Meet the IDA Awards Honorees: Zachary Heinzerling
By Tom White
The Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award recognizes the achievements of a filmmaker who has made a significant impact at the beginning of his or her career in documentary film.
This year's honoree, Zachary Heinzerling, began 2013 by earning the Documentary Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival and securing a distribution deal with RADiUS-TWC for his debut feature, Cutie and the Boxer.
Heinzerling graduated from University of Texas-Austin with a degree in philosophy, and while there he also soaked up the work of such cinematic greats as Tarkovsky, Ozu, Pennebaker and the Maysles brothers. He moved to New York City right after graduation and eventually found work as a production assistant at HBO on such Emmy Award-winning documentaries as Breaking the Huddle, Assault in the Ring and Lombardi.
What mainly drew him to New York, though, was not just the work, but the mystique and energy of a city that had beckoned so many aspiring artists before him. In 2009, he met his Brooklyn neighbors, Noriko and Ushio Shinohara, 40-year partners in art and life—and so began the making of Cutie and the Boxer.
And as Heinzerling filmed their story over the next five years, he attracted the support and attention of such major players as San Francisco Film Society, Cinereach, the Jerome Foundation, the Tribeca Film Institute, the New York State Council for the Arts and the Berlinale Talent Campus. In 2011, he was selected as one of 25 filmmakers for the Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFP's Emerging Visions Program during the New York Film Festival.
Cutie and the Boxer made its theatrical premiere in August. The film recently earned six Cinema Eye Honors nominations, as well as a spot on the Academy Award Short List for Best Feature Documentary.
We caught up with Heinzerling via e-mail from his home in Brooklyn.
Documentary: You went to University of Texas in Austin—a town with a reputable film culture. What were some of the key courses you took and films you saw that planted the seeds to your filmmaking career?
Zachary Heinzerling: One film that completely changed my view of cinema was Andrei Tarkovsky's Nostalghia. It was the last film we screened during a class on Contemporary Russian Cinema. I remember being in complete awe the first time I saw it. Every line of dialogue was poetry. Every frame was filled to the edge with metaphor. It was so unabashedly aggressive in reaching for some form of transcendence through film.
I also remember being inspired reading Tarkovsky's Sculpting in Time—especially quotes like, "The infinite cannot be made into matter, but it is possible to create an illusion of the infinite: the image."
Another formative course I took was taught by a visiting professor from Germany. The course was entitled The Holocaust Documentary. For whatever reason, only two people signed up for the course! She showed us a few hours of Claude Lanzmann's Shoah. Some of the scenes in that film are still to date the most powerful I've seen in any documentary. Lanzmann's ability to show deeply seeded prejudice and the banality of evil without having anyone talk about it directly had a profound impact on me and my direction as a filmmaker.
D: During the five years you were making Cutie and the Boxer, you worked on number of sports documentaries—including one on, yes, boxing. Other than helping to pay the bills, was there something about this particular sub-genre of documentary that resonated with you as you documented the lives of two artists in—to reference a great scene from your film- the "roar" of love?
ZH: When I started out as a production assistant at HBO, I worked for a director who specialized in sports-related documentaries. I didn't go to film school, so in many ways working on these early docs was my film education. Though I'm not much of a sports fanatic, I enjoyed working for this director. I learned the fundamentals of storytelling. The interesting thing about these films is that most had very little to do with sports. They used sports as a lens onto the human condition, exploring themes like family, relationships, race, passion, what drives us, etc. In many cases, such as a film about [the late football coach] Vince Lombardi, who, due to his obsession with work was notoriously absent for much of his children's upbringing, the films exhibited similar themes to Cutie.
D: You have cited in other interviews the work of the Japanese neo-realists, particularly Ozu, and the work of the Maysles brothers, particularly Grey Gardens, as inspirations in making Cutie and the Boxer. What is it about those works that enabled you to help find the narrative of your film?
ZH: I would add Hirokazu Koreeda to that list. Most of his films are intensely dramatic family portraits, but presented in an honest and unsentimental manner. He has a playful, comedic tone, but the films are heartbreaking at the same time. I remember seeing Still Walking a few years after I'd begun shooting with the Shinoharas and realizing that I could make this kind of film using the Shinoharas' daily lives as the central plot. I began to structure the story to feel more like a narrative film, eliminating all of the on-camera interviews. The film helped me see and use the quieter, less immediately dramatic, subtler moments of the Shinoharas' lives in a new light.
D: You managed to capture on film two very elusive and internal subjects: the creative process and the complications, exigencies and intricacies of a long-running love affair. The Shinoharas afforded you an extraordinary level of trust to open their lives to you. Over the years you spent with them, how did your vision for the film change from what you had originally presented to the Shinoharas to what you eventually screened for them?
ZH: I never presented an original idea of the film to the Shinoharas. It seems the film was constantly evolving until the day we printed our first festival master. When I met the Shinoharas in 2009 and started to shoot some footage of them, the most obvious place to start was with Ushio and his art. He was the more forthcoming of the two: immediately inviting me into his frenetic world, constantly performing and showering me with anecdotes from his storied past.
The relationship between Noriko and me took longer to develop. But that development in some ways makes up the narrative of the film. I was fascinated by the fact that this 60-year-old woman wore her hair in pigtails and referred to herself as "Cutie." Her egotistical and "bull-ish" husband had highjacked her innocence, and she was fighting back to regain it. The focus shifted to Noriko. There was movement in her story. She was undergoing this immense change and empowerment. And I sensed that she really wanted to open up, to shed some of the layers that protected her, and show her true self and her work to the public.
When I finally showed the film to Ushio and Noriko when it was finished, Ushio was a bit shocked. He asked, with a look of objection, "So this is a love story?" He thought the film was going to be focused on him and his art. Noriko then chimed in with, "You've had many documentaries made about you. Isn't it my turn?" Ushio laughed. He has since seen the film many times and seems to appreciate it more and more. Recently he said, "After seeing the film, I now realize that Noriko has actually loved me through all these years." Noriko replied, "You've only thought about this now after seeing a movie? You're a little late."
D: Cutie and the Boxer has a remarkable cinematic texture—the vérité footage is enriched with archival footage of Ushio Shinohara both in Japan and in New York, and with animated renderings of Noriko's work. Talk about the structural process of weaving these formats in to strengthen your story.
ZH: The process of balancing the amount of archival and animation used was a long and difficult one. We realized quickly that the heart of this film was in the vérité footage, and that the film would rest on these revealing moments between Ushio and Noriko as their roles began to shift and Noriko's independence grew. But at the same time, we had a wealth of archival footage to work with, including Noriko's artwork, which works as a form of archival footage depicting their tumultuous past. Ultimately, the formal technique used to define how the different archival material was used was making sure the past was revealed out of the character's inner thoughts. We experience the past subjectively, from the point of view of the subjects. The easiest example is the animation. Stories from her past play out seamlessly from present to past in dreamlike sequences, heightening Noriko's twisted mix of reality and fantasy and transporting the audience into Noriko's mind. With the archival footage, it was important it played like a memory or a flashback. Finding points of connection where the present would flow seamlessly into the past prevented the film from losing its setting in the present tense. We kept the narrative based in the ongoing daily struggles of Ushio and Noriko, using the archival to supplement and deepen that storyline.
D: You spent a good deal of time capturing artists at work—and all the attendant trappings: the struggles, the sacrifices, the anger, the despair and the joy. How did this experience impact your self-regard as an artist?
ZH: I moved to New York the summer after I graduated from university, on a whim. I had this very romantic idea of the New York City art scene, defined by the '60s and '70s downtown era of artists who lived in shabby lofts and paid little if any rent, all working together to turn the art world on its head. When I met Ushio and Noriko and walked into their loft, it was like entering a time warp. While many of their contemporaries had either died, changed careers or become famous, Ushio and Noriko had maintained this art-at-all-cost spirit I had romanticized. Their loft space is like a shrine to the arts: art history books, 40 years of paint splatter on the floor, old photographs of famous artist friends, modeling sculptures. They were always in progress on something. There was never a sense of being finished or satisfied. And while I was working on this film, it felt like we were all in progress together. Their story and our relationship was constantly evolving and because of that the experience never grew stale. It was a ripe environment within which an impressionable young artist could develop.
D: What's next for you?
ZH: I'm in production on a documentary that I'm not allowed to tell you about just yet. I'm also in development on a narrative feature script that I started last year.
Thomas White is editor of Documentary.