Commentary: Sundance dolphin doc is really action thriller


Dolphin doc: Documentaries have come a long way in recent years in terms of providing entertainment rather than dry information, but Sundance audiences are about to see just how far the envelope's been pushed by "The Cove."

"Cove" -- premiering Sunday at 3 p.m. at Park City's Temple Theater -- is, indeed, a doc about the ongoing covert slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, but it's really an action thriller whose filmmakers put themselves in great peril to document these brutal murders for the world to see. They also expose how dolphin meat, which is dangerously high in mercury content, is being sold to consumers in Japan under other names and has even been purchased by schools to be served in children's lunches.

"Cove" is directed by Louie Psihoyos, whose background is in still photography and for whom this is a first directing credit. It was produced by Fisher Stevens and Paula DuPre Pesmen, executive produced by Jim Clark and written by Mark Monroe. The filmmaking team also includes Richard O'Barry, a Marine Mammal Specialist at the Earth Island Institute who's best known for having captured and trained the five dolphins who played Flipper in the hit 1960s TV series; director of expeditions Simon Hutchins; freedivers Mandy-Ray Cruickshank and Kirk Krack; freesurfer David Rastovich; DNA scientist Scott Baker; cinematographer Brooke Aitken; clandestine operations expert Charles Hambleton; unit production manager Joseph Chisholm; and marine technician Greg "Moondog" Mooney.

After enjoying my early look at "Cove," one of 16 pictures selected for Sundance's documentary competition, I'd be surprised if it doesn't wind up being nominated in next year's best documentary feature Oscar race. The picture's domestic sales at Sundance are being handled by Josh Braun from New York-based Submarine Films and by the William Morris Agency's Rena Ronson.

Sundance attendees who aren't at the premiere should make a point of catching "Cove" at one of its other screenings -- Jan. 20 at 2:30 p.m. at the Library Center Theater (Park City); Jan. 21 at 7:30 p.m. at the Broadway Center Cinemas IV (Salt Lake City); Jan. 22 at 9 p.m. at the Temple Theater; and Jan. 24 at 9 a.m. at the Temple Theater.

I was happy to have an opportunity recently to talk to Louie Psihoyos about how "Cove" came about and the considerable challenges he faced making it. "I've been a still photographer for a little over 35 years, and I've never really made a film before," he explained. "My best friend is a guy by the name of Jim Clark, who started Netscape and Silicon Graphics. When he was in college he designed the computer systems that sent man to the Moon. He's a real visionary. We've been diving together and watching the degradation of the oceans happening pretty quickly over our lifetime. The last time we were in the Galapagos we were watching illegal trawlers fishing in protected waters and Jim said somebody should do something about it, and I said, 'Well, how about you and I?' "

In response they co-founded the Oceanic Preservation Society, he said, "and the idea was that we were going to make films to create awareness about what's going on in the oceans. One of the first things I did was I went to this marine mammal conference (in San Diego about four years ago) and Ric O'Barry was banned from talking by the sponsor. I said, 'That's interesting. Who's the event sponsor?' And they said Sea World. I called Ric and he said, 'They didn't want me to talk about this dolphin slaughter.' That to me was just incredible -- dolphins being slaughtered in this day and age. Of course, we all know about the large whales, but dolphins are nothing but small whales."

When I asked Psihoyos about having his film screening at Sundance, he told me, "Ever since I started this project about four years ago my dream was to get it to Sundance. We've been working towards a festival release because unless you get (one) and get a buzz on it it's very difficult to get an independent film shown (theatrically). There were over 9,000 films entered this year and we're one of the 16 that were accepted into (the category of) domestic documentary so we feel very proud and privileged. The real big question is, 'How do you get your film out of Sundance so you can let the rest of the world see it?'"

The film came about after Psihoyos went to Japan to see what was going on and, as he puts it, "stumbled upon the story. You know, 'The Cove' is really not just a movie about the cove (in Taiji). It's a metaphor for what's going on in the oceans. We're able to metaphorically, I think, address a lot of the bigger problems by focusing on a small problem. The idea was to make a film that's going to engage people using the documentary medium, but I think we stumbled on something different."

What's different, he emphasized, is that "Cove" really doesn't feel like a documentary: "Most documentaries feel like you're taking medicine. We (made) a film that sort of organically became an action adventure thriller without really intending to. Initially, most of the movie was shot as B-roll (footage). I thought, 'Well, as long as we're in there sneaking around why don't we run real film through this thermal camera device? As long as we're there, let's just see if maybe we can use it for B-roll for a making-of movie if this thing ever gets off the ground.'

"When we got back, the editors were saying, 'God, this stuff is as exciting as the footage you got. You should incorporate this into the movie.' Fisher Stevens, our producer, said, 'Absolutely. Let's tell the story of how you got it because it's as exciting if not more exciting than what you found back there.'"

Looking back on the project's early days, he recalled he was working with Jim Clark at his house at the time "and one day Steven Spielberg came over to his place. It turned out that Steven Spielberg's kids and my kids were doing sleepovers. Steven asked me, 'What do you do for a living?' I said, 'Well, I'm a still photographer, but I've started this organization called the Oceanic Preservation Society.' He said, 'I've just got one word of advice for you -- never shoot on boats or with large animals.' And I thought, 'My God. That's what I'm about to spend the rest of my life doing.' Then I started working on this movie and I thought, to myself, 'You could add 'and also don't shoot with subjects that are trying to kill you while the police are chasing you down.'"

That was how they worked for a year and a half, Psihoyos pointed out: "We went to Japan six times. We always had the police on our tail. We started out by ignoring all the basic rules of filmmaking. That's because we really weren't filmmakers to begin with. We were just setting out on this mission and ignoring some sage advice. I think if the film succeeds it's going to be partly because we didn't do it the traditional way. It doesn't feel like a documentary because it's real. It feels more like an action adventure movie than it does anything."

Asked about the challenges of filming, he replied, "The secret cove is a natural fortress. It's very, very difficult to get in there. There are steep cliffs on three sides, high gates, guard dogs on one side, police and guards patrolling the area at random hours. There's a reason they don't want people to get in there. We tried to figure out a way to document it without actually being there because physically it's impossible or very difficult to be in the cove without somebody seeing you."

To solve the problem Psihoyos turned for help to friends at Industrial Light & Magic, which was able to put high definition cameras inside what appeared to be rocks but were made of special foam. "They expertly hid them so they just blended right into the environment," he said. "In fact, when we went back to find them after the first night we had trouble finding them because they looked so much like the rocks in the cove. They were the first hard drive cameras that were made and at the time you only had about an hour of battery life." Modifications were made, however, and they eventually wound up with bigger hard drives and as much as 11 hours of battery life to work with.

Moreover, there were other technological problems. "There wasn't even software to get the material off," he recalled. "You could shoot, but you couldn't edit with these cameras. Later on, the technology became available to get the footage off the drives. The reason we had to do it like this was that we had to be in and out of the cove to set these cameras before the guards or the police or the whalers showed up. We had to be out of there at four in the morning, which is when we knew the first guard would come through. At that time we only had four hours and five minutes of shooting on one drive."

Not only did they have to sneak the cameras into the cove, but they then had to risk their lives again by going back to retrieve them. They had expert help from husband-wife freedivers Cruickshank and Krack, who were able to dive deeply while holding their breath -- Cruickshank can do that for an astounding six and a half minutes! -- to put underwater cameras in place. "It was like an 'Ocean's Eleven' team," he noted. "It was dangerous and it was risky. When I think about it I say, 'Why did we do this thing? It was so risky.'"

It wasn't the first time Psihoyos has put his life in danger on the job. "Doing what I did (as a photographer) at National Geographic, you risk your life all the time," he observed. "You're going into war zones to photograph. What I did wasn't necessarily wars, but you're going into places where people are killing each other. You're risking your life all the time for photographs, so I thought, 'Why not risk your life to save a species?'"

His goals were not only to make people aware that this secret slaughter of dolphins is going on in Japan, but also to make it known how highly toxic dolphin meat is. "They eat at the same level as humans at the very top of the food chain," he said. "Everything that human beings consume eventually ends up in the oceans -- especially fossil fuels. The burning of coal is the number one contributor to the rise of mercury in the environment. There's a cost to that -- we're degrading the oceans (and) diminishing the environment for future generations to enjoy. I used to eat seafood and I can't eat large seafood anymore. I have mercury poisoning at 23 parts per million. High is five parts per million. We're trying to alert people to what's going on here."

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