I went to see “The Cove” yesterday and it is still haunting me. It is educational, powerful, thrilling and heartbreaking all at the same time, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Go see it and take action, whether you’re a still photographer thinking about filmmaking or you just care about this planet we live on. GO SEE IT!
Here, in Part 2 of my interview with Louie Psihoyos, he talks about the extraordinary lengths taken to bring this story to light. “The Cove” is an environmental thriller with the ending still to come.
What lead you to filmmaking?
Jim Clark was interested in photography and started Shutterfly, a way to share and print your photos over the web. He told me he wanted me to teach him how to be a good photographer. I told him I would teach him how to be a great photographer if he taught me how to be a billionaire. It was then I had a deeper look into the mind of not just a genius, but one of our generation’s visionaries. Jim did in fact did become a great photographer but got sidetracked on another creation of another enterprise. I’m not much richer but I am a lot more fulfilled, because of the non-profit business Jim helped me set up.
Jim and I like to dive and we started going around the world on dive trips together on Hyperion. I had some of the most remarkable times of my life diving with Jim. He was miserable with the quality of commercial underwater housings and cameras--even the Hasselblad--so he built the best underwater camera ever made by an order of magnitude. David Doubilet came diving with us and declared it the holy grail of the underwater camera. Unbelievable detail. It’s a 65-mega-pixel back on a view camera with the unbelievable optics.
We dive with rebreather teams so we can stay down for up to three hours at a stretch and not have to worry about bubbles or decompression obligations. We take up to 12 lights and light up the best-preserved reefs, in the most remote parts of the world, like a movie set. Places like Papua, Andaman Islands, Silver Banks. The results are stunning. Jim doesn’t do anything halfway. But as he would take me around to places he loved to dive some of them were disappearing, or they were completely gone. Bleaching, dynamiting, and overfishing were taking their toll. On our third trip to the Galapagos we were witnessing illegal-long line fishing in the marine sanctuary, and mother ships waiting for illegal catch in the Cocos (in Costa Rica), another marine sanctuary. Jim said somebody should do something about it and I said, “How about you and I?”
Jim came up with the idea of starting a non-profit we call The Oceanic Preservation Society and our mission statement is pretty simple, “We’re not trying to save the whole planet – just 70% of it.” We use films and the epic underwater camera to inspire people to help preserve the oceans. Jim’s only words to me setting out were, “Just make a difference.”
Early on I received some advice from one of movie making’s most successful directors Steven Spielberg. Jim’s family and mine were on vacation down on his boat in the Caribbean and Spielberg was next to us on vacation with his family. Steven and Jim had this symbiotic relationship with the success of their businesses – Spielberg used Jim’s SGI computers to create many of his filmmaking successes. However the two had never met. Spielberg had a son that was about the same age as one of my kids and they started doing sleepovers and he wanted to know about the father of his child’s new friend. I told him I was a still photographer but getting into filmmaking and he gave me this advice from working on Jaws, “Never make a movie that needs to use boats or animals.”
So how did “The Cove” come about?
Nearly everything I was about to do with the Oceanic Preservation Society would involve boats and large uncooperative animals. To make a successful debut even more improbable, for my first subject I picked a secret cove in Japan, a seemingly impenetrable natural fortress protected by spiked gates, razor ribbon, guards, motion sensors and after I arrived, 24 hour police surveillance on our crew. There were people in The Cove who would have every reason to kill us if we were discovered.
I pulled together an elite team of activists, pirates, and special effects wizards who used military grade hardware to help penetrate a secret cove in the Japanese National Park where they do nasty things to dolphins.
The first thing I did was do what Steven Spielberg does much of the time when he makes movies, I called on the services of George Lucas. One of my first assistants at National Geographic went on to become the head mold maker at Industrial Light and Magic, (ILM), which is now called Kerner Optical – they are the 3-D division to Lucas’s CGI division – they make real props as opposed to digital ones. I showed them pictures of the cove and they created these ingenious fake rocks to hide high-definition cameras and microphones. To set underwater high definition video cameras and microphones, I enlisted the help of my friends Mandy-Rae Cruickshank and Kirk Krack, world class freedivers. Mandy has won 7 world championships in her lifetime--she can swim down to nearly 300 feet on one breath of air and come back on her own power (that's her in the image at the top).
Jim Clark’s right hand man is Simon Hutchins, a former electrician for the Canadian Air Force. He helped create a fleet of unmanned drones with gyro-stabilized high definition cameras. Charles Hambleton has been my assistant for the last ten years and he has nerves of steel and a heart of gold--he’ll do anything. On one assignment we did for the owners of the world’s tallest building, he stood atop a steel ball at the top while the building swayed in the wind. Charles was an activist in the town we both lived, Boulder Colorado, which was down the road from Rocky Flats where they made plutonium triggers for nuclear bombs. Charles was arrested twice on the same day for protesting there – he’s a bit of a pirate. In fact, he was working on the Pirates of the Caribbean teaching pirates how to act like pirates for Gore Verbinski’s films when I called him away to be a real pirate for the making of my first movie.
Charles became OPS’s director of Clandestine Operations and it was his idea to bring a thermal camera to detect if there were guards in the cove. Nothing can hide from a thermal camera, if it has a pulse the camera picks it up – it’s like watching a print coming up in the developer for the first time – it’s like a magic trick. It was a military grade thermal camera, illegal for civilians to bring out of the U.S. and not designed for shooting video. Charles thought it would be interesting to shoot a making of for the DVD extras and rigged up the thermal camera to shoot video. That camera became the basis for much of our covert footage that became the heart of the film. So the “making of” became a major part of the movie and added this thriller component that makes this wonderful hybrid. Rolling Stone Magazine called it “Bourne Identity meets Flipper.”
Tell me about “The Cove”
This first film that I directed and shot with the OPS team is called The Cove and it’s been winning awards at International Film Festivals around the world. We won at Sundance, Sydney, Seattle, Toronto’s Hot Docs, Silverdocs, Maui, Nantucket, Blue Ocean, Galway etc… mostly audience awards – people like the film. It’s a feature documentary that plays a lot more like a thriller.
The Cove is perhaps one of the most beautiful underwater films you will ever see but there are images that will forever burn your retinas, like a Hieronymus Bosch painting came to life. We fell into an incredible story by luck, and the sheer tenaciousness of our team ; this incredible group of editors, producers, writer and composer that Jim helped bring together.
The big difference in still photography as opposed to shooting movies is you need a large crew. The director John Ford said that making a film is like painting a picture with an army. With The Cove, we needed an army of pirates because the story we took on would have deterred any traditional fiImmaker.
Is filmmaking your new direction? Are you still shooting still images?
I don’t want to disparage still photography, I certainly couldn’t have pulled this without working as long and hard as I did in this field, but I feel like I’ve been wandering around in the wilderness in comparison to filmmaking. Film is the most powerful medium in the world, the ultimate weapon of mass construction. I have been shooting at the top of my profession for nearly 35 years but I’ve never seen whole theaters of people crying then laughing then cheering and then raising up to give a standing ovation. But this happens routinely with The Cove.
The Cove is a story of one man’s quest for redemption wrapped around several larger parallel environmental stories. Ric O’Barry, the trainer for original TV series Flipper took me to Taiji, Japan where most dolphins for the swim with dolphin programs and dolphin shows are captured. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot but I believe what makes the film powerful and what makes it resonate with audiences is that the film proves that one person can make a difference and that a like-minded team can change the world.
I still love shooting stills but I feel I’m in the save the world business now. I really think we are one of two generations left that has a chance at saving the planet from human destruction until it’s too late. Ocean acidification, from the burning of fossil fuels and overfishing is destroying the marine environment at such a ferocious clip that it may already be too late. But I believe film and it’s co-conspirator music may be the last chance we have to galvanize the best of humanity together to save it from the rest. If you don’t believe it’s possible, you haven’t seen The Cove.
What’s next for you?
Another feature documentary, this one on the sixth major extinction in the history of planet, the one we’re in the middle of now which for the first time is caused by a single species – us – rather than some cataclysmic event like a meteor but just as devastating. The challenge of course will be to make it hopeful and uplifting and provide solutions rather than point out all the problems - and to make it more humorous rather than a tragedy. It is kind of funny because the solutions are so simple that all we have to do is embrace change rather than greed.
For times and places where you can see The Cove go to:
And to take action to end this brutal practice go to: