At Sea with the Intense, Immersive Doc Leviathan
Directors Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel on Sailing with GoPros, DSLRs, Fish, and Fishermen
Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s Leviathan raises the bar for documentary filmmaking: it’s closer to 2001: A Space Odyssey than the typical non-fiction film. Shot with a variety of video cameras, including the extremely small GoPro, it depicts life onboard a commercial fishing boat in a hallucinatory, extremely immersive manner. It harkens back to head-trip and avant-garde cinema of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, particularly Stan Brakhage’s work of the period. Both filmmakers teach at Harvard, where they have established the Sensory Ethnography Lab, which combines filmmaking and anthropology. Although the directors disagree, the film keeps its distance from the fishermen, instead offering vertiginous, seemingly impossible angles of the sky and sea. If the spectator wants to read a message about the dangers of overfishing into the film’s darkly intense atmosphere, he or she is free to, but the film seems primarily interested in communicating sensations and visions. Castaing-Taylor and Paravel are out to use cinema to open the doors of perception.
Studio Daily: You’ve said that you don’t intend any social or political agenda in Leviathan, but what drew you to the subject matter in the first place?
Lucien Castaing-Taylor: It’s true that we don’t have any overt political agenda. One of our initial ideas was a conceptual conceit, motivated by the fact that we both have biographical connections to the sea and fishing in our childhood backgrounds. It’s a subject we were interested in engaging with at some point in our lives. When we initially thought we might make a film about fishing,we realized that you can map the whole history of cinema onto it. Of all human endeavors, it’s probably the most photographed and over-filmed, from Robert Flaherty and John Grierson all the way to The Cove and beyond. If we were going to be self-indulgent enough to make the 10,000th representation of fishing, we had to come up with an angle. Documentaries about fishing were largely romantic. In a contemporary register, they’re liberal, PBS-style condemnations of overfishing or what fishermen are doing to marine resources. We had a challenge to do something that didn’t sentimentalize fishermen and their relationship to the sea. There wasn’t a total lack of political agenda. Our interest in New Bedford [the Massachusetts port from which the ships in Leviathan leave] stemmed from the fact that it had been the whaling capital of the world and it’s still the largest fishing port in the U.S. Due to Moby Dick, it has a mythic, literary status. We were interested in the contrast between that and its hard-scrabble existence today. It’s now one of the poorest, most crime-ridden cities in the country. We wound up not making a film about New Bedford. We thought what happened in the sea was more interesting than what happened on land.
SD: Did you alter the colors in post-production?
Véréna Paravel: We did do some color-correction. We worked with a colorist [Joe Gawler at Harbor Picture Company in New York], and the way we worked was to shoot with some extremely tiny cameras that already compromised the images. It made the image look really abstract and grainy. Because once the film was finished, it had a sci-fi look. At the same time, we found a lot of images that could be related to painting, from Breughel to Goya to Velasquez. There were moments in the film where images reminded us of still lives. We played with the colorist to get him to remind us of those tableaux and to make it look even more strange and unfamiliar.
Castaing-Taylor: I would add that we did so with considerable moderation. Your question is a really good question. A lot of people would have that question. The imagery looks so artificial that you can’t help wondering if it’s a special effect, but the fact of the matter is that almost all the film takes place at night. You have the whiteness of the spray of the ocean and these cold, hard lights on the boat. The fishermen are all wearing orange slickers. The nets are polychromatic and synthetic. The film integrates primary colors with the blackness of the sea. The way the colors were caught by the camera, they were already very saturated.
SD: How long did you spend on the boat?
Paravel: In total, a little over two months. On every fishing trip, between nine days and three weeks.Castaing-Taylor: We went on six different fishing trips.
SD: Did you ever feel any tension about the fact that you’re Harvard professors and you’re making a film about men doing hard, physical labor? The film seems quite distant from its subjects. It seems to be as much about fish and the sea as the fishermen. There are a few scenes that have some intimacy with the fishermen, like the one of the fisherman taking a shower and, later on, watching TV.
Paravel: I disagree that the film feels distanced from the fishermen. On the contrary, they were wearing the camera half the time. Much of it was shot by them. They’re more included in the film than [in] most conventional documentaries. They recorded their own point of view. You can see their hands grabbing. It’s very close to them. The cinematography slides along with their body. It’s not close to them in the way you’re thinking of, I guess, because you don’t hear them talking a lot. But they don’t talk a lot anyway, and I think this is their universe: the fish they slaughter everyday, the sea they dive in. It’s close to them, even though we don’t talk to them in an imposing voice. I feel defensive in saying that.
Castaing-Taylor: People respond to it in different ways. Some people feel it’s a cold, dispassionate film, some people think it’s very personal. In terms of the hostility between elite Harvardians and people who are risking their lives to eke out a living, it was a source of great humor. We joked a lot about it. I don’t mean to be defensive either, but they earn more money than we ever will. Their work is far more dangerous. We were up for as many hours as they were, and put ourselves in as much danger. We were in a common position, shooting the film. Our social differences were a source of amusement and jocularity, even solidarity, rather than friction. They’re intellectuals, in many ways: not always educated, but reflective about the economy of fishing. They didn’t have much to learn from us, but we had a lot to learn from them.
Paravel: We were together with them in dangerous conditions, not speaking at Harvard. We were wearing the same jacket, out on the deck 20 hours a day, covered in waves and cooking with them. The distance wasn’t that big.
SD: Did you have monitors for all the cameras?
Castaing-Taylor: We used GoPros and DSLRs. The DSLRs all had monitors. They look like small still cameras, but they also shoot HD video. Depending on the camera position, sometimes we were holding it in an angle where we couldn’t see the monitor. The GoPro is a modular apparatus. You can attach a screen to it. You don’t have to. You can put it inside a waterproof encasing. Those monitors are fixed, so unless you’re here [Castaing-Taylor gestures], you can’t see them. When they were attached to a fisherman’s back or chest, nobody could look through them. There was no way of second-guessing what was being recorded. Even when we were using them in our hands, it was difficult.
SD: Did your interest in filmmaking or ethnography come first?
Paravel: We both started as anthropologists.
Castaing-Taylor: We’re trained anthropologists. We have PhDs in the subjects, and then we became amateur filmmakers, which we still are. Anthropology never entered my lexicon until I was 18. We both were interested in images and sounds as teenagers. I was interested in still photography. So we’re sort of failed anthropologists, and we’re not even beginning filmmakers.
Photos courtesy Cinema Guild.