September 7, 2018
In Theaters

How One Filmmaker Documented the Hero Journey of the World's Most Successful Female Artist

Does the idea of filming someone’s life story for three years without their permission sound utterly terrifying? For filmmaker Heather Lenz, big risks came with big rewards.

Yayoi Kusama is now the most top-selling female artist in history. While you may know her from the explosion of Instagrammable infinity rooms and polka dots in recent years, her journey began decades ago, trying to storm the art world...unsuccessfully. Kusama just happened to be way ahead of her time.

Evidently, so was filmmaker Heather Lenz. As an art student in the 1990s, Lenz became interested in Kusama when she had a rare are show in New York City. Lenz decided she had to tell Kusama’s story. She started out, 17 years ago, writing a biopic. She eventually realized she should make a doc that would show Kusama herself. The only problem? Heather Lenz had yet to meet Kusama.  “It was 2004 when we started shooting, and it was 2007 before we met her,” explained Lenz to No Film School. “This is what not to do!”

Lenz first sat down with No Film School to talk about the film on the eve of the Sundance Film Festival Premiere. Kusama: Infinity is out in theaters this Friday September 7.

NFS: So when did you start filming and at what point did you first meet Kusama and begin production with her?

Lenz: What happened was, some time around 2002, I had tracked down the phone number to reach her. A friend called the Kusama studio, where she works, and basically said, "My friend's going to make a movie about Kusama." And their answer was, "Oh great, what TV station will that be on? What movie theater will that play in?" They didn't really understand independent film, so I realized that was going to be a problem, especially because I wasn't any sort of established name. But I was determined to make the film anyway.

We just started filming. And it's a good thing we did, because some of the people in the film, they're now deceased, and we wouldn't have been able to get them otherwise. We were able to get people that were important in Kusama's life, like Beatrice Perry. That was one of the very first interviews we did, and just by chance, her son is Hart Perry who is a very accomplished cinematographer. He's shot Academy Award-winning films like Harlan County, USA.

Then, more time passed, and I was able to edit together a pitch video. We got our first grants, and one of them was for a dream project that involved travel to Japan. But when the organizer of the grant at the head of the foundation found out we didn't actually have Kusama's permission, she was not very happy. However, she decided to take me under her wing and actually went to Japan with me on my first trip. She properly introduced me, because business there is very different than here. She told me what I should do, like bring a gift, for example.  

She had me work with a tutor before I left and learn some Japanese culture. I learned how to take my shoes off how low to bow when I met Kusama and just conversational Japanese and things like that. It was a long process just to meet her. I guess I haven't thought about this in a long time, to be honest, so if I had started work on the [biopic] script in 2001, and it was 2007 before I met her. That's not normal or average! We filmed her on and off then, since then.

NFS: It’s a lesson in persistence, then?

Lenz: Yes, or insanity. One or the other.

NFS: So when you finally got to meet Kusama for the first time, how did you win her over?

Lenz: When I met her, all of that stuff that I was taught, it went out the window. She came up the elevator, she reached out and shook my hand, which is not what they do in Japan. I remember at the end of the first interview, the driver was about to take her away and I told her, "This is the happiest day of my life." And she said, "Me too." It was so cute. She's just very gracious.

Director Heather Lenz next to Yayoi Kusama on the set of the feature documentary 'Kusama: Infinity."Credit: Kusama: Infinity
NFS: Presumably you know some Japanese, but how was the language barrier over time as your interviewed her?

Lenz: I had a translator, and for the first interview, we came up with what we thought was pretty clever. We had one camera for when we were recording her and then we had this really long cable going to someone in another room with another camera. That person was watching on a monitor and listening. I had something in my ear, so I was getting real-time translation of what she was saying. And then we recorded both of those for any editors who didn't speak Japanese. The first editor did speak Japanese, as did the last, but over the years, we worked with different people.

We did it like that sometimes, and then other times I just had someone sitting next to me. It wasn't quite as good because then the person speaking Japanese sometimes Kusama, sometimes other people, they might talk for ten minutes, five minutes and then the person would have to quickly catch me up what they said. It's not as good as having a real-time translation.

"She decides, no longer will she be a slave to this gallery system and have it decided for her when and where she'll exhibit. She'll decide when and where she'll exhibit..." 

NFS: Kusama’s career changed so dramatically, her work into public awareness, while your were making the film. Did you know the story strucutre from the beginning or did it change?

Lenz: It did change over time because while we were making the film, she became the world's top-selling female artist. So, I never in a million years would have seen that coming when I started. I thought that I was going to make this film and help reintroduce her to the world. I just didn't see it coming. Over time, it sort of became obvious, but at the beginning, no I didn't.

Also, none of us are getting any younger while making a film that takes this long. Kusama doesn't travel the same way she used to and things like that. So at different points, we were able to film her not just in Japan, but in New York and London. But now she doesn't travel so much, and it did change the ease with which we could film. Obviously, if she's here in America, that would be a lot easier than if we have to go over there, and more expensive. For a first time filmmaker, I don't recommend much of what I did, that's why it took so long. I just suggest something that’s simple, where there's not international travel and expensive art work or photos by celebrity photographers to license.

Yayoi Kusama in the 1960s in this still from 'Kusama: Infinity' directed by Heather Lenz.Credit: Kusama: Infinity

Lenz: Frankly, even though her story did change over time, because I had started working on a script to begin with, I had already decided that this was going to be a comeback story. The halfway point is actually exactly what it was when I first mapped it out.  Kusama goes to the Venice Biennale, a very prestigious art event, and she's not invited. She just sets up her art in this installation. To me, it's really a key time for her because she's been trying to make her way in the New York gallery world in the conventional, traditional way that it's done, but it hasn't been going that great for her. When she goes to the Biennale, it's a very empowering moment. She decides, no longer will she be a slave to this gallery system and have it decided for her when and where she'll exhibit. She'll decide when and where she'll exhibit and get her own press and publicity.

In the '60s, she crashes the Venice Biennale, in the '90s, she is invited to represent her country. So originally, when I mapped out the story, I thought that would be the ending, but then more and more things kept happening. But you can see that it's still a comeback story.

"This is a classic story of someone who's not accepted or appreciated in their own back yard. They have this great talent, but no one around them sees it."

NFS: A very interesting part of the film shows us what influenced Kusama in her youth, from visions that made her see dots and flowers where there weren’t, to an overwrought mother. As a filmmaker, do you think that artists are largely shaped by their environment?

Lenz: I think everyone's shaped by their environment, but at the same time, I also remember as a kid that I always wanted to draw. I didn't want to go play sports or do other things that other kids are excited by. I just wanted to draw and make art. I think to a certain degree, you're probably born with certain things you like to do, but your environment helps shape who you are. Kusama was born into such a conservative environment and was expected to do the conventional things a woman would do at that time she came of age, like have an arranged marriage and have kids. If you don't want to really get married in the first place, to have an arranged marriage seems worse.

She's someone that had this passion and a dream of being an artist, so for her to stay in this area where she was born, you can see it just wouldn't be a good fit. Because her circumstances were so dark as a child, that propelled her to leave Japan. Maybe if her childhood had been easier, she would've just stuck around and stayed where she was.

The infinite nature of Yayoi Kusama's work in this still from 'Kusama: Infinity' directed by Heather Lenz. Credit: Kusama: Infinity

NFS: In the film, there's a mention that only three to five percent of all collections feature female artists.

Lenz: Which is similar to the film.

NFS: Is that something you saw in parallels with the film world?

Lenz: When I started the film, I absolutely did not consider myself any sort of feminist. My original producing partner, Karen Johnson, would often say that she was interested in the film because of the feminist angle. I would say, "Oh, no, that's not why I'm interested. I'm interested in it because she’s a great artist and she has this great story.” Over time, because of my own experiences in the film world, it became more apparent to me how being a woman affected her. You can see in the film how things go with her male artists and her counterparts in New York. I won’t say too much more so I don't give the movie away.

But to me, circling back to your question about the structure, this is a classic story of someone who's not accepted or appreciated in their own back yard. They have this great talent, but no one around them sees it. Not only does no one see it, they are disparaging of it. Then you go away to a far away land and there's more obstacles to overcome. It's a little bit like The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy has to get the broom stick, and then it seems so impossible, and then she is able to go back home and be appreciated. For Kusama, she had to go through so much and overcome so many things to finally be appreciated.

NFS: What would be your advice to other filmmakers?

Lenz: I think with any subject, there's an unlimited number of ways you could tell the same story. As the filmmaker, you want to be the person to decide how you want to tell the story. That's the joy of doing it, so I guess that's just something that comes from within each filmmaker.     

Featured header image of Yayoi Kusama in 'Kusama: Infinity' directed by Heather Lenz.

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