Johnny Depp to Play W. Eugene Smith in Biopic, Minamata

Johnny Depp to Play W. Eugene Smith in Biopic, Minamata

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A few months ago we published a Five Favorite Photos article on W. Eugene Smith, master of the photo essay. I remember researching Smith’s adventures, which included photographing country doctors, secret jazz sessions, and an entire city (literally) and thinking, “Damn. Somebody needs to make a film about this guy.” Fast forward a few months and, what do you know, the guy’s getting his own biopic. Sweet.

Given the title of the upcoming film, Minamata will likely cover Smith’s last and some would say greatest photo essay of the same name. And this story seems tailor made for the big screen, a story of corporate greed, governmental complacency, personal tragedy, and tireless heroism.

When Smith and his Japanese wife Aileen heard of the horrific effects of illegal industrial waste dumping in Japan, they moved to Minamata and spent three years documenting the pollution and its impact on the local population. The resulting photo essay unshrinkingly demonstrated the horrors of mercury poisoning wrought by chemical waste pollution from the nearby Chisso Corporation’s chemical plant. The corporation had, for more than thirty years, dumped toxic methylmercury wastewater into the surrounding environment. There, it bioaccumulated in fish and humans, causing death and injury to thousands.

This pollution went largely unaddressed by the Japanese government and the Chisso corporation for three decades. Not until Smith’s photo essay was published did the wider world become aware of what was happening in Minamata.

For his trouble, Smith was beaten by Chisso Corporation thugs. So badly was his trauma that he suffered crushed vertebrae, severe crippling of his left hand, and varying degrees of blindness for the remainder of his life. The Chisso Corporation explained away his injuries, saying they were caused by cameras “swinging about his neck.

For his part, Smith minimized his own injuries in comparison with those of his subjects. He instead focused on his crusade to publish the photo essay, even while he was penniless and in constant pain. With much help from his wife Aileen and others, Minamata was published.

Smith’s photo essay is often cited as a major driving force in the environmental awareness movement of the 1970s. The essay includes some of the most moving photos ever made by anyone. If ever an episode of Eugene Smith’s life deserved its own movie, it would be this one.

It goes without saying that a story as rich and tragic as this deserves better than to be over-dramatized or slapped together with little consideration toward its subject matter. While we don’t have a lot of info on this film yet, what we do know looks promising. The role of Eugene Smith himself will be played by Johnny Depp, a good choice considering he’s played complicated and artistic figures like Ed Wood and Hunter S. Thompson, and played them well.

The film will also feature strong cast of Japanese actors, none of which are named Scarlett Johansson, thankfully. This includes Japanese action stalwart Hiroyuki Sanada, Minami Hinase from the OG Japanese version of Battle Royale, Ryo Kase from Letters from Iwo Jima, Tadanobu Asano from the surprisingly good Zatoichi remake, and the great Jun Kunimura, who was most recently featured in The Wailing, one of the best horror films of this generation.

Oh, and Bill Nighy’s joining in too. Hell. Yeah.

Minamata will be directed by relative newcomer Andrew Levitas, whose only directorial credit is Lullaby, a horror film released in 2014. The screenplay, written by David Kessler, will no doubt help Levitas along – it’s adapted directly from the Minamata book itself, written by Eugene and Aileen Smith. We’ll have to see whether or not Levitas can do justice to a story like this, but the single screenshot we have already looks promising. Depp’s face is shown in black-and-white with Eugene Smith’s same grizzled white beard, and he’s holding up – what else – a black Minolta SRT-101, just like the one Smith used on assignment. It’s a small detail, but it shows that Levitas and the crew have done some research, which bodes well for us photo geeks.

Biopics can be hit or miss, but we here at CP sincerely hope this movie can tell this story well, and give us insight into the life of one of photography’s most interesting characters. We’ll let you all know what we think of it when it releases, good or bad.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon
  • Great article, I’m super excited for the movie! In the paragraph beginning “Minamata will be directed…” it looks like you forgot to fill in a link to the Minimata book on Amazon though. Good job otherwise!

    • Editor’s mistake (that’s me!). Thanks for the tip. What do I owe you?

      • Well, the greedy side of me says an M3 and some rolls of Portra, but I’ll settle for the satisfaction that I helped this site in a small bit, to try and repay how much y’all have helped me. Keep writing awesome articles!

  • OK two things…

    1. Here’s the Amazon link: 😉
    2. Did Eugene really lose the use of his right hand in a 1972 attack in Goi and have to use the camera with a remote release cable in his mouth?

    Perspiring minds want to know!

    • He was partially to completely blinded in the attack, which was perpetrated by the Chisso company goons. They threw him headfirst onto concrete. He suffered nerve damage and blood was no longer flowing to his eyeballs. His left hand was crippled. In a 1974 article in the New York Times, he commented repeatedly that he didn’t evaluate his own injuries as having greater importance than those of the people of Minamata, at one point saying “That damn beating. It gets all the publicity and I think it can be used against the Japanese, who I love.”

      “But really and truly, all I want is to get my Minamata book done,” he said, “None of this stuff about ‘dying with his boots on,’ or ‘He was a photographer until his dying day.’ We just must finish that book.”

      In what is, to me, a perfect example of willing ignorance and a pathetic show of how self-serving corporations can be at their worst, the Chisso company newspaper blamed Smith’s injuries on “cameras swinging about his neck.”

      A full transcript of the article can be read here –

      • Wow, what an amazing story! My question was prompted by the apparent ability to still use his right hand in the photo you linked to:

        Then again, as someone whose mother suffers from the affects of a stroke, I can certainly understand how a hand can look functional but no longer have the fine motor skills it once had. Thanks for the clarification.

  • Crossing my fingers that this is a good movie. Eugene Smith is one of my favorite photographers. I also did not know about the beating that he had. That must have been sooo hard being a photographer and loosing eye sight. I can’t imagine. Side note I would also love to see a movie on Larry Burrows. One ride with Yankee papa 13 is an amazing photo story.

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Josh Solomon

Josh Solomon is a freelance writer and touring bassist living in Los Angeles. He has an affinity for all things analog. When not onstage, you can find him roaming around Southern California shooting film and humming a tune.

All stories by:Josh Solomon