff like that is boring without conflict. I found it challenging, and I’m very happy with how I solved it.

Is this the first time you’ve used digital animation?
Yes, but I think this has been blown out of proportion because we still used hand-drawn animation and it was only the turtle and the raft that were digitally animated. There’s not much difference between drawing on paper or digitally, other than that it’s on a screen. It was techniques like being able to see the image underneath of a different one that were new to me. You go into a trance when you draw and its intuitive, but with this film I had to adapt to the digital tool, which slowed me down a bit. It was okay, though, because I didn’t do any animation – it was the crew. Otherwise it would have taken me months to get to grips with it.

When you think of a Studio Ghibli film, you immediately think of Joe Hisaishi’s scores. And with no dialogue in this film, the music has to convey a lot of emotion. How did you and Laurent Perez del Mar approach the project?
It wasn’t easy because I usually get inspired by music for my short films, they’re at the root of my work. In this case I knew for a feature film I needed music at certain moments and then in other moments it would be silent, I didn’t know what melody I was going to use so I talked with the first composer and trusted he could do it well, but it wasn’t enough so he had to go.

Meanwhile, the film was nearly finished and I was very worried about it and that’s when I had to choose between a dozen composers who had provided a demo track. Not only did I find a composer, I found music I really liked and I liked him a lot. It’s important to have good communication and to be intuitive when it comes to a film like this, and he understood what I meant really easily and would play something that was exactly what I had in my mind. Also I told him not to copy Studio Ghibli, I wanted something that wasn’t far away but wasn’t the same thing, and I think we managed that.

The Red Turtle is released today in the UK on DVD & Blu-ray.  

Check out the gallery of concept art below…

No Comments

No Comments Yet!

You can be first one to write a comment

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.