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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."
"Leviathan."

Was there any element of location scouting? Did you go out at all before the cameras started rolling?

(They shake their heads.)

So the first time you went out on these boats you started shooting.

VP: Yes. (Turns to Casting-Taylor) Do you remember we had these conversations about staying with the captain in his cabin, and following him hunting and all of these things? We had all of these possibilities, but we were really taken by the images that we shot at sea and also by the experience.

LCT: Right. From the word go, we didn't feel surpassed by the images we had shot on land. We thought they were interesting but they felt immediately surpassed by the majesty and the horror and the beauty and the ugliness of what these images [at sea] contained.

How were you watching them?

LCT: Just on a laptop. Everything was shot on a DSLR or little extreme sports cameras.

So you watched everything on the boat?

VP: We would try to. You're not in a state where you can really see or think.

LCT: You feel images before you see them. The visible is just a membrane for everything else. It's just a skin wherein everything lies: the physical, the emotional. You work through the visible.

VP: Also, the film should be an encounter with something and you should capture the encounter. People come to me every time we came back from sea and said "Did you get what you wanted?" That's the question, because people seemed to think that we had something bigger and clearer in mind. And we had nothing. We never had a script and we didn't know what we would encounter. The nature became this big element of the film. We felt that it was a self portrait of nature by itself. Just think about the controlling and not controlling. It's the same as, as you say, the visible and the invisible. It's this relationship between what you try to get and what you try to capture, and then suddenly you let go and there is this friction -- you try to pierce through something and sometimes you get something that is really beyond what you were expecting. I think "Leviathan" is really about this mysterious encounter we had and the space between the visible and the mystery that is left. That's very important. It goes back to these installations that we ended up doing. When we contained images from the film we found things that were hidden. It took us back to the Atlantic, to our relationship to the deep, to the abyss, to the unknown, to the primordial fear that we have of the sea. It's an encounter with life, because you feel very alive when you are very tiny in the middle of a storm on a small boat that is ready to sink. You really feel alive because you feel so close to dying. All these strong, strong emotions.

The movie ends with a dedication to lives that were lost at sea. What was the impetus for including that?

VP: Well, first of all, when you navigate through the water off the coast of New Bedford and you're on the boat, you have this map on the wheelhouse with a representation of the bottom of the ocean. And it's a big cemetery. There are thousands, thousands of shipwrecks everywhere. And while we were shooting a couple of people died. You go for a drink or are on the fishing boat, and we're talking about dying, about accidents, about people falling overboard.

Including people that you knew?

VP: Everybody knew someone who died. It's the most dangerous job. We checked, because we were not really sure about that.

LCT: And not just accidents like wind and falling off the boat, but murders and injuries.

Are you afraid of going out to sea again? How comfortable are you with that world?

LCT: I don't think we ever became comfortable.

VP: I'm not going to go back out to sea for a while. I think both of us now have more complex and interesting relationships with the ocean for all we learned and experienced and what we did with those images. It opened our conscience about the ocean, and also the story that lies on the bottom of the ocean -- from the plague, to war, to all of the biblical stories. All of that is part of the image. To go back to that and to the dedication to the people who died at sea, it's also a connection to Moby Dick, but not in a heavy way. Since New Bedford is the city where Melville first went in a whaling boat, there's still the church that he described in Moby Dick. There is a dedication there to all the boats that went down at sea.

I suppose if you wanted to sell it to a broader audience you could say that it was a remake of sorts of Moby Dick.

"I think we're completely uninformed. We're not experimental filmmakers or not anthropologists."

VP: It would be pretentious to do that. It's like a monument of literature. But it was a good reference and it was good to have the book with us and read and go through as an interior dialogue.

LCT: I think the way we did the dedication at the end injects a human element in a film that puts the human in a very marginal position.

Viewers accustomed to certain types of experimental film, such as those made by the late Stan Brakhage, have seen the film in that tradition. Was this a conscious connection for you?

LCT: I think we're completely uninformed. We're not experimental filmmakers or not anthropologists.

VP: We’re nobody! We’re nothing! (laughs)

But you know of such films.

LCT: Of course, of course, but I think there's the view of that type of cinema that it's always referring to itself when actually there are different conventions and different genres. One of the important aspects of a medium such as cinema is that it allows for so many different art forms, and then humanity has created the potential to have them then be sequestered away as completely separate forms of expression, which is absolutely ludicrous. We're all sentient, physical, corporeal, reflecting, emoting beings.

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





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