Thanks in no small part to the presence in of its lead actor in Potsdamer Platz, Minamata was among the starrier titles premiering at the 2020 Berlinale (which was, incredibly, an in-person event just a year ago). The drama, directed by Andrew Levitas, featured Johnny Depp as noted American photographer Eugene Smith, who in the 1970s would document the devastating effects of mercury poisoning in coastal Japan.
12 months on and — with the world, cinema industry and Depp’s career having experienced something of a nosedive — the film is yet to hit cinemas, with U.S. distributor MGM having held back the release due to the pandemic. For Levitas — an almost frighteningly busy painter, sculptor, filmmaker, writer, producer, photographer and also husband to renowned British opera singer Katherine Jenkins — the year of upheaval has been just as hectic as any other. While waiting for Minamata to launch, he’s produced and released a Christmas film (Katherine Jenkins Christmas Spectacular) with his wife, filmed at London’s famed Royal Albert Hall, given remote lessons to New York University where he’s a lecturer, prepped several exhibitions of his art work and begun readying his next film projects (produced through his own Metalwork Pictures banner).
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter from New York, Levitas unveils the two features he’s lining himself up to direct next (one of which he hopes to start shooting this year), discusses Minamata‘s impending release and considers whether the controversy surrounding Depp since he lost his court case will likely have any negative impact on the film.
Given everything that has happened since, does it feel like only a year since Minamata had its world premiere in Berlin?
Honestly, over the last 12 months I’ve been focused on so much else, in terms of charity work, developing a bunch of projects and teaching remotely. And obviously you also just have the everyday grind of homeschooling. And then my wife and I made a film last Christmas, a musical that we shoot at the Royal Albert Hall, and we’re now in the middle of writing an opera together, which is quite exciting. So it’s just been such a full year. Also I work closely with a number of organizations. So I actually feel more tired and busier… it never stops.
Doesn’t sound like you’ve been sitting at home watching box sets and baking terrible sourdough?
That has not been the case. Although I could have used some terrible sourdough. I’ve also been prepping two museum exhibitions coming up this year, one in Athens in June and one in Portugal in the fall. So I’ve been building those sculptures and working on that.
As a filmmaker, how has the past year been? Have you been able to get anything off the ground?
Well, we made the musical. But on the other side, I’ve really taken the year to push on directing projects of mine. I’ve got a couple of projects in particular that are well on their way and we’re putting them together actively now. So I hope to be making one this fall, and the other next year.
What are they?
One of them is this amazing Cain and Abel story, but much broader, about [Adidas and Puma founding brothers and rivals] Adi Dassler and Rudi Dassler, and their impact on everything we see today. It’s incredible. We’ve done the script on that and are putting it together now very actively. And I’ve got this project about Fellini, which is very big in its ambition. It’s not quite a biopic — it takes place over four days, but it’s got all the Easter eggs and all the things that you would ever want as a cinephile. It’s set in 1957 when he came to Los Angeles, right after Nights of Cabiria and just before La Dolce Vita, and there’s musical numbers, mermaids, pink elephants… it’s really fun.
Do you know which of two directing projects are likely to go first?
I don’t know. They’re both very different. I think it will ultimately be based on actor availabilities. There’s so many things shifting in people’s schedules right now that’s it’s quite hard to know. But I’m quite agnostic about it.
And what’s going on with Minamata? Does MGM have a release lined up?
With the film, part of what was most important to me was that we had all these incredible philanthropic partners and NGOs that have come on board and want to help us globally with the movie. And as the pandemic has been raging, it just felt like we had a social responsibility. Obviously, for some of the partners, there’s a commercial interest, but we all agreed that it made sense to hold the film until people could go into theaters. So they’re looking at dating it right now. I don’t have a special announcement, but I would imagine it’s coming imminently.
What was the response like in Berlin to the film? Obviously you were dealing with a very sensitive subject in Japan.
It was incredible. Almost all of the Japanese distributors put offers in on the film once they’d seen it, and they greatest compliment they almost all gave to me was that it felt like a film that a Japanese filmmaker could have made. And, of course, that was our intention. I mean, I think it will appeal widely to Western audiences as well, but the point was to make something that spoke to people that were closer to these issues.
Do you have any worries about the negativity surrounding your star Johnny Depp [who lost a libel appeal against The Sun over claims he was a “wife beater” and was subsequently removed from the Harry Potter spin-off Fantastic Beasts]? Do you think it might impact the film when it is released?
You know, I don’t know. I can never predict any of these things and I try not to. What I would say is that in the movie, or at least other people have said that in the movie Johnny probably has given his best or most honest performance, if not ever, certainly in the last couple of decades. But it’s in service to the film. And in the last 25 minutes of the movie, Johnny has like five lines. So this movie is not really a Johnny vehicle.
Would you work with Depp again?
I can’t speak to anything that’s happening in his own life. Outside of film, I don’t have the data points. And we don’t have a relationship like that. I just don’t know. But artistically, we were very much on the same page. He gave his all. We had 36 days budgeted for the film. We made it in 34. We didn’t use a dime of our contingency shooting this movie. These are things that just don’t often happen. I mean, I’ve produced a lot of films and I’ve never had that happen. So from a work perspective, Johnny was an incredible partner.