Cutie and the Boxer Director Zachary Heinzerling

Zachary Heinzerling walked away from this year’s Sundance with more than the festival’s Documentary Directing Award for his directorial debut Cutie and the Boxer (in limited release August 16). After spending five years with Ushio and Noriko Shinohara, married Japanese artists living in New York who have been together for more than 40 years, he gained a new understanding of sacrifice, love, inspiration and life.

In preparation for a joint exhibition, Ushio, now in his 80s, is completing a series of murals in which he dips his boxing gloves in paint and splatters his vision across the canvas. Noriko is completing a series of autobiographical comics.

Milk Made: With Cutie and the Boxer being your directorial debut, what were your expectations in regards to audience reception?

Zachary Heinzerling: I didn’t necessarily have an expectation. But with Sundance it was the first time we could really see that this could be a film, and one that’s relevant to more people than we expected. It was always hard to sell on paper; the artists aren’t really well known, but it’s an infectious story. For my first film, this is really something that has exceeded all of my expectations.

MM: What motivated you to create a film on these two?

ZH: A friend of mine from college, Patrick Burns, a photographer and journalist, brought me to their loft in 2008 and I had my camera, so I shot a day-in-the-life type of short with them. They had this magic about them that translated cinematically. People got excited by that short so a year later I decided to begin work on shooting something longer.

MM: Did you know right away that you wanted "that something longer" to be a documentary?

ZH: I think it was like, what’s the best way to tell this story? These characters are impossible to replicate, the spark they have, the energy they have; I don’t think anybody would be able to play these characters. When observing them, I found I could make the film, stylistically, more narrative — really having a story you follow, instead of setting it up as a historical documentary or one with interviews. My sensibilities probably lie more with narrative film, but there are a lot of great things about having the actual subjects in your film. There are these stranger-than-fiction moments that you can’t write. Like the scene with the Guggenheim curator.

MM: Before you got to see that spark and energy, what drew you to them?

ZH: Ushio is a very loving person and he kind of gets his kicks out of being around other people, having them react to his presence. It’s pretty infectious. He wants to educate you. Me being a naive 24-year-old when I met them, he represented this authentic artist lifestyle that I romanticized. The downtown SoHo art scene, he was a part of that and he continued to live that way as he got older. Ushio is the last of a dying breed, the struggling artist. There was a limit to his personality though. He is a performance, and it was hard to see beyond that.

But Noriko, she was much more layered. There was a lot more depth to uncover with her and that made it intriguing. Her art is obviously autobiographical, and from that you get a lot of what makes up her psyche. The situation she was in was dramatic, she believed she was the victim in this relationship, sacrificing. And that had a real conflict to it. Noriko, and her art, specifically these Cutie comics, made me say, "This could be a feature, not just a short."

MM: Five years is quite a chunk of time to spend on a film. Aside from Sundance’s Documentary Directing Award, what have you personally taken away from the experience?

ZH: It’s been one of the most formative experiences in my entire life, as far as being an artist. There’s this general inspiration you get being around people who have this "art is all costs" mentality, and are so dedicated to something that not everyone believes in. It’s a real leap of faith with them. It’s what keeps them together, it’s what keeps them alive. Some of that has certainly rubbed off on me. I learned about relationships. I’m pretty young and I have an innocent view of love and relationships, but having them in my life, I am probably a bit wiser on why people stay together and that the reasons aren’t necessarily so romantic.

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