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The Red Turtle
Still from The Red Turtlecourtesy of Studio Ghibli

Talking turtles and time in Ghibli's wordless new epic

We speak to Michaël Dudok de Wit, the studio's first non-Japanese director, about creating this stunning Oscar-worthy film with no dialogue

In Michaël Dudok de Wit’s extraordinary animated feature The Red Turtle, the beautiful, evocative imagery does all the talking. It’s how the movie, co-produced by Studio Ghibli, can ask major questions about life itself without uttering a single line of dialogue. For instance, what demons are we escaping from? What holds us back? And how can a wordless fantasy about a human battling an oversized reptile be so captivating?

At first, The Red Turtle appears to be a simple tale of survival. A man awakens on a desert island. A giant turtle demolishes his raft. A woman emerges from the shell. A bizarre meet cute ensues. From there, the film deep-dives into existential waters and parades a hypnotising series of events — some involve scuttling crabs, others concern shattered dreams. Think of it as a gorgeously rendered Rorschach test from which everyone will take their own personal meaning.

With Isao Takahata (Grave of the Fireflies, Pom Poko) onboard as artistic producer, The Red Turtle boasts the jaw-dropping textures and visuals one expects from a Ghibli movie. What’s more, the eco-friendly narrative, fantastical transformations and occasional flying sequences certainly chime with the Japanese studio’s output. That said, Dudok de Wit’s influences span wider: the Dutch director animated the film in France and Belgium, and the stunning result doesn’t look like anything produced by Studio Ghibli — or anyone else, for that matter.

Since its premiere last year at Cannes, The Red Turtle has been heralded with universal acclaim, including an Oscar nomination, and now it’s finally reaching cinemas. If one film deserves a big screen and full attention, it’s this one. Earlier this week, we spoke to Dudok de Wit about making a film with no dialogue, his passion for hand-drawn animation, and the joy of collaborating with Studio Ghibli.

How did you become Studio Ghibli’s first non-Japanese director?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: It was so bizarre. I’d met Miyazaki, Suzuki and Takahata before — they’re the three founding fathers of Ghibli. Suzuki and Takahata knew and liked my work, so they wrote to me and said, “If you’re thinking of making an animated feature, we’d like to produce it.” Of course, I wanted to know how much creative input that’d involve and if it’d have to be in the style of Ghibli. They said, “No, it’s not about that. You propose the story, you propose the style, and we’ll take it from there.” 

What was it about your short films that appealed to Studio Ghibli?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: They liked the story of Father and Daughter a lot. It’s about a daughter longing for her father. The characters behave in a Japanese way. In Tokyo, they have a statue of a dog sitting in front of a station. There was once a real dog waiting for his master every day; then one day, the man died, and the dog waited and waited. That moved the Japanese so much, they erected a statue for the dog. Father and Daughter has a similar intensity, a similar theme.

Takahata said he liked the simplicity of the style. It’s very respectful of empty space, which the Japanese recognise in their own culture. They also have a different relationship with nature. It’s part of their Taoist approach to appreciate the beauty of an insect, of a frog, or a particular ambience of the day. I have that too, in my western way, but we can meet on that.

Also, Studio Ghibli’s films have a deep respect for the beauty of animation. They’re just beautifully made. Takahata’s not an animator. He can’t draw, but you see his choice of colours, his choice of lines, the timing, the resonance. Animation has its own language which should be explored fully, and in that sense, we’re on the same wavelength.

I read the official screenplay – it’s really detailed. Can you tell me about the writing process?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: I’m not a writer by nature. I write by doing a storyboard. But with a feature film, you have to write it as text. I wrote it quickly, but I spent years and years doing the storyboarding. There were umpteen sequences in the animatics that I threw out.

Have you heard from anyone who got high before seeing the film?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: You mean smoking a joint or something stronger? I haven’t yet. I would be very interested to find out what it’s like. Do you think the film’s trippy?

Well, he flies at one point.

Michaël Dudok de Wit: I see what you mean. Like everyone who grew up in the 70s, I experimented a bit — never on hard drugs — but the film was done in a very sober ambience. During storyboarding and writing, I wouldn’t drink alcohol. But my God, I’d love to hear more about that — and also what particular drug someone would use for it.

The Red Turtle is more than a story. There are moments of stillness, moments of time passing, and moments of very simple poetry” — Michaël Dudok de Wit

Is it true you originally had dialogue?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: Yeah, there was a screenplay with non-stop dialogue! No, I’m just joking. There were only a few sentences — 15 or 20 in total. Like, when the man and woman first meet, he asks who she is. When their son is a young adult, he has to say something, too.

It was all approved but then I got a phone call from Studio Ghibli saying, “We’re not comfortable with the dialogue.” Takahata said, “It’s up to the director. If the director wants dialogue, that’s his choice.” But Suzuki said, “It doesn’t work!” And rightly so. It was rewritten without dialogue at the last moment before the team arrived to make the film.

It’s interesting that Pascale Ferran helped with the script. Her film, Bird People, is almost the opposite; it’s a live-action story about a woman transforming into a bird and flying to freedom.

Michaël Dudok de Wit: Pascale was brought on to polish the story. The basis was there, but it wasn’t working fully. She hadn’t made Bird People yet. The funny thing is, she said, “When the film changes from realism to fantasy, that transition is too shocking. You can’t keep the viewer’s attention if you suddenly change gears. Make the magical parts more anticipated and integrated.” I totally agreed with her, and we tweaked it. But then she made Bird People which, like you said, has that shocking change.

Could there be a live-action remake of The Red Turtle? There are live-action films of Kiki’s Delivery Service and Grave of the Fireflies.

Michaël Dudok de Wit: Really? That’s bizarre. I’m not a live-action filmmaker. If someone else wants to do it… My God, I haven’t thought about it. I’d have to see who it is. I would be extremely happy if nobody ever asks me.

Bill Murray already voiced the bear in The Jungle Book

Michaël Dudok de Wit: It could star Tom Hanks, like in Cast Away. But The Red Turtle is more than a story. There are moments of stillness, moments of time passing, and moments of very simple poetry. That aspect stimulated me more than the suspense of the story.

Did you see the recent video where Miyazaki called CG “an insult to life itself”?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: Yeah, he was a bit strong! Maybe they pitched the wrong example to him. He was thinking about his handicapped friend, and he felt angry about that. But Miyazaki’s talent is in drawing. He draws a lot and has a very personal, beautiful style. So why would you tell him computer animation is better than drawing?

Do you know anything about his new film?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: I’ve seen tiny bits he’s shown me, which are of course nice, and yes, he uses computer animation (laughs).

“It’s a beautiful prison, but it’s not that beautiful. I wouldn’t want to live there” – Michaël Dudok de Wit

Could you explain what Takahata did as the artistic producer? It’s quite a fancy job title.

Michaël Dudok de Wit: He protested against the fancy name because he’s very modest. Takahata’s an experienced, cultured man, and I knew he could only improve the film. We had a lot of conversations, and he gave a lot of opinions. Some of it was taken, some of it wasn’t. I couldn’t call him a co-writer, but he was my main collaborator in a certain way. He encouraged me, and he told me to focus on certain symbolisms. In that sense, he’s the artistic producer.

Was it your intention to make the island a beautiful prison?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: I agree it’s a beautiful prison, but it’s not that beautiful. I wouldn’t want to live there. For research, I went to a tropical island and saw there were days without sunshine, and days where it rains. The protagonist wants to go home. The island is not his home.

Have any interpretations of the film taken you by surprise?

Michaël Dudok de Wit: One person said the whole story is the turtle’s dream (laughs). That wasn’t my intention, but if it works for the viewer, then that’s great. The film’s open to interpretation.

The Red Turtle opens in cinemas on May 26