SEA FEVER Interview: Neasa Hardiman On Her Psychological Sci-Fi Thriller That Now Feels Even More Relevant
In Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever, which played at last year’s Fantastic Fest, Hermione Corfield plays Siobhán, a young marine science student who’s working on her doctorate. But not everything is theory, she has to get her “hands dirty”, try to “make friends” and join the crew of an Irish fishing boat, in order to help them detecting potential anomalies in their catch.
Soon enough we get to know the unique characteristics of the crew, which is lead by both Gerard (Dougray Scott) and his wife Freya (Connie Nielsen). For example, they’re for the most part superstitious and consider bad luck the fact that our protagonist is a redhead. It’s also evident that their economic situation is far from ideal.
Knowing that coming home without fish to sell is out of the question, captain Gerard makes a crucial decision in secret and takes his crew to an exclusion zone. Naturally, this is an action that will bring consequences, horrific ones to be more precise once the ship comes across a huge jellyfish-like unknown sea creature. Gradually, and no matter if at one point the life form appears to be gone, the crew will have to face a parasitic infection and, of course, a set of conflicts among them as a result of the deadly situation.
I talked with director Neasa Hardiman about Sea Fever during these turbulent coronavirus times, when, in fact, the movie feels extremely pertinent…
ScreenAnarchy: How the idea of having this young science student on a real fishing ship came to be? And if that wasn’t the starting point for you, what was it?
Neasa Hardiman: Well, I always search for really abstract [laughs] when it comes to storytelling, so the first thing that I thought about when I was thinking about this film was that I love sci-fi and I love thrillers and I knew I wanted to make a story like that.
I think this is a psychological thriller with a sci-fi element, and what I wanted to make was a tense, propulsive story that would draw you in, that would be interesting and treat you like a grown-up and treat the characters and the story like a grown-up, so that we could explore ethical questions about taking responsibility for ourselves and for each other and for our world, and have really deep and what I consider to be important questions but do it through the medium of cinema, do it through the medium where we do things, spectacle and light and image and surround sound, and make an essential metaphor, a dreamlike parable, for our deeper and genuine questions about how we’re managing our environment, how we take responsibility for ourselves and for each other and for our world.
The main conflict of the film comes when the captain decides to ignore the exclusion zone, though we understand they really need the catch. You’re mentioning the questions about how we treat the environment so how fascinating was to write complex characters that aren’t flawless? We get their struggle but, at the same time, we know they’re doing the wrong thing…
I think it’s a really good question. For me, I don’t really enjoy stories that have villains, nobody ever sees themselves in the villain, I think it’s much more interesting if you put a group of people together, all of them doing their best, they’re all struggling with what they think is the right thing at any given moment. For me a story like this, it works because of sci-fi elements, and that only works if everything else is really grounded and truthful in the story, so I wanted the characters to be as complex and rich and conflicted as I could make them. Each character has a very rich backstory that they bring into the beginning of this story, and that backstory inflicts everything that they do.
Like you’re saying, the two skippers, they take a chance, they’re transgressing, they’re painfully aware of the fact that they’re transgressing and they’re painfully aware of how fragile our ecosystem is, but they’re doing it out of a raw economic need, they’re doing it because they’re trying to protect and provide for their crew, all of which are really vulnerable as well. And so everybody has their backstory with them.
Ciara (Olwen Fouéré), who’s the ship’s cook, I had a scene, we left it on the cutting room, we didn’t need it in the end, but I had a scene where you see her talking to her nephew and the reason that she felt anxious on this voyage is because the last time she went out, her husband was a skipper and the boat sank and her husband ended up crippled and now she’s back at work trying to provide for both of them; that’s keeping her really on edge all the way through the story.
The engineer (Ardalan Esmaili), who becomes a really big part to the story, is a Syrian refugee who’s living this really precarious life while he’s trying to provide for his wife and their soon to come baby, and she’s trying to set up in a new environment, in a really precarious economic situation. So everybody in the story is putting their own fragility and their own anxiety into the situation and then they act accordingly.
How was the research process for the protagonist’s background as a scientist? And also, how was the research for the glimpse of life abroad a fishing ship? For example, the crew is superstitious, they think a redhead on board is bad luck.
The interesting thing about that fishing boat, obviously I went down in the fishing boat. It’s really quite alarming to be on a boat. The boat is about 30 years old and it’s made of wood and cast iron. When you go out to sea, there’s incredible vulnerability in it, you have very little control. There’s seven people who crew this boat and they go out to sea and they have very little control over how their fishing voyage is going to go. As soon as you’re at sea, you’re spending money, on the boat, on the vessel, on the time, on the people, you’re feeding the people, but you have no guarantee that you’re gonna make that money back on catch. I think there’s something very human about the fact that when we’re in a situation that we can’t control, we get very superstitious because it’s a way of maintaining control, it’s a way of feeling that we can take charge.
They do share superstitions and they’re quite serious about them; they kind of, will laugh with you about it, going “yeah, I know it’s ridiculous”, but they all are serious. The redhead is one of their superstitions. Interestingly, I suspected they back to viking invasions of Ireland; people associate Ireland with redheads but actually they’re very few redheads in Ireland, it’s not really a very common feature of native Irish people, but it’s a very common feature of Scandinavians. And so there’s this theory that redheads being unlucky on a boat is about the vikings and the robbing of the west coast of Ireland. I don’t know how true that is but that’s one of the theories that that’s why that bad luck idea is there.
And you’re asking about the character of Siobhán, really with her what I wanted to do was to unpack this clichéd screen scientist that you so often see in cinema, who’s often depicted as void of emotion or lacking in insight. And I felt like it didn’t make any sense to me that we have that depiction. I wanted to really unpack that idea, they’re creative and actually very able people, who might possibly be neurodivergent and is that where this notion of the uncommunicative scientist comes from.
At the same time, I also wanted to make Omid, who’s the engineer, an equally talented scientist who’s warm and emotionally connected and doesn’t fit that stereotype in any way, shape or form. And that those two people connect with each other and can almost finish each other’s sentences because they share that scientific method.
The film has horror elements, especially that sequence with the first victim (Jack Hickey), his eyes and so forth. There are several nods, I think, to films like ALIEN, PLANET OF THE VAMPIRES and THE THING (when the characters look at each other to see who’s infected). What were your main influences?
I think you’re right and I did a huge amount of research into other sci-fi, genre, horror movies before, for two reasons really: one because I wanted the film to be pleasurable for people who like that kind of storytelling, I wanted to offer people those pleasures; but at the same time I wanted to derail some of the things that I feel are typical tropes of those kinds of movies.
In the spirit that every film is political, I feel like often times those kinds of films, they tend to have one person of color who usually gets killed very early in the story, we have the notion of the final girl who’s often either the only woman on the crew or one of the few women on the crew, who’s the final girl because she’s somehow pure; I find that really kind of objectionable as well.
And then I wanted to get away from the third act, that structure be found quite often, which is that by the end of the second act the story is kind of done and the third act becomes: chase, fight, chase, fight, confrontation, death. I find that really dull and I didn’t want to make a film where the story ended at the end of the second act and then eventually we resolve it by fighting; that didn’t seem to me to make any sense or to be truly interesting. So I wanted to have a different kind of third act that was completely in contradiction to those sorts of genre tropes. The third act of the story, it doesn’t have to be a fight, this doesn’t have to be a fight, this is about extending our connection to the world, this is about understanding ourselves as a dynamic and integrated part of an ecosystem where we all, whatever kind of animal we are, have a right to exist and have a right to exist in peace. To have Siobhán push the story in that direction when you’re not expecting it as a viewer, was one of the really important things I wanted to do.
The story has this conflict between, as you say, superstition and folklore and the scientific method. I wanted the story to end with Siobhán kind of embodying this mythological figure that we refer to earlier in the story and that we know is this kind of magical hero. And at the end of the story that her logic and her ethic actually cause her to make a sacrifice that turns her into the mythical hero.
The film is also a display of how people might response to a deadly situation. For example, there’s this fight to decide if they go and land in a town or stay in quarantine, which obviously feels so relevant today with the coronavirus…
Yeah, I know, it’s weird, right?
What I wanted to explore was this idea of taking responsibility, that we all are together in an ecosystem and that when one person endangers other people, that the results can be really huge. So one of the central ideas in the story is: what are the ethics of protecting myself when that might put you in danger? Or protecting you and me when that might put the community in danger? And how do we make those choices and when are those choices right or wrong? That is a really big part of the story.
When I was writing it and when we were filming it, what we were thinking about was our need to take responsibility for ourselves and for each other and for our planet. Then of course, as you say, coronavirus comes along and it makes that feel really fresh! It is sort of the same question. When I was writing it and thinking about it and then filming it, what we were thinking about was the climate crisis, but it’s the same set of ethics, it’s the same set of moral questions.
In relation to the life form, to this creature, how was the process to make it? Because it also adds to the purely visual side of the movie, it’s very beautiful.
I’m really glad you thought it was beautiful [laughs out loud].
I had a really clear idea of what I wanted to do with the animal. I didn’t want it to be something grotesque, because the idea was that it was the metaphor for the kind of unknowable parts of nature. As I’m sure you know, the deep Atlantic, we know more about the surface of the Moon than we do about the deep Atlantic. It’s a massive unknown biosphere and yet we’re messing with it all the time, we’re fishing, we’re doing all these things, messing with a biosphere and we have absolutely no idea what’s down there.
So I wanted to create an animal that was rooted in research, so everything that the animal is and everything that the animal does is rooted in real, natural phenomena. There’s nothing that it does that isn’t rooted in truth. But of course what I’ve done is drawn together an amount of very different animals and made it into one animal. I wanted it to be really huge because scale, you can build a body when you’re in the deep water that’s much bigger than anything that we could ever hold around on ground because gravity is such a big issue, so scale was going to be something important. And also because that would give us the idea of awe, I wanted it to be beautiful and mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, in a way that was frightening but also that you didn’t want to take your eyes off it.
The other important thing I wanted was that it would be magical, not like a mammal, and that it would have a hole in the middle, like a black space in the middle so that there’s nothing that you can look at and find a face, there’s nothing that you can use to anthropomorphize it, to make it feel like it has expression or that it’s like us, that it would be kind of essentially unknowable in that way. I wanted it to not be like a squid or anything like that, that it wouldn’t have tentacles or anything, but it would be more like long tendrils that were like a unified nervous system, to kind of feel its way into what was going on around us, and that it was elegant and narrow and beautiful and violent in an instance. The other thing that I really wanted was that idea that when you look down on it from above, that it would remind you briefly of the iris and pupil of the human eye that is kind of looking back at you.
Gunpowder & Sky's sci-fi label DUST will host the LIVE STREAM PREMIERE of Sea Fever on Thursday, April 9th, 5:00pmPT/8:00pmET at this site. Fans can tune in to watch the official film premiere together, post their comments in a chatroom, and have their questions answered by the cast and crew via a moderated Q&A following the credits. This is THE FIRST-EVER live stream premiere of a feature film.
The event will kick-off the release of Sea Fever On Demand and Digital release April 10th. Pre-order the film here.