"Kusama: Infinity" - A Discussion With USC Alum, Director Heather Lenz

Kusama Drawing ©Tokyo Lee Productions, Inc

Kusama Drawing ©Tokyo Lee Productions, Inc

“Kusama: Infinity” tells the story of Yayoi Kusama, the top selling female artist in the world.  For years, her talent went underappreciated as she was overshadowed by male artists of the time. Kusama persevered through trauma, mental illness, sexism, and racism in the art establishment to become the groundbreaking contemporary artist she is today.  

Heather Lenz (USC, MFA in Cinematic Arts ‘04) wrote and directed the documentary, which opened to glowing reviews in September 2018.  Heather also produced the documentary along with Karen Johnson (USC, MFA from the Peter Stark Producing Program ‘95) and for over ten years they worked together to tell Kusama’s remarkable story and ensure that the film made its way to the big screen.  

On September 9th, members of WCA went to a special screening of the film followed by a Q&A with Heather Lenz.  Read on to learn more about Heather’s challenges and triumphs as she fought to get her film about this dynamic artist on screen.

Anjoum Agrama: Hello everyone and thank you for attending the screening of Kusama-Infinity. I'm Anjoum Agrama, the Outreach Chair of Women of Cinematic Arts. WCA is an official alumni organization of USC's School of Cinematic Arts, which Heather is a member of. I'll kick off the discussion and then we can open up to Q&A from the audience.

What was your first introduction to Kusama's art? Was there a specific piece of hers that you originally saw that led into the whole process of the film?

Heather Lenz: The first piece I was introduced to was one of her sculptures - her accumulation sculptures - at the time I was earning undergraduate degrees in art history and fine arts, it was the early nineties. Back then while learning the history of art, we studied approximately 1000 male artists for every 5 women artists – and Kusama certainly wasn’t among them. Now she's so popular and famous, but back then there was only one catalog of her work. When I read it, I instantly felt that her contributions to the American art world hadn’t been properly understood or recognized or appreciated. That was actually the motivation to make the film.

Anjoum Agrama: How long did this process take?

Heather Lenz: It took a long time. I started working on a script about her in January 2001. At the time I was a film student at USC. I realized that the odds of me getting to direct a period biopic right after grad school were pretty slim because I lacked the kind of connections that may have made it viable. Also, as a woman director – I knew the deck was stacked against me.

I decided to make the documentary for those reasons - and also because Kusama was still alive and able to tell her story in her own words. I went into it with naïve enthusiasm. I was so excited about it. I managed to track down the phone number for her assistants in Tokyo. A friend of mine (AP Eriko Ueno, USC, MFA in Cinematic Arts) was bilingual and spoke Japanese and she called on my behalf and told them I was going to make the movie. They asked what movie theater it would play in and which TV station it would be on - they didn’t understand independent film. They didn’t understand independent film or the concept of making a film as a passion project.

After I got that response I realized that it was probably going to be a little more complicated than I thought. By 2004, I was working on the film with producer Karen Johnson, and we decided to start filming her peers and curators that were important, so we could put a pitch tape together. It was good that we did because during making the film some of those people passed away. By chance, one of the first people that we filmed was Beatrice Perry, who happened to be the mother of Hart Perry, who is a well-known cinematographer. He shot Academy Award winning documentaries like “Harlan County U.S.A.” And so, in that regard I really lucked out. He shot for us, so that was wonderful.

A few more years passed and we finally got our first grants. One of them was for a dream project that involved travel to Japan, so that was perfect. The first time I applied for it was four years earlier. When the president of the organization found out that Kusama wasn’t yet officially involved, she wasn’t thrilled. But, to her credit, she took me under her wing. She went to Japan with me, made key introductions and set me up with a tutor so I could learn conversational Japanese and basic Japanese customs. For example, I learned how low I should bow when I met Kusama.  

Heather Lenz and producing partner Karen Johnson (photo provided by Heather Lenz)

Heather Lenz and producing partner Karen Johnson (photo provided by Heather Lenz)

Anjoum Agrama: As you were making the film, did you notice that her success was rising, that she was becoming more noted?

Heather Lenz: Yeah! It was wild, because I thought the film was going to help give her this success she deserved. But, it took so long to make this film that here it was happening and I was watching and trying keep up with her as she held exhibitions all over the world.

Another thing that changed during the making of the film, is the awareness of diversity in cinema. In the beginning I was so excited about the project, and I would tell people about it, and people with more experience would tell me that it wasn't a good idea. At one point, I had the opportunity to pitch the subject to someone who worked for a very powerful woman and, yet, her response was to question the fact that I wanted to make a film about a “foreign female.” For me it was so shocking. As a white person in America, I hadn’t really experienced racism in this way. It was just so strange to me because in the beginning I didn’t really think of Kusama as a woman, or as Asian, I just thought of her as a super compelling character.

Anjoum Agrama: The documentary touches on some of the sexism and racism that she faced, and how she struggled for her art to be recognized. Do you think that struggle was mainly people not giving her her due? Do you also think her art was maybe ahead of its time?

Heather Lenz: Well, I do think she was ahead of her time. If you look at the art she was making before she moved to America, it was definitely out of step with Japan at that time. The kind of art that was popular back then  was called the Nihonga, which is very traditional, classic art form. And here she was already wanting to break the boundaries. Then when she moved to New York the art that was popular was abstract expressionism, with big, bold brush strokes. And Kusama made white on white paintings that were very labor intensive with a lot of small, methodically placed brushstrokes. And, yeah, I do think she was ahead of her time. But I also think that she lacked certain opportunities that her male peers received. She didn't have the same kind of support or backing. It took decades until she achieved success on a major scale.

Anjoum Agrama and Heather Lenz take audience questions at the “Kusama: Infinity” Screening

Anjoum Agrama and Heather Lenz take audience questions at the “Kusama: Infinity” Screening

Anjoum Agrama: We can open it up to the audience if anyone has any questions.

Audience #1: This was a wonderful movie. In many documentaries, the music doesn't match or go with the images that we’re seeing. Could you speak about the choice of music for the movie?

Heather Lenz: We had a really talented composer, fortunately, Allyson Newman. The film got into Sundance. We found out around Thanksgiving and she got involved around that time. Normally, you have someone that’s involved earlier. But, she came on board, and everyone put the pedal to the metal and worked really hard. For the two months before Sundance we never took a day off and we kept editing for many months after Sundance as well. In fact, we had to pull some music out after Sundance because we couldn’t afford to license it for theatrical distribution. So, I'm happy that you like it!

Audience #2: I see so many documentaries that are just packed with cheesy b-roll, but your footage was so on point. You had all of this great archival videos and photos from the time. So, could you talk about how you were able to access that kind of footage?

Heather Lenz: I actually have worked in the past as a researcher for programs on the History Channel and the Food Network where it was my job to find archival footage. This project happened over so many years that I think, in some ways, that was an advantage in terms of tracking the archival. Because it wasn't just at our fingertips, I can tell you that. We had to find it. One of the people in the film who, unfortunately, passed away before the film was made, was an experimental filmmaker (Jud Yalkut) and there was a point where I was at his home in a small town in Ohio and, basically, we were having our own little film festival in his basement, projecting his stuff on the wall. It was super exciting to see footage that that no one had seen in decades. So, that's one example. And by chance, I connected with one of the people in that footage through a social media platform that preceded Facebook called MySpace. So that gives you an idea of how long the film took to make. But because it took so long, those types of connections happened.

Audience #3: How low did you have to bow to Kusama?

Heather Lenz: The bowing in Japan is based on status, so in Kusama’s case, I was told to bow 90 degrees; however, when I met her in her studio, she came up the elevator and the door opened, and right away she extended her hand. After all of my preparation, she started talking to me in English. Although she didn’t want to do the interviews in English - she talked in Japanese in the interviews – since she felt she could communicate better in Japanese.  

After meeting her that first day, and interviewing her, I told her that it was the happiest day of my life, because it had taken so long to get to that point, and she said, “Mine too.” I thought that was very sweet because, obviously, I was just another person passing through and it didn’t have the same weight or gravity for her. I think that speaks to her generosity.  

Kusama (©Harrie Verstappen)

Kusama (©Harrie Verstappen)

Audience #4: How did you balance telling the story of her art and her mental illness?

Heather Lenz: It was important to show all these obstacles that came her way.  There's were many - for example, she was a child during World War II in Japan. During the making of the film I actually married into a Japanese family and my husband’s own grandfather was killed when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. And so, I felt a real connection to that part of Japanese history. One thing Kusama always wants to talk about is peace in the world, which of course relates to that childhood trauma from the war.  In Japan, during that time, it wasn’t normal for someone for a woman to have big career ambitions. She was expected to get married and have kids - and not just get married, but have an arranged marriage. But her heart was somewhere else, she had other things she wanted to do. And when she comes to America, she left behind one set of problems only to be faced with another set of problems in New York. No matter who they are, if you have to go through all of these challenges year after year - of course it's going to wear you down.

Now, obviously, it is very unusual that she lives in the psychiatric hospital.  But at the same time it’s a place that focuses on art therapy. In no way do I want to minimize her traumas or problems, but fortunately she found a really unusual place to live and from the security of that environment, she is able to focus on her art. Imagine that you have a passion – whether it’s horseback riding or making pottery or writing poetry and you find a place where you can go and focus on that and have other people clean the toilet and buy the groceries and make you dinner….while you focus on that you thing that you love, and you’re supported, I think that’s a wonderful thing. The fact of the matter is that throughout history when you look at successful men, so many of them have wives at home doing the mundane chores for them so they can focus on their work. It’s been said that the psychiatric hospital is sort of like her wife. She leaves during the day and goes to the office and does her work and returns to the hospital at the end of the day. It's a pretty unusual story.

Audience #5: When you interviewed her, was she reluctant to talk about any of this traumatic stuff? Or was she pretty open with you?

Heather Lenz: There was never a point where I asked her something and she just didn’t answer it. My time with her was precious because although there were times when I stayed in Japan for a month and interviewed her multiple times within weeks, there were times when years would pass and I wouldn’t see her. She was willing to answer my questions, which was always wonderful. But if she had something on her mind that she wanted to talk about, then that did take priority. One time I tracked down these amazing photos of her that she hadn't seen in decades and she became obsessed with them. She was just so into them and so excited. It was kind of hard to talk about other things that day.

Anjoum Agrama: Thank you so much for sharing.

Heather Lenz: Thank you for coming. And I just want to say, for anyone in the audience who supports diversity in cinema - from seeing older woman characters on screen, to seeing Asians in leading roles, I encourage you to tell your friends who may be interested. This has been an amazing year for diverse characters in documentary – especially for strong, older women -  and I hope eventually we’ll see more of that kind of diversity in fiction films. Thanks again, so much, for coming.

Heather Lenz takes audience questions at “Kusama: Infinity” screening

Heather Lenz takes audience questions at “Kusama: Infinity” screening

Thank you to everyone who was able to join us for this special event.  To ensure you are kept up to date about exciting events like these, be sure to register as a member of USC’s Women of Cinematic Arts alumni organization and follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates.

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