Multi-Faceted Artist Omar Musa On Operating At The Margins

His debut novel was lauded for its gritty take on masculinity, but Omar Musa won’t be going down that road again. Here, the writer, rapper and artist explains how a Malaysian punk rocker helped him find his way.

Article by Lucy E Cousins

Omar MusaOmar Musa wears Jude sweater. Photography by Jordan Turner.

When I first speak with Omar Musa, his head is still spinning with memories of the night before. Far from being in an alcohol-induced stupor (Musa doesn’t drink), his mind is still clinging to the heady smells of Eid al-Fitr, an event that marks the end of Ramadan. Raised by a Bornean father and an Australian mother, Musa embraces the festivities. “We had a big Malaysian feast to celebrate the end of the fasting months; I was ready for it,” he says, laughing. “All the aunties were out in full force. I was not going to escape without performing for them, so I ended up doing some raps about laksa, which felt appropriate.”

A rapper, poet, author and visual artist, Musa is arguably one of most exciting creators in Australia right now. Drifting seamlessly between mediums throughout his career, he has released three poetry books, one novel and four hip-hop records, and has staged a one-man play, “Since Ali Died”. His debut novel, “Here Come the Dogs” (2014), was longlisted for the Dublin Literary Award and the Miles Franklin Literary Award, and he was named one of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Best Young Australian Novelists of 2015. Musa has spoken at TEDxSydney (and received a standing ovation) and, having recently taken up woodcutting, he’s held several solo art shows.

Now, the 38-year-old is about to embark on a three-continent tour to launch his latest book, “Killernova”, a collection of poems and woodcut illustrations that explore his heritage. “This book comes from a joyous, euphoric place, even though it deals with heavy issues,” he says. “It was part of a process of personal regeneration after hitting the very low lows that I explored in my first novel, in my play and my album [also called] ‘Since Ali Died’.” 

In his early work, Musa focused on the darker sides of masculinity, as well as violence and death, earning him a reputation for speaking for the disempowered. It’s a projection he “leaned into” at first but now rejects. “I look back and see that label was not representative of the privilege that I have had in my life,” he says. “Really, I was a nerdy Muslim kid with glasses who liked writing poetry and drawing. And that’s what I still am, just minus the glasses. I wear contacts now.”

Musa relishes ambiguity but with so many mediums and concepts at play, his work tends to confuse critics. “People always want to be able to categorise everything,” he says. “I even heard in the literary industry that as soon as the words ‘genre defining’ are applied to a work, it’s like poison to a publicist. But when you break down the perceived barriers or walls between different genres and art forms, that’s when you come up with fresh forms and fresh ideas.”

He tells me about the time he appeared on ABC TV’s “Q+A” , when one of the real-time tweets featured onscreen read: “Oh, this guy could be the young, hot, moderate face of Islam.” That made him laugh. “I don’t think I’m young, hot or moderate!” he says. Which begs the question: how does the genre-defying Musa see himself?

Omar Musa wears Jude jacket, sweater and trousers. Photography by Jordan Turner.
Omar Musa wears Jude jacket, sweater and trousers. Photography by Jordan Turner.

You’re often described as a Malaysian Australian author and poet from Queanbeyan, New South Wales. Is that how you see yourself?

I’m just a dude who makes things. I’ve always loathed being categorised because I realised early on that it is disempowering; boxes diminish you as soon as you get put in them.

Where do you see yourself within the country’s art scene?

I don’t really think about it too much. I’m a force of nature, the likes of which has never been seen! [laughs] In terms of identity, it’s such a complex matrix. I’m Asian Australian, Muslim Australian, Malaysian Australian.

Which work are you most proud of?

“Here Come the Dogs” makes me very uneasy because it was a different me that made it. I was in a really dark phase of my life and it’s been a long time since I wrote it, but I’ve noticed that, eventually, all roads lead back to it and people want to know about it. I’m proud of it because I dedicated four years of my life to doing it and I used to have problems with discipline; I never thought I’d have the endurance to write a novel. But I think this new book is the best piece of work I’ve ever made because it comes from such a different place.

Have you always loved poetry?

Yes. Words, for me, are almost like a pressure relief valve. If I am feeling down or sad or frustrated, I can express myself through poetry and it somehow converts those feelings into something lighter. I constantly scratch down little images or phrases because we’re surrounded by poetry. I might hear someone use slang that I find arresting or overhear a scrap of conversation. I’m visual in the way I take things in; oftentimes I will reverse-engineer a poem, story or song from an image, or even from a vision or hallucination. Then it’s a matter of transferring that image into words — painting with words.

Has that passion ever waned?

Before I found woodcuts, poetry was this thing that was supposed to be my joy, but it suddenly felt like it was eroding me. When you are young, you think that the dream is to turn your passion into a profession, then when you actually do it — and you have to pay your bills and there’s pressure from yourself and expectations from the outside — you start to maybe take yourself too seriously and forget that playfulness you had when you were a kid.

How did you overcome that?

Back in 2018, I was on this amazing arts residency that I was very privileged to have, in this thousand-year-old castle in Umbria, Italy. It should have been the most productive, creative experience of my life, but I was having a bit of a dark night of the soul. It was terrible. I felt more and more guilty that I’d been afforded this huge opportunity, but I just wasn’t able to write anything. So after that, I decided to go on a river journey into the jungle in Malaysia to get in touch with my homeland. Soon afterwards, I started doing woodcuts, where there was no expectation for me to be any good. I just made work because I felt like it — because it brought me joy.

Who was it that introduced you to woodcutting?

It was a Malaysian punk rocker called Aerick LostControl from my dad’s home town, who I met when I went to visit my family. One day I was performing at this arts residency and they were running a woodcut workshop. Aerick was there — he’s this amazing guy with a big impish grin, tattoos and scars — and he taught me how to use the two different woodcut tools. For my first artwork, I carved a silly little leopard with its tongue poking out. And from that moment, I was addicted. 

You spoke at the Sydney Writers’ Festival and the 2021 Byron Writers Festival. What do you think about the scene today, is it becoming more inclusive?

In the last few years, I’ve noticed a much more successful attempt to diversify the different types of writers they have, especially compared to when I first appeared on the scene. But at the same time, I don’t think it’s a good thing to get too complacent or to ever think that the job is done and dusted. Until there’s more representation and diversity in the people who make decisions — the editors, the festival directors, the curators — it’s not true diversity.

How do you approach your writing?

Right now, above my writing desk, there’s a quote from the great American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who said that in her writing she aspired to balance three things: spontaneity, accuracy and mystery. I really like this because spontaneity speaks to that immediate visceral reaction that you might want to elicit in someone or that might spark you to write something. Accuracy is a bit more about form and structure, and then there’s mystery. To me, that word hints at something sublime, maybe almost religiously ecstatic. And while I’m not a religious man, I was raised quite religiously and I do think that plays a part in the way I think of art-making.

Would you say there’s a recurring theme in your art?

The idea of “borderless” is something I try to reflect in my artwork. Southeast Asia itself is this place of thousands of islands where there’s all these manmade borders, but because it’s ocean in between all these islands, the borders melt and dissipate as soon as they’re drawn. I don’t know if I’m drawn to that because I see it as reflective of me or if, over the years, I have chosen to reflect that with my practice and identity.

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our seventh edition, Page 20 of T Australia with the headline: “At The Margins”

Being Marina Abramović, Even When No One’s Looking

Despite her success, the performance artist has chosen a monastic life in upstate New York, where she falls asleep to Canadian television and eats baby food.

Article by Thessaly La Force

Marina AbramovićThe performance artist Marina Abramović in the library of her expansive archive in upstate New York, which houses sculptural works, exhibition posters, press clippings and other ephemera from her storied career. Photography by Emiliano Granado.

The New York-based artist Marina Abramović is sitting in the kitchen of her house just outside of Hudson when she invites me — over FaceTime — to join her in Greece this August for a workshop organised by the Marina Abramović Institute (MAI). “It’s only five days. No food, no talking and heavy exercise,” says the artist, 75, with a chuckle. Abramović founded the institute in 2007, originally intending to convert a derelict theatre built sometime around the 1930s nearby into a top-of-the-line Rem Koolhaas-designed performance space, archive and education centre. But when the project’s budget ballooned out of her control (Koolhaas’s plans alone were estimated to be $31 million, which didn’t include the handling of the theatre’s pre-existing asbestos problem) and her fund-raising efforts fell short (a Kickstarter only got her to a little over half a million dollars), Abramović decided to turn it into something that didn’t depend on a physical location. Its new slogan? “Don’t come to us; we come to you.”

Today, the MAI travels the world — stopping everywhere from Brazil to Bangkok and engaging its participants on the topic of performance art (it costs around $2,000 for a five-day workshop, and anyone able to pay is welcome to enrol). Its pedagogy is focused on enlightening its students about what’s physically and mentally required of oneself to create art, principally with the Abramović Method, a set of durational exercises created by the Yugoslavian artist (who first began to teach performance art in the 1980s in Europe) that involve whimsical (and totally serious) instructions such as: “Choose a tree you like. Put your arms around the tree. Complain to the tree.”

Marina Abramović
A corner devoted to the artist’s documents: correspondences, sketches and academic papers written about her. At left, a rack of clothing includes gifts from Riccardo Tisci, the chief creative officer at Burberry. Photography by Emiliano Granado.

A version of this workshop is depicted in Matthew Akers’s 2012 documentary, “Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present,” which shows her at her home with about 30 young artists she’s invited to re-perform five of her historical artworks for her retrospective of the same name at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2010. “The whole idea is to slow down your mind,” Abramović says in the footage about activities such as swimming naked in a river, chanting and sitting blindfolded in a chair as she paces around beating a pellet drum.

Abramović has referred to herself as the “grandmother of performance art,” which she has been making her entire life. Born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia (now Serbia), in 1946, she was creative from an early age, eventually studying at the city’s University of Arts. In 1976, she met the German performance artist Ulay and began spending more time in Europe. The pair, who became lovers, collaborated on a significant body of performance art over the course of 12 years, living for some time nomadically out of a small Citroën van (which was featured in one of their works). They even, at one point, dressed like twins.

Marina Abramović
Abramović’s studio is in the process of cataloguing old reels of her filmed performances. Photography by Emiliano Granado.
Marina Abramović
Stacks of grey boxes contain newspaper clippings about the artist dating to the 1960s. The thicker ones include material specific to past exhibitions. Photography by Emiliano Granado.

Abramović’s work often tests her own physical limits and the intentions of her audience: she has allowed the people around her to do whatever they want to her with 72 objects including a gun loaded with a single bullet (“Rhythm 0,” 1974); had her hair braided into Ulay’s, after which they sat conjoined for 16 hours (“Relation in Time,” 1977); lost consciousness while lying inside a burning five-point star (“Rhythm 5,” 1974); lived in a museum with only water for sustenance for 12 days, during which her single means of egress was a ladder made out of knives (“The House With the Ocean View,” 2002); stood in front of an arrow held by Ulay that pointed directly at her heart, which was amplified by a microphone (“Rest Energy,” 1980); and recreated the works of other great performance artists, including “Seedbed” (1972) by Vito Acconci, in which the artist lies hidden beneath a wooden ramp and masturbates (“Seven Easy Pieces,” 2005).

By the time she was in her 50s, she was a respected but relatively minor name — an “artist’s artist,” as the curator Klaus Biesenbach put it in a 2016 profile of her for New York magazine. That all changed, of course, the following decade, after the success of her retrospective at MoMA, where Abramović sat motionless for six days a week, seven hours a day, for a total of 700 hours, allowing anyone to take a seat across from her and gaze into her eyes. The work became a phenomenon, with people lining up around the block for a chance to participate.

Since then, Abramović — who has appeared in a Jay-Z music video, worked with Lady Gaga and has a fondness for the clothes of the fashion designers Walter Van Beirendonck and Riccardo Tisci — has become something of a celebrity. Here, she answers T’s Artist’s Questionnaire.

Marina Abramović
Among the miscellany being sorted, a photograph from Abramović’s 2010 durational performance, “The Artist Is Present,” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Photography by Emiliano Granado.

What is your day like? How much do you sleep and what is your work schedule?

I love routine. It gives the day order. I feel good when I follow a routine. If I don’t — when I’m travelling, and my schedule gets crazy — I become unbalanced. I love the regularity of a monastery: The monks wake up before sunrise, then they go to the toilet. Then they do the meditation. Then breakfast. Then they will do physical work. I try to follow a very similar schedule. I like to wake up early. It’s very funny to talk about going to the toilet — Western culture is ashamed of this, but I want to discuss this. Is that OK?


When you go to sleep in the evening, all the energy in your body is in a state of rest. When the sun rises, everything in you wakes up. If you don’t go to the bathroom before sunrise, all the toxins rise from your feet to your brain. This is why so many people wake up tired. In some Eastern cultures — like in India, Japan, China and so on — they learn from an early age to go to the bathroom before sunrise. It’s not easy to do it if you’re not used to it. I had to train myself. Then I drink a glass of warm water. Sometimes I put ginger in it, sometimes not. Then I make tea and read the news.

How many hours of creative work do you do in a day?

My old friend Rebecca Horn is a wonderful German artist. After she has lunch, she goes to sleep. Except she’ll say: “I’m going to work.” When she wakes up, she will have had a dream. And then she’ll make her work. So, she counts her sleep as working hours. Many artists get their best ideas from their dreams or in a state of complete tranquillity. I hate the studio. It’s a trap to me. Ideas come from life.

Marina Abramović
When they’re not being exhibited, sculptural works by the artist are crated and stored in the roughly 900-square-metre space. Photography by Emiliano Granado.

What is the first piece of art you ever made?

I had my first exhibition of paintings when I was 14. I painted my dreams. I remember being so jealous of Mozart because he started composing when he was a young child. I knew it was too late for me to be a genius, but I tried my best. I remember my first painting. It was of a candle from which there were streaks of light that were different faces, and one face fell on the table — it was my face. It was about how you inherit an image of yourself. Or something like that. It was all in green and blue.

What was the first work of art you sold and for how much?

When I lived in Yugoslavia, we had no money. I wanted to be independent from my family, to be able to buy books and go to the cinema and do my own things, but I never had the pocket money. Since I was always painting, my aunts and relatives and friends of my relatives would order pieces from me. They would come and say: “We would like to have sunflowers, an open window and a full moon.” Or another would say: “I would like more tulips with the fish, cut a little onion, cut a little lemon and make the curtain move in the wind.” In 20 minutes, I was done and then I got some money. Now this was in dinars. In terms of dollars, it would have been about $10, maybe $15 — $50 would have been a huge commission. I’m embarrassed to say I signed them all with a very big “Marina,” like Picasso. I thought they would just disappear. But my mother got sentimental in her old age; she didn’t like that I was doing performances instead of paintings, so she bought back all my paintings from my relatives. She died and now I have maybe 50 of them. Maybe I’ll burn them one day.

When you start a new piece, where do you begin? What’s the first step?

The first step is to get an idea. Not an easy idea but one that makes me go, “Oh my god. No, no, no, no.” An idea that gets stuck in my stomach. Then, I get obsessed and, finally, I say, “OK, I’m going to do it.” That moment of decision is very important. Then I do it. But a piece always starts with an idea that I don’t like — something I’m afraid of — and going into the unknown.

Marina Abramović
A pair of Eames rocking chairs in front of the artist’s book collection, which includes mostly monographs and other art-related volumes. Photography by Emiliano Granado.
Marina Abramović
Rolled-up promotional posters and a stack of wooden shelves from an older version of a piece titled “Personal Archaeology” (1997-99), which has since been remade. Photography by Emiliano Granado.

How do you know when you’re done with a piece?

When I don’t have a gram of energy left in my entire body or soul, then I know. Therefore, criticism doesn’t affect me anymore. My early works were heavily criticised; now, they’re all in the most important museum collections. But at the time, if I read criticism, I couldn’t leave the house, even though I knew the work was good. At the same time, I can tell when a work is not good, even if it’s being called a masterpiece. It’s a gut feeling.

How many assistants do you have?

Until I had the MoMA show, I had only one assistant. I made that entire MoMA show with only one assistant, which is unbelievable. I come from a different part of the world, where even one assistant is a huge luxury. After the MoMA show, I ended up with seven. But it became too much work. Now I have four.

Have you assisted other artists before? And if so, who?

I cut garlic and cleaned onions for [the American composer] John Cage, but I don’t think I was his assistant. He was macrobiotic and while he cooked, I would sit in his kitchen and listen to his wisdom and love every minute of it. He lived in a big loft — he was with [the pioneering dancer and choreographer] Merce Cunningham at that time — that was full of cactuses. He had this wonderful routine: He took four hours a day to prepare his food. Macrobiotic food takes a long time to make. Then, for another four hours, he maintained the cactuses. They were so fragile. Some of them needed only a drop of water, some needed you to talk to them. Some only flowered once a year. He made a list of everything about the cactuses. Also, he had names for them.

What music do you play when you’re making art?

I love Mozart, Bach and Satie. I really like classical music. I grew up with it. Later, I started liking world music more. I like the rusty voice of the Costa Rican Mexican singer Chavela Vargas. Lately, I listen a lot to Anohni, who is a friend of mine. I’m currently touring my work “7 Deaths of Maria Callas,” so I’m listening to Maria Callas a lot as well.

Marina Abramović
An unfinished room with exposed insulation accommodates larger works. Photography by Emiliano Granado.

What is the worst studio you’ve ever had?

The most difficult time was in the ’80s, when Ulay and I lived in a car for five years. We had stuff, but we couldn’t keep it all in the little car we had, so we stored things with other people. At least 25 different people had our stuff: boxes filled with drawings, ideas, unfinished works, winter clothes, summer clothes, that sort of thing. We had to have a list because otherwise we didn’t know where anything was anymore. That was really the worst because I don’t like chaos. Here in upstate New York, I have 930 square metres where everything is perfectly organised. I’m very proud of it. I think it’s because I come from communism.

When did you first feel comfortable saying you are a professional artist?

Very early. I’m lucky I never doubted who I was. As a child, I was always painting the walls until my parents gave me a studio, which was just a small little room where I could do whatever I wanted.

Is there a meal you eat on repeat when you’re working?

I like baby food. There’s a Dutch baby food company called Brinta that makes rice powder, which you mix with milk. That’s the kind of food I like. I also like mushed banana or apple sauce, any kind of food like that.

Marina Abramović
“I clutter everything to the point that it’s disgusting … ” says Abramović. “And then I clean everything until there’s nothing left.” Photography by Emiliano Granado.

Are you bingeing any shows right now?

I just finished this documentary about Andy Warhol [“The Andy Warhol Diaries” (2022)]. I found it very interesting. He appeared on “The Love Boat” TV series, which was the trashiest thing of the ’80s. People would say, “You’re all about glamour, money and excess, anything else?” And he was like, “No, nothing else.” He never denied who he was. He embraced everything about himself. He saved himself in that way. He created his own world. And he is about glamour, money and trash — but he’s also so much more. When I can’t sleep, I like to watch a television show that has lots of seasons. I was looking for the longest show I could find, and I came across one called “Heartland.” It’s a Canadian show that’s many seasons long about a family and horses and nothing ever happens. A horse breaks a leg, another one has a baby. The family eats. They wash dishes. They make a pie. It’s absolutely wonderful.

How often do you talk to other artists?

With artists, you can cross paths and so many things happen while you’re together. Then years can pass where you don’t see them anymore. We’re like clouds. Right now, I’m very close to Anohni. I’m not so much into my generation — they complain too much. They’re always too tired, too sick, too old. I prefer young artists.

What do you do when you’re procrastinating?

Cleaning is very important to me. I clutter everything to the point that it’s disgusting, and I go into a moment of denial, and then I clean everything until there’s nothing left. I teach a course called Cleaning the House — not the physical house but your own body. I do this twice a year. I go to India to an Ayurveda hospital, and I eat only the cleanest food for 21 days. I’ve done it every year for 30, 40 years. But yes, I postpone things because I don’t want to think about them, and that only makes it worse. But I don’t think I’m unique in that.

Marina Abramović
One of two main rooms in the archive, decorated with a row of drawings related to “8 Lessons on Emptiness With a Happy End,” a video piece she shot in Laos in 2008. Photography by Emiliano Granado.

What is the last thing that made you cry?

I recently made a work called “Crystal Wall of Crying” (2021). It’s 40 metres long and made out of coal and 150 healing crystals. It’s about the 1943 genocide in Ukraine that killed 130,000 people in less than three days. There’s never been any monument in Kyiv about it. Recently, the Russians bombed the TV station only 800 metres from where the wall, which is still there, was installed. It will survive. The monument will now serve two purposes: as a remembrance of what happened in 1943 and today. What’s happening is terrible. Putin is a madman.

What do you usually wear when you work?

I’m very jealous of Julian Schnabel, who decided at one point to wear pyjamas. I like comfortable clothes with holes and old T-shirts. This isn’t the Hamptons. When I stay in the Hamptons, you have to put on makeup just to go buy bread. Here, nobody cares. And I don’t see anybody except for the deer.

What is your worst habit?

Chocolate. I’m so good at many things: I wake up early; I do yoga. But chocolate — I love it too much.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Rolex Connects Gifted Young Artist with Dream Mentor, Spike Lee

How does a young Native American filmmaker from Oklahoma find a mentor in Spike Lee? With help from Rolex, of course.

Article by Luke Benedictus

The emerging director and Rolex Arts Initiative protégé Kyle Bell (left) with his mentor, the filmmaker Spike Lee, at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York. Photography courtesy Rolex.The emerging director and Rolex Arts Initiative protégé Kyle Bell (left) with his mentor, the filmmaker Spike Lee, at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York. Photography courtesy Rolex.

“My mind was just kind of blown,” Kyle Bell admits. “Because from where I come from, this sort of thing just doesn’t happen.” The 35-year-old filmmaker is speaking over the phone while driving through the wilds of Oklahoma en route to shoot a scene for his latest short film. He grew up not far away in Glenpool, outside Tulsa, as a member of the Muscogee Creek Nation Native American tribe. This, he concedes, is not the standard background for a budding director, particularly one who now has the chance to collaborate with the legendary director Spike Lee. Bell is still processing how it came about. “Coming from where I came from, trying to teach myself how to make films out here in Oklahoma…” he trails off. “I don’t know how to explain it. But I felt really empowered and encouraged.”

The facilitator of this partnership between Bell and Lee may seem equally unlikely. Rolex is renowned, first and foremost, for making superlative watches that have become universal totems of status and success. What Rolex is less known for is connecting world- famous directors with Native American up-and-comers from the rural Midwest. Yet this is exactly the sort of work that Rolex has quietly done for many years. The Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative was created in 2002 as a philanthropic program. It seeks out gifted young artists in a variety of disciplines from around the world and pairs them with recognised masters of their chosen milieu for a period of creative collaboration. Rolex manages to enlist some big guns. Past mentors include David Hockney, Anish Kapoor, David Chipperfield, Toni Morrison, Mario Vargas Llosa, Martin Scorsese and Alejandro González Iñárritu.

The way it works is this: every two years, Rolex assembles an advisory board who propose a list of potential mentors. Once the mentors are recruited, they discuss the profile of the sort of protégé they would like to help. A committee then identifies potential candidates from all over the world who are invited to apply. A shortlist of finalists is then whittled down to a chosen few, who meet the mentor for an interview that determines the ultimate selection. “It was so nerve-racking meeting Spike and showing him the films that I’ve done,” Bell recalls of his interview, which took place at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where Lee is a tenured professor of film. “But the whole time he complimented me on my eye for storytelling and even my cinematography. It was just really encouraging to hear someone of that magnitude tell you your work is good.”

Lee picked Bell to mentor having been drawn to the young filmmaker’s determination “to tell those stories that don’t get told”. The pairing seems like a natural fit. Much of Lee’s early work drew heavily on his personal experience: 1988’s “School Daze” recalled the director’s college days, while “Do the Right Thing”, released the following year, recognised the racial tensions he grew up with in Brooklyn. “A lot of Spike’s work comes from his own culture,” Bell agrees. “Maybe he chose me because I’m trying to do something similar about where my tribe is at now.”

The protégé admits that had he not picked up a camera in 2014 his life would be completely different. Before discovering his vocation, Bell did various jobs, from working in a casino to delivering furniture. “A lot of those things motivated me to want to do something with my life that I could one day look back on and be proud of,” he says. “For me, that was film, that was cinema. And I feel like if I can get a chance to tell a story with a camera and make a living out of it, then I’ve already won. I get to do what I love for a living.”

To figure out how to use a camera, Bell started off filming family events and friends’ weddings. He soon progressed to making mini-documentaries and short films, notching up a clutch of awards. Bell won an Emmy for his work on the documentary series “Osiyo, Voices of the Cherokee People”, while docos such as “Dig It If You Can”, “Defend the Sacred” and “The Third” have been screened at numerous film festivals. But as someone who is completely self-taught, Bell admits that Lee’s instruction has already proved invaluable, particularly his tips about narrative structure and writing dialogue. “Spike has guided me already through a lot,” he says.  Now, having benefited from the mentorship program, Bell is determined to use his accrued wisdom to help others like him. “I definitely feel a responsibility to pass on what I learned to the younger generation that are interested in filmmaking,” he says. “I hope that in some way I can be a role model for them in the future, just as Spike is for me in the world of cinema.”

For Bell, the true value of this mentorship is how it has emboldened him, not only technically, but also to gain greater confidence in his voice as a Native American filmmaker and in the tribal stories he wants to tell. In this way, the initiative has played a genuinely transformative role.

Up Next for Jessie Buckley: More Movies, and Music

This winter, the multitalented actress and Oscar nominee will release an album with Bernard Butler.

Article by Megan Conway

The actress Jessie Buckley, photographed for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, wearing a Miu Miu sweater; and Celine by Hedi Slimane pants. Photography by Andrea Urbez. Styled by Hisato Tasaka.The actress Jessie Buckley, photographed for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, wearing a Miu Miu sweater; and Celine by Hedi Slimane pants. Photography by Andrea Urbez. Styled by Hisato Tasaka.

The actress Jessie Buckley is a natural brunette, but her hair is currently chopped into a ragged black bob and her nails are painted the same emerald green that the writer Christopher Isherwood gave Sally Bowles, the glamorously in-denial singer, in his 1937 novella of the same name. “Different hair for every job,” says Buckley, characteristically wry over a video call from London. “People think you’re very transformative.” Later, she’ll go onstage in “Cabaret,” the musical adaptation of Isherwood’s story of Weimar-era doom, at the Playhouse Theatre’s Kit Kat Club, alongside Eddie Redmayne. And in a few weeks, she’ll fly to Los Angeles for the 94th Academy Awards: Her performance in “The Lost Daughter” garnered her a nomination for best actress in a supporting role. Her brother had delivered the news to her over text the day before. “I thought he was joking,” she says. “It’s just something that doesn’t happen in life.”

The actress Jessie Buckley, photographed for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, wearing a Celine by Hedi Slimane shirt, jeans, and shoes. Photography by Andrea Urbez. Styled by Hisato Tasaka
Buckley wears a Celine by Hedi Slimane shirt, jeans, and shoes. Photography by Andrea Urbez. Styled by Hisato Tasaka.
Buckley with her musical collaborator Bernard Butler. Buckley wears a Miu Miu sweater and shoes; and Celine by Hedi Slimane pants. Photography by Andrea Urbez. Styled by Hisato Tasaka.
Buckley with her musical collaborator Bernard Butler. Buckley wears a Miu Miu sweater and shoes; and Celine by Hedi Slimane pants. Photography by Andrea Urbez. Styled by Hisato Tasaka.

Buckley, 32, has been earning praise for her deft portrayals of maddening, messily vital characters, but her own career trajectory has been disciplined, even conventional: drama school (the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art) to theatre (Shakespeare’s Globe), theatre to indies, indies to Hollywood. She was born in Ireland’s County Kerry and seems to fulfil a kind of Yeatsian fantasy of the woman from the west who’s gifted in song. Raised in an artistic household with four younger siblings — her mother is a musician and teacher, and her father is a poet and bar manager — she moved to London as a teenager, where she finished second on a TV talent series called “I’d Do Anything.” YouTube videos show her delivering a tune from “Oliver!” with the same blend of power and vulnerability she’d bring to later roles.

It’s Buckley’s voice, after all, that astonished audiences in 2018’s “Wild Rose,” a movie in which she plays an aspiring country star. This summer, she and Bernard Butler — a veteran musician, songwriter and producer — are set to release a 12-track album called “For All Our Days That Tear the Heart” on the British label EMI. “I feel a bit shy about it,” she says. “It was a really pure, beautiful, untainted thing, and a bit of a secret.” Over the past two summers, she and Butler would meet weekly to drink tea in his kitchen and discuss, among other things, lines of poetry. At the end of the day, they’d record whatever they’d made on an iPhone, just one or two takes, “and then we’d say goodbye,” says Butler. The finished album conveys the intimacy of two friends finding private meaning through creativity.

Butler and Buckley in the studio in June 2021. Photography by Bella Keery.
Butler and Buckley in the studio in June 2021. Photography by Bella Keery.

In the fall, Buckley will travel to Spain to film Rebecca Lenkiewicz’s “Hot Milk.” This year will also see the release of the Sarah Polley-directed “Women Talking” — starring Buckley, Rooney Mara and Frances McDormand as members of a remote religious community disturbed by sexual violence — and Alex Garland’s “Men,” in which Buckley portrays a widow alone on holiday.

Before that, but after the Oscars, Buckley plans to abscond to her 500-year-old house in rural England. Perhaps she’ll bake — nothing “sourdough fancy,” just her dad’s recipe for brown bread. “I’m like Houdini,” she says. “I’m going to disappear, take some time out and just do life. I can’t wait.”

Hair: Mark Francome Painter. Makeup: Florrie White at Bryant Artists. Photo assistant: Yoan Zdravkov

Hayao Miyazaki Prepares to Cast One Last Spell

No artist has explored the contradictions of humanity as sympathetically and critically as the Japanese animation legend. Now, at 80, he’s coming out of retirement with another movie.

Article by Ligaya Mishan

Hayao Miyazaki photographed outside his atelier near Studio Ghibli in Tokyo on Oct. 4, 2021. Photography by Takahiro Kaneyama.Hayao Miyazaki photographed outside his atelier near Studio Ghibli in Tokyo on Oct. 4, 2021. Photography by Takahiro Kaneyama.

The screen is black, and then comes the first frame: Hayao Miyazaki, the greatest animated filmmaker since the advent of the form in the early 20th century and one of the greatest filmmakers of any genre, is seated in front of a cast-iron stove with a pipe running up toward the ceiling, flanked by windows propped half open. Sun burns through the branches of the trees outside. Three little apples perch on a red brick ledge behind the stove. He wears an off-white apron whose narrow strap hooks around the neck and attaches with a single button on the left side — the same style of apron he has worn for years as a work and public uniform, a reminder that he is at once artist and artisan, ever on guard against daubs of paint — over a crisp white collared shirt, his white moustache and beard neat and trim, and his white hair blurring into a near halo as he gazes calmly at me through owlish black glasses, across the 10,000 kilometres from Tokyo to New York.

I have one hour to ask questions. It is a rare gift, as Miyazaki has long preferred not to speak to the press except when absolutely necessary (which is to say, when he’s prodded into promoting a film), and has not granted an interview to an English-language outlet since 2014. Our conversation has been brokered by the newly opened Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles, which mounted the first North American retrospective of his work in September, with Studio Ghibli’s cautious assent; Jessica Niebel, an exhibitions curator, cites him as an exemplar of an auteur who “has managed to stay true to himself” while making movies that are “approachable to people everywhere.” I know I am lucky to have this time, and yet it feels wrong to meet Miyazaki this way, at a distance (due to Covid-19 travel restrictions) and through a computer, a machine he has so famously shunned.

For, in an age of ever-advancing technology, his animated films are radical in their repudiation of it. From “My Neighbour Totoro” (1988), with its vision of gentle friendship between two children and an enormous growling forest creature whom only they can see, to the ecological epic “Princess Mononoke” (1997), whose title character, a human raised by wolves, first appears sucking blood out of a wound in her wolf mother’s side (the hero, an exiled prince, takes one look at her blood-smeared face and falls in love), to the phantasmagorical fable “Spirited Away” (2001), in which a timid girl must learn pluck and save her foolish parents (who’ve been transformed into pigs) by working at a bathhouse that caters to a raucous array of gods, Miyazaki renders the wildest reaches of imagination and the maddest swirls of motion — the stormy waves that turn into eel-like pursuers in “Ponyo” (2008), the houses rippling and bucking with the force of an earthquake in “The Wind Rises” (2013) — almost entirely by hand. And unlike Walt Disney, the only figure of comparable stature in animation, Miyazaki, who is now 80, has never retreated to the role of a corporate impresario, dictating from on high: At Studio Ghibli, the animation company he founded with the filmmaker Isao Takahata and the producer Toshio Suzuki in 1985, he’s always worked in the trenches, as part of a team of around a hundred employees devoted just to production, including key animators and background, cleanup and in-between artists, whose desks he used to make the rounds of daily for decades. (His own desk is hardly bigger than theirs.) He still draws the majority of the frames in each film, numbering in the tens of thousands, himself. Only occasionally has he resorted to computer-generated imagery, and in some films not at all.

“I believe that the tool of an animator is the pencil,” he tells me. (We speak through an interpreter, Yuriko Banno.) Japanese pencils are particularly good, he notes: The graphite is delicate and responsive — in the 2013 documentary “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness,” directed by Mami Sunada, he mocks himself for having to rely on a soft 5B or even softer 6B as he gets older — and encased in sugi (Japanese cedar), although, he muses, “I don’t see that many quality wood trees left in Japan anymore.” He adds, “That’s a true story,” then laughs, leaning in to the screen, and I think of the ancient, moss-cloaked trees in “Princess Mononoke,” cut down to fuel Lady Eboshi’s ironworks, and of their counterparts in the Shiratani Unsuikyo Ravine on the island of Yakushima in the south, which Miyazaki visited while location scouting for the film. The oldest cedar there, 25 metres tall and nearly 16 metres in circumference, is believed to be more than 2,600 years old, making it one of the oldest trees on earth. (The forest of the film does not exactly correspond to the ravine, Miyazaki has said: “Rather, it is a depiction of the forest that has existed within the hearts of Japanese from ancient times.”)

A woven wool blanket — featuring Chihiro, the heroine of “Spirited Away” (2001) — designed by Loewe’s creative director, Jonathan Anderson, as part of a series in which T commissioned four artists deeply influenced by Studio Ghibli to create original works that accompany this story. “Their poetic films have the ability to connect with adults just as powerfully as with children, creating a sense of nostalgia,” Anderson says. “Loewe’s connection to the studio is in our mutual love of crafts and artisanal techniques, expressed in our respective languages.” Photography by Florent Tanet.
A woven wool blanket — featuring Chihiro, the heroine of “Spirited Away” (2001) — designed by Loewe’s creative director, Jonathan Anderson, as part of a series in which T commissioned four artists deeply influenced by Studio Ghibli to create original works that accompany this story. “Their poetic films have the ability to connect with adults just as powerfully as with children, creating a sense of nostalgia,” Anderson says. “Loewe’s connection to the studio is in our mutual love of crafts and artisanal techniques, expressed in our respective languages.” Photography by Florent Tanet.
To accompany T’s story on Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli provided rarely seen watercolour image boards drawn by the animator himself during the development of his films. Here, a sketch of the warrior Ashitaka from “Princess Mononoke” (1997). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.
To accompany T’s story on Miyazaki, Studio Ghibli provided rarely seen watercolour image boards drawn by the animator himself during the development of his films. Here, a sketch of the warrior Ashitaka from “Princess Mononoke” (1997). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki lives with his wife, Akemi, a former fellow animator — they met as colleagues at Toei Animation nearly 60 years ago on the movie “Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon,” and married in 1965; she stopped working to raise their two sons, at his request, and, he has said in the past, “hasn’t forgiven” him — in Tokorozawa, northwest of Tokyo, where the Totoro Fund (supported in part by donations from the Miyazakis) has purchased more than 24 wooded acres, dense with oak and camphor trees, for conservation. But today he is speaking to me from the Tokyo suburb of Koganei, from a small building a short walk away from the headquarters of Studio Ghibli that he uses as a private atelier. He sometimes affectionately calls it Buta-ya, Japanese for “pig house.” (He is fond of pigs, and often sketches himself as one.) Out front he parks his cloud-grey Citroën 2CV, with a tiny nine-horsepower engine and a rollback roof that leaks when it rains (the model was discontinued in 1990); a wine-colored version of it appears in the careening cliffside chase scene in his directorial debut, “Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro” (1979). Every December, he puts cuddly stuffed goats, mementos of his work on the “Heidi: A Girl of the Alps” TV series in the ’70s, in the kitchen window to greet passing children. When the Academy Museum requested a goat to display in its exhibition, he demurred: The children would miss them.

Buta-ya was meant to be a retirement office, where Miyazaki could pursue personal projects. He built it in 1998, after announcing that he would make no more feature films, then returned to Studio Ghibli the next year with the story idea that would become “Spirited Away,” the highest-grossing movie in Japanese history until last fall’s “Demon Slayer: Mugen Train” (an extension of a popular manga franchise and part of a different strain of Japanese anime, focused on action and vengeance, with a video-game-like feel). “Spirited Away” won the 2002 Academy Award for best animated feature, the only film from outside the West to ever do so. In 2013, he said again that he was done with film, and that time, having directed 11 features in 34 years, he was taken seriously: Studio Ghibli shut down its production department.

A still from “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.
A still from “Kiki’s Delivery Service” (1989). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.

Gorgeous, profound, borderless in possibility — yes, yes, but above all, Miyazaki’s films are thrilling. He is a master of suspense, whether sending a fugitive girl skittering down a rickety pipe that pops off the wall as she runs (“Spirited Away”), or swooping after a novice witch reeling on a broomstick because she’s forgotten how to fly and must quickly relearn so she can rescue her friend, a boy who’s dangling from a dirigible and about to crash into a clock tower (the 1989 “Kiki’s Delivery Service”). His visual style is at once commanding and intimate, a mix of fluid, loose lines and an accumulation of detail — in contrast to more mainstream anime’s labour-saving preference for caricature and clipped movement — that enables him to invoke the immediacy of life without being beholden to its precise contours. He deploys a palette of saturated colours, bright but never gaudy, standing out against cool greys and dun tones, and pays attention to quicksilver adjustments of light and shade, especially the shadows within shadows that give featheriness and depth to the night. He is equally expressive in close-up and panorama, and virtuosic in his open skies, creating clouds that are almost characters unto themselves, whether high-heaped loomers, broad swaths of rubble or voluptuous whirls like the heavy heads of flowers, stained by sunset or the deepening blues of day. (The Academy Museum’s retrospective includes a green-carpeted knoll where visitors may rest and gaze up at a video of passing clouds.)

And how easily Miyazaki slips from one register to the next, from hushed to clamorous, often in the same scene, as in the exquisitely timed comedy of towering Totoro, with his giant claws, standing beside two little girls at a bus stop in the dark. It’s raining; one girl offers him an umbrella, an instrument he has never encountered before. A toad stares at him from across the road, as if equally perplexed. We squint up at the trees to see a few particularly fat raindrops falling from a branch. They plonk down on the umbrella, loud, and Totoro startles. More drops come, a scattering of drum beats, and his eyes widen. He heaves his body up in the air and lands with a boom, and all the drops caught in the trees come crashing down, his own personal storm. And then — because of course there’s more — the bus arrives, only it’s a scampering cat with headlight eyes and a door that opens in its side to whisk Totoro away.

But Miyazaki is a realist, too. Toward the end of his 2004 film, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” which is mostly devoted to magic — a girl is transformed by a witch into an elderly woman, a wizard shape-shifts into a dark man-bird, a castle uproots itself and clanks around on clawed feet — a great-bellied airship looms into view and starts dropping bombs on a cobblestone town. Black clouds and flames surge over houses; the sky hangs red. No war takes place in the source material, a 1986 novel by the British writer Diana Wynne Jones. This is Miyazaki’s memory.

He was born in 1941, the same year that Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbour, and he was four years old when American planes attacked the city of Utsunomiya, where his family had been evacuated from Tokyo. He recounts in “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness” how he saw a glow at the window and hid under a bridge, his legs in a ditch. With the incendiaries still falling, his father carried him up the riverbank and to a small truck so they could escape. As Miyazaki and his father settled into the vehicle’s bed, a woman with a child asked if they could come, too, but they were left behind. “We left them behind,” Miyazaki says. A month later, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered. More humiliations followed: the emperor’s renunciation of divinity, the dismantlement of the country’s armed forces and a formal abjuring of war, enshrined in the Constitution.

Although Miyazaki was too young to comprehend the magnitude of what was taking place, that time remains a cornerstone of his work, as it was and has been for many Japanese artists who came of age during the war or in its aftermath. The late antiwar painter Tatsuo Ikeda, who was born in 1928 and conscripted as a teenager to become a kamikaze pilot — the country’s defeat saved him — started out making portraits for American soldiers from snapshots of their girlfriends or wives, and went on to create eerie black-and-white tableaus that bristle with malformed animals and punishing machines. Haruki Murakami, born in 1949 in Kyoto, the former seat of the imperial court, writes novels of deadpan humour that surreally interrogate the legacy and persistence of Japanese nationalism.

And perhaps the most harrowing Japanese war film ever made is Studio Ghibli’s 1988 “Grave of the Fireflies,” adapted by Takahata from a 1967 short story by Akiyuki Nosaka about two children left homeless in the wake of an air raid. It bears the freight of Takahata’s own memories of fleeing a firebombing as a nine-year-old — he was born in 1935 — as his feet were burned by melting asphalt, and wandering without food for two days. “No one gave him anything, not even potato vines,” Miyazaki recalls in “The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness.” (Astonishingly, in its first release, “Grave of the Fireflies” was paired with “My Neighbour Totoro” as a double bill: anguish and solace.)

Arguably, the rise of Japanese animation itself, in both its monster/superhero and more lyrical veins, was a direct response to the shock of defeat and anxiety over atomic fallout and the threat of genetic mutations. The monster Godzilla first appeared in a live-action 1954 film as a dinosaur, roused from the bottom of the ocean by an American hydrogen bomb test, who spews radiation over Tokyo in a visceral re-enactment of an air raid. (Miyazaki tells me that he remembers watching the movie and being reminded of American warplanes “dropping bombs from high above, out of reach.”) If Godzilla was fear and rage incarnate, Astro Boy — known in Japanese as the Mighty Atom, and introduced by the animation pioneer Osamu Tezuka in a 1951 manga, followed by an animated TV series starting in 1963 — sublimated anxiety into heroism: A boy robot whose body is powered by nuclear energy gets abandoned by his maker (giving him kinship with the war’s many orphans), but learns to use his abilities to fight for peace.

Miyazaki’s movies, with their warplanes and intrusions of Western décor and dress, keep circling back to the traumatic moment when Japan, which until the mid-19th century had kept itself closed off to the outside world, was forced to embrace the West and Western values. The devastated population complied in confused haste, as if to erase the shame of recent history and their own complicity in a war waged by a nationalist government out of a belief in Japan’s cultural superiority. (Some saw this as a capitulation to the West and a fatal loss of dignity; in 1970, the writer Yukio Mishima died by ritual suicide in protest, after shouting, “Long live the emperor!”) Niebel, of the Academy Museum, suggests that Japanese audiences are drawn to Miyazaki’s work because it’s essentially nostalgic. There’s a yearning, faintly mournful, for an older Japan, one free of both imperialistic hubris and Western materialism.

But part of his films’ greatness is that they can also be loved by viewers who never sense the dark current below. In “Porco Rosso” (1992), the hero may be an embittered war veteran, but he’s also, literally and delightfully, a pig flying a plane, and is spectacularly good at it.

A still from “Castle in the Sky” (1986). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.
A still from “Castle in the Sky” (1986). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki’s father was not a bystander in the war. He ran a munitions factory that produced wings for the military’s fearsomely acrobatic Mitsubishi A6M Zero fighter planes, which in the last months of the war were converted for kamikaze missions. In a 1995 newspaper essay in The Asahi Shimbun, Miyazaki describes his father as something of a grifter, bribing officials to accept defective parts. After Japan’s surrender, when there were no more planes to furnish, his father used leftover duralumin, an aluminium alloy that had helped keep the Zero lightweight and dangerous, to make flimsy spoons, which he pawned off on impoverished customers desperate for household goods. Later, he briefly turned the factory into a dance hall, before bringing the family — Miyazaki is the second of four sons — back to Tokyo.

Although Miyazaki never set foot in his father’s factory, which was off limits as a military site, he was entranced by aeroplanes and the liberation of flight from an early age. (Ghibli is both the hot, dusty wind that sweeps through the Libyan Desert and the name of an aeroplane, the Caproni Ca.309 Ghibli, a World War II Italian reconnaissance bomber.) This obsession has manifested in almost every film, in humans who turn into flying creatures or simply walk on air; in fanciful machines like the flaptors in “Castle in the Sky” (1986), propelled by four translucent wings; and in reproductions of real-world aircraft, as in “Porco Rosso,” in which the hero’s wrecked seaplane, inspired by the 1920s-era Italian racer Macchi M.33, is rebuilt by an all-female crew to ready it for a climactic dogfight, and in “The Wind Rises,” which tells the (not entirely) true story of the designer of the Zero, Jiro Horikoshi, who in the film as in life opposed the war and whom Miyazaki portrays as reluctant to see the beautiful machines he’s created deployed as emissaries of death — a stand-in for Miyazaki’s father, or the man he might have been.

As Miyazaki grew older, he found fault with his father both for profiting off the war and for never expressing any shame or guilt. (He shares this troubled inheritance with the writers W.G. Sebald, born in 1944 in the Bavarian Alps, who had to grapple with his father’s past as a soldier in Hitler’s Wehrmacht, and the Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano, born in the suburbs of Paris in 1945 not long after V-E Day, whose own father kept company with collaborators and profiteers.) And yet, Miyazaki wrote in 1995, “I am like him” — a man of contradictions: a filmmaker who condemns the proliferation of images even as he contributes to it; an artist who has devoted his career to children but was rarely home to take care of his own; an environmentalist who can’t bear to give up his cigarettes or wheezing car; a professed Luddite who revels in the mechanics of modern vehicles but tries “not to draw them in a fashion that further feeds an infatuation with power,” as he has written; a pacifist who loves warplanes; a brooder with a dark view of how civilization has squandered the gifts of the planet, who nevertheless makes films that affirm the urgency of human life.

This embrace of contradictions may be why Miyazaki’s movies, although beloved in the West (if not as wildly successful as in Japan, where his last five films combined took in close to 100 billion yen in their first release, or over AUD$1 billion), in some ways thwart the Western mind. Absent are the dominating themes of monotheism — a fall from an original state of grace, followed by redemption — and a clear dichotomy of good and evil. “I’m not a god who decides on what is good and bad,” Miyazaki tells me. “We as humans make mistakes.” In his world, there are few outright villains or even truly bad characters, only characters who do bad things. Lady Eboshi wreaks havoc on the forest in “Princess Mononoke” but also gives sanctuary to brothel workers and those afflicted with leprosy. No-Face, the gliding black shroud who eats people in “Spirited Away,” turns out to be simply lonely and, when soothed, spits out his victims. Even the mutant stampeding army of trilobite-like behemoths from the toxic jungle in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” (1984), who kill the heroine by flinging her into the air and trampling her underfoot, end up restoring her to life with the touch of their golden antennae.

So Disney was never an influence. (Miyazaki has gone so far as to say, in a 1988 lecture, that he hated Disney’s movies and their easy sentimentality: “To me, they show nothing but contempt for the audience.”) Instead, Miyazaki looked to works like the French animator Paul Grimault’s “The King and the Mockingbird” (released in different forms in 1952 and 1980), in which a chimney sweep and a shepherdess flee from a vain and despised tyrant king through a cavernous 296-storey castle while a coterie of animals mounts a revolution, and the Armenian animator Lev Atamanov’s “The Snow Queen” (1957), whose heroine self-effacingly sacrifices her shoes to a river to beg for help in finding her lost friend, and whose gleefully amoral, knife-wielding Robber Girl — who captures the heroine and steals her bonnet and muff, then is horrified and furious to find herself moved to tears by her victim’s tale of woe — is a forerunner to the wolf girl of “Princess Mononoke.”

Miyazaki and Suzuki in a screening room at Studio Ghibli. Photography by Takahiro Kaneyama.
Miyazaki and Suzuki in a screening room at Studio Ghibli. Photography by Takahiro Kaneyama.

Curiously, considering the limitations on women’s professional progress in Japan (which makes the country an outlier among developed nations), Miyazaki’s heroines outnumber his heroes. Within the world of anime, these characters are called shojo, girls of an in-between age, no longer quite children and not yet women; but where shojo were typically passive figures subject to romance narratives, Miyazaki’s girls display formidable know-how and independence. They take on jobs, organise households, fight battles and rescue boys from near death — all matter-of-factly, without ever trumpeting notions of girl power. Although some are princesses, they resist the trappings of fairy tales: Princess Mononoke doesn’t live in a palace. Chihiro, in “Spirited Away,” is awkward and lacks the big eyes that traditionally signify beauty and vulnerability in anime, while Sophie, the mousy milliner in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” spends most of the movie in the guise of a stooped old woman. Even when the spell is broken and her youth returns, her hair remains grey. It’s a reminder that something has been forever lost; that, even with the most powerful magic, there can be no reset, no starting over.

American animated films of today, by contrast, still tend to culminate in a happily ever after, or at least a vanquishing of foes. (“We have a desire for closure,” Niebel says.) Miyazaki offers something more nebulous and even unsettling. The resurrection in “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind” is a stark exception, for elsewhere in his oeuvre, death is not defeated, only at best delayed. Prince Ashitaka in “Princess Mononoke,” whose body has been progressively consumed by the dark stain of a curse, is never completely cured; a shadow remains on his arm, and he is separated from the girl he loves by a sense of duty — he to the humans of Iron Town, she to the wolves of the forest — although they promise to visit each other. Cruelty, too, is not so much punished as neutralised, as when the youthful-appearing Witch of the Waste in “Howl’s Moving Castle” is reinstated to her true age and revealed to be a doddering old lady, whom Sophie spoon-feeds without complaint, despite still suffering from the witch’s curse. Recovery may be possible, but not full restitution.

In a 1991 directorial memo for “Porco Rosso,” a farce that includes a preening American pilot eyeing a career as a Hollywood star and a snarling gang of sky pirates who prove helpless when confronted with a gaggle of schoolgirls, Miyazaki cautions, “We must treat every character respectfully. We must love their foolishness. … One common mistake — the belief that to draw a cartoon is to draw someone sillier than oneself — must be avoided at all costs.” At the heart of the film is a hard-bitten bounty hunter who takes on the guise of a pig out of a sense of guilt at having survived World War I while his fellow pilots died. (Miyazaki describes the film to me as “a boy’s dream.”) The woman he loves but doesn’t believe he deserves laments this “curse,” but only he can free himself from it, by no longer condemning that part of himself.

“In the town that I live in, I have precious friends, but I also have people I detest,” Miyazaki tells me. “That is what human society is all about.” Even his friends are flawed, and not just them. He says, “It’s a mirror of who I am.”

A still from “The Wind Rises” (2013). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.
A still from “The Wind Rises” (2013). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.

It is tempting to read Miyazaki’s protestations as simple humility, and to cast him, against his will, as a sort of secular saint. In many ways he fits the part: the benevolent neighbourhood uncle who brings joy to children through his work, picks up trash from the river on his days off and, over the past two and a half decades, has made quiet pilgrimages to a sanitarium near his home for patients with leprosy who, for much of the 20th century, faced segregation by law in such facilities. One patient became a friend, and Miyazaki held his hand when he was dying.

But Takahata, Miyazaki’s mentor at Toei Animation in the ’60s and ’70s and, eventually, his greatest rival, dismisses this hagiography in the afterword to “Starting Point” (1996), a collection of Miyazaki’s early interviews, lectures and essays, writing, “Hayao Miyazaki is a man who struggles. … He weeps, is playful, loves people, expects too much of their talents, howls at his broken dreams, becomes enraged.” The brilliant and notoriously perfectionist Takahata, who once took eight years to finish a film, died in 2018, but he still casts a shadow; Miyazaki spent 15 years working with Takahata before becoming a director himself, and even though his movies at Studio Ghibli consistently outperformed Takahata’s at the box office, he still craved his mentor’s approval. (Suzuki, in a 2014 memoir, insists that Takahata is the only viewer whom Miyazaki has ever wanted to please.)

To Takahata, Miyazaki’s contradictions made sense: Miyazaki is both an auteur, able to control and perfect every detail in his films, and an idealist endlessly disillusioned by the real world that eludes his grasp, and thus he rants, “yells destructively nihilistic things and blurts out statements that make him sound as though he aspires to become a dictator.” Miyazaki himself has always acknowledged his capacity for anger. To help his staff of animators understand how to draw the rampaging boar god turned demon in “Princess Mononoke,” whose flesh writhes with leechlike forms, he explained that he himself sometimes experienced a rage so strong it could not be contained inside his body.

Takahata recounts how in his early days at Toei Animation, Miyazaki would sometimes scare colleagues “by suddenly screaming, ‘Let this damned studio burn down!’” This wasn’t an entirely metaphorical statement, Takahata points out, given Tokyo’s history of earthquakes and fire, and Japan’s precarious position at a place where four tectonic plates creep and shift. If Miyazaki was speaking then with the impishness of the provocateur, later in his career his insistence on facing certain realities took a serious turn. J. Raúl Guzmán, an assistant curator at the Academy Museum, learned while helping to put together the retrospective that some Japanese viewers were shocked by Miyazaki’s depictions of a violent ocean storm in “Ponyo” and the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 in “The Wind Rises,” which his father lived through as a boy. The scenes were painful reminders of the country’s vulnerability — so painful that after the earthquake and tsunami of 2011, which triggered a meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the broadcast network Nippon TV banned “Ponyo” from the airwaves for months.

In the wake of the meltdown, Studio Ghibli hung a banner from the roof with a statement rejecting nuclear power. But the country was divided on how to respond to the disaster. By exposing Japan’s weaknesses, Fukushima also heightened sentiments of neo-nationalism. There were calls to revise Japan’s postwar Constitution, which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes,” and to allow the country to once again establish offensive military forces. Miyazaki has strongly and publicly voiced his opposition to remilitarization, earning a ferocious backlash from right-wing commentators online. But they’re shouting into the void: Miyazaki doesn’t even own a computer. He isn’t there.

After the war, Japan was shattered, occupied by the enemy, its cities in rubble. Food shortages left many hungry; American G.I.s handed out candy to children on the streets but, Miyazaki has written, he “was too ashamed” by Japan’s defeat to approach the soldiers. He was a shy, sickly boy — at one point, he nearly died — who took sanctuary in drawing, the one skill with which he could earn the attention and admiration of his peers. His mother was ill, too, suffering for years from spinal tuberculosis, and spent long stretches hospitalised like the mother in “My Neighbour Totoro” and the young wife in “The Wind Rises.” But the money his father had stockpiled from government wartime contracts helped keep the family in comfort, and in 1959 Miyazaki wound up at the prestigious Gakushuin University in Tokyo, which was originally established in the 19th century as a school for the nobility and whose students have included Emperor Naruhito and the singer and artist Yoko Ono.

It was a time of upheaval for Japan, with traditional agriculture giving way to heavy industrial development and the economy growing at breakneck speed. Studying Japanese industrial theory, Miyazaki began thinking of himself as a Marxist. He was drawn to the Anpo demonstrations of 1960 against Japan’s security treaty with the United States and authoritarian measures by the Japanese government, although he remained on the sidelines. He had started drawing manga in high school and, after graduating from university, took a job at Toei, where he quickly became the secretary general of the animators’ union, negotiating for better working conditions. Although he would eventually move away from Marxism — “no matter what class people are born into, idiots are still idiots and good people are still good,” he said in 1994 — he still thinks “there are many things we can learn from it,” he tells me; it’s just that no one philosophy in the world “would enable all of us to live happily.”

A watercolour image board from Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” (1997). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.
A watercolour image board from Hayao Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” (1997). Courtesy of Hayao Miyazaki.

Miyazaki does not like to frame his work in explicitly ideological or moral terms. The mission of his films, he says, is to “comfort you — to fill in the gap that might be in your heart or your everyday life.” But his movies are haunted by his grief over the damage humans have done to the natural world. This may in part be a vestige of Shintoism, the indigenous faith of Japan, which holds that kami — at once specific supernatural beings and the divine essence within them — reside in all things. (Miyazaki follows no specific creed, but he has said that “sweeping the garden clean is already a religious act.”) As a teenager in the late ’50s, Miyazaki walked the streets of a Tokyo under constant construction, choked with dust. In 1964, when he was organising workers at Toei, Japan hosted the Olympics and introduced the first bullet trains, which ate up the 515 kilometres between Tokyo and Osaka in four hours. By 1968, Japan was rich, second only to the United States in gross national product, and one of the most polluted countries on earth. (Thanks to the passage of strict environmental regulations, it is now one of the least.)

In “Spirited Away,” an oozing, foetid spirit comes to the bathhouse to be cleansed, and the intrepid heroine seizes what she thinks is a thorn in his side but turns out to be a bicycle. This unleashes a torrent of trash from his sludgy form: a refrigerator, a toilet, a traffic light. He is in fact an ancient river spirit, poisoned by pollution. Haku, the young apprentice, is a river spirit, too, but has forgotten his origins since his river was filled in and paved over to make way for apartments. Near the end, the film presents a fantasy of a world reclaimed by nature, as water fills a dry riverbed and spreads out into a vast sea — as if a visual riposte to the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico’s desolate urban piazzas — untroubled save for a train that skims across its surface.

There is a curious mix of fatalism and hope in Miyazaki’s work. The forest spirit in “Princess Mononoke” is murdered, despite the hero and heroine’s hardest efforts; yet the forest lives on. “For me, the deep forest is connected in some way to the darkness deep in my heart,” Miyazaki said in a 1988 interview. “I feel that if it is erased, then the darkness inside my heart would also disappear, and my existence would grow shallow.” At the same time, Miyazaki resists romanticising nature as purely benign, again rejecting a binary of good and evil. The boars, wolves and apes in “Princess Mononoke” can’t agree on how to protect the forest, and when the boar god is struck by a bullet, he succumbs to hatred and attempts to ravage Prince Ashitaka’s village. Even then, Ashitaka’s first instinct is not to kill him but to plead with him to leave. “When you meet something that is very strange that you haven’t met before, instead of being scared of it, try to connect with it,” Miyazaki tells me.

Where in the ’50s the still-raw memory of wartime destruction gave rise to monsters like Godzilla, spectres of failed imperialism, Miyazaki’s work is notable in its insistence that we can learn to live alongside unfamiliar, even terrifying figures. Miyazaki once said that he wanted to make a version of “Beauty and the Beast,” only his interest was the beast. A trace of the fairy tale appears in “Howl’s Moving Castle,” in the desperate scene when the heroine follows bloody bird footprints down a dark hallway to find the wounded wizard in a feathered heap, unable to change back to his fully human self, trying not to die in his glittering lair embedded with the toys of the boy still buried inside him. Ashitaka, in “Princess Mononoke,” must wrestle a beast of his own: When he lets his arrows fly at the boar god turned demon, he gets too close and is infected by the creature’s rage. He, too, will begin to hate, the growing mark on his arm informs him. The only way to save himself is to master the true monster: within.

Studio Ghibli might never have existed had Suzuki, now 73, not found a way to get past Miyazaki’s anger. The two men met in 1979, when, as the editor of an animation magazine, Suzuki showed up at Miyazaki’s workplace to procure an interview. (I speak with Suzuki in a separate online session, in which he is as loquacious as Miyazaki is evasive.) As Suzuki recalls, the filmmaker, in the throes of pre-production for his first feature, wanted nothing to do with him and accused him of “ripping off children” by making them buy his magazine. Rather than give up, Suzuki grabbed the desk next to Miyazaki’s and started working on the magazine there. The men sat hunched without speaking all day and into the night, until finally Miyazaki stood up to go home at 4 a.m. He told Suzuki he’d be back at 9 a.m., and so Suzuki returned then, too. Another day passed in silence. Only on the third day did Miyazaki start to talk.

Thus was born a friendship that would turn into an intimate creative collaboration: For his next film, “Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind,” Miyazaki consulted with Suzuki on matters from the intricacy of the drawing style to the final scene, which Suzuki persuaded him to change (in the first version, the heroine simply dies, which Suzuki thought deprived the audience of catharsis). After that film’s release, Suzuki realised they would have to start their own studio because no one else would foot the bill for such labour-intensive productions. Although he has held different positions at Studio Ghibli over the decades (among them president and, currently, producer), his true role is as Miyazaki’s confidante and consigliere. They used to talk almost daily and now meet once a week — during my conversation with Miyazaki, he notes that Suzuki is sitting beside him, off-screen, urging him to finish his new film, which has thus far taken four years — and when they disagree on an idea, Suzuki, at least by his own account, tends to win.

Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli’s producer, photographed at the company’s Tokyo offices on Oct. 4, 2021, alongside plush versions of, from left, the characters Totoro and Catbus from “My Neighbour Totoro” (1988). Photography by Takahiro Kaneyama.
Toshio Suzuki, Studio Ghibli’s producer, photographed at the company’s Tokyo offices on Oct. 4, 2021, alongside plush versions of, from left, the characters Totoro and Catbus from “My Neighbour Totoro” (1988). Photography by Takahiro Kaneyama.

Suzuki tells me that when Miyazaki came to him just over a year after retiring to say he wanted to make another film, “I was like, ‘Give me a break.’” He tried to talk him out of it, suggesting that Miyazaki’s best work was behind him. When his last film, “The Wind Rises,” came out in 2013, it did well at the box office but fell short of his previous four features, perhaps because it dealt directly with Japan’s culpability in the war, still an uncomfortable subject. But ultimately Suzuki caved in because, he says, “The whole purpose of Studio Ghibli is to make Miyazaki films.” What will happen, then, when Miyazaki does retire for good? His older son, Goro, 54, has made a few films for the studio, including the entirely computer-animated “Earwig and the Witch,” released in the United States last winter to mostly critical reviews that took less issue with the film itself than with the break in Ghibli tradition. (Miyazaki’s younger son, Keisuke, 51, is a printmaker.)

But Suzuki also points out, when discussing the differences between Japanese and American animation, that in the West, we always need to know how things end. At Ghibli, the last scene is often a mystery. Because each movie requires so much drawing, production must begin before Miyazaki is even halfway through his storyboards. When he was making “Spirited Away,” No-Face was at first just a spooky passer-by; only later did Miyazaki decide to promote him to a major character. Later, the director of animation begged him not to draw any new characters, so he came up with the idea of Yubaba, the coldhearted bathhouse operator, having a kindhearted identical twin, which turned out to be both a crucial plot point and a sounding of a favourite theme: that in all of us there is a duality and the potential for both good and bad.

Neither Miyazaki nor Suzuki will share much about the forthcoming film, beyond the fact that it is based on a 1937 novel by Genzaburo Yoshino. The story concerns a 15-year-old boy in Tokyo, small for his age and fond of mischief, whose father has recently died. In the English translation by Bruno Navasky, published in October, the boy gazes out at the city and is overwhelmed: “The watching self, the self being watched, and furthermore the self becoming conscious of all this, the self observing itself by itself, from afar, all those various selves overlapped in his heart, and suddenly he began to feel dizzy.” The actual content of the film could be anything — Suzuki has described it as “fantasy on a grand scale” — since Miyazaki doesn’t so much borrow stories as liberate them from their origins. (In the pseudo-biographical “The Wind Rises,” he gives the real-life Jiro Horikoshi a fictional wife dying of tuberculosis.) All Suzuki will share is that he recognizes himself in one of the characters, who is not human.

It is time. Miyazaki rubs the top of his head and lights a cigarette, one of his signature king-size, charcoal-filtered Seven Stars. I am allowed one last question. “The title of your next film is ‘How Do You Live?,’” I say. “Will you give us the answer?”

The smile comes only after he speaks: “I am making this movie because I do not have the answer.”

Modern Poets: Idris Elba & Lime Cordiale

An unlikely collaboration between the British actor Idris Elba and the Sydney brothers Oli and Louis Leimbach was a gamble — and a creative flowering for the trio.

Article by Joe Brennan

Idris ElbaIdris Elba wears Fendi T-shirt and pants. Photography by Simon Lipman and Jess Ruby James.

They never saw it coming. As eager fans filed into Sydney’s Enmore Theatre on a summer night in early 2021, there was little reason for suspicion. They had converged from all corners of the city to spend an hour or two with Lime Cordiale, the pop-rock outfit of brothers Oli and Louis Leimbach. The evening proceeded in the duo’s typical style — a flurry of songs thick with bright, beachy instrumentation and self-aware swank. It was the final date of their east coast tour and they weren’t about to go quietly. As the reverb faded on the sixth track of their set, the band decided they’d take the sold-out home-town crowd by surprise.

Idris Elba appeared from somewhere in the wings. Famed for his roles in “The Wire”, “Luther” and “The Suicide Squad”, the British actor and musician was met with a roar of delirium. The room underwent a kind of meltdown. How, and moreover why, could this be happening? The two musos from Sydney’s Northern Beaches and the international legend. As the band launched into the rippled melody of “Unnecessary Things”, the night became all the more inscrutable and electric. Elba floated across the stage with impish ease as he gifted his guest vocals to the audience. It was only a pair of dark shades, glinting in the swirling downlights, that gave away this impromptu band member as a movie star.

Lime Cordiale
Oli Leimbach and his brother Louis, the lead vocalist, of the Sydney band Lime Cordiale. Photography by Simon Lipman and Jess Ruby James.
Lime Cordiale
The guitarist Oli Leimbach of the Sydney band Lime Cordiale. Photography by Simon Lipman and Jess Ruby James.

Unbeknownst to the crowd, the unlikely trio was already deep into a studio session that would birth a mini-album, “Cordi Elba”, released in January of this year. It all came together quickly. Elba had just relocated to Sydney to film George Miller’s epic fantasy “Three Thousand Years of Longing” opposite Tilda Swinton. The band was having little luck sourcing the perfect vocalist to appear on a rework of a track. While Elba drove around town on his days off, catching snippets of Lime Cordiale on the radio, the brothers were blasting his boisterous remix of Wiley’s “Boasty” as a daily pre-show ritual. They were each fans from afar. It wasn’t until their mutual publisher at Universal Music pitched them to each other that the penny dropped.

“I think we were all searching for something new,” Oli says. “Maybe we pulled Idris out of the boombox in our green room…. Talked him out like a genie.” Elba is a measure less fanciful. “I was at a junction, musically,” he says, his words punctuated, as they often are, with a cheerful expletive. “I’d joined with a new publisher and they were like, ‘Do you want to do a writing session with Lime Cordiale? Or do you just want to be over there pretending to make music?’ ” His reply: an emphatic “of course”.

That first day in the studio was polite but unsteady. Elba approached the session with trepidation, nervous about proving himself as a lyricist. “I was half expecting them to be like, ‘That’s not what we were really expecting, but thanks. We loved you in “The Wire”,’ ” he deadpans. Likewise, the Leimbachs worried that their would-be collaborator had one eye on the door. When their high-profile guest reached for his phone to pull up a song idea, the pair assumed he was calling himself an Uber to make a hurried escape.

A few hours passed and the track that both sides had signed up for was essentially complete. They were free to wrap things up. Then, fairly unexpectedly, Elba brought out his laptop to workshop a demo — drums, a bassline, a verse of vocals — that he’d made in his trailer on set. Hesitation gave way to febrile excitement. As the trio pored over their most prized references — from the ska theatricality of Madness to the industrial funk of Gorillaz — the atmospheric shift was immediate. They had committed to the experiment.

Idris Elba
Alexander McQueen coat; AllSaints shirt. Photography by Simon Lipman and Jess Ruby James.
Idris Elba
Alexander McQueen coat; AllSaints shirt; Giorgio Armani pants; and Dr Martens boots. Photography by Simon Lipman and Jess Ruby James.

“It felt like we were in our mate’s bedroom making records,” Elba says. “I’m talking shoes off, you know what I mean? I was constantly trying to get the boys drunk. The wine or the tequila would come out and they weren’t saying no, so that was good.” A second track emerged from that haze of spitballing and shared bottles. It was the one that broke the ice, a rollicking shout-along gem named “What’s Not to Like”. “It made us go, ‘Oh, we’re friends now’,” Oli recalls.

Elba has been embedded in the music industry for decades, but was known for his DJing and athletic rap verses more than his singing voice. He found the recording process asked for a fresh creative approach, incorporating his dramatic register to hit all the required notes. Lime Cordiale watched him cut vocals with all the flourishes of a stage performance. The resulting tracks have a growling timbre that flits between haunting and lightly flirtatious. It sounds nothing like what the band has released in the past.

“You’ve got all the keys in the piano, right?” Elba muses. “And that piano can play everything from folk to classical to reggae to rock. Well, I was working with the incredible George Miller on a film that was very different from what he’s known for. But he was using the same eight keys he’s used to make all his films. Essentially I’ve been doing that all my life, too. I just use the one talent that I’ve got — which I guess is that I’m an artist with a massive imagination — and I apply that same imagination to both a screenplay and to working in a studio. It’s the same eight keys in a different application.”

When evoking that Australian visit, the actor often mentions learning to “let things flow”. While Elba’s writing process had in the past involved deciding on a strict genre in advance, the Leimbachs encouraged him to embrace his stream of consciousness. “Without them knowing it, they were teaching me to be a musician in a different way,” Elba says. Business as usual suddenly felt inadequate.

But in truth, Elba had started to buck against his comfort zone earlier that year. In March 2020, in the early stages of the global pandemic, he’d tested positive for Covid-19 and found himself holed up in New Mexico, stuck in isolation and mired in uncertainty. As a means of processing the experience — including the anxiety that plagued him as a lifelong asthma sufferer — he decided to learn acoustic guitar. Toying with the few chords he gleaned from YouTube for little more than his own enjoyment, Elba ignored his instincts and recorded freely. He allowed “all these weird ideas” to percolate, unrestrained by genre or his trademark perfectionism. His priorities had evolved. As he saw it, “Tomorrow’s not really promised, so do what you want,” he recalls. “You don’t know what’s going to happen so just go for it.”

Elba is interchangeably earnest, in a way that moves you, and brilliantly offhand. It’s a quality specific to all three men and perhaps the crux of their seamless cohesion. From Lime Cordiale’s fledgling singles to the band’s ARIA-winning studio album, “14 Steps to a Better You”, the brothers have always lent a tender relatability to their grooves, never so indulgent as to be detached from reality. The sons of a classically trained cellist, the two have a reputation as upbeat surf rockers that at times belies the complexity and depth of their skill. Known to enter something of a fugue state on stage, Louis brings shades of intensity to the band’s playful, brassy hooks with out-of-body vocals. Reviewers frequently liken him to a young Michael Hutchence. Oli, the lead guitarist, is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he studied classical clarinet among opera scholars who rehearsed their arias in the bathroom cubicles.

Idris Elba
Photography by Simon Lipman and Jess Ruby James.
Idris Elba
Photography by Simon Lipman and Jess Ruby James.

As songwriters, the pair manage to imbue an impossibly laidback jam like “Addicted to the Sunshine” with an environmentalist bent. Their lyrics are as much a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of coastal hedonism as an endorsement of its sunny appeal. For all their shaggy haircuts and retro safari suits, the two tend to be quite serious. Ever mindful of what they eat and active on the subject of climate change, they partnered with a renewable energy organisation to coordinate carbon offsetting for their latest tours. Their striking album covers feature Louis’ artwork — linocuts painstakingly crafted with a folk beauty reminiscent of ’90s Mambo.

They’re seriously successful, too, with Spotify rotations in the millions, a coveted spot on Post Malone’s London Cowboys label and regular placements in the Triple J Hottest 100 countdown. If there was ever a time to rest on their laurels, it would be now; they could surely churn out standard fare and the fandom would follow. But like their British collaborator, they aren’t interested in stasis.

Elba points to a simpler commonality. “I think you could take most possessions away from us, but as long as we could make music, we’d be all right,” he says. It’s a thought echoed by his wife, the Somalian-American model Sabrina Dhowre Elba, who was backstage at that surprise Sydney gig. Oli remembers her turning to him with gratitude. She was glad to see Idris having such a good time, and wondered aloud if her husband would be happier making music rather than films. He sometimes felt as if he might be in the wrong industry, Sabrina observed. Idris was long hounded by James Bond rumours and was the recipient of both an OBE and the title of People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” — one can imagine the sweet release of playing a DJ set for an anonymous crowd in a dark room.

In interviews, the group is familial in their camaraderie, but there remains a noticeable wide-eyed admiration for the eldest member. The Leimbach brothers are still pinching themselves. After all, they had spent the better part of a decade chasing radio rotation and playing any small venue that would have them, including local birthday parties. Their parents once lent them $10,000 to extricate the band from a contract they regretted entering into in the early days, mortgaging their house to raise the funds. Repaying that debt with their recent earnings was a satisfying moment for the brothers. Musical ability may have been in their blood, but success was hardly promised.

Idris Elba
Photography by Simon Lipman and Jess Ruby James.

If you were to ask Oli and Louis, the surreal factor isn’t helped by Elba’s at-times bizarre tangents. In crafting the song “Holy Moley”, he rhapsodised in the recording booth on the tether between the mystical Arabic djinn and the intoxicating effects of gin. He was drawing inspiration from, it turns out, his fantastical role in Miller’s upcoming film and his time as a brand ambassador for Tanqueray. In classic fashion, as Elba reflects on his creative process, he breezes from stoic seriousness to good humour. “‘Junipers jumping out of my pituitary gland’?” he says. “I don’t know where that lyric came from.”

His inventiveness is what awes the Leimbachs, less so his celebrity. “That song is one where even Louis and I don’t quite know the depth of what Idris is singing about,” Oli says. “I kind of love that. There are parts in his head that still haven’t been explained to us.”

Though the brothers are far too modest to volunteer that they’re cut from the same cloth as their writing partner, it’s apparent to any casual listener. Favouring a challenge over a free ride, they share the impulses of poets more than those of pop stars. In the rare moments when Elba and the brothers aren’t speaking the same conceptual language, it’s a source of stimulation rather than anxiety. Neither party came to the project looking for the familiar. “Working with Lime was one of the rebirths of my journey as an artist,” Elba says. “It’s taken off the restraints that I had, you know?”

With Elba back in London on yet another film set, the Australians are unsure when they might have the chance to meet again. This was partly by design. “There wasn’t really an end goal,” Oli says. “I don’t know if we even got to the end.” Deliberately left unfinished, their collaboration exists in perpetuity — something they can revisit and regenerate at their collective leisure. They’re certain that when schedules and travel restrictions allow, they’ll find themselves back in a studio with their shoes off and the tequila flowing. It’s a thought that makes them jostle like schoolboys with a secret plan. It would seem the trio has a lot left to create with those eight piano keys.

To see more of our cover star, watch our exclusive video interview where Elba answers T Australia’s famous rapid fire interview.

A version of this article appears in print in our fifth edition, Page 64 of T Australia with the headline:
“Idris Elba & Lime Cordiale”
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