Back to selection

“THE COVE” director, Louie Psihoyos

[PREMIERE SCREENING: Sunday, Jan. 18, 3:00 pm — Temple Theatre, Park City]

The inventor and venture capitalist Jim Clark and I have been dive buddies for the last 10 years but over the last 35 years of diving we have been witnessing the catastrophic collapse of the reefs and sea-life abundance. Jim and I decided to do something about it by setting up a nonprofit foundation, the Oceanic Preservation Society, to make ocean-based films and photographs to create awareness and inspire change. I have been a photographer for decades, mostly for National Geographic magazine, but I had never made a film before and Jim is legendary for his Midas touch in business. He’s helped send man to the moon, he invented the first 3-D graphics engine with Silicon Graphics, the first Internet browser and the third billion-dollar company he created he said was to prove that the first two were not a fluke. When he set up OPS, he told me, “Just make a difference.”

To educate myself on the various ocean topics, I traveled to marine mammal conferences and sat in on dozens of dry scientific talks. At one of these events in San Diego, Ric O’Barry, the trainer of Flipper, was supposed to be a keynote speaker but at the last minute, the event’s sponsor, Sea World, refused to let him speak. Curious, I phoned up Ric and asked him why. He said he was going to try and expose a secret cove in Japan where most swim-with-dolphin programs and dolphinariums are supplied from. Ric told me that he spent 10 years building up the captive dolphin industry, he caught and trained the five Flippers who collectively played the part of Flipper, and he’s spent the last 35 years trying to tear it down. After Cathy, the main Flipper dolphin committed suicide in his arms (dolphins are not automatic air breathers), Ric became the most vocal dolphin advocate in the world. Exposing the secret cove to the world had become his life’s mission and one week later after we both traveled to Japan — it had become mine as well. Ric O’ Barry then became the central character in our documentary.

Early in the inception of OPS, Jim introduced me to Steven Spielberg who advised me from his experience to, “Never make a film on boats or with animals.” Our first film, The Cove, went on to involve a lot of boats and large uncooperative marine animals. Added to that, the secret cove, which is the subject of our film, is flanked on three sides by steep cliffs. Tunnel entrances are protected by guards and dogs and steel fences with barbed wire and spiked gates. Activists have been trying to penetrate the cove without much success for decades, mostly because the thugs who guard it and the police who support them will harm you or jail you if you get caught. Add Spielberg’s sage advice to the dangers of our chosen subject and you can imagine the kind of pressures playing on this first-time director’s mind. But having learned of the atrocities of the cove, there was no way I and this Ocean’s Eleven filmmaking crew I assembled were going to turn our backs — we were on a mission.

John Ford said that making a movie is like painting a picture with an army and in a lot of ways, making The Cove felt like we were making a film in a war zone. To make this film we needed people with a special set of skills, not necessarily filmmaking skills. World Champion free diver Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and her trainer/husband Kirk Krack helped us set the underwater cameras and microphones quickly and quietly in the cove. Simon Hutchins, a former electronics wizard for Her Majesty’s Royal Air Force, Canada, helped create an OPS Air Force of unmanned drones, a gyro-stabilized camera video camera mounted below a remote-controlled helicopter and a blimp for aerial surveillance. A former photo assistant of mine had gone on to become the head mold maker at a division of Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic (now called Kerner Optical), and they made fake rocks to hide high-definition cameras and microphones. My buddy Charles Hambleton is no stranger to civil disobedience, he was arrested twice on the same day for trespassing while protesting Rocky Flats where they made nuclear triggers — he placed many of our rock/cameras in the cove. We stole past the cove guards and foiled the police by using military grade thermal cameras (which were not supposed to leave the U.S.) and diversionary techniques used by Special Forces. We made this film with more of a Mission Impossible Team than a documentary film crew and at one point in the editing, we realized that the covert footage we were shooting as B-roll for a possible making-of section of a DVD was one of the most compelling parts of the raw footage. We decided to incorporate that part of the story into our film.

The result is that The Cove plays much more like a feature action adventure movie written by Steven King than a traditional documentary where you feel like you are taking medicine. From the opening minutes of The Cove, the viewer realizes that this is not an ordinary documentary. Like the filmmakers, the viewer is taken on an extraordinary adventure, a real-life mystery story that involves cover-ups, police chases, crimes against nature and the revelation of an ever-unraveling web of secrets that eventually expand to touch everyone. Because the story was unfolding and evolving so quickly we didn’t work with a script until principal photography was finished, which provided a challenge for producer Fisher Stevens. He brought in industry veterans writer Mark Monroe and editor Geoff Richman to tie the documentary thriller together in an unconventional way where exposition is revealed only to advance the story of the unfolding thriller. In the end we all created a film that you couldn’t have dreamt up and told a story I believe we would have missed completely if we left the offices working from a script. If The Cove finds an audience, it will be because we ignored industry conventions and let our passion to make a difference guide the story. Hopefully we also live up to Jim Clark’s expectations for the film — he hasn’t seen it yet.

© 2016 Filmmaker Magazine
All Rights Reserved
A Publication of IPF