Zachary Heinzerling: Directing 'Cutie and the Boxer'

After five years and 100 days of filmimg, Zachary Heinzerling has earned an Academy Award nomination for his directorial debut. The documentarian discusses trust, access, and learning to stay out of the way of the story. 

Zachary Heinzerling has an extensive education in documentary filmmaking. As a camera operator and associate producer, his credits include HBO’s Emmy Award-winning films Breaking the Huddle, Assault in the Ring, and Lombardi. When he was introduced to a pair of Japanese artists living in Brooklyn in 2008, the aspiring director was looking for just right project.

“I met them through a friend of mine who is a photographer,” says Heinzerling. “He showed me some photos of them. I was interested in doing a short, kind of an artist portrait. Mostly concerned with their lifestyle, but also their art.”

Behind the couple’s camera-ready appearance, Heinzerling saw a “complicated” and “chaotic” relationship between a struggling painter and the woman living in his creative shadow. Cutie and the Boxer, nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, explores the 40-year marriage of Noriko and Ushio Shinohara. The film is the result of five years and 100 days of shooting, during which the first-time director learned that to capture the genuine narrative he was after, he had to sit back and manage less. 

Get In Media: Did Cutie And The Boxer initially start out as this tale of love and sacrifice between husband and wife chasing their dreams? Or did you initially view it as a different type of story and then it wound up morphing into the new focus of the film?

Zachary Heinzerling: Yeah, I mean, we didn’t really have a notion of what the film would be when we started it. … There’s so much that you get by just meeting them in person. First, there’s the initial beauty of them: their faces, their bodies, the agelessness that they exhibit. Noriko having silver hair in pigtails. There’s a kind of young girl aspect, but also one of an older woman who is sort of… innocence was sort of taken from her, in a way, by her husband. And Ushio being 80 years old, but with the eternally youthful personality of a child. The expression and vigor that he puts into everything that he does, whether it’s boxing, painting, sculpture, or even walking to the subway. You see so much personality in everything that they do that, just right off the bat, it was an interesting visual study.

"Cutie and the Boxer" still

I think Noriko was the first to delve into their past. Not only through her artwork, but in the conversations that the two of them would have together and the resentment she had for the way that she was treated was so clear. That was at the forefront of every conversation they had, whether it had to do with their past or not. You could see the tension and conflict immediately. I think I had hoped that there could be a longer film, but not really knowing how to get there, to get the access, or the trust that’s necessary to film all of the time and to be in their house with that kind of intimacy. That became the challenge.

GIM: Is it difficult to find a narrative through their life and through everything that they are doing? Or in giving us a glimpse into their lives, does real life somehow manage to mold itself into this proper linear story that is then able to fit into doing a film?

ZH: I think it is. I think the challenge of a lot of documentary films is, “What’s the story? What’s the narrative arc?” I think with this film there was something going on in the present, which is sometimes hard to find. When you’re making a film about people, the hardest thing is to see change in a person, because you really just have to wait for that change.

Some of that change was change that was already occurring, so I was kind of there to witness a piece of it, but the role reversal in their relationship and Noriko’s journey and the triumph of the female spirit and her emergence as an artist was something that was ongoing. I was capturing a piece of it. I could sort of support that narrative with scenes from the past and her artwork to give it a bigger scale.

I think that’s the challenge. I didn’t want to make a biography, but I wanted to make a narrative that unfolds in a very dramatic way. In order to do that you really need a beginning, middle, and end, and you really need a story. I think Noriko’s journey really provided that story arc for the film.

GIM: Especially early on, Noriko mentions this obsession with ideals in art and love. As you mentioned, she does grow more resentful, angrier throughout the film in coming to these realizations in what the relationship has been and evolved to. Do you get the sense that she ever viewed herself as an enabler of sorts in allowing this irresponsible and selfish behavior to continue and to dictate the way her life has played out?

ZH: No, I think that when you look at the reality of the situation, they come from a very specific culture and a very specific time period. Noriko came from a relatively conservative and moderate family in Japan. She moved to New York when she was 19 years old and was kind of swooned by Ushio, who was the kind of notorious l’enfant terrible of the New York SoHo ‘70s scene, introducing her to the likes of [James] Rosenquist, [Robert] Rauschenberg and [Andy] Warhol, and all the other expatriate Japanese artists at the time. He created this world and environment for her to become an artist in and to really learn from.

Noriko painting

I think the marriage is checkered with ups and downs. I think that the Cutie paintings, they’re meant to be an exaggeration of the truth. They’re an expression of the truth. I think they are concentrating on a very specific and troublesome period in their marriage. It’s hard to sort of label what it is that’s kept them together, but I do think that it was a push and pull. I think that Noriko is in a position where her identity was in a way formed by Ushio’s existence. I think it’s really hard to sometimes escape that and to be critical of that when you’re inside of it.

I think it took some perspective and growth on her part to really be able to fight back and find herself and her independence and blossom as an artist in her own right. You can’t say whether the path was right or wrong because that’s sort of the way it happened, so I’m not really one to be able to judge whether she should have or shouldn’t have or done something differently.

GIM: How difficult is it as a documentarian to get trust from the subjects that you’re filming? Do you find a particular process works best, at least as far as getting these candid responses and being able to see a really truthful picture of what’s going on?

ZH: I think in the case of this film, the key for me was a transition that happened somewhere in the middle of the five years of the project for me, almost stepping back and directing less.

At the beginning, I was very much the investigator, very much the person asking questions and trying to be the person to determine what the basis was for their marriage, what their art was about, and asking pointed questions. I think I realized at some point that the questions weren’t eliciting the responses that were most honest, but they were more the kind of the answers they wanted to give. Particularly, the ones about their relationship were not ones that I felt were honest. A lot of the times they deferred to humor.

I think that once I stepped back and just started filming conversations in their entirety and just stayed at their apartment as long as I could until they were annoyed by my presence, then got past that annoyance to the point where they forgot I was there, only then could I really catch some of the back and forth that did feel more honest. [I was able to] catch things like Ushio reacting to Noriko’s artwork with signs of jealousy or Noriko harnessing her grasp on what really was at the heart of the conflict and using her art as a weapon against her husband. Things like that you can really only see as opposed to hear, or witness in a scene as opposed to getting them to answer in an interview setting.

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