Lucien Castaing-Taylor on 'Leviathan' and Pushing Documentary Forward

Another interview from the Documentary Channel archives.

leviathan documentary
The Cinema Guild

This interview was originally published on the Documentary Channel Blog on February 28, 2013. 

There was an appropriate mystery to my interview with filmmakers Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel. The main thing is I’m not even sure Paravel was on the other end of the phone call, which I was told was taking place in a taxi. Where to, who knows? But one of the things I learned while watching their new documentary, Leviathan, it’s that I have to accept that I can’t always be fully aware of what’s going on, what I’m seeing or hearing or how something is being done. The kaleidoscopic film, which virtually throws us on board and overboard and above and below and throughout a fishing vessel in the North Atlantic, is often a game for our senses.

Our conversation — as in just myself and Castaing-Taylor, as it turned out to be — was much less of a puzzle. We discussed the long experimental and evolutionary process of making the doc and the ultimate desire to make something fresh and forward for the medium, unlike anything seen before (which the film’s stellar reviews continually affirm is the case), as well as how the co-director of Sweetgrass (Castaing-Taylor) and the co-director of Foreign Parts (Paravel) came together to co-direct one of the most acclaimed films of the past year. Castaing-Taylor also recommended a couple of names of other progressive documentarians to seek out.

Let’s start by talking about how you guys shot the film. I understand you strapped little cameras to people and parts of the boat. How did that work?

Lucien Castaing-Taylor: We started out working with regular video cameras, holding them on our shoulders and on tripods, and we eventually lost all those to the sea, to the waves. Although we got a lot of footage, we ended up not using it. Increasingly we worked with small cameras, SLRs and extreme sport cameras that we either held or handed over to the fishermen and strapped either to their heads or chests. Four shots in the whole thing were either tripod or attached to the boat, but otherwise, everything was attached to a body.

Part of that was to share the representation of people constructing together in some way, piecemeal. And part of it is also to relativize the directorial look that most documentary films have on their subjects, to create a much more intimate, multi-perspectival kind of representation of what it was like to be on a boat. The human fishermen part of the boat. The fish. The seagull. All these different optical and physical perspectives and beings.

You say you lost some cameras. Did you lose footage, as well?

No. All the previous footage that we shot with those cameras we had, we kept. The typical, more professional cameras that we were working with, we had a lot of that footage but we ended up not using it all. It was too close to cinematic or documentary representations of fishing that we’d already seen. Fishing is about the most over-filmed profession, since the beginning of photography and cinema, and we knew that if we were going to make another film about fishing we had to do something radically different than whatever came before.

How long were you out on the boat?

We shot it over the course of a year and went out on six trips, anywhere from a week or nine days to three weeks long. A bit more than two and a half months out at sea, and the rest of the time back in the port or editing up in Boston.

How did you make your way onto the boat and convince the fisherman you wouldn’t be in their way?

We were always in their way. Initially, we were making a film about New Bedford, about the port, and then we started going out on boats and looking at stevedores in the harbor, fueling boats, ice boats, etc. Then we’d go out on boats in the harbor whenever refueling or offloading the catch into the auction. Most of the captains were super generous and wanted us to know it’s an incredibly debilitating job, repetitive. And for them, it would just be a minor source of amusement or stimulation to have a couple of foreigners, non-fishermen, on the boat.

Pretty much everyone invited us to go out with them. The first boat we went out from Newfoundland down through Maryland and Delaware on a long fishing trip. Once we started on this one boat we decided to stick with it.

I doubt the fishermen are the audience for such an artsy depiction of their work and life. Were they interested in seeing it, or were they just like, do your thing and don’t get in our way too much?

Both. We were always in their way in order to get the shots that give you the best representation of what goes on on the boat. Obviously you have to be very close up. There’s only one typical, conventional establishing shot in the whole film and that comes about three-quarters of the way in, the shot at the top of the mast. Even that’s a little otherworldly, because it has a kind of sci-fi look, looking down.

But they were concerned. They feel, as fishermen, that they’re at the end of the line, that there’s no fishing, that it’s impossible to survive, they feel super-criminalized and marginalized. They were definitely interested in what we were doing, that it was faithful and accurate and represented the kind of labor and experience on a boat that they can charter.

Did you use any post-production effects for the cinematography or did everything really look that awesome?

No. Nothing at all, actually. There was color grading that went on, obviously, at the end. But all the orange abstraction and the quality of it was basically there in the cameras. We were shooting at night in pitch black and then the boat has this very, very powerful light. The buoys and everything were all orange, most of the slickers that the fishermen are wearing are yellow and orange, there were sort of fluorescent qualities of it. The phosphorescence of the foam, the breaking waves, it’s all there.

You’re described as ethnographers or anthropologists, yet this is a pretty artistic and experimental film. There’s also a nature/wildlife aspect, as well. What do you identify more with, the science and anthropology and showing the “real” and “natural,” or the more creative, artsy side?

All, to be completely honest. I know it’s stupid or pretentious to say that, but all the different forms and genres you mention suffer because we separate them out. Either you’re scientific and anthropological or you’re artistic and creative or you’re doing a nature documentary. Of course, most nature documentaries are not really about nature at all. They have this unbelievably anthropomorphic Disney-fied or David Attenborough-fied representation of the natural world. That’s pretty fictitious.

We’re definitely interested in nature. Most novels, plays and films made by humans are really human-centric as well, and we humans are the one animal that doesn’t consider ourselves an animal. We don’t even consider ourselves a part of nature. So, it’s fine to come up with a different representation of humanity that is a more humble re-contextualization of humans as part of this much larger ecological and cosmic kind of dimension. It’s not as if we say we want to make a cinematic or science or nature doc. We’re experimenting and improvising and pushing ourselves in ways we haven’t done before.

Do you consider the men and the fish together as equal subjects of the film, and is this why you’ve put the fish in with the men in the end credits?

Non-human players are equally part of the fabric of this world, this universe. It’s also to give a sort of out-of-body or non-human take on the human. There’s a kind of co-evil or reciprocal sort of quality between the fish and the elements we see from the boat and the humans. And the human subjects obviously don’t speak, or their speech isn’t the typical way in which we humanize or subjectify humans. Regular docs rendering humanity is through words and speech, in a linguistic way. We’re much more embodied creatures and physical creatures before we’re talking creatures.

I’m interested in how you two directors came together and if you had different approaches to the subject matter. Sweetgrass and Foreign Parts are not similar, and yet you can see both styles in Leviathan. Was there any divide in the way you each worked on this film?

We met in Boston a decade earlier. We started collaborating at the Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard, and we teach together and collaborated in a number of different ways but had never made a feature-length film together. And we had just finished up the separate films and wanted to do something together and both had backgrounds in fishing and the sea. We also wanted to do something close to home, something near Boston. We ended up collaborating on this, and I think our different sensibilities and perspectives are in evidence in Leviathan but it’s also unlike anything either one of us has ever done before.

Neither of us ever wants to make a film that resembles something we’ve done before. [In film you should] do something new that stretches yourself and stretches the viewers and shows the world in a way that hasn’t been seen before. That’s always our ambition, and we didn’t have any tried or tested or any kind of principled notions of how to go about doing that. It was just constant experimentation and collaboration on the boat and in the editing room. The editing ended up being much more straightforward and intuitive than the filming, which was physically and psychically pretty grueling.

Both of those prior films have more in the way of characterization and narrative than Leviathan. Was there ever a desire to have more dialogue or story structure here?

I don’t know. We don’t think in the way in which words are used in the films. Especially in nonfiction films it’s kind of lazy and does a disservice to the potential of documentary or for cinema to relay the real world. Our apprehension and engagement with and experience of reality is in many ways non-linguistic. It’s more bodied and sensory than that. So there’s a vague, generic, non-explicit bias there. Also the sound, there’s a level of creepy intensity on the boat and the dialogue is almost unintelligible. In order to communicate, the men are screaming at the top of their voices in order to be heard. It’s a very physical, corporeal rather than communicative language.

We joked recently that maybe our next film should be purely interview-based and purely dialogue-driven. It’s not like we’re completely averse to using words or completely averse to using discourse.

Are there any other films or filmmakers that you see similarly pushing forward the medium today, and do you personally look to any who did so in the past?

I’m sure there are. Many of our friends are making works that we’re really impressed by, but I’m not sure about influences. I can think of early people who inspired us. People like Jean Rouch. Both of us are completely bowled over by his work. An Armenian filmmaker who’s invested in giving a different representation of humanity’s relationship to nature called Artavazd Pelechian. He made a film called The Seasons. There’s a Czech filmmaker called Jana Sevciková, who works a lot in the Carpathian Mountains. His works are much more dialogue-based than ours, but also incredibly lyrical and visual as well.

But not really, to be honest.

This interview is reprinted with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.