Following last week's announcement of Oscar nominations, there was much talk of snubs and slights, but then there were films whose place on the list was just another affirmation of their greatness. Among them was Brooklyn-based director Zachary Heinzerling's documentaryCutie and the Boxer, which tells the heartbreaking yet uplifting story of Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, two Japanese artists (who also happen to be married) living in New York City. Since the film's release, it has slowly gained the word-of-mouth momentum that drives documentaries into the public consciousness and proved to be one of the most well-crafted portraits of a not-so-perfect but ultimately loving marriage to grace the silver screen in quite a while. We spoke with Heinzerling about his film, its unlikely stars and what art teaches us about love and vice versa.
What inspired you to follow the Shinoharas?
Well, the film started about five years ago and I was introduced to them by a friend of mine, [photographer] Patrick Byrnes. He showed me some photos of them and their space. We thought it would be interesting to do a short film so we went over one afternoon and did a day-in-the-life-style video of the two of them working on their art and a short interview. I think there was just a knowledge that they were this extremely unique couple and right off the bat the environment that they lived in and the kind of authentic sort of artists’ lifestyle that they led was really attractive. I was 24 at the time and had this romantic idea of the artist’s lifestyle of the seventies. In some ways they were still living that today. Their space is 40 years of paint dripping on the floor and books and magazines and photographs of other famous artists all over the place. It was just this shrine to an era of New York and the sort of high point, culturally, in New York that I idealized and wanted to be in. Soon, I just wanted to be friends with them so the relationship started there and they were welcoming. They’re really proud of the way they live, I think. We both were in the project for different reasons, but ultimately we both wanted the film to happen.
What do you think that the Shinoharas were in it for?
Obviously, they’re artists so they’re interested in their art being promoted and publicized. I think for Ushio, he loved the camera. He always loved media. His art is performance. In a way you have to watch the performance to experience the art. And I think also because we were American—they’re very well-known in Japan, but less well-known in the U.S. They’ve had several documentaries made about them by Japanese TV companies. For Noriko, she really was eager to have her story told. In every film, it’s always Ushio that gets the attention and she is in his shadow or second priority. I think when it was clear that I was interested in her work, she was excited.
Between the two of them, is there a star of the film?
Yeah, I would say Noriko is the star of the film. It’s really told from her perspective. Ushio is obviously a central character and their relationship is the center of the film, but it’s really Noriko’s journey that creates the arc and the narrative of the film from the beginning where she’s seen mostly as an assistant to the end where she’s establishing herself as an artist and an individual and rebelling against the pain and the suffering that she’s been through as a result of being Ushio’s wife.
When you started out, did you expect her to take that role or was it something that revealed itself throughout filming?
Well, I sensed it. She had already started the Cutie drawings before I showed up and in those Cutie drawings you could see a lot of what was going on. She was very quick to talk about how terrible a husband Ushio was. It all seemed kind of comedic at first and then I think I realized the depth of her pain, but also her identity struggle. I think I sensed that the film could be about that transition. But not until we were editing did it take shape. For awhile, both their stories were the backbone of the film and I guess gradually, more slowly Noriko’s story became a larger part of the narrative and Ushio started to dwindle a bit.
What made you decided to animate her work, to tell the story that way instead of through interviews and voiceovers alone?
I had the idea fairly early on when I saw her comics. [Noriko] had told me that she dreamed about her Cutie and Bullie comics in an animated form. And I knew that she liked the idea, but it was a matter of cost and figuring out how much of a role the animations would play. We did a test and Noriko really liked it. We really wanted to maintain her drawings as they were intended, but also have the audience be sucked into her mind in a way and see the story unfold in a more cinematic form.
Has there been any significant change in the Shinoharas’ relationship since the film was released?
I wouldn’t necessarily say there’s a change in the relationship, but for Ushio, he has said in Q&As that the film gave him a new perspective on their marriage and made him realize how much Noriko has not only taken care of him, but also has loved him for so long. And it was something he had probably known, but hadn’t necessarily experienced and it really hit him over the head, which is always amazing to hear—that only after a film do you realize that your wife has loved you. He would never say something like, “Your art is average,” now. I don’t know if that’s as much a part of the film as it is a product of Noriko gaining attention and her work being more in the spotlight. For Noriko, the relationship has been changed because of the film, but again the dynamic shift that occurs during film has only been galvanized by the attention that the film is getting.