The Red Turtle received the nomination for Animated Feature Film for Oscars 2017 and recently won an Annie Award. With the 89th Academy Awards coming up next week, I decided to translate another interview with director Michael Dudok de Wit, with another one coming up later on. In this interview Dudok de Wit talks about the theme of acceptance in the film. It’s a rather personal interview, which touches upon his childhood, among other things.
De Lagarde originally conducted this interview and published it on their website on July 7, 2016. If you can read Dutch, please click here to read the interview in its original language.
Interview: Michael Dudok de Wit (The Red Turtle)
‘In elementary school, my teacher called me Karel Appel[ref]Karel Appel (1921-2006) Dutch painter, sculptor, and poet.[/ref], because I always drew. My three brothers did the same as well, but perhaps a little less obsessive. I could immerse myself in it, forgot everything around me, including what was being said and taught. I wasn’t very good at school. Fortunately, my parents weren’t too upset about it. My mother herself was artistic. I still remember – I must have been very young then – that she once made a drawing of one of our bantams[ref]A small variety of poultry, especially chickens.[/ref]. I can still see it before me, so beautiful and detailed. She was an artist at heart. But she chose to be a good spouse and mother. It had been very nice for me, but there’s no doubt that she must have struggled with that choice sometimes.‘
‘She came from Switzerland, from Lausanne. At home we spoke French. When I was 1 years old, we moved from Abcoude to Laren, in ‘t Gooi. It hadn’t been a chic village like it is at the moment. But it was very beautiful and green. Later I went to school in Hilversum and cycled through the heath every day. Something like that is very normal, you just don’t know any better. But when I look back at it, then it had been very formative. Every day was different. Then it would rain, and in the winter the heath would be covered by snow. In autumn it was completely abloom. Without being aware of it at that age, I was surrounded by beauty.‘
One foot abroad
‘Because I already had one foot abroad in my home, I always wanted to go to other countries. In the 50s, when I was growing up, going on holidays was still something extraordinary. We went to Lausanne every year. I believe I was the only child in class who went abroad. At the end of the 50s, the hippie movement began to take off. I was incredibly jealous of the hippies who traveled to India with their backpacks. I think I idealized it quite a bit. When I was at the age that I could leave, I resolved that I wanted to live every year in a different country, experience a whole year there, with all the seasons. It didn’t happen. Though I lived in five different countries, usually longer than a year. Now we have lived in London for a very long time. But while making this film I mostly resided in France, Angoulême, where the studio was.‘
‘I enjoy working, but more than once I’ve wondered to myself whether it is reasonable to practice this profession. I am a perfectionist, and am able to go far to strive for perfection. It’s a longing every artist is acquainted with. The longing for the ultimate beauty. I can get things off my chest in my work, but at the same time: I always feel like it can be better, more beautiful. I push forward where others give up. In the documentary, which Maarten Schmidt and Thomas Doebele made during the production of The Red Turtle, I said that the film had been finished at that time. I actually had wanted to have three more days. But that probably wouldn’t have been enough either.‘
‘That longing has a drawback. Since my youth I’ve been prone to… I don’t want to call them depressions, these are rather bouts when I don’t feel the passion for life very strongly. It’s a feeling of emptiness that makes itself known. Now I know it often has to do with exhaustion, and that it passes by. Once in a while it surfaces when I’m not tired. It took a while until I learned how to deal with it. When I was in my twenties, I didn’t know about it yet, and then those periods would swallow me, or actually you want to go away from it. Now I know that there’s no point in fleeing from it, or seeking distractions. It won’t go away because of that. If I see it coming, I’ll accept it with my open arms. There you are again, come here. It doesn’t mean that these aren’t dreary spells, but there is a solution in acceptance.‘
‘My new film is about this. In The Red Turtle, a man is shipwrecked, and ends up on a tropical island where he gets into a conflict with nature and life. At first he only wants to leave the island. He builds one raft after another, and is continually confronted by a turtle that impedes him and ruins his raft. He returns again and again, becomes angry, disheartened, dejected, but he finally accepts what is there. Now there really is something to stay for: a woman, a love. But he truly chooses, by pushing an incomplete raft into the sea at one point. Acceptance is also moving along with life, which is comprehensive.‘
‘I made this film for the Japanese Studio Ghibli. It’s the first time they were working with a non-Japanese animator. I was allowed to conceptualize the topic of the film myself. I had many conversations with Isao Takahata, who co-founded the studio and made many films for it. His animations are so beautiful. He made one, My Neighbours The Yamadas, which is structured like a haiku, very sensory. There is a chapter that I still dearly remember, in which one of the characters comes home, sits down, eats a banana, and falls asleep. It’s only a situation – no evolution, simply an observation of the moment. It calls for courage to dare something like that. Of course, the rest of the film does have a narrative structure, but still.‘
’I worked for ten years on The Red Turtle. For a short animation you only work with three, four people. Here it was a team of around thirty people – twelve animators for the characters, sixteen for the special effects – working day after day. One of them was engaged with the storm in the opening sequence for one year. Heading a team like this, was a challenge. Even if each and every person were people, who like me, sought poetic quality. We became a group of friends, it can’t be anything else if you work together so intensively. At the same time there was an hierarchical structure. I was at the helm, and eventually made the artistic decisions. And then there were the producers, who functioned as the bad cops. Who tapped on their wristwatches and ramped up the pace. At one point, the animators had to make three seconds of film per day. That’s a whole lot.’
’My films aren’t necessarily suitable for children. I still remember when I showed Father and Daughter to my daughter, who had been five years old at that time, how she wanted to know at all costs what happened to the father who left. In the film he stepped in a boat and rowed away. It’s left up in the air what happened, but she wouldn’t put up with it. ‘What is that man going to do and why is he leaving?’ Apparently not only children struggled with it, I also received letters from adults. A Chinese teacher told me he once watched the film with a group of adults, and after it ended he asked to them why the man left. They simultaneously said: ‘He left to go to the revolution’.’
’You can get away with a lot in animation. It doesn’t have to be completely logical. But you do have to take care that the spectator feels safe enough that they can dare let in their own interpretation. I call this “consciously creating a mystery”. The spectator will probably get the fact that there’s a red turtle in this film that transforms into a woman. But it remains vulnerable. I expect that from now on in every show, in every theater, there will be someone who will walk away. Because, well… that’s just impossible: a turtle that changes into a woman!’