Exclusive Interview: Louie Psihoyos, Director Of The Cove
July 29, 2009
A modest man, Louie Psihoyos may downplay accolades bestowed upon him for the excellence of his film, THE COVE, but one thing he is not shy about is his passion for the environment. To him, it is a top priority for all of us to be concerned about the Earth and the causal relationships between man and nature. Technically, THE COVE is a superlative piece of filmmaking and is os such high caliber on all fronts, I expect not only Academy Award nominations, but Oscar gold to be placed into Psihoyos’ hands. Now, while the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, Japan is the catalyst for THE COVE, the messages and information imparted go far beyond that.
Talking to Louie 1:1 within the comfort of his suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, he exudes a warmth, approachability and humor as evidenced when walking into the room only to be met with a fold out bed in the middle of the room serving as a "coffee table". Unflappable, he takes it in stride, laughing it off as one of life’s little surprises, while remaining focused on the task at hand - talking about his experience shooting THE COVE and his message to his audience, his enthusiasm for which is boundless.
DLE: Hello again, Louie. We just came from rounds, but I saved most of my questions knowing we would have this 1:1 opportunity together. First, I have to say, THE COVE is one of the most impressive films I have ever seen.
LP: Thank you. Thank you so much.
DLE: I don’t know if Karen [film’s publicist] told you, but each year for the LA Film Festival, I always do an LAFF Must See Festival Films column that comes out opening day of the fest. And this year - THE COVE - my number one pick of the entire festival.
LP: Thank you. I so appreciate that.
DLE: I’ve already received a ton of feedback from readers who noted that "That’s not even a competition film." No, it’s not. But that’s how incredible the film is. And the screenings are free. You don’t even have to buy a ticket. Go see it. [Of course, anyone that missed THE COVE at festivals around the country, now have to buy that ticket. And I guarantee you, it will be one the most worthwhile uses for $10.00 you will ever have.]
LP: That’s cool.
DLE: You are very modest for a first time filmmaker. This is a top notch, high quality film. On top of the message it’s sending, technically the film is superlative. Given your "special ops" technique of pulling this adventure off and making this film, from a filmmaking standpoint, how did you go about approaching the film and putting together your technical film team, not to mention your OPS team?
LP: Let me put this at two different levels. There’s getting the footage and then finishing the movie. Geoff Richman, spectacular editor. Really quick, really brilliant. The whole time he was doing it, sometimes he was just so absolutely taken with what we had. Mark Monroe, great writer. Anybody that thinks that they can go out and make a great film without a great editor and a great writer, I don’t think it’s possible. We had a good story there to begin with, but they made it great by helping focus in. I was really instrumental in trying to keep the story complicated. I never wanted to dumb it down and simplify it. To me, that’s the beauty of it - that it’s complex. It’s textured. It’s not just a movie about THE COVE, it involves mercury poisoning, over-fishing. Ric’s backstory, his story of redemption. Even Mandy [Cruikshank] and Kirk’s [Krack] story, that little sequence where you see them bonding with whales and dolphins. These are just emotional visceral things that I really wanted to keep in the film because they were so important to me. When you live something and you have a feeling for it, I had to fight, even with, god please them, these great filmmakers - much more experienced than me - but I felt like what I was trying to bring to the film was emotional complexity that is fairly hard to describe. It’s like, why you want to do this if it’s just based on emotion. But that’s important to me. I think most of film, to me, is an emotional experience.
DLE: You’re aiming for an emotional reaction and connection with the audience. Without that emotion, you’re not going to connect. It’s not going to happen.
Right. But you’re always battling. The people that haven’t been there or maybe they don’t see the film quite like you do. There’s a lot of friendly tension on post-production trying to figure out what exactly the story is and what elements you want to keep in there. I think ultimately what happened here is, usually when you have a film and there’s too many people on it, it gets diluted. But I think in this case everybody understood what the real story was. We started out with the cove. Once we decided that, okay, we had this Ocean’s 11 theme going on. How is that pulled together? We had the footage. What thing that stuck with Jeff Richmond is that we had to edit part of it in New York because he is still teaching at NYU film school. We had this wonderful footage of Mandy sort of breaking down crying when this dolphin escapes from the cove. He [Richmond] asked, "How are we going to illustrate that?" I said, "What do you mean, how are we going to illustrate that? We have this shot with four different angles." He said, "You’re kidding me?" I said, "Oh yeah, just look at this stuff!" Richmond was like "That’s incredible. You guys have so much footage." We had 600 hours that we had to get down to 90 minutes.
DLE: How many cameras were you using? I know you had 3 up on the rocks. You had, I think, 4 that I could detect under water.
LP: We had, oh boy, we had.... See the thing is we cut that film. We went in 7 nights into the cove. Sometimes we only had one or two cameras, depending on how many guards were in the lagoon. If we had the run of the place, we would try to get 4 or 5 cameras in. But sometimes we could only get a couple, one or two. Or we would break one on the way in. You don’t want the foam to show up. These were rocks made out of foam. . .
[As part of the special ops and infiltration into the cove, Industrial Light and Magic became involved in the project, creating fake foam rocks housing cameras which blended into the rocky cliff terrain ]
DLE: Really good looking rocks by the way. They were realllly good looking.
LP: I know. They were so good, it was difficult to find them when we went back in. We tried to remember where we put them. We tried to do it a little differently every time. But that was also the fear, too, going back in. If they [the Japanese] did discover a rock, then they would be waiting for us to come back and retrieve it. That was actually almost scarier than putting it in. Putting it in, you got away with it. But you didn’t know you really got away with it until you went back to retrieve it. At different times we had two blinds [cameras] across from the cove. We had about four or five positions in the cove that we used 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 cameras and then helicopter footage and then one camera down below. But I don’t know how many total cameras it is. It’s been a long time. It took 1 ½ years to get that footage.
DLE: I was going to ask how long it took to obtain all the filming.
LP: About seven trips to Taiji over the course of 1 ½ years.
DLE: Let me ask you, if they had caught you while you were doing this, during the night ops and things like that, what would the penalty have been?
LP: Conspiracy to disrupt commerce would have been the charge. Almost like a RICO rap. Trespassing. Like Ric says in the movie, they can get you for anything that they want. You will confess to it because they’ll keep you freezing and naked in your jail cell. I think Rick says it’s 90% of the confessions happen within the first 28 days you’re in jail. But I think it’s actually more like 95% or 99%. Seriously. There was an article about how many forced convictions they get. It’s kind of a miracle that we got away with it. Let’s put it this way. People say, "would you ever go back to Japan?" No. I wouldn’t go back. I don’t think we would come back out on our own terms.
DLE: That’s one of the things that I kept waiting for in the film. You definitely kept me on the edge of my seat, mounting tension as the mission progresses. I kept waiting through the film to see you guys get caught. I wasn’t expecting to see the blood red sea. I thought we might have seen you guys getting caught; the mission wouldn’t have come to fruition. You had that much tension going in this film.
LP: Which version did you see? A press screening?
DLE: Yes. A press screening.
LP: Did you stick around for the last credits? The Easter Egg at the very end?
DLE: I stayed through all the credits. I always stay through all the credits.
At the end there’s the footage of Charles with the police. He gets caught with the balloon.
DLE: Yes! I saw that and thought, "what the heck?"
LP: We did get caught and they wanted to know what was in the truck. So we showed them the balloon (a small dirigible) and that’s what really got us off.
DLE: The big blimp. I thought that was brilliant.
LP: It was a funny bit, but they let us get away with it.
DLE: Do you see yourself taking the elements and themes of this film and breaking it out into additional films or expanding on them?
LP: What we are going to is DVD extras. We’re doing a DVD extra on mercury poisoning. We have a lot of footage. There’s actually several films in there. There’s Paul Watson just talking. That’s an hour long piece just there. We really just let it run. He’s such an eloquent speaker. He’s so passionate. Roger Payne. There’s another movie there. We filmed whales and singing quite a bit. There’s a lot of educational pieces in this movie.
DLE: Very much so.
LP: There’s so much work to do it well. We want to sort of brand ourselves as doing high quality film. We’re working on the DVD extras right now which will be a piece within themselves.
DLE: Do you think it will come out in time for Christmas?
LP: Oh yes. Definitely. I think November.
DLE: What would you like the audience to take with them from this film when they leave the theatre?
LP: A lot of things. Not just one thing. I think they should realize that these animals are more sophisticated than most people give them credit for. So that doesn’t mean incarcerate them and teach them to do stupid tricks for our amusement. I want them to realize that we’re polluting the planet and not just dolphins and whales, but polluting things we like to eat. Things at the top of the Earth food chain, we’re jeopardizing our major source of protein - seafood. And that’s through the burning of fossil fuels. People really need to get that connection. Mercury poisoning is real. It’s getting worse. And it’s not just mercury, it’s lead, cadmium. Basically everything you buy ends up at one point or another back down to the sea. And when I say "you", I mean we, us, collectively. We are doing what no wild animal will do. And that’s fouling our own nest. I think that’s what I want people to come away with the most is that it’s a really precious resource. We told the story through Ric’s backstory and through dolphins and whales - the big charismatic megapods - and people care about those. I do too, but I think the bigger picture is that we’re harming ourselves at the same time. I hope that comes through. I don’t know. That was one of the struggles, was how to not point fingers that this is a Japanese problem. It’s really a worldwide problem. It’s not just the Japanese that have to worry about this. It’s everybody. There’s no shortage of bad guys in this movie. The world is getting close enough that we’re one of them. That’s what I want people to take away. To get that connection. Not to feel guilty for going to the dolphin park, but if you again... Not to feel guilty for not knowing that you were polluting the planet but have a sense that there’s a relationship between, for instance, turning on a light - we get energy from coal. There’s this causal relationship. We’re part of that same chain of events that’s polluting the planet.
DLE: What’s your own mercury level right now? That concerned me when you mentioned that in rounds.
LP: Right now it’s 3 parts per million which is still a little bit tool high. I still eat certain kinds of things that are lower on the food chain, like, certain kinds of crab. Depending on what the crab eats, you can’t control that. I stopped eating things that walk 20 years ago. I have been a pesceterian and I ate way too much fish in my lifetime. I’m just scary for what it does to us. This doctor told me that it slowly erases what it means to become human. It starts to dull your senses - sense of touch, peripheral vision, your hearing, your sense of smell. Everything starts to go away. And your memory goes. So, yes, that’s one of the biggest messages I think to take away is to reduce your mercury intake because it really is the most toxic non-radioactive element in the world. I think women really need to worry about that, a lot mor than guys do. A lot of people see this movie and they stop eating seafood after they see it. I say, "don’t stop eating seafood. Just start eating smarter. Eating lower on the food chain." There’s one less zero for every level from swordfish down.
DLE: What would you consider going one level down?
LP: One level down from swordfish is tuna. So go down another step further than that. Basically, if the head of the fish and it’s tail can fit on your plate, it’s safe to eat. That means white polit, small bass. Go to NRDC, National Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org). You can download a seafood guide. Or, you can go to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch (http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/seafoodwatch.aspx). We usually give them out. I just gave out 5000 at recent film festivals. You can download a pocket guide for seafood. Two things to worry about when you’re eating seafood. Sustainability. Toxicity. You don’t want to eat something that’s not sustainable and you don’t want to eat it if it’s toxic. So those are the two things to think about.
DLE: I will certainly think about that. Thank you so much, Louie.
LP: Thank you, Debbie. It has been a pleasure.