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‘The Sea Beast’ Director Chris Williams on Crafting the Opening Sequence: ‘I Wanted to Make a Splash’

TheWrap magazine: “I’m a big fan of well-executed action,” Williams says

This story about “The Sea Beast” first appeared in the Awards Preview issue of TheWrap awards magazine.

“The Sea Beast,” the latest feature from director Chris Williams (“Big Hero 6,” “Moana”) and his first for Netflix, is a rollicking throwback to the kind of old-school adventure movies that Williams grew up with: 1976’s “King Kong,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Clash of the Titans,” and of course, “Star Wars.” It is set in a mythical land with deep ties to the ocean — a place where monster-hunting isn’t just encouraged, it’s sponsored by the kingdom. And it’s where one monster hunter named Jacob (voiced by Karl Urban) forms an unlikely friendship with a young girl (Zaris-Angel Hator) and learns that the creatures aren’t just killing machines.

No sequence establishes the world — and the stakes — like the opening high seas monster hunt.

“I’m a big fan of well-executed action and will always be an advocate for it,” Williams said. “When we embarked to make this this big action-adventure story, I knew I wanted to make a splash with the opening scene, and through it, get to know our characters and get to know how the ship works and how sea monster hunting works.”

But more than just a technical understanding of how the world of “The Sea Beast” operates, Williams knew he had to embed the emotional and thematic stakes of the world too. “I knew that people were going to, on some level, have conflicting feelings about what they were witnessing, because you can’t help it. They’re monsters, but at the same time they come across like large sea mammals and we can’t help but equate it to whaling. And I knew that that was going to be an issue. We were going to try, as much as possible, to swing our sympathies towards the hunters — to make the monsters seemingly the aggressor, to celebrate the heroism of the hunters and see them as rescuers.”

That moral nebulousness was something that Williams wanted to lean into rather than shy away from. “I knew our sympathies would be divided at least somewhat,” he said. “But I didn’t mind that. And I think that sometimes in movies these days, there’s a sense that the audience needs to feel one thing and only one thing at any given moment. When I think about movies that I loved, and most were made in the ’70s, those movies invited you to feel conflicted when you’re watching.” Williams cites “The Godfather” as a major influence. “Those conflicted feelings can be a source of energy, and I’m not afraid of that,” he said.

As for the staging of the sequence, Williams and his crew found themselves asking a series of questions: “Can it be more fun? Can it be more thrilling? Can it seem more dangerous? Are there more opportunities for character?” Williams wanted to stay away from too much cutting and to emulate the feeling of the “Mission: Impossible” movies, where you know Tom Cruise is doing those stunts. His guiding principle? “Just always: never settling.”

Read more from the Awards Preview issue here.

Claire Foy Wrap magazine cover
Photo by Corina Marie for TheWrap