“Mission Blue” documents the life work of pioneering oceanographer Sylvia Earle, who is still jumping into the ocean at age 79. She shows us what the ocean was like when she first explored it back in the 50s. The not-for-profit film has been re-edited since playing the Berlin, Santa Barbara (our review here
) and Ashland film festivals.
Netflix released it in theaters August 15 backed by a massive outreach campaign to promote understanding and awareness about the threats faced by Earth’s oceans. The film is both enlightening and entertaining, not unlike producer Stevens’ Oscar-winning indie hit “The Cove.” Stevens came by Sneak Previews for a Q & A:
Anne Thompson: After I saw this movie, I admired oceanographer Sylvia Earle but I thought, “Oh my god, I can’t eat fish anymore.” What movie did you set out to make?
Originally, after I made “The Cove” with Louie Psihoyos, I was asked by TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) to film this woman, Dr. Sylvia Earle on one of their Ted Prize Trips. I’d known of Sylvia only recently, because of “The Cove,” because she was one of the people responsible for making “Google Oceans” happen. So, I went on this Galapagos trip to film Sylvia and her “hope spots”: her wish to make, create, marine protected areas. We then spent a couple of years making a film about that and realized it was the most boring film we’ve ever made!
A few months later, I went to visit Sylvia in Berkeley. And, I said, “Do you have any old footage of you, young, stuff?” And, there was this cardboard box under her bed. And, she said “Yea, I got a bunch of films and stuff.” And, so, we finally looked through that. And, we realized the movie has really got to be about her life, because it’s fascinating. And, her eyes seeing the ocean and her years of diving while the ocean is deteriorating. And, she was not into it. And, she didn’t want to talk about her ex-husbands. And, she didn’t want to talk about her past. She wanted to talk about the hope spots, and it was quite difficult. Finally, after a long time, and her really hating me, we convinced her to do this. And, we had to cut some other juicy tidbits because she would really never speak to me again.
Tell me what we’re missing!
Her personal life.
You could sense that you were artfully working that stuff out of her, that she was reluctant to talk about it.
Yeah, it was a little dry. I feel like the new version is more seamless. It’s not any longer or shorter in length but it feels like it moves a lot quicker. And, the music has definitely been improved. We had Framestore do the graphics. They just won the Academy Award for “Gravity.” And, that made a big difference.
It’s important to make a movie that’s entertaining?
First and foremost, film has to be entertaining, especially when you’re dealing with these subjects. And, that’s what I told Sylvia, as I’m giving her her third glass of wine in our interview, to keep telling me about her husbands. Because, that’s what people want to hear. You want to make an entertaining film that has a message…We’re going to sit in the theatre. We want to be entertained. It’s great if you can enlighten and educate, while you’re entertaining.
So, how many years are we talking about here? Four years? How did you finance it?
Well, the Ted Trip was March 2010. There’s a gentleman, named Gordon, one of the TEDsters, some very wealthy donor individuals. He saw Sylvia speak at the TED conference and said, “I want to make a movie about you.” And, he came to me, and he funded this pretty much on his own, with help from National Geographic on one shoot. Shannon and Bill Joy gave us their boat in Australia. They funded the Australian portion. And, hopefully, people will give to Sylvia’s foundation: mission-blue.org
. And, really, her focus is creating re-protected areas: to carve 20 percent of the ocean out by 2020. Which is a dream, but we’ll see how much we can get.
So, you got James Cameron, who really admires her.
He loves her. And, he loves this film. He was quite generous.
And you had a massive amount of material. You cover a lot of ocean. You’re telling her story, using her point of view, and you’re providing a lot of data. When you show her swimming to the fishing boats that are vacuuming up the little fish, it looks like she was about to get sucked in!
She almost did. That was pretty hairy. That was the one time I thought, “I’m going to kill Her Deepness.” I didn’t know what a menhaden was. And, during one of our interviews, she pulls this book off her shelf. She goes, “This is what we have to talk about: “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.” Read this book!” So, I read the book. And, I said, “Sylvia, we gotta go to the Chesapeake Bay, and put you in the water. And, you should film those fish going up there.” And, she said, “I want to do that! I’ve always wanted to do that. I want to feel what they’re like.” And, she was 76 and a half-years-old. You know? And, she had no fear.
So, they’re yelling, “Get away!” And, she, and we are all pretty tense. And we get back to the dock and the cops are waiting for us. They called the cops. They’re like, “These people were…” They didn’t know what we were doing. And, they wanted to see our footage. We really weren’t doing anything wrong. Because, it’s free, you know, it’s the Chesapeake Bay. So, they couldn’t do anything. But, they started getting skeptical. They know that they can’t catch all those fish. There’s nothing left if they keep going.
So we have to give up our fish oil pills, too?
I don’t eat them, like she says. It’s true. I get all my Omega 3’s from algae and from plants, which is where fish get them.
And, have you given up eating fish?
I’ve given up eating most fish. I still eat some wild salmon, and I eat some small fish. I got into this whole thing, in a way, because I saw this really horrifying film called “Earthlings” about eight years ago. It’s about slaughterhouses. So, I decided to stop eating meat. So, I became a pescitarian. So, I started eating tons of fish. And, I was eating tuna and fish like three days, four days, a week; and, then, I started feeling strange, run down. I went to the doctor. The doctor said, “You’re fine, you’re fine.” But, he had taken blood tests. And, I’m in my office, and I get a call from the New York City Board of Health saying I have Mercury poisoning. And, I’m like, “What?” And, they said, “Do you eat a lot of fish?” And, I said, “All the time.” And, they go, “Don’t. There’s an epidemic of Mercury poisoning in New York City because New Yorkers eat so much sushi and fish.”
And, then I met Louie Psihoyos. And, he had Mercury poisoning. And, he was making this crazy movie about dolphins and stuff, and that’s how we got into “The Cove.”
So, did that give you a taste for wanting to direct, having gone through that experience on “The Cove”? And, for wanting to make a difference? You’re on a mission here.
Once I started “The Cove” and using film, it’s now become a big part of my life. And, I’m doing a movie about extinction next. We had to kind of keep making this movie until it worked, just to serve Sylvia. Because, she’s so important and what she’s doing is so important.
She very acclimated to the water. She’s in her element when she falls off that boat.
Yea, that’s why we put the ballet and the ballerina scenes in. And, I had trouble keeping up with her diving underwater. I mean, I really did at times. And, also, I don’t know if there are any divers here; but, you know, you have an oxygen tank and you have a certain pressure, 3000 PSI usually. I run out of air, um, 30 minutes before her, 40 minutes sometimes, sometimes 50 minutes before her. And, she’d still be down there, and I’d have to come up. And, she was just amazing down there.
So, tell me what some of these challenges were in sort of shaping the film? I understand, at one point, you got pretty caught up in covering the Gulf disaster, as well. The oil spill.
I had a partner on the film: Bob Nixon. And, he’s from D.C. and is a fisherman. So, when the oil spill happened, there was about four months, or five months, of filming just that. And there’s very little of it in the film. We spent quite a bit of our budget on the oil spill. Sylvia was obsessed with the oil spill. So, all of that is going to be on webisodes, I guess. Or, on the DVD. And, then the other challenges are: how do you take all these different problems–edification over population, weather–and make a continuous movie? Fortunately, we had Sylvia’s life to string through that. And, we go through her life chronologically. But, it was quite a challenge. And we kept working on the film.
So, why was Netflix the right place to take the film? And, what did you get from Netflix that was different from what a normal theatrical distributor would do?
We screened the film in Berlin, and Netflix wanted to buy it. And, they said, “We have a couple of things we’d like to talk to you about maybe making better.” And, I was thrilled. I was always told that more people watch documentaries on Netflix than anywhere else. The documentaries I made, everybody always come up to me and goes, “Oh! I saw it on Netflix.” Nobody saw it in the theatres. So, I was excited about that. It’s a new company, in terms of original documentaries. They’ve only had a few. They did a great job with “The Square” and “Mitt,” two of their first docs of their originals. And, I love the fact that they wanted to make it better, and partner with us on making the film better, and helping. It’s has a week in New York and LA, to qualify [for the Oscars]. But, that’s not really their model. It’s just like, “Let’s get it on Netflix and premiere it.”
So, did Netflix give you some more money to work with?
They actually did. They were very generous. And, their notes were quite good, unlike many studios. They, actually, were quite helpful. And, they wanted a new ending with a hot, great song. That was their idea. The ending just didn’t have a “pop.” And, we got Florence and the Machine to give us a song at the end, thanks to Leonardo Di Caprio, who wrote her for us.
So, you did a few reenactments. While we look at the period photographs and footage from back when?
Well, there were only a couple of reenactments and, honestly, we had the idea to do it. And, it wasn’t until I saw Sarah Polley’s “The Stories We Tell,” then I got a clear picture of exactly what I wanted to do. And, I hired the same cameraperson, actually: Iris Ng. In Florida where we shot was the actual beach she played on as a 12-year-old. We got a 12-year-old girl. We got period clothes.
You made it look like it was homemade footage…
Maybe even dirtier. And, then New Jersey, we went to the house she grew up in that was built by Sylvia’s father. But, those were the only two. That’s an early underwater shot of Sylvia in 1960-something. She barely remembers where she got that.
So, you can just retrieve all this stuff. All these old sprocket reels.
No, no. It was really expensive. And, we had to go through and clean every frame and a lot of that footage…Unfortunately, when she went on those expeditions in the Pacific on those big huge boats with 70 men, we couldn’t get that footage as clean as we wanted it. We couldn’t get the actual film. We had to use some lousy video transfer.
Audience: What message do you want us to take away? Is it to support her charity and to stop eating fish?
Well, that’s Sylvia’s message. I made this film for people to know who this woman was and her commitment to the oceans, and her passion for the oceans. I’m telling a story. What I want you to come away with is to be inspired by this woman. And, to look at the oceans, or the rivers, or the streams, or whatever body of water you see in your life. I want you to look at the differently. Look at water differently. Look at it as, opposed to how can I use it, as how can I live with it and keep it sustainable and keep it in as good a condition as it can possibly be. So, I guess that’s the message. Ultimately, I want people to help create these marine protected areas. Because, really, it’s the only way; that, and changing the way we use fossil fuels. The carbon is the big, other problem, besides the overfishing. And so next time you eat blue fin tuna, think about eating a tiger, or a lion, or an endangered species. Because, they should be endangered. But, they are not because of the fishing lobbying.
Try to eat a fish that can fit on your plate when it’s alive. That’s the safest, and, usually, the most sustainable.
Audience: I’m curious what you think about these fish farms.
So, fresh water fish farms, tilapia–she’s in favor of, because of the environmental and sustainability of what’s going on. A lot of fish farming in the oceans…I filmed salmon farms. I’ve seen some tilapia farms that are really dirty, disgusting. And, a lot of the salmon farms that I’ve seen are terrible, wreaking havoc on the oceans that they’re being farmed from.
I’m suspect about salmon and farmed salmon. And, 80 to 85 percent of salmon that you see is farmed. Salmon need to spawn. Salmon need to move. I don’t care where that salmon is from, I would stay away from it unless it’s pickled. And, then, it’s probably a lot safer. There is a shrimp farm, now. There are new techniques happening that are very exciting, that are not ruining the ocean, that are not ruining other species. A lot of fish farms are hurting other species because they’re in tanks in the oceans, and it’s really screwing up the biodiversity and the food chain of the water.
Audience: Does she have any connections, politically, that she can work with to help make these things happen?
She was instrumental in what, in my opinion, was the only good thing George W. Bush did–which was signing one of the largest re-protected areas in the United States around the Hawaiian Islands, before he left office. She is now working on Obama. Obama wants…He’s from Hawaii. He’s taking what Bush did, and he wants to make it times five. So, she’s really trying to hammer that out. She’s working with Palau, a tiny country of 21,000 people, but it controls part of the ocean the size of France. So, she’s working with them. And, they are this close to making that an entire marine protected area around Palau. So, she’s working in that level. She’s on a plane literally 300 days a year. She was in Montenegro last night, Washington today, and on a plane to Montana tomorrow. She is non-stop. And, she will meet any political leader at any time, when it comes to protecting the oceans.
Audience: I was fascinated by the photography and cinematography. There were people taking pictures of her and the fish at the same time. How did you find these people?
Any time you saw Sylvia diving in the last four and a half years, that’s our guy Brice, filming Sylvia underwater. She has been filmed quite a bit. There’s two other underwater photographers that are the best in the world: David Hannon and Shawn Heinrichs, who is another star underwater photographer–the hammerheads and a lot of the sharks. We licensed footage from them.
Just a side note: Sylvia was always intent on showing beautiful things, beautiful stuff. For a long time, I said, “Sylvia, we’re working on licensing footage.” And, she said, “No, we have to go somewhere and film beautiful stuff!” So, I said, “Ok, Sylvia, where do you want to go? Where are you going?” And, she said, “Well there’s a conference…” You know, it’s always about where she has to go speak. “There’s a conference in Sydney. Then we can go to the Coral Sea. I remember the Coral Sea. It’s going to be incredible! The Joys will let us use their boat.” So, ok, that trip to the Coral Sea was supposed to be to film the most beautiful place that we could go to. And, what you guys saw was really the shock on her face, because she was shocked that that area…You know, we were 118 miles out. She was like, “This is going to be incredible, so beautiful!” And, no one had dove out there for quite some time. But, there were no fish, because those longliners had taken them all. The corals were dead because of the climate change and there were no fish to feed on them. So, that was a real shock. She didn’t even want the camera to roll; she was in such shock.
Audience: Earlier in the film, there’s a scene of all these sharks being killed. And, I think the line that Sylvia says is: “Why are we brutalizing these sharks? We are not on their menu.” However, I know her logic about sharks. But, there have certainly been documented shark attacks, particularly recently, close in. Do you think this is happening because we’re messing with their ecosystem?
We’re messing with their ecosystem. Yes, we are. Totally. Also, the waters are getting warmer and they have to come in, looking for food. We’re taking a lot of their food. Honestly, 250,000 sharks are killed everyday; so, yes, we have attacks. And, it is a drag. But, the numbers are staggering. Finally, China is really doing something about this. They have really changed their ways. They’re making shark fin soup illegal; they’re banning it. The government is really stepping up, which is fantastic. But Shawn Heinrichs, he is the guy that goes in and documents these sharks being killed. And, he can tell you stories…And, you know, they’ll just cut the fins off and throw them back. And, they’ve been 400 million year; and, now, they’re down to ten percent or less of their population, from just since Sylvia was diving in 1953.