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Lost at Sea: The Morbid Fascinations of Fishing Doc ‘Leviathan’

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

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?

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.

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.

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.
The movie does invite a lot of high-minded descriptions, but it’s a very tangible experience. It has a conventional feature-length running time. How did you decide on the structure?

VP: This is the most difficult thing to remember for me — the editing process. There was a willingness on our part to keep it very fluid as long as we could. We didn’t have a strict narrative plan that we had to respect, which made us free from some conventions that provide constraint. But we had to go somewhere, and the question was where to end and where to start. And that was a big, big discussion.

LCT: The editing happened oddly, quickly and easily. At the end, the schematic was to me that we start with the underwater shots, the ones no one has any idea how they could’ve been shot. They’re so dark and so frenetic, and then progressively in this very wild, untamed night, humans do enter the frame more and more until we get to this conventional shot of a human being.

Watching some TV show.

LCT: We could’ve ended there; a number of people thought, “Oh, this is the last shot, on a human.” But we made the deliberate choice to go back to the seagulls. We thought it was important to allow us to go back to the water and stamp it with the resurgence of life and the diabolical, submarine abyss.

You made this project, as you have others, as part of Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. How does that framework inform the kind of projects you make?

LCT: Well, we both work there, and collaborate and teach there. And we would like to continue to work together. But I don’t think there’s such thing as a dogma or principles governing us.

VP: No, but…

LCT: You think there is?

VP: I think we have our own…ideas, but not dogma.

LCT: Well, right. It’s not a cult.

VP: We should have our own!

A manifesto?

VP: One day, I think we should do that. I think every film is like an encounter, so for the next film we should try and do something radically different. One of the most exciting things is trying to find the specific way to convey a reality. So in that way we don’t have any dogma, we don’t have any approach — nothing except our body and our willingness to do something.

LCT: We’re interested in revealing the world in a way without expectations, and that defies expectations, including our own. We had plenty of ideas about what we wanted and where we wanted to go, but we didn’t know how it would work itself out, or what aesthetics would be at play.

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