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John Maringouin, Big River Man

Interview by Alicia Van Couvering

Filmmaker selected John Maringouin as one of our “25 New Faces of Independent Film” in 2006 after seeing Running Stumbled, the filmmaker’s hilarious and disturbing film documenting his own reconciliation with his estranged father. This year he brought his remarkable film Big River Man to Sundance, a film several years in the making that documents the Amazon River expedition of Slovenian endurance swimmer Martin Strel.

Strel’s stated mission is to bring environmental awareness to the rivers he swims, which have included some of the most polluted on Earth. Maringouin sets out to follow Strel’s expedition and to paint a portrait of this main, combining shots of Strel swimming by dead bodies and tales of the near-fatal infections he has endured, with his commitment to drinking two bottles of wine every day, his proclivity for waterslides, compulsive gambling, excess weight and advanced age. He is wildly famous in his native Slovenia, his face plastered upon billboards, but is so poor that he barks at his son to steal the breadbasket from a formal luncheon. The man is truly larger than life, and the adventure he is preparing for will probably kill him.

What follows is not your average redemptive sports film. Strel genuinely loses his mind, and comes very, very close to death. His crew goes completely insane. All the while his 24-year-old son and manager Borut keeps him going, devoting his life to Strel’s quixotic, masochistic addiction to the swim. Of course, Maringouin (with partners like Molly Lynch, his producer and wife) was on that boat too, and talked to us after Sundance about losing your mind with priest puppeteers along with everything else he wishes he could have kept in the movie.

Big River Man will be playing in New York City this weekend. Alicia Van Couvering spoke to John Maringouin at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmaker: How has it been having Martin with you at Sundance? He recovered?

Maringouin: People just couldn’t get enough of him. Standing ovations at every screening. When Martin did Q&A’s, I think it was really cathartic for the audience to hear from this guy. It almost had the vibe of a resurrection, almost religious, you know. It would be like if you showed Grizzly Man and then Werner Herzog came on stage and said “OK, Ladies and Gentlemen, Timothy Treadwell! He’s fine, he didn’t die!” People are just in tears, and overjoyed – it was incredible. It didn’t matter what he said.

Filmmaker: How far has he recovered?

Maringouin: Somebody asked him that at a Q&A, how long did it take for you to get back to his full mental capacity, and he said [in Slovenian accent] “I think… one year.” It’s funny, even when he was in his fourth dimension in the hotel room, he was still drinking beer.

Filmmaker: Speaking of fourth dimension… How did you get access to him in the hotel room (where he spends several days recuperating in silence after the 70 days of Amazon swimming, and is visited by many disturbing and surreal individuals.) He let you in to film, but not others?

Maringouin: Well, there was a certain point where the barrier between the filmmaker and subject was gone. I was very much there with him. People have criticized me because they think [those scenes are] staged. There was media from all over the world waiting outside, and a lot of guys with baseball caps and golf shirts hanging around too, but they didn’t belong.

Filmmaker: What did they want?

Maringouin: Well they wanted to be around the fish man too. But they just didn’t belong in that space. It was amazing because it was like, after all that, thse just… freaks, hanging around, they were the people who like belonged to that psychic space. It was like, OK, there’s a Brazilian puppeteer priest waiting for him in the hallway? Bring him in. There’s a band? Bring them in.

Filmmaker: I think my favorite moment of the whole film is when you land in Brazil, and get into the ambulance with Martin and Borut, and the EMT saying in Portugese,“What is your name, Fish Man?. It’s OK Fish Man.” How did you get into that ambulance?

Maringouin: I had to fist fight. There was a huge mob of media, journalists from every country, and a huge Brazilian band. But it was the end of my movie. I felt like I had suffered as much as he did, trying to get the movie made, and I was like ‘I’m not gonna have an ending unless I somehow get this camera in the most privileged position that anyone has in this mob of people.’ They didn’t want me in and I was screaming and cursing, “If you don’t let me into this ambulance he IS gonna be dead, because I’m gonna kill him!” It was really on that level, because I knew it was gonna be the most important moment of the film and if it wasn’t really intimate there wouldn’t be a film.

Filmmaker: What was the crew size, who did you have with you on the boat?

Maringouin: We had two other camera men, rotating a B-Roll camera and an A-Camera. It was frustrating to the camera guys because I ended up shooting things that they wanted to shoot because I felt like I had a relationship to the subject. I was with Martin and Borut, I really focused on them, and then the other camera focused on the rest of Martin’s crew, who were great but didn’t make the cut. The film just focuses on Martin, Borut and Matt as if it was just the three of them alone. The [other crew members] were great characters, and they had their own storylines… you know, to me, the movie feels like Cliffsnotes, like a kid’s book about this big old event that you could have taken a team of story editors and turned into a four part series. But this was sort of my version of what happened.

Filmmaker: So how did you land on this version, of all versions?

Maringouin: I mean everything is so subjective, a different filmmaker would have had a completely different interpretation to what happened. The thing I was most interested in was his reaction to what the thing I felt he was looking for, which was to be loved. I got a sense that he was this abused child who, like a lot of celebrities, needs all this love and adulation. But when he started getting it, especially in Brazil [when the team was met by crowds numbering in the thousands, marching bands and dancing girls], his reaction to the crowd was almost… terror. He was terrorized by it. And I started to see this really broad thematic thing develop, that he does want to be loved, but the problem is people.

Filmmaker: The environmental theme is interesting, because while Martin says he’s swimming to save the Amazon, it’s never quite clear what his motives are.

Maringouin: Well, I kind of always questioned it. I thought he was doing it as a job, and to prove something to himself. I know a guy who used to be a crackhead, a really intelligent guy, and I asked him, ‘Why did you do all this crack?’ He said, “I didn’t do it for the high, I did it for the hallucinations. When I got to that hallucinatory state I was in another dimension; I had dominion over things in the spirit world that I didn’t when I was sober.” And I think it’s something like that [with Martin.]

Filmmaker: That makes sense given his physical and pathological need to get back into the water, even when he’s extremely deteriorated and can barely speak or walk.

Maringouin: There’s a great book about Endurance Swimming called Haunts of the Black Masseur, [by Charles Sprawson.] It’s all about endurance swimmers being this special breed because they spend so much time immersed in this water underworld, until they’re not like other humans. They’re like fish. The hallucinations are part of what they do. They call it Hypnagogic hallucinations, when you’re in a waking state, and you’re not on any drugs, but you are actively seeing and hearing things in the room that aren’t there. Martin was in that state for about half of the trip.

Filmmaker: What level is his awareness of these non-political motivations to get back in the water?

Maringouin: He really [focuses] on the environmental stuff. Which is also the typical endurance swimmer thing. They have to have a motive greater than themselves to do it, to push them. I tried to paralleling his deterioration with the destruction of the rainforest, but I didn’t want to make the rainforest messages too heavy or preachy — I just wanted to get them across and get you back into the film, I didn’t want it to be an issue film.

Filmmaker: What was the hardest thing to cut?

Maringouin: Slovenia – I could have made a 90 minute film of just these guys preparing to go. That stuff is so much better than you could possibly imagine. [Martin] would be on the psychadelic waterslide, and then he’d go meet the president, and then he’d go to the casino. Unreal. My most missed scene… Well, one is where Borut says “Being the most famous person in Slovenia, Martin has a very special responsibility. Because whoever he endorses to be president usually wins.” So there’s this thing where he’s trying to figure out who to endorse for President, and he’s with his friend Lojze Peterle, who was then the front-runner presidential candidate. They were in a big hallway and they go, “Hey, check it out, it really echoes in here.” So I had a scene of the guy who’s running for President with Martin, and they’re just going ‘ooooooooh.’

Filmmaker: What else do you miss?

Maringouin: There was a scene where Borut is standing in front of a poster of Martin, and he says, “Here you see this poster. It says Talent, Technology and Tolerance. And these are the three main words that describe how Martin relates to business in Slovenia.” And on the one side they have all these pictures of Martin in a speedo. And on the other side they have all these pictures of Industry. Then it cuts, and he’s just standing there in this bright red shirt in the middle of all these suits, and they’re all standing there in a row in this like Xanadu-style opening of this technology park, called Technopolis. And they had this like Puff character on stage singing, and this huge screen with images of technology and the future of Slovenia, and Martin is the mascot for all of this. You really get a grip on how important he is to this country. I couldn’t believe we cut that, but the pressure from the sales end was that we really needed to get to the Amazon as quickly as we could. [In early cuts] I had it structured like Deer Hunter practically, where we had an hour of Slovenia, and then an hour and a half of the Amazon.

Filmmaker: So when you went down to meet Martin in Slovenia, when did you know that you could make a film?

Maringouin: From the first moment when he pulled up his car onto the sidewalk at the airport. His car [sponsored by Mazda] has his name plastered along the side. And the security guard said, “Oh that’s Martin Strel, he parks wherever he wants to in this country, you’ll see.”

Filmmaker: Your understanding of the relationship between Martin and Borut really grows during the film. How do they work together?

Maringouin: Well, the thing that blew my mind was how much Martin was such a big wig but he was propped up totally by this 24-year-old kid, who is his son. His son didn’t sleep at night, though Martin slept just fine. I expected there to be like a big team of financiers and expeditionaries that were putting this huge expedition together and there was just the two of them. So there were billboards all over the country, and he’s on the front page of Yahoo and MSN and everything, it was just Borut orchestrating the whole thing. I just thought that was incredible. I miss that storyline too.

Filmmaker: And he actually pretends to be Martin for interviews, too…

Maringouin: That’s more footage that I miss. As Martin was deteriorating, BBC and some other outlets were doing follow-up interviews as he went down the river. Borut was performing Martin’s voice to the media, but he was trying to act more deteriorated as time went on. By the end he did this live CNN interview, and Borut himself got drunk and put these plastic bottle caps in his mouth, and he was like, “Ohhhhh, I’m totally gone….” We cut it because it calls not only what he’s doing into question, but it makes you laugh so much that it throws you out of the flow of his deterioration. But I very much miss seeing it.

Filmmaker: How did you come to understand the overall structure of the film?

Maringouin: I saw it as Heart of Darkness in reverse – you start at the beginning of time and you swim towards civilization. Civilization is what swallows you up and what defeats you. That’s what I wanted to be the structure of the film: his ultimate success is also the moment where he gets completely devoured and destroyed by civilization.

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