by director Zachary Heinzerling
I am frequently asked what attracted me to the Shinoharas as subjects for a film, and beyond that what kept me interested in them over the five-year period I was filming.
When I met Ushio and Noriko Shinohara in the summer of 2008, I was a wide-eyed 24- year-old who had just moved to New York City to pursue a career in film. So much of how I defined New York's cultural identity was tied to the downtown art scene of the 1970s; the glory days of New York City, when pop art and abstract expressionism made Manhattan the center of the art world, and artists of all disciplines flocked to cheap loft spaces below Houston Street. The first day I met Ushio, he showed me photos of him at various Soho gatherings, hanging out with other Japanese ex-pat artists like Kusama and Arakawa, but also Americans like Rauschenberg, Rosenquist and Warhol. There was this historical aspect to the subjects that was fascinating, but even more appealing was that their exotic lifestyle was continuing today. While other artists of their generation had either become famous, changed careers or passed away, the Shinoharas were still living out this romanticized idea of the struggling artist, brush in hand until the last breath. Their shabby loft space—floors coated with forty years of splattered paint, leaky ceilings and no insulation—was a shrine to the creative life, and to this purist notion of art-at-all-cost. Each time you entered, it was like stepping into a time capsule: an escape from modernization, walled off from the rent-escalating glass and steel surrounding them.
The fact that they were relatively unknown was also attractive. Audiences would discover these enchanting personalities, and hopefully fall for them in the way that I did. And the film itself could also be a sort of discovery. There was a lot of potential for innovation in how the story was told. I envisioned a quiet portrait of these two curious individuals with opposing personalities that for some odd reason fit together beautifully. I could use both non-fiction and fiction techniques to craft something that felt much more like a narrative film than a traditional artist doc. And because the majority of shooting would take place in their confined workplace/home, I had time to experiment with things during production like mise-en-scène and tone—things documentary filmmakers often have to rush, or try to push afterwards in the edit. I think, as a storyteller starting out, I was looking to expose something that no one knew about, and do it in a way that felt fresh.
But while there was so much about these people that interested me on the surface, the question was whether there would be enough beyond that to deserve a feature-length treatment. Even if you have an idea of what kind of film you want to make, most of that is shed or morphed during the process of making it. I found the answer in what would become the essential subject of the film: their relationship. Their marriage—and specifically Noriko's role in it—was changing in front of me and my camera, making their relationship harder and harder to define. It was this continually evolving enigma. Figuring out what made it work and what kept them together: the pursuit of or approach towards some understanding became the backbone of the film. With some documentary subjects, you may feel the need to tell the definitive story of person's life. But because the subject of my film was a relationship, something that defies definition and requires a more ambiguous depiction, it gave me license to present it more creatively.
Similarly to how my romanticized view of the “struggling artist” was complicated by knowing them, so was my innocent notion of love. This hard, dependent bond that Ushio and Noriko shared was unlike any I'd known. And their reticence to discuss it in any serious way made it all the more fascinating. I had to wait for truths to be exposed—to observe how Ushio and Noriko reacted to various obstacles or shifts in life, and find answers in those reactions. There was this urgency to their lives—at times a feeling of desperation—but there was equally a passion and energy to move forward, creating an environment where there was always more to learn and discover. It became much more than a film, or whatever naïve idea I had of creating something. They taught me a lot about life, and for that I am eternally grateful.