Cannes Hidden Gem: How the Charming 'Red Turtle' Got an Assist From Studio Ghibli

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
'The Red Turtle'

Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit was happy making short films, until a letter from the legendary Japanese company changed his life.

Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit was perfectly happy where he was, working as a director and animator on commercials, illustrating children’s books and producing the occasional award-winning animated short

His six-minute delight The Monk and the Fish, about a determined monk trying to catch an elusive fish, received an Oscar nomination. In 2000, de Wit won the Academy Award for best animated short for Father and Daughter, a heartbreaking eight-minute rumination on the lifetime impact of childhood loss. Offers followed the Oscar win, but de Wit ignored them.

"I had never intended to make a feature-length film," de Wit tells THR. "I love short films. They are very individualistic, because you can do them alone or with a small group of friends."

And so de Wit remained comfortably respected — but obscure. Until he received a letter from Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli, producers of Princess Mononoke, Grave of the Fireflies and Oscar-winning film Spirited Away. "It said: 'We saw Fathers and Daughters and we want to make a film together with you,'" recalls de Wit. "It was like, 'Whoa, this is amazing.' But I didn't understand it. They didn’t make films outside of Japan. They’d never worked with a non-Japanese director. So why me?"

That letter, sent in 2006, began what was to be a long courtship between de Wit and Studio Ghibli, a polite and careful collaboration that, a decade later, has resulted in The Red Turtle, de Wit’s feature film debut, which premieres in Cannes Un Certain Regard sidebar May 18.

The film is groundbreaking in several ways. In addition to being Studio Ghibli’s first non-Japanese production, it also is completely free of dialogue. The Red Turtle tells a Robinson Crusoe-like story of a man stranded on a desert island, whose encounter with a strange turtle changes his life.

"Initially, I was thinking of Cast Away where you have the man talking to this object, the volleyball. And it works very well. Because, for God's sake, it’s Tom Hanks," says de Wit. “But as we started to animate, it didn’t feel right. The conversations I’d written didn’t feel natural."

Working with French co-writer Pascale Ferran, de Wit slowly stripped language out of the script completely. In terms of the animation, de Wit’s hand-drawn style, which is influenced heavily by Japanese prints and sketches from the 17th and 18th centuries, was a good match for Studio Ghibli.

"They told me my films were very Japanese," says de Wit, "which for me was a huge compliment."