Funny, honest and at times, heartbreaking, Cutie and The Boxer follows the complex and loving relationship between Ushio Sinohara, the 81 year old Japanese artist synonymous with the “action art” movement, and his wife, Noriko, who struggles to let her own artistic voice be heard. Filming over the span of several years, director Zach Heinzerling allows the couple to speak for themselves by employing an observational style that results in a completely immersive and moving experience for his audience.

Following its New York premiere at 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, Cutie and The Boxer hits select theaters this Friday in New York and LA. Heinzerling sat down with us to discuss the power of the camera, the importance of social media as a curative tool, and incorporating Noriko’s work into his own narrative process.

Tribeca: What is the first thing you noticed about Ushio and Noriko Shinohara? Have you already been interested in the art world?

Zach Heinzerling: I met them in 2008 through a friend of mine from college who’s a photographer and a journalist. He thought they would make a good subject for a short film. I wasn’t a Japanese art aficionado before this, and I’m still not. I went to school to study philosophy, but I took a lot of film classes and then started working in documentary. I always enjoyed Japanese culture, but that wasn’t what drew me to them. They are such bizarre subjects —just so authentic. Everything they do has so much personality in it.

You can easily juxtapose their two personalities: he is very brash and masculine, but also ageless, and she is very precise in everything she does. I’d been doing a lot of cinematography in documentaries, and for a photographer they were a beautiful couple to capture. Their personalities have so much fire and they are so dynamic that I didn’t have to ask them questions. They asked each other questions, in a way. They interviewed each other and I just watched.

Tribeca: I was really struck by the film’s opening sequence in which you follow the creation of one of Ushio’s trademark action murals through one long shot. Did you always plan to open the documentary in that way?

ZH: Definitely not. That was actually the first thing we shot, though – which is kind of amazing. I never planned to open with it. I just thought it might be cool. However, it almost explained everything about their relationship, in a way. Ushio’s personality and dedication to art is apparent, but I love when Noriko enters the frame in the middle of the shot, taking pictures of him. There was this idea of putting everything out there. Even the way the canvas is shaped, it looks like a cinema frame. You start at one place in the artistic process, your life is just splattered on the canvas, and then it ends.

There’s something magical about both of them being involved in a shot that shows Noriko in action as photographer and manager and kind-of-assistant. I think it means an immense amount that she’s always been there for him. Whether she enjoys this role or not, she still does it. I mean, Ushio is now 81 years old and still maintains this pure connection between person and art. I think that connection is hard to see with a lot of artists, but with him it’s very direct. There’s something really nice and beautiful about that.

Tribeca: What choices did you make with the typography? Can you talk about the title design?

ZH: The opening colors – the opening palate of the film – consist of muted tones. You look around at these soft yellows and soft pinks and blues. There’s something pastel-y about their world and their environment. The text is a little bit playful because it’s off-centered: playful enough, but also kind of classic. That was the mood in some ways for the whole film. The music has a very whimsical quality but it’s very classically based. It’s a balance of being bold but also grounded in something that makes sense with the style of the film.

Tribeca: Cutie and the Boxer does not follow the typical structure of a documentary but rather unfolds like a narrative. When did you choose to incorporate Noriko’s comic as animation to help drive/shape the story?

ZH: The idea for that was early on, but the execution was not until the edit. I always had this idea that the story of the comics would be this second layer, that it was a story that we would checkerboard throughout the film. With documentaries, you’re actually writing the film in the edit, so I didn’t know if it would work or not. It became a process.

Sometimes we had a lot more of the comic book in there, and we would cut out different scenes from the comic and move them to other parts of the film. We didn’t animate them until we knew what those scenes would be. The idea really came from being transported into Noriko’s brain. I asked, “ how does the audience see this through Noriko’s eyes?” I wanted to seamlessly connect for the audience the feel of the narrative with the feel of being transported into the other world of her mind. In her comics, she reconstructs her past in a way that’s a little bit exaggerated and comical: that’s how she sees things. Transitioning into a world that is subjective and animated makes the film less literal. 

They don’t really consider alternatives – it’s like art is everything and whether you think it is worthwhile or not is your own judgment.

Tribeca: I thought you struck a really nice balance between Ushio and Noriko’s relationship and the pressures of the modern art world. It was heartbreaking to watch as the Guggenhiem exhibition fell through. Did Ushio hear anything from them after the documentary? Were you surprised that the deal fell through?

ZH: The characters from the art world in the film are very funny compared to the Shinoharas. They’re these archetypal, art-world types – almost caricatures of themselves in some ways. The almost impersonal process of presenting someone’s art and  getting people to pay attention to it is in stark contrast to the struggle of the artists who are doing all that they can just to get something out there. You see that juxtaposition really vividly in the film, and it makes those scenes even funnier and more striking.

Ushio in particular has always been misunderstood here in a way, or is it just that his art has never caught on in the US the way that it did in Japan? I think that’s because his art means something different in Japan than it means here. He’s viewed as a “Japanese artist” living in New York, and his life in New York actually makes him more attractive to the Japanese. So there are a million factors as to why his art hasn’t sold as well as in America as he wanted it to. It basically boils down to the fact that American wanted a historical piece from him and he didn’t have that.

Those are the kinds of things that are so frustrating because works like the boxing paintings are so evocative of struggles that we all encounter in our lives. That is what makes them so meaty and all the more impressive. The Guggenheim is still interested in the work; it’s still under consideration. But those things take a long time to work out.

Tribeca: It’s so easy to get drawn into Noriko and Ushio’s world, which is an almost magical place of creativity. When you were finished filming, how difficult was it for you to step back? Did you ever feel like you were intruding?

ZH: It’s been actually a relief to not be filming anymore. [laughs] In some ways, the camera gives you this reason to be interested in someone and to ask very intimate questions. And it also gives you a little bit of power – it changes the dynamics when you’re investigating someone. Since not having the camera, our relationship is much more neutral.

My life and my vulnerabilities are exposed, just as theirs are. It’s more of a real relationship in some ways. The film is a reflection of my relationship with them; the footage that we used was the footage that we shot latest in the process, really only from the last year of filming.

It was the point where they became the most comfortable, and I became, like Noriko says, like a rice-cooker, just an everyday object. They stopped asking why I was coming. They used to always ask, “what’s the purpose, what are you going to talk to me about”? And then they didn’t ask anymore. I would film the cat, or I would film whatever, and they stopped really trying to analyze what the film was about. That was the point when I could make the kind of movie that I wanted to make.

Tribeca: Cutie and The Boxer is getting great word of mouth on the Internet. Do you think social media is becoming a more valuable tool for filmmakers to “get the message out”?

ZH: Yeah definitely. I mean, on this film, the website now just directs to the Facebook page. I think it’s an essential tool for spreading the word. It’s harder and harder to get traction on your film because there are just more films. There are more people making films and more people trying to scrounge up space in the Internet world.  There’s only so much real estate you can get people to focus on.

In some ways, social media is more democratic because everybody can have his or her voice, and it’s not up to just certain curators of culture to decide what people should watch or not. I think critics are still valuable and they should be respected, but [from social media] you certainly get voices and opinions from everyone. It’s been interesting traveling with the film abroad, seeing comments and getting reactions.

You start at one place in the artistic process, your life is just splattered on the canvas, and then it ends.

Tribeca: Did watching Ushio and Noriko making their art inspire or influence your own process as you worked on the film? Did your feelings and opinions of art change through the course of making this film?

ZH: Yes ­– I think the idea of sticking with something certainly influenced this. This was a long and grueling process, like any documentary is. Ushio and Noriko really have a Dogma about their dedication to what they do. They don’t really consider alternatives – it’s like art is everything and whether you think it is worthwhile or not is your own judgment. That attitude really makes an impression on people when they watch the film, and made an impression on me when I was making the film.

Also, we were in it all together. If I had made a film about artists who were already famous and really successful, it would have been a different process. It would have been harder to get the time and the intimacy there. They were working on things, and I was working on something. They viewed the film very much as my creation, my version of their story – not their story, but an interpretation of it – and they viewed it as a piece of art. So we related to each other that way. They gave me a little more freedom to do what I wanted and they were less worried about how they would be viewed because they knew it was coming from my brain. And only another artist would really understand that.

Cutie and the Boxer opens in NYC at Lincoln Plaza and the Landmark Sunshine this Friday, August 16.