×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

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.”

Popular on Variety

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”).

More Film

  • 'Wonder Woman 1984' Trailer: Gal Gadot

    'Wonder Woman 1984' Trailer: Gal Gadot Returns With Pedro Pascal, Kristen Wiig

    “Wonder Woman 1984” dropped its first trailer on Sunday, with Gal Gadot returning as the titular Amazonian goddess. The film is set, of course, in the 1980s in America, decades after the first film’s events. Kristen Wiig is playing Wonder Woman’s infamous comic-book nemesis Cheetah, while Chris Pine is returning for the sequel. It’s unclear, [...]

  • Over the Sea

    Macao Film Review: 'Over the Sea'

    The beginning is a fairy tale, or a nursery rhyme. A woman nurses her squalling baby in a house by an orchard near the sea. Sunlight slants in through the open windows, the mother hums a lullaby, and then brings her son outside and places him in a cot suspended from the apple-laden branches of [...]

  • CCA Film Nominations

    Critics' Choice: 'The Irishman,' 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Lead Movie Nominations

    “The Irishman” has picked up the most film nominations for the 35th annual Critics’ Choice Awards. The Martin Scorsese gangster drama goes into the awards show with 14 noms, including best picture, director, acting ensemble as well as best actor (Robert De Niro) and supporting actor (Al Pacino and Joe Pesci), the Critics’ Choice Association [...]

  • Parasite

    'Parasite' Named Best Film of 2019 by L.A. Film Critics Association

    Members of the Los Angeles Film Critics Assn. met Sunday to vote on the year’s best cinema accomplishments. Recent winners of the group’s top prize include “Roma,” “Call Me by Your Name,” “Moonlight,” “Spotlight,” “Boyhood,” “Her”/”Gravity” and “Amour.” “Parasite” has fared the best, taking not only best picture, but also best director for Bong Joon [...]

  • Jumanji The Next Level

    Box Office: 'Jumanji 2' Kicks Off Overseas With $52 Million as 'Frozen 2' Powers Toward $1 Billion

    Disney’s “Frozen 2” skated past international box office competition again as the animated sequel propels toward the billion-dollar mark globally. “Frozen 2” generated another $90 million from 48 foreign territories, boosting its worldwide weekend haul to $124.9 million. After three weekends in theaters, Disney’s musical follow-up has made $919.7 million and should cross $1 billion [...]

  • Lily James

    Lily James Delivers Masterclass in Charm in Macao

    British actor, Lily James delivered a masterclass in charm and good humor at a seminar on Sunday at the International Film Festival and Awards Macao. Questioned on stage by one of the festival’s senior programmers, James brightly chatted her way through eight years of a screen career that has taken her from “Downton Abbey” to [...]

  • Avengers Endgame Lion King Frozen 2

    Disney Crushes Own Global Box Office Record With Historic $10 Billion

    Thanks to a record number of billion-dollar blockbusters, Disney has become the first studio in history to surpass $10 billion at the worldwide box office. Through Sunday, the studio has generated $3.28 billion in North America and $6.7 billion overseas for a global haul of $9.997 billion and is expected to officially cross the benchmark [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content