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Sundance Interview: ‘Blackfish’ Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Discusses Suffering Orcas, Trainer Death, and Why SeaWorld Hasn’t Seen the Movie

Sundance Interview: 'Blackfish' Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite Discusses Suffering Orcas, Trainer Death, and Why SeaWorld Hasn't Seen the Movie

A lot of documentary filmmakers make movies about the causes that consume their lives. For “Blackfish” director Gabriela Cowperthwaite, however, the discovery of SeaWorld’s lack of safety measures for both its trainers and the whales themselves caught her off-guard the same way it did many people: In 2010, head trainer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tillikum, a SeaWorld orca captured in the wild in the early eighties and responsible for several violent incidents since then. The movie digs behind the scenes for the whole story. “Blackfish” culls from shocking footage of killer whales at SeaWorld showing their frustration over poor captivity conditions while including candid testimony from ex-trainers. Both an activist cause and a wakeup call for anyone who has attended SeaWorld in the past, the movie instantly got people to start talking when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and landed distribution with Magnolia Pictures. Cowperthwaite talked to Indiewire about the genesis of the project.

A lot of people remember when a trainer was killed by an orca at SeaWorld a few years back. But most don’t realize that a lot of the reports — like that the trainer died because she was wearing a ponytail that the orca tugged on — were actually conjecture.

There are a lot of people who wonder how the ponytail plays into it. It really is the power of marketing or spin that lets you hold onto that strange little fact about the ponytail that has since been disproven. But it’s the first thing you heard, so you stick with it, and that’s the story you regurgitate. In fact, that’s the first thing that people say when I tell them about the film that I made. They say, “Oh, yeah, the orca grabbed her by the ponytail.”

Were you surprised by a lot of the details behind SeaWorld’s history with safety issues for both the whales and trainers when you started working on this project?

I had been paying attention to general media about it, but I was also surprised. When I started peeling back the onion, I figured there had to be more to this story: Was [the whale] playing with her? Was he angry? Why would a whale do this?

What was your access point for the story?

I was a mom that took her kids to SeaWorld. That’s my entry point, unfortunately. I really didn’t know anything about it. And another thing that always make me feel strange is that my entry point was that Dawn was killed by an orca. My entry point was a human death. There’s something scary, bizarre and sensational about it that worked on me. So I guess in my mind if that triggered something in me, that if a film had a chance to allow me to pull back the curtain, maybe I could pull back the curtain for the general public.

SeaWorld declined to do any interviews for the film. Did you expect that they would cooperate more?

Yeah, I did. I’m naive that way. I also don’t come from any past activism or even really controversial filmmaking. My past films are sort of slightly more touchy feely and inspiring, so I expected they would look at this as an opportunity to tell me what they do, why so many people are enchanted by these shows, and why they’re a $2 billion industry. Tell me what I’m falling in love with when I take my kids there. I wanted an answer from them. I think the more I found out and the more I discovered, the more I realized that at a certain point there was no way they could come off as not being defensive. Why was a trainer killed in their park? They’re automatically on the defense and never going to look good. They told me they would think about it — that it was very likely I would be granted an interview, and then six months later told me no. I don’t know if they were serious or if they were just entertaining the idea.

Did you try to show SeaWorld the movie before it premiered at Sundance?

No. You can’t open yourself up that way. At some point, this is one of those journalism issues. I do see myself as an even-handed person. So when I asked them for an interview, I was really genuine about wanting that interview. I wanted to be that diplomatic person. Yet at some point you could risk being faithless to the truth. All of a sudden in trying to give them five minutes and these people five minutes, I wouldn’t be telling a truthful story. My directive was to let the narrative guide me and just stay disciplined. If people take hits during that storyline, so be it — it’s the truth.

What about the ex-trainers who speak candidly in the film? Were they nervous about getting involved?

They definitely were. A lot of them were pretty brave and came out after Dawn was killed and were sort of outspoken. So those folks felt a little more comfortable. But there were people who were not comfortable, who hadn’t quit years and years ago but rather more recently. They were very hesitant and scared about coming forward. On two separate occasions, two people canceled interviews after we’d flown there.

Are they still in the movie?

One of them. One of them came around a month later.gaWhat’s your relationship with the activist community that has been involved in this situation for years?

I know they’re there. I spoke to them and they knew I was doing a film. But as I said before, I really had to know who I was. I’m a filmmaker and a storyteller, a student of this issue. For me to pretend I’m someone I’m not yet — I haven’t earned the stripes for being some sort of orca researcher — is goofy. I was like, “Look: My responsibility is to tell this story as honestly as possible.” I was concerned that these other forces would drive what I was doing and I didn’t want to be susceptible to that. I wanted to remember what my responsibility was.

One of the key aspects of the movie is the way it puts SeaWorld in historical context with the infamous theft of baby orcas in Puget Sound in 1970.

That’s partly why things are the way they are now — because the people in the area heard the whales screaming, heard what it was like. They were the ones who took it to the top at the United States government and said, “Let’s ban this in U.S. waters.” It was really that event that spun that off. So those people are the strongest activists for the cause.

It’s also pretty compelling that you were able to locate one of the fishermen involved in that hunt. He’s still wrecked by guilt.

He’s an interesting story, John Crowe. I found his name from one of my researchers. I said that I need someone who was there. He said there was this one guy John Crowe but he’s probably dead. So I called every John Crowe in the Pacific Northwest. There were like 50. Most were the wrong number. Finally I got this guy in Newport, Oregon. I said, “Is this John Crowe?” and he said, “What’s left of him.” I knew at that moment it was the guy. He was like the fisherman from “Jaws.” He’s spoken about [this story] a few times before and it’s something he can never shake. He’s very emotional about it.

Has anyone in the movie seen a cut of it?

The trainers have. They were wholly satisfied with it. To me that was my hardest audience. I felt like I was going to pass out. I screened it for them before the premiere so they would be versed in it and know what to say in the Q&A. They were crying, hooting and hollering. They really liked it. But I was nauseous the whole time because I consider them apostles in the film. They were the narrative voice. I wanted to take them from the glory of SeaWorld to seeing whales in their natural environment. They’re delivering me a message from the dark side. I wanted to follow their trajectory — the loving of SeaWorld and the disillusionment followed by the release of being able to see whales in the wild. If I didn’t get that right, where the hell is my narrative? They put their asses on the line for this so I wanted to do them justice.

In addition to the testimonies from interviews, you also include a lot of footage to support claims against the mistreatment of orcas and the danger they pose to trainers. Did you expect to find so much material?

It amassed. Part of it is just building trust. People said they thought they might have the footage and by the time they realized I was here for the long haul and still working on it a year later after I’d met them, they were like, “OK, she’s probably not a fly-by-night. Maybe I can get more footage.” So it took time, but I didn’t know they would have stuff. I hoped. Certainly I didn’t think I’d get anything inside the park anyway. I didn’t understand the parameters of fair use.

Is all footage used under the umbrella of fair use?

Some of it. A lot of the park stuff is fair use. Everything’s vetted. Everything that we didn’t pay for is fair use. We also bought unused footage.

Now that you’ve spent so much time invested in this topic, why do you think the issue hasn’t been addressed sooner?

On the one hand, a lot of stuff has been done. A lot of people have done films about it. There’s one about Lolita [the orca that has been in captivity for 40 years]. But I don’t know why. I’m trying to figure out why films that are earnest and trying to change the world reach me. Usually, if I’m just preached to about what I should be feeling, I think our inner teenager says, “Don’t tell me what to feel.” You’re being shoehorned into feeling a certain way. I wanted for sure for this film to feel like a document — a powerful, relentless and maybe imaginative one, but for it to feel like this is fact-driven, a single story.

Yes, there’s a ton of stuff I should shove in here about how you should hate what happens to whales in captivity, and yet if I can stay disciplined and stick to the facts, it allows people to trust what I’m doing and not feel ranted or preached at. Then I have a chance at making the people who do go to SeaWorld, like me, change their minds. I think some of the other films are designed to speak to each other. Honestly, Dawn died. She was a top SeaWorld trainer, she was beautiful, she was a spokesperson for SeaWorld, and we wake up to the whales in captivity because a member of our species was killed. I almost forget the other stuff. I actually do think, had Dawn not been killed, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. The general public needs to feel like it has skin in the game to really care.

SeaWorld is currently appealing to overturn the law that now prevents trainers from getting in the water with orcas during shows. Do you think they have a chance?

I really don’t know. I don’t know what was wrong about the verdict to them. I’m a little unclear if they thought they were misrepresented. Absolutely it’s a better show to watch someone dive in and then “rocket hop” 25 feet in the air off a whale’s nose. It is pretty exciting. This is a controversial point: I think there’s no question that you will not see a trainer being killed in a public show after this ocean verdict. Trainers are safe in that respect. The other side of it is that Tillikum [the whale that killed Dawn] killed someone else back in ’91 and a lot of people think that happened because he was so bored and had a new toy in the pool. That was a non-water work park, which means that trainers didn’t swim with the whales at Sea Land. So when a trainer happened to fall in, it was the craziest, most incredible thing he’d ever experienced. A new toy. But trainers can still swim with whales behind the scenes. Aren’t the whales going to have less stimulation overall? Is that safe? I don’t know.

Do you think SeaWorld should be shut down?

I actually don’t. I think that a $2 billion a year industry has things they can do that no one can do. One of those things is the idea of a sea pen, which is like cordoning off a part of the ocean like a little cove made of a net. You can do a soft release, essentially, with a whale — or just release the whales that are not sick so they can feel the ocean and elecolocute. You can feed them dead fish from the side of the bank if they still can’t learn to eat like fish, which is the case with all of them. They have to learn to shake down their food.

How likely is that to happen?

Certainly not in the next few years. It’s a massive paradigm shift. One of the most important lines in the film is that 50 years from now we’ll realize how barbaric a time this was. It takes 50 years — or maybe thirty. But right now, people who see this movie are still going to go to SeaWorld.

Now that’s you’ve finished the project, how much more invested in the cause do you want to be?

It’s a good question. I’m going to just rediscover a new place for myself in the dialogue. I don’t know where that will be and I’m going to wait and see what feels like an appropriate fit for a filmmaker-storyteller and a mom who took her kids to SeaWorld. That’s who I am right now. All I did was try to make this film in time for Sundance. Now I’m waking up. What’s my new role here? I don’t know.  

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