Turtle power

Michaël Dudok de Wit on The Red Turtle and Robinson Crusoe

by Anne-Katrin Titze

The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) director Michaël Dudok de Wit on the escape in Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo: "That's the climax of the book as far as I'm concerned."
The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge) director Michaël Dudok de Wit on the escape in Alexandre Dumas's The Count of Monte Cristo: "That's the climax of the book as far as I'm concerned." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Michaël Dudok de Wit discusses the reaction of Isao Takahata and his co-writer, Lady Chatterley director Pascale Ferran, to the original script for The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge). Dreams, escapes, nature, Darren Aronfsky's Mother! with Jennifer Lawrence, reading the original Robinson Crusoe, and what is a "deep, deep, deep fear" for him surface in the final installment of my conversation with the director and honored guest of New York's Animation First Festival at the French Institute Alliance Française, co-curated by Delphine Selles-Alvarez and Catherine Lamairesse.

Michaël Dudok de Wit on Pascale Ferran's reaction to the violence in the script: "We need to work on the remorse bit even more."
Michaël Dudok de Wit on Pascale Ferran's reaction to the violence in the script: "We need to work on the remorse bit even more."

In The Red Turtle, a shocking act triggers the power of metamorphosis, resulting in a brand new kind of family tree. In fine fairy-tale tradition the setting is utopian, in the sense of no-place and the time is guesswork, with musicians' costumes on the beach for a reverie as our only clues. A pool surrounded by high rocks triggers ancient fears whereas the wish fulfillment capacity is limitless. Scenes of entrapment and dream sequences map out the formation of the narrative.

Anne-Katrin Titze: There are many tales - take the famous Peach Boy or people coming out of bamboo - where the world around us can suddenly turn into the love interest, or the wished-for child. Somebody beloved emerges from nature, from certain objects. Tales like this exist all over the world. The scene in The Red Turtle that is a big departure from that tradition is the very violent scene.

Michaël Dudok de Wit: Yes.

AKT: It is completely shocking also because of the time it takes, the turning over. I don't want to give too much away that's why I'm speaking a bit in riddles. The scene is so violent and unforgettable.

MDdW: It's vicious.

On the pool between the rocks: "It's supposed to be frightening, yes. And very real."
On the pool between the rocks: "It's supposed to be frightening, yes. And very real."

AKT: And it lingers not just because he remembers it. It lingers for the rest of the film. Were you always certain that you needed that amount of violence?

MDdW: Yes, I was shocked too. I grew up with lots of animals and I looked after them. I'm a vegetarian. It's very far from my own. I know his anger is blind anger, especially in men. But it's very very far from my experience. Even while I was drawing it. Initially he was hitting the turtle on the carapace.

And then I thought, no, it should go further, he should hit it on the head. My main concern, I immediately started asking the producers, especially Japanese producers "What do you feel about this?" Because Takahata is very respectful of nature but he said no, no, it works. Then I had a co-writer who came in quite late during the development, Pascale Ferran, she's a filmmaker.

AKT: She directed Lady Chatterley.

MDdW: Yeah. And one of the first things she said is: "It's really violent! C'est horrible, c'est méchant!" It's a rape, basically.

AKT: Yes. Actually, it is.

Michaël Dudok de Wit: "I grew up with lots of animals and I looked after them. I'm a vegetarian."
Michaël Dudok de Wit: "I grew up with lots of animals and I looked after them. I'm a vegetarian."

MDdW: So I asked her, "Do you mean we should tone it down?" And she said: "No, we keep it. It belongs to the story."

AKT: You say it's a rape and then the relationship follows?

MDdW: Yeah. But she [Pascale] said we need to work on the remorse bit even more. The man feels remorse. If he hadn't felt the remorse the film would have been horrible.

AKT: Her kindness makes him feel guilty?

MDdW: Her kindness, yes. So we worked on that, we amplified it.

AKT: It's good to hear that you're a vegetarian. I'm a vegetarian too and a wildlife rehabilitator.

MDdW: I'm just curious. I know we don't have time, but do you think it's too violent?

AKT: I had a hard time recovering. I had a hard time even caring after the scene.

MDdW: Yes. Wow. You didn't feel sympathy for the man. How about the woman?

AKT: Her yes, but I lost him. I couldn't really engage with him anymore and lost some of the story.

"I've actually worked on the designs of a beautiful bamboo hut he would build."
"I've actually worked on the designs of a beautiful bamboo hut he would build."

MDdW: Wow. Thank you for telling me. When I wrote the story my biggest worry was that people would think, okay, all you have to do is be this violent to a woman and you are compensated by a beautiful partner - and that's not the message of the film.

AKT: I understand that you have the dream sequences, which I liked very much. The idea of wish fulfillment - you have him floating in the air earlier and an orchestra does appear on the beach - that only happens in dreams. All of that is working really well, the tsunami too. But I could not shed that scene.

MDdW: Yes.

AKT: So the family for me seemed like a fantasy. His guilt could be inventing the entire second half of the story.

MDdW: Yes, the film plays with that. That's not the message but it plays with that ambiguity.

AKT: Also what is interesting is that it is a Robinson Crusoe story where nobody builds fences. In Robinson Crusoe there are pages and pages and pages of fence building and house building and you completely got rid of that.

"It's a deep, deep, deep fear - suffocating under water."
"It's a deep, deep, deep fear - suffocating under water."

MDdW: Yes. Robinson Crusoe is about control. It's a time in history where the human race believed in controlling nature and teaching religion to natives and things like that which Robinson Crusoe does too. I don't like that. I read Robinson Crusoe, the actual book. Not many people know the original book.

AKT: I've read it. I went through all the fences.

MDdW: Yeah, it's crazy, he even makes a parasol out of goatskin. It is of its time, I found it fascinating as a book but the film is not a Robinson Crusoe film in that sense.

AKT: Which is what made me think that what happens isn't real in that sense. Because wouldn't a family build some kind of house or shelter? It also makes you think - is housebuilding something that is necessary? I wonder.

MDdW: I've actually worked on the designs of a beautiful bamboo hut he would build. First just for himself when he is alone and then with the family. I did some very nice designs. The craftsman in me wanted to explore that. It was taken out because the message was really nature's enough. It's not like, now we're going to build a little empire. No, he doesn't even need that.

AKT: Have you seen Darren Aronofsky's Mother!?

MDdW: What was the plot again?

On the man feeling guilt: "Her kindness, yes. So we worked on that, we amplified it."
On the man feeling guilt: "Her kindness, yes. So we worked on that, we amplified it."

AKT: Well, she is Mother Nature and he is God [Javier Bardem]. It came out last year.

MDdW: I've seen it but I don't remember the story.

AKT: It's the biblical story - Jennifer Lawrence working on their house.

MDdW: I didn't like it! It didn't work for me that film. She was so uneasy. I love fantasy but I lost belief there. Did you like it?

AKT: No. I didn't. I thought of it in the context of mother nature and the house building. The pool beneath the rocks - did you like The Count Of Monte Cristo growing up?

MDdW: I did, actually! My god, I wish we had more time. That moment where he meets the old man in prison! And then his escape! That's the climax of the book as far as I'm concerned. His revenge after that is not as important.

AKT: That exact escape I was reminded of when your protagonist falls. You have it twice with the son falling into the same pool between the rocks. It takes your breath away.

MDdW: It's supposed to be frightening, yes. And very real. I've experienced it as a child on a much less dangerous level. But I've been in a situation like that and it's a deep, deep, deep fear - suffocating under water.

Animation First Festival poster at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York
Animation First Festival poster at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

AKT: Being able to breathe still but nowhere to escape to? That was very powerful. What's coming up next?

MDdW: There's no next. Seriously, I don't have a next project yet. I'm teaching a lot. I give masterclasses and occasionally a workshop. The filmmaker in me is restless but I don't have a story right now. I'll tell you, one of the most beautiful stories ever for me is still the Odyssey, especially the return.

But the violence of him killing the suitors, killing all the guests in the house, doesn't work for me. I can't use that. I couldn't take that story and make it my own. But the moment when Ulysses arrives on this island and is recognised by the lady who knew him as a child and by the dog - that's such a beautiful moment.

AKT: You can always change the violence - that's the freedom of the storyteller. Make your variation as you did with all the fairy tales of metamorphosis.

MDdW: Maybe.

Read what Michaël Dudok de Wit had to say on visiting Studio Ghibli, the influence of Isao Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki's Totoro, myths, fairy tales, seal maidens, and Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan.

There is a masterclass coming up for Michaël Dudok de Wit in the UK at the University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield on February 28.

The French Institute Alliance Française Animation First Festival ran from February 2 through February 4.

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