The Red Turtle: the films that influenced Studio Ghibli’s latest spellbinder

London-based animator Michael Dudok de Wit is the first non-Japanese director to take on a Studio Ghibli production. Here he tells us which films helped to inspire his sublime desert island fable The Red Turtle.

26 May 2017

By Lou Thomas

The Red Turtle (2016)

Director Michael Dudok de Wit justifiably won plaudits on last year’s festival circuit for his full-length debut, The Red Turtle. The film, which contains no dialogue, garnered an Oscar nomination for best animated feature with its subtle, moving tale of a man who wakes up on a desert island after being tossed around at sea by a fierce storm. When the unnamed man attempts to leave the island, he repeatedly finds his escape blocked by the titular testudine. De Wit was approached by Studio Ghibli to make the film after the venerable Japanese animation studio saw his Father and Daughter (2000), a tender and enigmatic eight-minute wonder that won him a best animated short film Oscar.

The Red Turtle is the first Ghibli film made without a Japanese director or any Japanese artists, and it was produced mostly in France (the home of co-producers Wild Bunch). De Wit visited Ghibli founders Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata throughout the production, with the pair evidently fostering a fruitful collaboration with the Dutch filmmaker: “One day at a very sensitive part of the story I presented a sequence and Takahata said, ‘Oh you’ve changed it; to be honest I preferred the older version.’ He explained, ‘It was more you, it’s more sensitive. It’s not explicit, it’s implied.’ And I looked at it again and thought, ‘Damn it, he is right.’”

Michael Dudok de Wit working on The Red Turtle (2016)

Much like his beautiful, hypnotic film, de Wit in person is subtle and sensitive, with a warmth that gradually comes to the surface. He starts the interview by offering a plate of chewy double-chocolate cookies (gratefully devoured) and is keen to talk about the many influences and inspirations on his work. He says: “I failed a lot at school because I was always drawing all the time during lessons,” so it seems fitting to get the ball rolling with animation.

Fantasia (1940) / Bambi (1942)

Producer: Walt Disney

Fantasia (1940)

There are some corny bits in Bambi and Fantasia, but on the whole they’re amazing films. I’m thinking of one particular element of Fantasia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice with the music of Paul Dukas.

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

Director: Vittorio De Sica

Bicycle Thieves (1948)

I was heavily influenced by Bicycle Thieves, just because of the realism of it and the simplicity of it. A simple story – they are looking for a bicycle! – but at the same time it is not simple. It tells a lot about society and the relationships between people.

Seven Samurai (1954)

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Seven Samurai (1954)
Toho Co., Ltd

As a student I saw Seven Samurai – my first Japanese film ever – and that was a big inspiration because Kurosawa used the elements: the wind and the rain and the sun. That was an eye-opener for me. Apart from that, the characters were just amazing.

La Planète sauvage (1973)

Director: René Laloux

Fantastic Planet (1973)

It was a French film in the 70s, quite trippy. It was very experimental, very strange and a very adventurous feature film. It was really of the late 60s, early 70s, with strange creatures and strange ideas about humans. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen.

Short animated films

The Man Who Planted Trees (1987)

They are often very individualistic, very personal. They are not made for profit; they don’t sell or they sell in a very modest way. So they’re really made with love, with passion, often without budget. I did thousands of short films – that’s where I was before I made this feature.

One of them is by a much-loved Russian filmmaker, Yuriy Norshteyn. I saw his film when I was still a student animator, and it’s one of my favourite films, called The Heron and the Crane (1975). Another inspiration is French-Canadian filmmaker Frédéric Back. He made a film called The Man Who Planted Trees (1987), a half-hour film based on a French novel. When I saw that, I realised how moving an animated film could be. It doesn’t have to be funny, it doesn’t have to be cartoony; it can be deeply moving and subtle.

Stanley Kubrick

The Shining (1980)

I look at live action more than animated features for inspiration. All the Kubrick films, automatically, because there are so many elements to them. Maybe Eyes Wide Shut (1999) a bit less, but I’m still thinking of The Shining (1980) regularly. At one point the character played by Jack Nicholson is talking to the barman, and they’re having a conversation. They are standing in the bathroom having a conversation, and the timing of the conversation is so powerful and so beautiful. I became a film buff quite late, when I was a student. As a teenager I hardly saw anything.

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Director: Isao Takahata

There are little chapters, which are like haikus, which are basically very quiet observations of very ordinary things. There’s no suspense, there’s no story, there’s very little happening – and yet they are extraordinary. And there is a suspense, and there is a story, but not in a conventional way. There is a story about a middle-aged man who comes home from work. He sits down at this little table, and he’s hungry. He asks for a banana and his wife says, “here’s the banana,” and then for several minutes you just see him eating a banana, and dozing off and falling asleep and waking up, and basically nothing happens. We just see a tired old businessman coming home, and that’s so beautiful.

Spirited Away (2001)

Director: Hayao Miyazaki

Spirited Away (2001)

I really enjoyed Spirited Away. I think that’s an incredibly mature film. It’s a coming-of-age story but, of course, much more than that. Miyazaki has an incredible imagination that’s very rich. It can go in any direction, and it’s good. But to have lots of imagination is easy – anyone can have that. I come from a culture where LSD was praised a lot, and people wrote crazy lyrics for their songs and it was all wonderful, about rainbow colours and so on. That’s easy. Miyazaki creates and has a rich imagination that hits you on a deeper spot. You recognise archetypes, you recognise things that feel so right. And I really admire that in his work.

Did taking LSD influence any of your work?

Oh, not at all. I took LSD when I was a young adult like everybody in my generation. I have a very rich imagination, myself, and rich dreams. I prefer them without LSD nowadays. For the making of the film I was very aware of not going for alcohol or drugs or anything, because it contradicts the creative process.

The Thin Red Line (1998) / The New World (2005)

Director: Terrence Malick

The Thin Red Line (1998)

It’s the pace and the light – natural daylight and often quite a low angle. The philosophical side, where it’s real, gritty action and violence. OK, some of the words I would not have chosen myself, but the characters are thinking about life. Malick does it beautifully in those two films.

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