Exclusive Interview by Brad Balfour
There's no question where director/producer Dan Stone stands on the issue of Japan's incessant drive to kill whales under the guise of doing research in the Antarctic Whale Sanctuary. After discovering the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's sometimes illegal efforts to stop whalers as the primarily Japanese fleet prowls the southern ice-cap for whale pods, Stone placed a set of seven alternating cameramen/cnematographers on two ships, The Farley Mowat and The Robert Hunter to make the documentary At The Edge of The World.
As the activists searched for the whalers and engaged them in self-described "direct action" (sabotage, vandalism, etc.), his crew faced frighteningly cold conditions to capture the harrowing experiences of the conservationists. The under-trained and under-equipped international volunteer crew, commanded by long-time activist Paul Watson and first-time captain Alex Cornelissen--apply a combination of bizarre and brilliant tactics to stop the whalers.
To Stone, this somewhat ramshackle crew fights a "David Vs Goliath" like struggle to stop the unnecessary and egregious hunting of a noble species that may equal or exceed our own in intelligence. This season, recent movies that grapple with environmental issues have given way to films that not only tell us of the dangers of our assault on the world's fragile ecology, but offer specific and sometimes pirate-like solutions to the problem.
Like The Cove--which dealt with efforts to stop the capture, imprisonment, and destruction of dolphins in Japan--we see direct action applied to such causes. These films don't just take an advocacy position while informing us, they challenge us to do the same. So whether At The Edge of The World is a bookend to The Cove, these films force to address these issues not only intellectually but through the gut.
I will host a special screening of the film with Stone and cinematographer Tim Gorski joining me in a Q&A to discuss it on September 30th, 2009. The screening, sponsored by The Center for Communication, is at at 6:00 pm in the HBO Theatre, 1100 Avenue of the Americas, 15th floor.
Q: When you make a movie like this, do you make a movie with the idea that at the end of the day you're just glad you could make a good movie? Or do you really hope you can change people by having the movie out there? Obviously, you don't do documentaries like this without having some degree of passion for the subject; it's not like being a hired hand. How do you get that balance?
DS: At the beginning and the end, there's a lot of passion. In the middle, it's a long grind. If you've ever seen the graph of Napoleon's march into Moscow, it starts big and it's a thin little thing. That's what happens to you emotionally and financially along the way.
It's a hell of a long grind, and all I really care about is what I cared about in the beginning; getting the story out. It's not about the people who made the film, it's about the story, what was going on down there. I felt at the beginning, I feel at the end, that it's an amazing stage.
Q: You could have made it a story about five different people on the boat. Or, it could have been a history of the guy that started the organization, or one of the cinematographers. There were seven of you. Where do you draw the line between showing that beautiful imagery--the whales under the water and all that--and telling a story about the people?
DS: We did not want to tell it as a standard documentary; there's virtually no talking heads, there's virtually no interviews directly to the camera, there's no narrator. With a standard documentary, you tell someone's story. Often, the person making the film wants to tell their story. To me, what's interesting is to be part of the story. It would have been very easy just to pick three of the characters and carry their story; it would have been very easy to have the talking heads. That's not the film that we wanted to make.
We wanted the viewer to feel like they're part of the journey-- it was about the viewer, not about those people. The idea is so that subconsciously you not only feel like you're part of it, but that you're actually one of the cameras. That's your most natural spot to be, since you don't see yourself on camera. But if nothing else, you hopefully will find yourself on a very interesting journey.
That's also why we break the fourth wall occasionally. It's created so that you'll hopefully feel that you're part of the journey, and if you are part of the journey then you can draw your own conclusions.
Those people were believers coming in and they were believers coming off. Since they did such a hell of a great job, it's not a bad group to be a part of. Most of the cameramen didn't know anything about it; most of them found out about it a week before they left.
They were willing to take enormous risks on very short notice. Going to Antarctica is pretty intriguing to begin with. It's one of the most dangerous places in the world, but it's also one of the most beautiful places in the world. One of the ships was not ice class; it was fast, but it was not designed for that environment. There were a lot of moving pieces and a lot of things that had to be dealt with. Seasickness--one of the cinematographers lost almost 30 pounds and he wasn't that big to begin with.
Q: Had you been passionate about the subject before you decided to make the film? You've been a filmmaker for a while. How did the two dovetail? Obviously the mission gives you an arc so that whatever happened, you have this block that makes it a viable story.
DS: That was luck. We could have come back with any story. In fact, within a few days of running out of fuel, there was no story and then all hell broke loose. The mandate was not to create a story but to capture a story.
It was interesting, because it happened to fall into a classic three-act arc structure. You had your setup in the first act. Then you had the second act, where the things you were hoping for weren't coming to pass. All of a sudden you go from "we're going to be on this mission" to "my god, this is not the mission we signed up for". They start out in heaven in that first scene and halfway through the movie they're sort of wandering around through hell.
And then you have what is, in a sense, two parts of the third act: the different confrontations. Interesting within that is, in the first confrontation you had them challenging the definitive statement from the young captain, which was, "I'll do whatever I can to stop them from killing whales."
Well, he comes into a circumstance that he could never have planned for. He now has to choose between doing whatever he can to stop them from killing whales [and] the almost certain risk of losing two of the crew members' lives. So he made a statement that he was 100% sure of and circumstances brought him to the opposite.
The founder had made a statement early on that 18,000 whales [have been killed] in 20 years, something has to be done. But when he's given the opportunity to do the most dramatic possible thing and make the most dramatic statement, which he had hoped and planned to do from the beginning, he chooses not to because he's smart enough to realize he'll win the battle and lose the war if he does.
I got involved out of blissful ignorance, which was that for most of my life I didn't know that these things were going on. Five years ago, I happened to see a picture of them killing seals; I had thought that had long ago stopped. And in trying to learn about that, I realized that most of what is done in terms of animal advocacy is done for fundraising.
There's this unfortunate symbiosis between those who are committing the atrocities and those who are highlighting the atrocities to raise money, but not really doing anything to stop [them]. Somebody I respected said, "Talk to Watson, he's actually doing something"--this is on the seal hunt.
So when I called, they said, "He's in the middle of the Antarctic Ocean." I said, "What the hell is he doing there?" and they said, "He's stopping the whale hunt." My reaction was, they're killing whales? And I'm no spring chicken.
Q: You really didn't know that?
DS: I didn't know that. When I was a kid, that was the big thing: stop killing whales. I thought it had ended. In fact, theoretically it had been ended in 1986; no more commercial whaling. But there is this research exception, this loophole, which has been exploited for the last 20 years.
So that's how it evolved, and what started small just got bigger and bigger. Nobody would finance the project because it was too risky. But I felt that it's an amazing stage down there--it's an amazing story. It's a story that needs to see the light of day.
Q: Initially, your main focus was less about social activism and more about the filmmaking?
DS: Actually, I just followed whatever path was of interest to me. In other words, in the 10 years that preceded doing this, I had gone to college, was a high school coach, and was involved in the poker industry. I got involved with television, and originally thought that this would be a good episodic series. But nobody at that time was willing to step up to the plate. Animal Planet, to their credit, has subsequently gotten involved. They're very happy with the results, because this is really interesting stuff.
Q: There are filmmakers who come to the causes they illuminate by being passionate about the cause and using filmmaking as a way to get the word out. Then there are filmmakers who discover this and, if they get sucked in, become less of a filmmaker and more of an activist. You obviously reach a point where, if your passion is as a filmmaker, you want to move on to the next film. But sometimes it's hard--how can you let go especially if your one movie doesn't solve the problem; the problem is still there.
DS: Life is [made of] trade-offs. I got involved in this not because I wanted to make a film or because I was an activist, [but] because I didn't know and I saw it and I was pissed off. And then when I thought that there were solutions already being done out there, I got more pissed off because there weren't, except for this one little group.
I [heard] about Greenpeace, I didn't know about them. I certainly didn't know that Greenpeace raises 100 times what these guys do. As you see in the film, there's a very contentious relationship between them and Greenpeace. But the reality is that I respect people who are willing to do something good, and these people were willing to.
Some people don't like their methods. Some people have seen the films and said they should be arrested. Some people said, "in a parallel life, I'd love to do this." But at least I figured the exposé could only help. It's not [enough] to solve the problem; but if it brings it out there, it could only help because you've got to draw the line somewhere. I think most people draw the line at killing whales, especially when it's being done for commercial purposes under the guise of research.
Q: When I interviewed the guys that did the penguin movie they had incredible problems with cameras in that weather. There's a whole movie about trying to film in that environment.
DS: I was not on the ships [so I didn't experience that]. I was doing the logistics from New York. I really had no great passion about being part of the movie. I didn't go to most of the film festivals, which was probably not smart. But it's not my thing.
it's not about the people who made the film, it's about the story, what was going on down there. I felt at the beginning, I feel at the end, that it's an amazing stage. I just wanted to help make this happen.
I know from years of coaching, the Mike Ditka philosophy. When they asked him, how do you get the teams to play so hard? He said, "I get tough players and I let them play." And what I wanted to do is find, on short notice, some guys that had some real guts.
Q: That's why there are so many cinematographers?
DS: I was the one who decided that they all deserved that for what they did. You can find people who are willing to do that. They're not there to create a story, they're there to capture a story. You try to create the story, you ruin the story.
They did a little film themselves on the ship, for example, a little five minute thing, and even people who didn't have lines were completely different people. They were wooden. And then as soon as the filming was over and they had the outtakes, they're back to being their natural selves again. That's what we want; people are not meant to be actors. When they're themselves, they can be very very interesting. So you can decide for yourself how natural they come across.
Q: The movie's really great about what it tells, but I wanted to know, what led these people to be on the ship? Within its 90 minutes, you can't cover everything. There's a whole other movie about who [naturalist Farley Mowat] is. And there is Robert Hunter--he's a story in and of himself.
DS: He was also one of the co-founders of Greenpeace. He and his wife, who is still alive, mortgaged their home so Paul could get his first ship way back when. His daughter was on the campaign. We could have told the story through her.
The backstory has been the singular question that's been raised the most, because there are two very different things in backstory. Some people want to know backstory. But our hope is that this is about you, and you are joining the ship. And while you're on the ship with these people, they are your crewmates. And as you go on you realize that, as crazy as they might seem in the beginning, in fairness, it's insane.
You're thousands of miles from anything. You fly a helicopter through an arch--if one piece of ice breaks off when you're flying through, or if the rotor just knocks a piece off, you're dead. If the guy who jumps breaks his leg from the height, the whole campaign is screwed, because what do you do with somebody like that if you have to get them back.
The idea was that you want people to be interested in their backstory. Then when they feel that that's never going to happen, the final piece of the puzzle is you realize they're just regular people. That's why the credit roll is what it is.
Q: They're regular people but they're really not regular people. They are those people who in high school were really passionate and got involved in causes. When they grow up they realize there's a lot more to it than just reading books and talking about it in school. As a documentary filmmaker who's doing a movie with that activism element, your job is to get me emotionally involved so that I want to see it to the end, and find out more about it. Not every movie is that way.
DS: That's the key point. If you do something where later on people are saying, "I wonder what's happening now?" that's the hope. after the campaign, Japan put out arrest warrants on four people. One of the four Americans is an ER doctor. This is not people who are living in trees.
Q: They have other lives besides doing this activism. There's this sub-genre of advocacy documentaries, where we deal with not just naturalist films, but ones that have a point and purpose. Your probably have heard a lot about The Cove.
DS: Sure; I know those guys. But it's very different.
Q: It's a different movie, but they're very complementary to each other. They're showing a gathering storm of films that hopefully can have an impact.
DS: And I will give you a prediction: The Cove will win the Academy Award. It deserves to win.