Berlin: Inside the Making of Johnny Depp's Passion Project, 'Minamata'

Credit: Larry D. Horricks

"This is Johnny's movie," director Andrew Levitas says of Depp's portrayal of photographer W. Eugene Smith, who brought personal demons to his work documenting an environmental tragedy in Japan.

When Johnny Depp’s latest movie, Minamata, premieres in a special gala screening at the Berlin Film Festival on Friday, audiences will get a look at the actor playing a talented but troubled artist late in his career. It’s a role that sees Depp, who also produced the film via his Infinitum Nihil banner, portraying a man beset by personal demons but fueled by a sense of justice.

“This is Johnny's movie,” says director Andrew Levitas. “Johnny created the film. He owns the movie. He built it. It's his passion project.”

Minimata, which is in both English and Japanese, is seeking foreign and domestic distribution in Berlin. Depp has claimed in a defamation suit against ex-wife Amber Heard that Heard’s allegations of domestic violence have cost him work. If Minamata secures a domestic distributor, it will be Depp’s first film that U.S. audiences have seen since Warner Bros’s Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald in 2018.

Depp, 56, stars as photojournalist W. Eugene Smith, who traveled to Japan in 1971 for a Life magazine assignment documenting the effect of mercury poisoning on the coastal community of Minamata. Smith, who suffered from addiction to alcohol and amphetamines, helped draw attention to the environmental crisis with his photography, especially “Tomoko in Her Bath,” a startlingly intimate black-and-white portrait of a mother cradling her naked, deformed daughter, which now hangs in the Smithsonian. “Johnny felt deeply connected to Eugene and to this period in his life, to his struggle and what he accomplished and the toll that that took,” Levitas says.

Depp purchased the rights to Minamata: The Story of the Poisoning of a City, and of the People Who Chose to Carry the Burden of Courage, a 1975 book written by Smith and his wife, Aileen Mioko Smith, who is played in the film by French-Japanese actor Minami (Battle Royale). CAA’s Jack Whigham introduced Depp and Levitas, a visual artist known for his sculptures and photographs, who directed the 2014 drama Lullaby. What was supposed to be a 45-minute meeting to discuss the project at Depp’s Hollywood Hills home in 2018 lasted 10 hours. “We never talked about a script,” says Levitas. “We talked about ideas and feelings and reasons and theory, and it just blossomed from there.”

Levitas, who wrote the script with David Kessler, Stephen Deuters and Jason Forman, traveled to Minamata in September 2018, meeting with survivors and their families. For research, he relied on 12 documentaries the Smiths shot in Japan, ultimately opting to splice the black-and-white footage with the contemporary work of the actors in the film. “Certain things just don't seem right to re-create, and real is real,” Levitas says. “You can't do better than something that's authentic, and that's what this film had to be.”

Working with British producer Kevan van Thompson (Jojo Rabbit, The Zookeeper’s Wife), Levitas assembled the production on warehouse stages in Belgrade, Serbia, and on location in the coastal town of Tivat in Montenegro, where a 13th-century monastery stood in for vintage Minamata, now a modern city rebuilt since the 1970s. The cast includes Bill Nighy as a beleaguered Life magazine editor dealing with Smith’s volatile temperament, Hiroyuki Sanada as an activist leader and Jun Kunimura as the head of a polluting corporation. With the help of Japanese casting director Yôko Narahashi (Babel, Unbroken), Levitas found actors to portray the victims of the physically disfiguring Minamata disease, relying on prosthetics, false teeth and contact lenses to re-create their bodies. Consultants coached the actors on their movements and what their physical limitations would be.

Although Depp’s character is the audience’s entry point to the issues in the film, it was important to the actor, Levitas says, that Smith eventually recede into the background and the Japanese characters become the focal point. “Johnny probably says 25 words in the last 30 minutes of the movie,” says Levitas. “When he wasn’t acting he was there every day, sitting behind a monitor and paying attention and offering insight.”

The environmental message of the movie was also a resonant one for Depp and for Levitas, who notes that President Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency is about to roll back a rule limiting emissions of mercury and other toxins in the U.S. Their film, Levitas hopes, will remind audiences what’s at stake.

“One of the things that both Johnny and I really love about Gene Smith's work is that he can show you things that are horrible to look at and make you enjoy looking at them,” Levitas says. “He can show you something that should be brutal, but instead, you see love and humanity and kindness and hope. And he can show you everything that's great about a human being in literally the darkest corners of the world, and in the worst moments in the worst places. We wanted the film to be something that could be beautiful to watch, that you could walk away from and feel good and feel uplifted and not feel just that you're looking at terrible things.”