One of the more intriguing titles of this year’s Berlin Film Festival is the new Johnny Depp true life drama, Minamata in which Depp plays the famous Life magazine photographer W. Eugene Smith who in 1971 undertook the most challenging and important subject of his career in travelling to the small Japanese village of Minamata which had been ravaged by an outbreak of Mercury Poisoning due to gross negligence by Japan’s Chisso Corporation, the government itself, and even the Yakuza. The important and heartbreaking movie, which I caught at CAA in Los Angeles a few days ago, documents Smith’s efforts to chronicle the tragic effects of the disease and the Minamata inhabitants’ heroic efforts to fight back. As the film shows, Smith was an enormously gifted, if difficult personality, and had to practically beg a reluctant LIFE to give him this opportunity, but the results were eye-opening and the facts of what happened to Smith, personally and professionally, form a particularly impressive outing from Depp who disappears into the role, perhaps his best in a long while (another true story in which he stars, City Of Lies is long-delayed and yet to even see a release after being on the shelf for a couple of years caught up in Global Road’s meltdown).
Shot in a coastal town in Montenegro and interiors in Belgrade, with a cast that includes Bill Nighy as Smith’s editor at LIFE but also a sterling lineup of Japanese actors all speaking in their own language, Minamata represents the second writing/directing outing for Andrew Levitas who through his Metalworks Pictures and Rogue Black financing entity has also had a prolific lineup of independent films he has produced including The White Crow, My Zoe, Georgetown, Farming, The Gateway, The Quarry, and Lullaby which represented his first directing effort in 2013. Among producing entities joining his companies on this film are Ingenious Media, Infinitum Nihil, Windhorse Entertainment, Magnolia Films UK, Hanway Films Limited, Head Gear Films Metrol Technology, and Lipsync. He was brought into this project by Depp who was anxious to get it made as Levitas told me earlier this week from London before heading to Berlin for tonight’s World Premiere.
“So, this was something that Johnny had actually wanted to do. This is Johnny’s concept, Johnny’s idea, something that he felt quite passionate about,” he said. ” I don’t want to speak for him, but I think for him it was an intersection of two things, you know, truth and justice in journalism and also people, and we’d often talk about the idea that not everybody gets representation, that there’s people in the world that nobody looks at, nobody seems to care about, no one is paying attention to, and we’re often marginalized, and that’s something I know has kept him up at night a lot over his lifetime because he comes from that kind of background, and he’s always visiting hospitals and doing things, you know, as Jack Sparrow and this sort of thing, when no one is looking because he really cares, and so the film, for him, intersected in that place, and obviously I think the world could use a story like this right now.”
Levitas said it was an easy fit after he and Depp met at a meeting set up by their mutual agents. It was supposed to last 30 minutes but went on much longer. As a celebrated sculptor and artist himself, in addition to his filmmaking activities, Levitas was just as passionate as Depp about getting this right, and about doing it now. “Firstly, as a photographer and as a fine artist, Eugene Smith is one of my heroes. He’s a guy that I’ve been engaged with his work for as long as I can remember. And also for me as a filmmaker who’s trying to do films that are great to look at that show the human condition, that talk about the human spirit, that are hopeful. That was a thing that Eugene Smith was always able to do. He was able to show you the darkest corners of the room, but show you hope and humanity and joy and love and compassion, and so, he always matched up with me quite well,” he explained. “There’s still tens of thousands of victims fighting to be heard in Minamata, but there’s millions of people around the world who aren’t being heard, and I think this film is, for me, of course, was about making a beautiful piece of cinema and being engaged as an artist but also was about making something that everyone could feel a part of.”
Levitas says that dealing with a story about how corporations can contaminate the water we drink, the food we eat, was something he could zero in on in order to bring awareness. I brought up the recent Todd Haynes film, Dark Waters which dealt with similar subject matter in a small town where DuPont dumped tons of toxic waste, but Levitas emphasizes Minamata is laser focused on Smith’s story in bringing this all to light through his exquisite and heartbreaking photos (just one year before LIFE went out of business as a weekly), as well as the town’s determination and efforts to fight against Chisso and the government. I pointed out that even before Dark Waters opened this fall, DuPont had launched a misinformation campaign to hurt that movie at the box office. Levitas knows that could be coming here too.
“Well, I suspect it will get some of that. You know, I suspect some of that in front of us, but in this instance, we are telling a story that is quite well documented and we’re also seeing this world through the lens of Eugene Smith, through a specific man with a specific lens, and it happens to be a beautiful lens. It happens to be a lens that sees the best in those moments, and I think part of our approach to the filmmaking was to make a very attractive and positive movie, a movie that you’d want to see and enjoy even though it was, in some cases about some things that you might not enjoy,” he said. “But also in terms of his approach in the way that he walked through that universe, it’s not really about that corporation. It’s not really about their story. It’s about these people’s story, and so, my responsibility wasn’t really to the corporation or worrying about them in any way. It was about all of these people who fought and who are the real heroes of this story, and one of the things that I’m most proud of, and I think Johnny is as well.”
Levitas shot the film, which looks great and has a stunning musical score by Oscar winner Riyuichi Sakamoto, in just 36 days on a limited budget. “There’s a long list of people that stepped up, both in terms of putting finances into the film, and a long list of people that didn’t care about getting paid and just wanted to see the film made, and this is one of those stories. Of course, there were a ton of doors that were closed, ” he said about the difficulties of making a movie like this. “And when Johnny and I really just committed to getting it done, we knocked on doors. We called people, we found like- minded people and the big key to this was, we were not willing to take in investors or partners who wanted to mettle or water down what we were doing in anyway. We needed to make this in the most authentic, most honest, and cleanest way without any sort of outward hands getting into it, and we were able to accomplish that, and I for one am incredibly grateful to everybody that stepped up because they really did, and that’s the story of this film.”
CAA is handling North American sales of the film and Hanway is doing international. Levitas says he only just finished the movie two weeks ago and that Berlin was the first festival they submitted it too. He goes every year and loves it. “Every festival seems to have its own identity, but this one seems to be movies and ultimately as filmmakers, I think that’s where you want to be. You want to be with audiences that are the people, that are not part of a hype machine or part of something else. You want to show human beings your film. To me, it seemed like the most obvious. But also, we could have said no. We could have looked at other things, but to me, the timing was right.”
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.