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

Johnny Depp Reveals Photographer's Late Life
Larry Horricks

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”).