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Lost at Sea: The Morbid Fascinations of Fishing Doc 'Leviathan'

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire March 1, 2013 at 3:17PM

Nature documentaries tend to be relegated to a fixed format that conforms to National Geographic standards, but "Leviathan" violates such expectations in remarkable ways. In this interview, the filmmakers explain their unique approach.
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"Leviathan" directors Lucien Castain-Taylor and Verena Paravel.
Eric Kohn "Leviathan" directors Lucien Castain-Taylor and Verena Paravel.

Nature documentaries tend to be relegated to a format that conforms to National Geographic standards; not "Leviathan." A collaborative effort by filmmakers Verena Paravel ("Foreign Parts") and Lucien Castaing-Taylor ("Sweetgrass"), the movie is exclusively composed of frantic, powerful and often disturbing images shot with tiny cameras onboard (and sometimes just off-board) a fishing vessel off the coast of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

The movie is a mesmerizing testament to the capacity for lightweight digital cameras to allow for more innovative filmmaking approaches, a lyrical ode to life at sea, a cautionary tale about life at sea, a blurring of the line between man, nature and fish. Cameras drift beneath the waves and assume the perspectives of the creatures swarming below, but they also capture that same haunting POV from the deck of the ship when the animals are deceased. Crewmembers are glimpsed in heat of brutal physical labor but rarely speak. Watching "Leviathan" draws you into a haunting, otherworldly experience that defies specific categorization.

Paravel and Casting-Taylor spoke to Indiewire at the offices of distributor The Cinema Guild last week. "Leviathan" opens in New York today with a national roll-out to follow. 

I hear that there was one scene you've tweaked since initially showing the movie at film festivals. Which one was it?

VERENA PARAVEL: The captain’s falling asleep watching "Deadliest Catch." And we found that the irony was maybe too much -- that he was actually falling asleep watching this fishing drama.

Too much commentary, less observation?

VP: No, we were also fascinated by slow transformation and we thought the intention would be stronger if you weren't distracted by the sound. So we decided to lower the sound so much that you could not hear it. And then we came back here and remixed everything, and it wasn't much louder, so finally we made the final decision that, OK, we’re going to keep the sound down…and [the Berlin International Film Festival screening] was the first time we could hear the sound. And actually we realized probably that we had spent all this money and all this time and we don't like it with the sound. It was out of sync. And the film was going to be released in a week.

I think I still would have appreciated the entire film with the sound off.

LUCIEN CASTAING-TAYLOR: You didn’t see any of the installations when you were in Berlin, did you? One of them was a six-hour silent work with one frame playing every two seconds, looping. It's a radically different experience.

When did the idea for that come along?

VP: During production.

LCT: Conceptually it came to us -- came to [Verena] -- during editing. Not the slow-mo, but the stills, they started jumping out at you and then jumping out at me. It happened during editing. But we didn't end up finishing the pieces until after.

Was this just your own idea? Or were there other forces involved in bringing it to fruition?

A scene from "Leviathan."
The Cinema Guild A scene from "Leviathan."

LCT (Turns to Paravel): It was your idea -- but it was the spirits, the images. You were like the medium and they were working through you in a way.

When I saw the film for the first time I immediately felt that, to some degree, it was directed by nature -- that there was an arbitrariness about it that I wasn't accustomed to seeing even in a non-narrative film. Every image is controlled somehow and yet here it seemed like there was a third, non-sentient director. How much did you anticipate about the outcome before you saw a single frame?

VP: Almost nothing.

Did you have descriptions or proposals?

LCT: We had crap to raise money, grant proposals, that didn't work.

You wanted to present it as an expose of some sort on some industry?

VP: Exactly. Something that involved…

LCT: Human rights, animal rights…

VP: All the things that will make you cry and that make money for a documentary. But we knew that we wanted to do something different and that was the whole point about fishing.

LCT: I would say we didn't even know what we wanted to do, only that we wanted to do something non-anthropocentric. Because [we've already seen] a fisherman's relationship to the sea.

This article is related to: Interviews, Reviews, Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor, Véréna Paravel, Sweetgrass, The Cinema Guild, Foreign Parts






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