Filmmaker looks back at 1970s Minamata disease, with Johnny Depp taking the back seat in the story

·5 min read

Minamata filmmaker Andrew Levitas tells the story about how Japanese people in the city of Minamata were ravaged by mercury poisoning resulting in distressing neurological symptoms, called Minamata Disease, through decades of water pollution from the Chisso Corporation factory, but it required him to tell star Johnny Depp he was going to have to take the backseat in this story.

“In my first meeting with John, actually, I said to him, ‘this is not a movie that is a movie star vehicle, this is not going to be about your character,'” Levitas told Yahoo Canada. “I wouldn't have made this film if it had to be a different way, it just wouldn't have been as interesting to me.”

A woman holds a victim of
A woman holds a victim of "Minamata Disease", or mercury poisoning, in Minamata, Japan, in 1973. The girl has a malformed hand, like many victims of the disease who suffer from physical deformites among other symptoms. Chisso Corporation, a Japanese fertilizer and carbicle company, and later a petrochemical and plastics company, dumped an estimated 27 tonnes of mercury compounds into Minamata Bay between 1932 and 1968. (AP Photo)

Minamata depicts the journey of photojournalists W. Eugene Smith (Depp) who is sent by Life magazine editor Robert Hayes (Bill Nighy) to Minamata to uncover the reality of this poisoning in the 1970s. Smith was initially pushed to pitch this story to Hayes when Aileen Mioko (Minami) approached him, pretending to meet with him to shoot a commercial, to try to recruit him to join the on-the-ground “Minamata Movement,” people fighting the injustice of the Chisso Corporation.

From the beginning, Levitas was upfront with Depp that they had to be “efficient” in telling Smith’s story because “most of this story needs to be focused on these people” in Minamata.

“Really,...Johnny playing [Eugene] is our translator,” the filmmaker said. “He's taking this small, rural fishing village in Japan that feels so far from us, but he's digesting it for us, through his lens, and being our camera really.”

“Through his digestion of that, he's putting it out to us in a way that we, all around the world and other cultures, can understand it… To Johnny's credit, he was really supportive of my vision and my belief, and my team’s belief, that Eugene Smith was the vessel, but not the story.”

Johnny Depp as W. Eugene Smith in Andrew Levitas' film 'Minamata'
Johnny Depp as W. Eugene Smith in Andrew Levitas' film 'Minamata'

'Unbelievably intimate details of what it felt like'

Andrew Levitas was actually able to get a first-hand account of what happened on the ground directly from Aileen Mioko (who ended up marrying W. Eugene Smith), in addition to intimate details of their relationship.

“I sit with my wife in bed and we talk, and I always wonder what other people sit with their partners and talk about,” Levitas said. “Aileen, to her credit, was so generous because, as it pertains to the Eugene character, and herself, she told me everything in the most unselfconscious way imaginable.”

“She understood it was a free space and she had to tell me things that I couldn't necessarily put on screen overtly, in terms of a sexual relationship or…things that were maybe too personal, but I could imbibe them into the character in a way that made the other things that they did...real.”

Levitas also went to Minamata to meet with victims and families impacted by the disease “to understand what this felt like.”

“While industrial pollution is a major issue globally and we're all dealing with it in our backyard,...these people were in this little bubble of a community with no real connection to the outside world, and so [they] were able to really share with me these unbelievably intimate details of what it felt like to put your horribly handicapped child to bed, and then go to sleep with your partner,” the filmmaker explained.

“The takeaway was, they were all joyful. They all still lived these amazing lives and as angry or upset as they were, their objective, even in making a film like this was to make sure there are no more Minamatas, not to somehow change what's happened to their past. They love their children, they love each other. In many ways, they found moments of lightness and love, as horrible and crazy as it sounds.”

Johnny Depp as W. Eugene Smith and Bill Nighy as Robert Hayes in 'Minamata'
Johnny Depp as W. Eugene Smith and Bill Nighy as Robert Hayes in 'Minamata'

'We need to look at these things'

As you would likely expect, the end of the film results in Life editor Robert Hayes looking at the photos W. Eugene Smith filed for the story, in particular the now famous Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath photo, and Hayes starts to tear up. It’s that moment that really epitomizes the story. We’re looking at this horrific situation through Smith’s lens, like we're truly in his mind capturing moment. It stresses the massive emotional impact that an image can have on us, a snapshot in time that can cut deep.

“At the end of the film, when the images themselves are there, I made sure that anyone that was looking at the images on screen, meaning the actors on screen in their roles, looking at the images, they took time,” Andrew Levitas explained. “We need to look, we need to slow it down, we need to look at these things and not let them pass us because they will impact us, and there's so much information there and that's how we can get engaged, and that's how we can get fired up.”

“It was incredibly important for me to connect for an audience, this crazy thing happened, the whole world knew about it, it changed the world and yet, here are just a handful of industrial pollution incidents that have happened since…it's crazy that these things are continuing to go on.”

Minamata is now available on demand, on digital platforms