From directing one of our favourite Marvel characters, to writing and directing the sci-fi creature feature, Sea Fever (which had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival), Irish director Neasa Hardiman is always hard at work. Luckily for me, I was able to catch up with the director during TIFF for a brief interview about Sea Fever, subverting genre tropes, the necessity for diversity on the big screen, and the myth and folklore behind her feature film debut.
Q: At the Q&A segment after the screening you mentioned that there is a logic through the film being written and directed, and how that developed as you were going along, and just how did subverting expectations factor in? For example, usually in these kind of sci-fi thrillers, the handsome man is the main protagonist, making all the decisions. However, that isn’t the case in Sea Fever.
NH: It’s a really good question. I think, to me, when you enter that kind of genre territory, you really need to educate yourself because the audience is already educated on it. You’re promised this certain kind of story form, but you also want it to be subverted. You also want to be shown something new and be taken in a different direction. So, one of the pleasures of this kind of filmmaking is that you figure out or work out as much as you can what are the tropes? What are the kind of mechanisms that the stories usually continue with? And then you try to to turn them or twist them on their head.
So, like you say – we all know when we see the gorgeous young woman and the handsome young man, you kind of know that at some stage of the story, they’re going to come together and possibly end up together. So, it was a very conscious thing on my part to go: ‘Alright, that’s what we as an audience would expect to happen’, so let’s just play with that fact and play with people’s expectations, and then reverse them because there’s something really pleasant then for the audience. There’s just something really nice about the experience going, ‘Woah!’ when they don’t expect certain things to happen.
Q: In keeping with that same logic, I was happy to see that a person of colour wasn’t the first to die in the film and the sole survivor at the end was also a person of colour. Was this also in keeping with the idea of turning the genre on its head?
NH: The part of people of colour was something that I was really conscious of. It’s partly something I did my Phd – looking at films that have a genre element, that really subvert the genre and tell a different story using those mechanisms. I was very conscious of that and it was a tradition I wanted to follow in so that we can have all the pleasures of propulsive drama and a dream-like story, and we don’t have to have all the racism or sexism. They’re not actually part of it, you can separate them out and that’s sort of what the story is about as well.
So, you’re right. There are certain tropes in films like that, especially films that are team-based, (often horror films, but sometimes films like this) where they have teams on underground or in space, or wherever they are. You have these 7 or 9 characters, but there’s usually only one person of colour, one or maybe two women, and the rest are white blokes. And usually, as you said, the person of colour dies in the second reel; they’re part of the end of the first act and sometimes the one woman remains and that’s Carol Clover and the notion of the final girl. But that doesn’t make them feminist films and it doesn’t make them anti-sexist films actually, because they’re often rooted in really conservative stereotypes of how a woman is meant to be and that’s the reason she’s allowed to survive. So, you have the trope of one person of colour – who dies, then you usually have the young ingenue who gets advice from the older, wiser character – who also often dies, and there’s also usually a young father and he also usually dies. So, I was really consciously playing with those things as well, and playing with those tropes and consciously telling the audience: “you think you know where you are” and then try to pull the carpet out from under the audience in terms of how the story goes.
It was really important for me that Omid survive for that very reason, because he is both a man of colour and a refugee, and he’s also an expectant father. And it’s funny you know, Ardalan, the actor, said to me – this is his story, not mine so I don’t know if we can quote it, but I want to share it with you. He said to me, ‘I read the script, right? And okay, he’s the engineer – so he’s going to die at the end of the first act. But then I kept reading and oh, he’s still alive!’ Then he gets to page 75 where he falls into the water and went, ‘This is kind of an amazing story. He lived all the way through to page 75. I couldn’t believe it! When I got to the end, I was flabbergasted. I would have filmed it for free because that never happens.’
Q: He’s right, it is true. It’s rare to see that kind of thing. It’s something that you don’t often see unless it’s in a movie like Get Out where that’s the point – was this something you were also trying to do?
NH: Exactly, that is the point and I am glad you raised that up because I love Get Out, and I think it was a brilliant subversion of genre! I think it’s exactly that thing that I was trying to do, which is make a story that’s really propulsive and really inclusive, and isn’t speaking to people who already agree with you – and then tell them a story they haven’t thought of before. I think that’s how culture works, that’s how story-telling works. You know, we all change our ideas through story. It’s an incredibly powerful thing to do, an incredibly powerful mechanism to get me, a middle-aged White woman to put myself in the shoes of a young Black man to go, ‘What does that feel like? What are the oppressions that you feel as a young Black man in America?’ I’ll never know that unless you tell me that story and I think that was genius.
And there was a degree to which I really wanted to do that with this film. So, it was important for me to do that; to tell the story through other people’s eyes. But the other thing – and tell me if you agree with this – is when you walk in to meet me, you don’t walk in to meet me as a woman. You walk in to meet me as a journalist. You don’t walk in to meet me as a woman of colour, you walk in here as a journalist. You’re a good journalist and want to be a successful journalist, and that’s what it’s about. And in some ways, I think we do ourselves a disservice when we make our stories always about our oppression. Not that I want to dismiss that or say it isn’t there, I don’t. But I think if we always make our stories about our oppression, in some ways we’re reinforcing it because we’re saying this is what’s interesting about us – and it’s not.
This is the thing that gets in our way, but it’s not what’s interesting about you and it’s not what’s interesting about me. It’s not what’s interesting about John Boyega. You’re interesting in your self and he’s interesting him himself. We’re interesting because we’re individuals and we have a plethora of skills and talents, and the social obstacles that get in our way are just that: social obstacles that get in our way, but they do not define us. If we collaborate in allowing it to define us, we’re in a weird way, even though we are working against it, we’re kind of weirdly reinforcing it as well I think. So, for me anyway, it was really important to tell a story where the central figure was a woman and near diverse, but that’s not what the story is about. And we tell the story about a man who is a Syrian refugee who is a man of colour living in Europe, and that’s not what the story is about. It’s about who they are as individuals and what they bring as human beings to this particular situation, and what skills and talents they have that allow them to problem solve and survive.
Q: There are strong women in Sea Fever and in your past directing work, such as Jessica Jones it also features strong women characters. Is this something that you’re drawn to when taking on a project?
NH: I do find myself drawn to stories where there are complex, conflicted female protagonists – which is not to say that I only choose stories like that. The next project I’m doing has a man at the heart of it and he’s driving the story, and it’s a great story. I’m really excited for it! He’s really conflicted, damaged and screwed up, but he has something important to do and so he has to do it. So, it’s not as though I am exclusively interested in women. But at the same time, I think there aren’t enough stories for us and I think it’s really important that we have aspirational stories about complex, difficult women who find a heroism within themselves.
I don’t know if you’ve seen Happy Valley, but for me that was a really important part of the story. You’ve got this complex, difficult, quite antagonistic, not always fun person to be around, who has this absolute gritty heroism that she has within herself that never takes the easy – and Jessica Jones is very similar. She’s a total noir hero who’s got this really kind of hard carapace, and she can be cruel and withheld, dark and funny. But she will always do the morally right thing, and that makes her a hero – that makes her a noir hero. And thing about both those characters and the characters in Sea Fever is that they’re just not defined by their sex, or how they wear their gonads as a woman, and that is quite important.
I read an interview in Deadline the other day with Robert Pattinson, and he was talking about taking the role of Batman and getting into the suit. He said it was really humiliating getting into the suit because it was really difficult and someone has to help you into it, and you feel like an idiot. But then you get into suit and he made this statement where he went, ‘It was a funny thing – when I had the suit on, I thought I feel powerful.’ And whatever mood I was in, I was reading this going, where is the woman in this? But it’s this powerful piece of storytelling where it doesn’t matter and you can slip into that suit, I can slip into that suit and into that role of Batman. But there’s something really lovely about seeing ourselves reflected and seeing ourselves as an aspirational figure.
Q: Earlier you spoke about our moral obligation and it is a very powerful theme in the film. We are on this planet, there is only one and we live on it with millions of different species. In Sea Fever, they’re encroaching on the space of this unknown creature – which is something that humankind has been doing for centuries and was this something you specifically wanted to feature in the film?
NH: Well, the thing that strikes me about that is I’ve seen a lot of movies where there’s a threat, an animal threat and they always want to kill the animal – and it feels a bit funny, and wrong. As you say, you go into bear country, you’re in bear country. If a bear comes at you, it’s not because it has a grudge against you personally, it’s because you are a threat. You’re the threat, not the bear. The interesting thing about the deep sea is that we’re making all these profound changes to our world and our landscape, and we don’t know what’s there. We don’t know what’s in it. You know, you could drop the Himalayas from root to tip into the Atlantic, and it still wouldn’t touch the surface of the ocean. We’re only scratching the surface of what diversity of life might exist on our world in those deep oceans. And yet, we feel comfortable and confident to keep tossing our plastic in and melting the glaciers.
That seems to me to be the ultimate in hubris and our culture, or what we would call Western Culture is still suffering, I think, with this idea of humans versus animals – as if we aren’t animals. As if we aren’t dependent in the same way that every other animal is dependent on this fragile ecosystem. Someone in the Q&A last night asked why was the main part of the animal we first see shaped like a circle? And it was on the tip of my tongue to go “the circle of life” and I thought, don’t say that. But in a way, it was a really conscious attempt to articulate this and a conscious way to say there is unity here. We’re one, and we owe it to each other and we owe it to all our fellow animals to be aware of that, and not to be so hubristic about how we encroach on other living creatures. But also that if we do and they retaliate, or are frightened by us that that’s a threat.
Q: One of my favourite things about the film was that Siobhan didn’t want to kill the creature, she wanted to make sure it was left back in the ocean’s depths. Was this part of the genre subversion as well as way to take aim at how people often treat the environment and the creatures within it?
NH: Yes, I feel like that’s important, right? That is the thing that you do see reiterated in these kinds of movies sometimes and the interesting thing about that was again, thinking about the structure of these films and what I really did not want to do – and you know this because you’re a cineaste – was that when it gets to the third act it becomes: chase, fight, chase, fight, confrontation and kill. I forget who the critic is who said, ‘most of the time these films result in everything being resolved by fighting.’ And that seems to me to be dull; it’s really dull. So, it was really important to me that the third act of the story be a story unto itself that is not a chase fight story, but is a story about confronting the other. A story about confronting the impact of your past decisions on the environment and how you decide to manage that, and how you decide to act morally and responsibly in light of your previous actions.
Q: Myth and folklore are very apparent in the film. So, I was wondering if you could touch upon any specific stories that you took inspiration from when writing Sea Fever?
NH: I can tell you exactly where the story came from. I read this quote and it was such a beautiful quote that really stuck with me. It’s to do with the fact that everybody has something to offer and the quote is: ‘The ship of humanity requires all hands on deck to ride it.’ Meaning everybody has a purpose, everybody has a skillset, and you diminish and exclude people at your peril because we’re in trouble and we need to support each other to get out of trouble. And it was in reading that line where I thought, ‘That’s genius!’ And there’s a beautiful metaphor that is concrete and I need to make a film about it.