Eugene Smith was already a renowned photojournalist for his photo essays like “Country Doctor” and his coverage of World War II. But one of his most memorable essays came near the end of his career, in the 1970s, when he and his wife Aileen M. Smith profiled the residents of the Japanese fishing village Minamata, showing the effects of mercury poisoning on residents. Perhaps the most famous work, “Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath,” portrays both the horrors of the disease, as a woman bathes her deformed daughter, but also an act of pure love.
This chapter of Smith’s story has been brought to the big screen in the new film “Minamata,” which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on Feb. 21 and stars Johnny Depp (who also produced) as Eugene and Minami Hinase as Aileen Smith. Bill Nighy plays Smith’s editor at “Life,” while Hiroyuki Sanada takes on the face of the company polluting the waters. It marks the second film from director Andrew Levitas, following his 2013 debut “Lullaby.”
Levitas is himself a photographer, one of the many professions he’s excelled at in his varied career – he is also a sculptor, painter, writer, producer and a professor at New York University.
“In today’s world, people are all about specialization, but I really think artists shouldn’t be specialized,” Levitas told Variety. “It’s really about a mindset and finding things you’re passionate about. Not all things can be shoehorned into a specific medium. I find something I care about and then figure out the best way to express it.”
For Levitas, the story of Minamata and the Smiths resonated on many levels. When he first visited the town and spoke to residents, he recalls, “The consistent line was, ‘We’re excited for you to make this movie. Not for us, but so this sort of thing doesn’t happen ever again.’”
Adds Levitas, “There are tens of thousands of people suffering currently in Japan and we want to shine a spotlight on that but we also want to give voice to people all around the world dealing with these issues and make them realize they’re not alone.”
Following “Minamata’s” world premiere, Levitas spoke to Variety about working with Depp, communal filmmaking and the importance of journalism.
Did you know much about W. Eugene Smith himself before starting the movie?
I’m very aware of Eugene Smith and had seen the Minamata work. But I didn’t know the whole story. I knew some of the story only because I was aware of the images. That’s the kind of stuff that’s burned into your mind once you see it. The thing that’s always struck me about Gene Smith’s work is he had this ability to show you in one image both the darkest side of humanity and the lightest side of humanity. He could show you something that’s so terrible, but also have it be full of love and hope and compassion and kindness at the same time.
Did you know from the start “Minamata” would be a film?
I wasn’t the originator of the project, this is something Johnny wanted to do and he’d been passionate about for a long time. Johnny had been investigating and interested in for many years and we had a meeting of the minds and it just spouted from there. So this one had to be a movie. Obviously, if I didn’t think it could have been I wouldn’t have stepped in. But it didn’t come from me.
So how did the project come to you?
I didn’t know Johnny before. He had talked to his team and they looked around to see who they thought might be the right person and they thought it might be me. We got together for what was supposed to be a quick meeting and it ended up being a 10-hour meeting.
What was it like working with Johnny Depp as both an actor and producer?
Working with him was an unbelievable gift. Johnny is the most supportive, the most giving, the most engaged collaborator. This was his baby; this is something he cared about. Johnny would give me a hard time about saying this, but he’s one of those guys who does all sorts of amazing things for the world when nobody is looking. You couldn’t have a better partner than Johnny Depp.
Your previous film was a much smaller, intimate film. Were you intimidated by the scope of this one?
“Lullaby” was a million-dollar movie shot in 19 days. This was bigger in scope and bigger in ambition. But I wasn’t really intimidated. I had a lot of freedom to go out and pick the artists I wanted to work with. Our cast is incredible. We have unbelievable artists who came to this with a passion to tell this story. Our crew was remarkable. We did a lot with what we had because everybody loved what they were doing. Even the actors — Johnny was on set days he wasn’t working, just participating and being supportive. Same with Hiroyuki Sanada, an incredible actor, whose life mission is basically to bring east and west together and to find a way to make cinema that appeals globally and connects human beings. He was there working with young actors, being behind the scenes.
The look of this film is very unique and specific — you find creative ways to capture these famous still images and tell the stories behind them. I’m wondering if that came from your background as a photographer?
I worked really hard with my cinematographer Benoît Delhomme and my production designer Tom Foden. Ben and I wanted to achieve exactly what you’re talking about and we spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to communicate those things to an audience. We chose to pepper those things in early enough to teach the language along the way so it would pay off later. It was all figured out ahead of time so we could put our actors in a position to do their best work.
This film also shows the power of journalism, which is really nice to see.
It matters. We have to find a way to reclaim that power and that importance. Journalists are heroes. They’re the conduit to bring us real information and protect us as citizens. Journalists are there to boil it down for us and unfortunately it’s not happening as much as it should right now. So those scenes are important to us. It was a time when they were struggling to get eyeballs on magazines so people will read these important stories. That resonates today.
This was your first time at the Berlin Film Festival. What was that experience like?
It was incredible. Having 1,800 people see the film at once and to look around and see their reactions… I didn’t really watch the film, I was watching faces and feeling the energy. I think this is a film that you should see with people. This is the kind of movie that is a communal experience. Perhaps the best part was that Aileen Smith had been my biggest partner, besides Johnny. When I introduced her onstage after everyone had seen the film, everyone got up on their feet and were cheering for her and she burst into tears. Knowing her, I know it wasn’t out of pride; she burst into tears because it felt to her like maybe this movie would touch people
What’s the status of the film now?
We are talking to a great many companies; the week after the festival has been a really humbling and incredible week. People seem to like the film and seem to be engaged, which is all you can ask for. Our hope was to make a movie the most amount of people could see and connect to.