×

FilMart: Johnny Depp to Reveal U.S. Photographer’s Japanese Redemption in ‘Minamata’

The sleepy Japanese town of Minamata was the scene of one of the world’s greatest environmental disasters when it was poisoned by mercury in the 1970s. It was also the setting for a groundbreaking international treaty designed to control use of the deadly metal.

U.K. sales agent HanWay Films will use its platform at FilMart to unveil updates on “Minamata,” its drama-thriller about the celebrated photographer W. Eugene Smith. His images from the toxic town gave the eco-disaster a heartbreaking human dimension, and put reckless big business on front pages around the world.

Johnny Depp stars as Smith, a colorful character who was a celebrated WWII photographer and later became close to jazz great Thelonious Monk. Smith ventured to Minamata near the end of his life, accompanied by his Japanese wife Aileen Mioko Smith.

“At that point, Gene [Smith] was about to give up. He wasn’t sure it was worth it, but when he got to Minamata, not only did he find a story to tell, he was able to help. It was redemptive, a late life reawakening,” said director Andrew Levitas.

“Smith is a unique protagonist. He had a unique way of looking at the world, he was someone who could edit and art direct his own universe, even when walking down the street … he carried everything with him, and while in Minamata embedded himself completely in their world.”

Smith’s exceptional professional abilities, and his chameleon-like personality, may have been what drew Depp to the story. The project was developed by Depp’s Infinitum Nihil company, before selecting artist and filmmaker Levitas (“Lullaby”), to direct.

“We see the world through his lens, but Smith is not the only hero. Minamata is also a tale of people fighting for their rights and for their children,” said Levitas. Depp has a powerful supporting cast that includes leading Japanese actors Hiroyuki Sanada, Tadanobu Asano, Ryo Kase, Jun Kunimura and Bill Nighy.

“Because of his health, Gene knew it would be his last project. But it was my first,” Aileen Smith told Variety. They had been together only four months as a couple before traveling to Minamata. Smith’s pictures were initially published as a photo essay by Life magazine, and three years later as the book “Minamata,” from which David K. Kessler (“A Hard Day’s Day”) adapted the screenplay, was published.

“The hidden story is that Gene was a wonderful teacher. Everyone around him blossomed. I’d already seen that in New York. [In Japan] he showed incredible passion, integrity and commitment to photography and journalism,” Aileen Smith said.

She said that over the past two decades she has fielded multiple offers to adapt the book, but she said the issue of industrial mercury poisoning was given new visibility by the previous U.S. administration, as then-U.S. President Barack Obama was said to have been moved by one of Smith’s photos from Minamata that he saw while a child.

The film is currently shooting in Belgrade, before relocating to Japan. Delivery is expected in 2020. “This uplifting, emotional story will be a definitive illustration of triumph over adversity,” said Janina Vilsmaier, sales manager at Hanway. “We are excited to be able to share some exclusive updates with distributors we are meeting at FilMart in Hong Kong.”

Depp produces along with Infinitum Nihil’s Sam Sarkar, Levitas under his Metalwork Pictures banner and Gabrielle Tana (“Philomena”). Jason Forman, Stephen Deuters, Peter Watson, Phil Hunt, Compton Ross, Gabrielle Stewart, Stephen Spence, Peter Touche, Norman Merry and Peter Hampden will executive produce. Heads of department include celebrated cinematographer Benoit Delhomme (“The Theory of Everything,”), production designer Tom Foden (“Mirror Mirror”) and line and executive producer Kevan Van Thompson (“Jojo Rabbit”).

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Noele trailer Anna Kendrick

    Disney Unveils 'Noelle' Trailer Starring Anna Kendrick, Bill Hader

    Among the many announcements at the D23 Expo, Disney debuted the first look at holiday feature “Noelle,” which is set to premiere exclusively on Disney Plus this fall. “It isn’t Christmas without Santa’s Sister,” Walt Disney Studios said of the film on Twitter. Starring Anna Kendrick and Bill Hader, the Christmas flick tells the story [...]

  • A Hidden Life Movie Austria

    Film News Roundup: Austin Festival Selects Terrence Malick's 'A Hidden Life'

    In today’s film news roundup, the Austin Film Festival selects a Terrence Malick title, “A Day Without a Mexican” gets a sequel and DCR Finance signs a first-look deal. FESTIVAL SCREENING The Austin Film Festival will screen Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” which won the Francois Chalais and Ecumenical Jury awards at the Cannes Film [...]

  • Blake Lively

    Blake Lively's 'Rhythm Section' Moved Back to 2020

    Paramount Pictures has moved the release date of Blake Lively’s “The Rhythm Section” back two months from Nov. 22 to Jan. 31, 2020, the weekend of Super Bowl LIV. The spy tale, adapted from Mark Burnell’s novels surrounding character Stephanie Patrick, is produced by James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson through their [...]

  • The Mandalorian

    'The Mandalorian': Watch the First Trailer for 'Star Wars' Series

    The gunslinging lone warrior — the Mandalorian, as they call him — calls the far reaches of the “Star Wars” galaxy home. Disney dropped the first trailer for the spinoff series during its biennial D23 convention on Friday, finally giving fans a closer look at the franchise’s newest character. “The Mandalorian” creator Jon Favreau, who [...]

  • Lady and the Tramp trailer

    'Lady and the Tramp': Disney's Live-Action Remake Gets First Trailer (Watch)

    Ready your dog-friendly bowl of spaghetti, Disney has debuted the first trailer for its live-action remake of “Lady and the Tramp,” starring Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux. The teaser was released during Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim at the Disney + presentation. In addition to Thompson and Theroux, who play the Lady and Tramp, respectively, [...]

  • Mickey Mouse waves to members of

    Spider-Man, Spicer and Splashy First-Looks: Everything We're Looking For at D23

    As if Disney hasn’t owned enough weekends this year at the box office, the biennial D23 Expo will light up Anaheim, Calif. over the next three days to celebrate the content monolith. From a new Netflix-competing streaming platform to scores of movie and series reveals — along with a few hot controversies to confront — [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    'Angel Has Fallen' to Dominate Modest Box Office With $20 Million Weekend

    Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman are leading the way at the North American box office with “Angel Has Fallen” on its way to about $20 million, early estimates showed Friday. Should forecasts hold, “Angel Has Fallen” will take in about double the next title, Universal’s second weekend of raunchy comedy “Good Boys” with about $10 [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content