Oscar-winning Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit joined the talents of Studio Ghibli for its first international co-production to create The Red Turtle, the story of an unusual friendship between a castaway on an isolated island and a large sea turtle. The film evokes Robison Crusoe, but unlike that archetypal hero, the lonely man in The Red Turtle has no possibility of controlling his situation as nature imposes its demands on him. Most notably, he can’t escape the island because the turtle won’t let him. The man soon realizes that he must find a new, more respectful way to interact with nature. Although the narrative of The Red Turtle is not derived from specific mythology, its combination of stories creates an eternal, timeless, and beautifully made pastiche. What comes out of this interaction is a unique piece of art, a tribute to nature, and a beautiful story of survival.
Why did you decide to work with Studio Ghibli?
It was actually their decision, since they wrote to me, saying, ‘Let’s work together.’ I adore their films, like those by Takahata and Miyazaki, and I have already been to Japan a few times. This was important for the film because Japanese culture has a real relationship with nature. They see nature in a different way than us—it’s more alive; it’s felt differently. We in the west intellectualize nature like its art material. I like that aspect of Japanese culture a lot. It’s just Japanese; it’s not Western. Art in Japan is not that strange; it’s not that exotic. We can feel the same thing in our way as Europeans. Considering all of this, when Studio Ghibli said that we should work together, I felt like nature was talking to me, and it was talking to them as well. They said that they liked my ideas because I had said before that I wanted to tell a story about this.
Considering that The Red Turtle is your first feature, and your previous projects were shorts, how was the transition process? When you are directing a short, you have more control over the production, but when you are working in a studio system like Ghibli, I’m guessing that you have to work with many people.
Yeah, that’s a challenge, and I thought in the beginning that it was going to be difficult. Actually, I was wrong, and it ended up being much more difficult than that. The process was really difficult in the sense that we are not a factory—we are just freelance artists invited to come and work on the film. No one had worked with me before, and none of them had worked in this particular style before, although they had worked on many different projects. They’re very individualistic artists, all with their own very, very particular talents, and that’s what I wanted since I wanted them to be coming from a personal point rather than as someone who always works in exactly the same style.
The challenge was to keep their creativity really alive, and, at the same time, say to them that they have to go exactly in a certain direction. How do you do that? It’s a contradiction because you want to give them freedom but you don’t want to give them too much freedom, because then the whole film goes in all different directions. The only solution is to just take it to step by step. It was important to be in the same building, often in the same room, so that they would always be communicating, asking, ‘What do you think of this? I am not sure, what do you think?’ Then I could tell that maybe one idea is closer to the style of the film and another idea is less so. We were having a dialogue all the time. We would also discuss the things that we liked, and for me that was important. It was difficult but also very interesting to read every person and see their strengths and weaknesses in order to give them all something that they are really good at. For example, there were two animators who were really good at animating women, which not all animators are, so we kept any animations of women for them. There was another animator who was good at doing the big gestures, like the big monumental ones. He was really good at that but not at small, subtle gestures. I think that we just found a gradual way of growing together. For me also, I knew the direction that I wanted to go, but I didn’t have a vision where I could say that it was going to look like this or that. It was more like: ‘Let’s go like this… no, no, no, yeah, that’s it. Let’s go like that.’ I was discovering at the same time as them, and that kind of flexibility worked.
Part of the movie reminds me of the story of Adam and Eve, but I could also see the story of Robinson Crusoe here. There is also something reminiscent of Greek mythology. And, of course, there is an element of Japanese culture, with its stories of human transformation. Can you say more about the source of inspiration for the movie?
There was not one source. [I received] a book which was basically a collection of fairy tales, though more ghost stories than fairy tales—very traditional Japanese fairy tales, some of which were familiar from films already. They were an inspiration because in Japanese folklore there is a lot of transformation between humans and animals. Of course, you also find this in European fairy tales and Greek mythology. As a child, I read lots of fairy tales, mostly from Europe, and come from places like Indonesia or Australia, so I think those were an inspiration as well. I also think that once I started doing research I knew that the main lines of the story would be about somebody alone on the island. Then there would be the element of the man meeting a woman or nature and encountering the challenges of nature, its beauty, its frightening aspects, and so on. For my research, I watched a lot of films, but I also started reading, taking photos, traveling, and so on. Then all of these things slowly started coming together and falling into place. So clearly there is not just one film that really inspired me since I looked at world cinema from different countries. Of course, that includes Iran, where there is this very strong ambiance which is exotic though at the same time you meekly enter into it.
How did you approach working as a Western filmmaker in a culture which is very different from the West?
The Japanese never asked me to do something Japanese. They said propose a story and a graphic style. Besides, I wouldn’t know how to make Ghibli films because they are quite different. Miyazaki is very different from Takahata, for example. I think that I have my own personal tastes to go for simplicity, but our animated film is not simple at all. It’s so complex and was nearly killing me, but you don’t want the entries to be simple. That’s also my taste with my short films, so when people make comments saying things like, ‘Your film was really simple,’ then to me that’s a very big compliment. Do you know the character Chihiro in the film Spirited Away? That film is very rich and exotic with all kinds of creatures and the elements and so on. I adore that film, but that’s not my talent; that’s not what I try to do. I try to keep the situation, the main theme, and the main emotion very simple.
This is the story of a lonely man on an island. We have scenes from popular culture, like Reality TV shows, that feature person trapped in such situations. As a filmmaker, how did you try to distinguish your work from these types of programs?
I didn’t watch Reality TV series, though have I heard about it. The theme is very old, such as we see in the story of Robinson Crusoe. As a child, I saw a TV series adapted from the Robinson Crusoe book, and I adored it. I’ve read many variations since then, and I have always thought that I would love to do my own version of that—but not in a short film because the subject is too big for that format, and this would be a good story for my first feature film. Literally, the same day that I decided that I wanted to make a feature film, I thought to myself, ‘Now I want to use that theme.’ However, what I don’t like about Robinson Crusoe is that he finds himself in virgin nature. He’s stranded in a place where no human being has been before. What he does then is to seek to control it, to create things, like clothing, all kinds of other things. Then when he meets someone from the region, he wants to teach his religion to them. That worked at the time since those kinds of things were typical for society then, but now it is different. I was not interested in creating a story about someone controlling the island, but rather just that he wants to leave the island but he can’t do it despite multiple attempts.
Now recently over the last twenty years or so, there have been lots of variations on the story, but still, I thought, ‘Yeah, pity, that’s been done. That one has been made. There’s another one there.’ However, I still really wanted to tell the story in my own way, from my own angle. So I thought about what I most wanted to say in this film. I literally asked myself, and the answer was that it would be fabulous to speak about my deep respect for nature. And it was not like, oh, I respect nature and want to protect nature, or that I respect the animals. It was much deeper than that. It’s like what we feel when we are in nature, even in the garden. What are our emotions? How do we feel the atmosphere? How do we react to death or to things changing all the time? How do we see lights? I’m interested in the more subtle reactions to nature, so I thought that it would be beautiful to make a film about that, not as a message but just because it’s beautiful. If people relate to it clearly then that’s great, but if they don’t see that then that’s fine too.
The idea of being timeless and its relationship with death seems to be a very important motif in this work.
It’s not about the awful period of suffering before death or the moments of dying. What’s more important here is the very, very deep confidence we have that death has a place in life, that it’s natural and good, and that we keep that in mind; it’s present in some way in all of our lives. There are also some more philosophical questions. What really dies? The body dies. But we are comfortable and we try to rationalize what really happens, and I prefer to say that there’s something very pure and very, very natural about death. I wanted to convey it like that in the film. Timelessness for me is a very, very simple moment. Just like how when we are happy we don’t have to think about what was before or what is coming next. There is just harmony with a moment that we are in here and now. It is so light and so simple that it’s nothing, and yet in a way, it’s the most important thing in life, the moments of timelessness, the moments where we’re totally, totally at the moment. The film is not presenting a message about that, but I am trying to go to that as much as possible.