The Red Turtle, Michaël Dudok de Wit

A Dreamer on a Different Scale: Michaël Dudok de Wit on Creating ‘The Red Turtle’

The Red Turtle director Michaël Dudok de Wit discusses connection disconnection between dreams and waking life and cinema’s relationship to dreams and music.

“I see myself more as a filmmaker than an animator,” remarks director Michaël Dudok de Wit, whose silent meditative The Red Turtle chronicles the milestone moments in the life of a man marooned on a tropical island. It marks the feature debut of de Wit following the animated shorts: Tom Sweep (1992), The Monk and the Fish (1994), Father and Daughter (2000) and The Aroma of Tea (2006).

Produced by Studio Ghibli, The Red Turtle stands as an example of the collaboration of a film and its audience. One can look at the storytellers as using their instincts to guide them on the absence of dialogue, and how the pictorial and music create meaning. But in their hands, this is only a temporary template because the film’s potential to access our emotions and memories removes that template during the spectatorial experience, and the subjectivity of the storytellers is replaced by the subjectivity of the audience. The Red Turtle is open to emotional interpretation, a composition that can be openly interpreted emotionally. But as de Wit observes: “If you play with that open interpretation of certain elements, you have to do it respectfully.”

In conversation with PopMatters before a screening at Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival, de Wit reflects on how filmmaking and animation became his chosen means of creative expression. He also discussed the idea of the connection and lack of connection between dreams and waking life, cinema’s relationship to dreams and music, and the attempt to use language with a visual subtlety.

Why a career in filmmaking? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

As a child, I drew a lot, and I remember very clearly the decision to go to art college came suddenly one day at the end of my school years. A friend said, “I’m going to art college when I finish school.” I thought: Of course, that’s what I want.

I was heavily into comics, especially French and Western European comics, and within months, I realised that I wanted to do something narrative. I looked at comics and animation, and I went to my first festival in Annecy, France. There, I watched animators from all over the world, mostly from Canada and Europe, as well as England, walk around.

I liked their films, and they did not have inflated egos. Some were incredible artists, just ordinary people working like crazy on their films. They were very approachable, timid even, travelling a lot, and were open-minded. I thought: I’ve found my place.

How have your experiences as a filmmaker influenced how you watch films as a spectator? Specifically, how have the experiences of making your short films and The Red Turtle changed the way you view the craft of animation?

Gosh, I see myself more as a filmmaker than an animator, although I’m a pure animator, and I’ll use that tool for the rest of my career. But I love the film language, and it so happens that animation has a few deviations from the general language of film, which I only discovered as a young adult at art college.

I began discovering Kurosawa, Antonioni and all the big names, and I suddenly realised what editing is. I learned how people play with the presence of characters but also the absence of characters, the continuity, and the breaking of continuity – all of that. I thought that’s a really rich language.

As a spectator, I feel very emotionally involved in films. You manipulate your audience. I say this respectfully because the audience asks to be manipulated. They say: “I want to enter into your story. Carry me into your story.” So it’s a deal you make with your audience, and the film language has a lot of subconscious tricks, messages, and tools, especially for an animator who has years and years to work out every detail. You play with the intuitive, subconscious level of the spectator, which I find interesting.

C.G Jung contextualised dreams as a means for us to solve the problems we cannot solve in our waking state. If we consider the way in which a film can access our memories and influence the emotions we project onto a film, is this suggestive of a connection between cinema and dreams?

Yes, a film is your dream. I deeply believe that all the characters in a dream are part of you, although you may feel that you are coming from an individual point of view. When you make a film, you are the same. I identify with the main character in the film just as much as with the other characters, and I further identify with the landscapes, clouds, the breeze, and so on.

I am a dreamer on a different scale, and to answer your question from a different angle, everybody agrees that you have a waking life and a dream life. It’s very clear that you dream in your sleep, and you wake up from your sleep. There’s no question about that. You have daydreams. And yet, in my experience, the fine difference between waking life and dream life is they are so close that sometimes there’s no separation. But we don’t like to acknowledge that because, initially, it is very upsetting.

People will take drugs and play with that, of course, but that is an artificial way of exploring it. I can give a small example. If you and I are walking somewhere in the city, your impression of our surroundings will be different from mine – it’s your reality and my reality, not the reality. It’s subjective. I don’t believe in objectivity. I believe in subjectivity and objectivity, which are useful in daily language – something is more subjective or objective.

Ultimately, every single thing that I see in life is subjective. Everything is a story, and so is our identity. It’s not “there”; it’s in our head, and we recreate it daily. A simple thing like you and me sitting here, you have a story. You are not an anonymous human being. You are a journalist, and I have a story from your point of view, and a banknote has a massive story. A banknote is a sheet of paper worth paper, nothing more. But the story around it, we agree, makes the bank note hugely valuable.

The seamless dream and reality states in The Red Turtle represent this idea of no separation between dream and waking state. But it’s not an act of trickery on your part. Rather, it brings a quality to the film that I appreciate yet struggle to contextualise through words.

I know what you are saying, and I still ask myself questions about that. In creative professions, certainly mine and others, we know that we are incredibly clear on intuitive understanding. As soon as you try to explain it in words, it crumbles. It works, and it works, but all the magic is gone.

To me, the motivation for making a film is exploring beauty. I want the film to be beautiful. Secondly, to make a nice, entertaining story where the audience sits and says: “Let me enter into the story.” Thirdly, there is the poetic, timeless, or subtle quality, and that’s the main motivation that carries me, making my film special enough to work on the same project year after year. I call it a timeless quality. The absence of dialogue can contribute to it, but it’s not the thing; it’s only a small contribution. As soon as you know as a spectator that they’re not going to explain things verbally, you relax and say, “Okay, that’s how it is.” You don’t wait for it.

There was some dialogue early on, an explanation because the man in The Red Turtle wants to understand where the woman comes from. I worked on that with a co-writer who asked me to be more rational and to explain more about the story, just like Disney or most American animated features would. It was too much information, and it became a bit like in a fairy tale – once there was a witch, and she cast a spell, and so and so because of so and so. Okay, I see the logic, but it still doesn’t explain, yet somehow it satisfies your logical mind.

I still find it to be too much information. I prefer it when the spectator is carried clearly and explicitly in a story, and then it’s suddenly open to interpretation. The spectator can go this way or that way and come back and continue, which interests me. It’s an elusive subject, but to give you an example, two audience members came to me after seeing my short film, Father and Daughter. One said: “I like the way the film deals with death,” and the other spectator said: “What do you mean death? It’s not talking about death at all.” Both are right because one sees death differently from the other, and therefore it resonates differently. It’s the same with The Red Turtle; it depends on each individual person’s sensitivities.

Interviewing Julia Ducournau about her feature debut RAW for FrightFest, she explained: “I don’t like movies that explain themselves throughout and especially through dialogue […] I try to create scenes that are going to be visually self-sufficient and to be honest, the best thing for me would be to not need dialogue. The way I write dialogue is that it has nothing to do with the movie, but through which the characters reveal themselves. I call this organic dialogue, because it’s a part of their personalities expressing themselves…” The Red Turtle returned me to her words as the film’s image is self-sufficient, from which an emotional and aesthetic beauty emerges.

I agree, and it’s not for nothing that I’m a visual and not a verbal artist. But it’s risky because you can’t just say: “Okay, this film has mystery. It’s your problem, and I don’t want to worry about it.” You don’t make a film like that. You have to respect the viewers; they must not feel that you’ve made a huge mistake and are disrespectfully fooling them. So, to make absolutely sure that the conscious mysteries of the film on the surface work sufficiently, I listened to the producers.

There were several Japanese producers I talked with a lot, and there was also a French person, and then later, when the crew came in, the animators and the musicians, I also listened to them. I watched their reactions, and some said: “You know what, I don’t understand what this film is about.” In that case, I would say: “Wait a bit longer. Everything is coherent when the film’s finished, and the music is in place.” But I looked at people’s reactions to ensure it would not be a mysterious film. That’s not good enough. The mystery should be recognised as A naturally beautiful mystery.

Could we describe the film as a violinist and the audience as the violin? I ask because the way The Red Turtle evokes an emotional response that requires the audience to connect with the images emotionally to understand the story. Therein the response of the audience is the music, but the film is the musician.

You mention the violin, and I often see an analogy with music because we resonate with music individually, but we can’t explain why. We can say we like a particular instrument or a chord formation, or we can be moved to tears or ecstasy with a particular piece of music, but you could talk for five hours about why it is and still not get there.

A film is not music; it is narrative, so there’s a rational element to it, a structure that tells a story. There’s some music, too, but the film is much more explicit. So, I draw parallels with music, but I need to verify them constantly with collaborators to see if they work narratively.

I recall reading a quote that I’ve never been able to relocate. It’s the idea that if you try to explain why you love a piece of music, you undermine the essence of that connection. I understand your point about the need for the narrative to be understood, but there is a level of silent contemplation where understanding is not discovered through words but from inside of us.

Yes, and to simplify it, I’ve noticed two kinds of spectators, many who are probably between the two extremes. Spectators approached me, saying: “I’ve seen the film and afterward I discussed it with my friends. We talked about it for hours, discussing our questions.” I’m delighted when they say that, but then there’s the other end of the spectrum where the spectator will say: “I had a question at the beginning, and then I just let myself be carried by the film, suspending any questioning and it worked for me on that level.” I’m delighted, but I assume many spectators are somewhere in between.

The characters’ interactions overlap, and The Red Turtle seems interested in capturing a snapshot of the emotional range of life and the human experience’s non-tidy construct.

I will put it differently, and this is very philosophical, but you bring it out in me [laughs]. For everyday use, we added emotions of anger, bitterness, joy, and sadness to the whole list. I go along, and it’s perfect – there’s no problem. Then, on another level, you can see all of the emotions and drop the naming and categorising of them. You don’t give a name to it; it’s what happens in the moment. That works for me, and I work on both levels.

The second part, where you don’t identify emotions by name but accept whatever they are, is the more real, profound, and satisfying for me. But everyday language has to talk about anger and joy and so on. But in this film, I somehow tried to bring that non-specific naming of emotions over visually and subtly.

Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me in an interview for FrightFest: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?

The maturity of the filmmaker evolves, and I feel more mature now than before. This is partly because I had to push my limits relentlessly against my exhaustion, but also my capacities, my talents, my understanding, my intelligence, and my wisdom—the whole lot. So maturity is affected, and ideally so, and definitely in my case, which I’m very grateful for. Your core being, your essence, is timeless. It doesn’t change whatever happens, and so I see both at the same time.

The Red Turtle is released theatrically in the UK on Friday, 26 May 2017 by Studio Canal.