A little over a year ago we were struggling to get our film, “The Cove,” into Sundance. We finished the film at 4 a.m., two hours before I was to board a plane and hand deliver it to the festival organizers. They were understandably getting nervous back in Park City where a snowstorm was threatening air travel.
This was my first film, and I remember asking the weary, seasoned post-production crew, "What do you think, do we have a good film?"
"Prepare yourself for a disaster," came the reply from someone who had worked with Academy Award-winning directors.
I had been privately doing that for three years. I’m the executive director of the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS), and we had started out trying to make the most beautiful underwater documentary we could. Then the OPS team visited the cove in Japan with reformed dolphin trainer Ric O’Barry, who captured and trained the five female dolphins who collectively played the part of Flipper for the 1960s television show and movie.
At that point our movie took a radical turn into a real-life action/adventure film with an environmental message of global implications. The joy ride that everyone had signed up for was not the eco-thriller we ended up producing.
Everyone was nervous, our biggest backer was understandably questioning my sanity, and my wife was dropping not so subtle hints that I should return to my money-making career instead of the bank account draining one of filmmaking.
I had ignored the first rule of filmmaking, "Never use your own money." I even borrowed money from my son’s college fund.
Success for a film can be measured in many ways, but our mandate was to just make a difference — hopefully the money would follow. We have yet to break even financially, but all the public screenings in Park City were met with standing ovations. Clearly audiences were being moved.
I was packing to go home before the final night of Sundance when someone told me stick around — there was an awards ceremony to come. I had thought getting a film into the festival was the award. I didn’t know they gave out actual awards. We ended up winning the audience award — and since then, some 50 other awards from festivals, guilds and critic’s associations around the world.
“The Cove,” to me, isn’t a movie about just saving dolphins; it’s also about trying to save humanity. The dolphin is the only wild animal throughout history known to save the lives of humans. But the only way we can save the lives of dolphins now is to prove that we have made their environment so toxic that we shouldn’t be eating them.
We pride ourselves on our large brain which is supposed to separate us from the “lower” animals, yet we are doing what no wild animal will do — fouling its own nest. The burning of fossil fuels is poisoning the oceans and fresh water supplies by releasing vast amounts of mercury into the environment.
I’m a pescatarian — fish was my primary source of animal protein for 25 years. I found out that I had mercury poisoning after doctors in Japan, who study Minamata’s disease (named from the town where mercury poisoning was discovered), recommended that I get tested after learning how much fish I ate.
To me, getting the word out about the burning of fossil fuels and mercury has become personal.
When we first went to the town of Taiji, Japan, which is the center of the captive dolphin industry, the town’s dolphin hunters were feeding toxic dolphin meat to school children in Wakayama prefecture, and the mayor of Taiji had hatched a scheme to spread it to school systems all over Japan.
Ric O’Barry and OPS along with two town commissioners put a stop to that before the movie even came out. On that achievement alone, at least to me, the movie was a success.
I believe film is the most powerful medium in the world, a weapon of mass construction. You drop a bomb, you create enemies, but show a movie and you can create allies.
Movies can be $10 and a box of popcorn and it can be a way to change the world. And change we must do if we are to survive on this rotating ball of land and water.
The burning of fossil fuels is also making the oceans so acidic that plankton, the base of all life in the oceans is struggling to survive. Plankton generates most of the oxygen on the planet. Two out of every three breaths you take, you owe to plankton. It’s been estimated that we have already lost some 30 percent of the ocean’s plankton.
Perhaps it’s counterintuitive that big brain creatures like us are connected in such a primal way to the smallest of organisms but that’s the lesson we must learn to survive: All things are connected.
Nowhere was that struggle to fight for another species’ survival so evident but in Ric’s work.
To me, “The Cove” plays like a prequel to “Avatar.” It has a similar plot line but it is set in the present and the events are as real. Ex-military guy Ric is sent to subjugate the natives — only in this case they are dolphins nine feet long and blue.
He finds that the aliens are more sentient and intelligent that anyone realizes and helps assemble a team to ward off an invasion from his own species. But the really wonderful thing about working in non-fiction film is that we can influence the audience to write their own ending with their actions.
Working with Participant Productions and Ric’s organization, we have signed on nearly a million people to help save not only the dolphins but perhaps ourselves. Inspired by the film, legions of activists have emerged to help save the planet on many issues.
The fact that a film can have that effect on people is invigorating to me and gives me hope that we can make a difference using film as rallying point.
And it wasn’t just about getting others to change — we changed, too. It’s one of the left turns we took while telling the story of “The Cove.”
I was curious about what the environmental cost was of making this film, so we made a carbon assessment. I was horrified. We put 646 tons of carbon into the atmosphere in the first two years of production. In that carbon there is a lot of mercury. It seems that one of the dirtiest things you can do to the environment is make a film about it.
So we changed the way we at OPS got our energy as soon as we could. We installed nearly 120 solar panels, and now OPS generates 140 percent of our electricity needs from our roof. The electric company now gives us checks.
We have two electric cars, not hybrids, totally electric cars — one goes 80 mph and 120 miles on a single charge. The license plate says “VUS,’’ which stands for Vehicle Using Sun — the opposite of an SUV.
The media likes to portray the awards season as a kind of competition, but in the film world, we’re all really collaborators trying to keep humanity from falling over the edge. Look at the films nominated for an Oscar this year, from “Avatar” to “Hurt Locker,” “Precious,” “District 9,” “An Education,” “Up in the Air,” “Food Inc.,” “Burma VJ” and “The Cove,” and at the heart of each you will find the spirit of humanity glowing bright, telling a story, highlighting an injustice, and entertaining countless millions.
George Clooney came up to me at Monday’s Oscar luncheon to congratulate us on “The Cove.” He said that when you keep shining a bright spotlight on a problem, it becomes hard for the world to turn away from the issue.
He helped shine a light on Darfur with his 2007 doc, “Sand and Sorrow, “and now through his work and the collective efforts of thousands of others there are less people dying there.
Even the revisionist fantasy “Inglorious Basterds” is an attempt to redeem past societal horrors with an imaginary team of activists.
And Quentin Tarrantino told the OPS team at the Oscar nominee luncheon that “The Cove” lit a fire under him to think about making a doc. The awards help shine a bright light to illuminate issues but the real reward will happen when we inspire people to create a better future.