Cutie and the Boxer is one of the best movies up for an Academy Award this Sunday that you likely haven’t seen, a documentary — now streaming on Netflix! — about the lives of New York-based Japanese artists Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, whose wacky sculptures and lovely drawings help illustrate the narrative. Shot by Texas-bred, New York-based director Zachary Heinzerling over the course of five years, it’s an extraordinary, intimate look into the work and marriage of two people who live entirely for art, and what they sacrificed as a result. While it takes half of its title from 82-year-old Ushio’s boxing painting, in which he dons boxing gloves and punches a large canvas in a frenetic flurry, the crux of the story involves 62-year-old Noriko, a.k.a. Cutie, and how she put her own art career on hold in order to focus on their family.
In that sense, it’s also a feminist film, and Heinzerling captures their story with a beautiful softness that emphasizes the long-term tragedy and triumphs of what we’ll do for love. It’s no coincidence that, in addition to a Sundance win for Heinzlering early last year (he took the Directing Award for a U.S. Documentary honors), Cutie’s beauty also led to a job with Beyoncé: His first big project after the film’s release was to direct the making-of mini-documentaries for her recent, self-titled smash, a record that’s also, in its own way, about intimacy. In the run-up to this coming Sunday’s Academy Awards, where Cutie has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature, SPIN spoke with Heinzerling about making a “dark horse” contender, working with Queen Bey, and other things that are also weird and awesome.
You’re in L.A. leading up to the Oscars right now. How is it?
It’s kind of nice having a kind of underdog film. First off, people haven’t really heard of you or the film, so they’re surprised and delighted, because they’re not just like, “Oh, you’re so-and-so and you’ve always had all these things and you’re a Hollywood regular.” It’s nice to be a little bit on the outside of it. There are positives and negatives to being the dark horse nominee.
Let’s talk a bit about the film. Is it true that while you were shooting footage of Noriko and Ushio, they were mostly speaking Japanese, and you didn’t know what they were saying until it was translated later? How did that work?
We had a series of “interns” that were translators — interns in quotes — that just wanted to be part of the project. I probably had 10 different people translating footage over the course of a year-and-a-half. At one point when we cut a lot of the footage down… I made a concerted effort to spend three months basically subtitling everything. At first we actually had a Japanese editor, but for my own sake I wanted to have it subtitled. I was always just doing the scenes that I knew were significant based on my understanding of communication via body language, and via what I understood of the scene.
Yet it has a really clear narrative arc. You did that on instinct? It seems so ephemeral.
The story was really shaped in the edit. I knew that a general narrative could be there, which was what was occurring, then figuring out what I needed after the fact. For instance, with the Guggenheim scene, that’s an isolated scene that we shot in 2009 or something. But we knew exactly what it was saying, and where it fit in the trajectory of their life story: seeing the struggle between the two of them, and building up the stakes for the show, and understanding that they were in desperate need of money, making that Guggenheim visit even more important for them. We had scenes that needed some backbone to some greater story, which was shaped much later on in the editing process. Julie spent about a full year editing the movie, whereas in the editing of a narrative film you’re spending maybe three or four months.
I felt that intimacy was one of the overarching themes — the idea of intimacy as an art form. How did you get close enough to them that they trusted you with so many personal moments in their lives?
It’s a product of time and trust. With a friendship, you don’t ever realize the point in time when you feel comfortable talking about sex with your best friend. It’s a natural thing that happens — eventually you just sort of become more comfortable with someone. I think in the case of this film, it started out where they were always asking why I was coming and what specific thing I’d be filming, in terms of their art or conversation about whatever. And then I was just there so often, and I was filming everything, but they couldn’t really figure out why anymore. So I think they just sort of gave up. You get past the point of annoyance, and I think that I became part of their household in a way. They expected me to come, like I was this kid making art in their commune, where everyone was in the process of something and everyone was trying to make something. They were almost surprised when I stopped filming, because they had just sort of gotten used to the fact that I was just gonna be around. At a certain point, you know, when you can just walk into the bathroom with someone when they’re about to take a shower and they don’t even blink an eye or notice or react, you’ve reached a level of comfort that they don’t really care. They don’t ask questions anymore.
Cutie led to making the mini-documentaries for Beyoncé’s latest album. How did she reach out?
I worked with the producer, Carly Hugo, a long time ago, as an assistant editor on a film that she made, and she ended up producing one of Beyoncé’s music videos. She was tasked with finding someone to make these videos that would announce the launch of the album and sort of explain what it was all about, because Beyoncé wasn’t doing any press. Carly showed [Beyoncé’s team at Parkwood] Cutie and they were interested in me, I think, because it was a different kind of documentary and a different way of looking at artists. I spent probably a month and a half with a team of editors going through almost two years of footage that documented the process of making this album. It was kind of a random way to go about a project like that, but I think it’s interesting, even with some of the directors Beyoncé used for the album, like Lil Internet. She’s discovering different, younger directors and taking chances. She’s an amazing curator in a way, and a surveyor of what’s going on. She has such creative control over everything she does, which I think is really inspiring for people that work with her and want to work with her. I think they were interested in someone outside of the norm and not making it necessarily a traditional kind of documentary.
Did you have any conversations with her or the people at Parkwood about what they wanted with it?
They were open to ideas. It was all kind of coming together as the album was being finished. Obviously there was the pressure of keeping everything secret. But nothing was necessarily dictated as to what exactly it should be. They kind of let us free in a room to basically edit and come up with the structure and themes. Beyoncé would come in periodically and we would show her stuff and talk about it and she had comments and we would kind of take it from there. There wasn’t a set bible for what it needed to be. From the onset there was creative freedom for us.
Cutie is also a musical project — the score is amazing. How did that come about?
It’s one of the things in the film I’m actually most proud of or most excited by. Originally, I was looking for a composer in New York, and I almost had a minimalist score mentality, but it ended up coming across as sad. So a friend of mine sent me this CD called Pentatonica by Yasuaki Shimizu. It was a quintet of saxophones playing classical but very rhythmic melodies, kind of layered on top of each other in a really interesting and complex way. It had a very whimsical and melodic quality based in classical music, and it felt very serious and avant garde, but in a mature way. When I put it with some of the scenes in the film, it just brought out some of the humor and charm and sweetness to the relationship. But it was also complicated enough to fit in and dovetail with the more complicated nature of their relationship. It created this tone that I never would have expected.
We reached out to Yasuaki, but he’d never really done scores. He’s a member of the Orb and YMO, and he’s done everything else. He’s only recently become known for playing saxophone. So I started listening to all this other stuff that he sent me — the first song in the film, which is the opening title of a song he had done in the ’80s. The ending song is one of the Bach cello suites done with saxophone, which is also crazy because it’s a totally new spin on Bach and gives it a totally different quality. It kind of blew me away. But this was a very strange film for him to work on, because (a) he never worked on an American production, (b) he doesn’t really do films, and (c) we basically had no money, so he was working for way under what he deserves and normally makes. He was sort of in it for all the right reasons, and that was kind of the only way that this could happen.
The music made so much sense. It’s a little bit funny, and matches Ushio’s work, like, “This dude’s trying to sell me a sculpture of a Pokemon on a motorcycle” — I don’t think we needed to hear a minimalist score with that.
[Laughs] No, totally. He’s totally weird and he’s selling geishas with poisoned frogs on top of motorcycles. It’s bizarre, but pretty awesome.