When a film’s credits begin to roll, I tend to gage my initial reaction on how it made me feel physically. Did I have some sort of physiological, visceral response? Can I leave this theater and go on with my life as if the last two hours were merely entertainment? Or was I hit hard by something? But after watching Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel’s collaborative documentary, Leviathan, there was no question as to how I was feeling. There was no other way to experience their film, that leaves you bruised from its wholly immersive and visceral cinematic ride that feels more like you’re looking in through a keyhole on frightening and isolated world beyond our reality, than to feel both exhausted and absolutley in awe.
More easily comparable to the anxiety provoking and emotionally stimulating sensations of looking at the work of Francis Bacon or Edvard Munch while listening to a dark, metallic piece of music filled with pleasure and fright, Leviathan is almost inarticulate in its possession. As a sensory ethnographic investigation that leads you through the world of commercial fishing, the sum of the film is far more than one might expect. Having first premiered in competition at the 2012 Locarno Film Festival, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel‘s film has been entrancing audiences’ since with its entirely unique wordless wonder and gives the perspective of the fishermen but also echoes their own haunting experience out at sea through the interminable sense of unease. But this anxious perspective is matched by the most striking cinematography that’s shocking in its beauty as it casts a light on every perspective of the boat and blends colors like an impressionist painting being thrown against the waves.
I sat down with the brilliant and imaginative filmmakers to discuss the overwhelming experience of being at sea, the monsterous quality of nature, and not adhering to the confines of conventional documentary cinema.
Well to begin with, the film was incredibly powerful and completely unlike anything I had seen before, which I loved. So what inspired you to take on this topic and make a documentary that’s, in a way, completely anathema to most others of genre?
Véréna Paravel: Many different things right at the beginning. First of all, one of the first things was because we both live in Boston and because this city of New Bedford really sounded absolutely fascinating for many reasons. It used to be this whaling capital of the world and all this economy related to this whaling industry we were interested in, and also interested in the city itself because of the historical reference to Melville. So it was right there and so we started go down there and film in the city of New Bedford, which will always bare the mark of the moment when it was a rich city, yet is now completely declining with all those rusty boats that stay at doc because of the political issue around the environment. So we started to film there and then met some captains and then we went to sea. And once at sea, it was too overwhelming not to start filming. For a while we kept this idea on mind that we would continue to film on land but we but slowly the experience at sea became so powerful.
Lucien Castaing-Taylor: I would add that even though we don’t make personal films— confessional kind of films—we both have backgrounds in fishing and seafaring and shipping and we wanted to do something that related to our childhoods in some way. For us it’s a very personal film but in a very cosmic way. We wanted to do something close to Boston, but we never want to do films that we’ve done before or that other people are doing. And most documentaries remain at this level of moralism and do-goodism and we’re always attracted to what’s repressed or what’s not filmed or what’s abject or what’s horrific in some way. And once at sea, we realized the world was both much more sublimely beautiful and much more scary and more horrific than anything we were filming on land.
There was still a personal quality to it because you could tell that whoever had made this film had their own very fearful, visceral experience and it was something very isolated for them. Were you trying with the film to give us a visualization of that sense of fear? And how did you want to create the aesthetic and camera style?
LCT: I think we were trying to be faithful to our experience. It’s sort of a 90-minute blow up of all the fear and trembling and beauty that we ourselves witnessed, but not in a narcissistic way. It’s an experience that we had and we shared but we also felt we shared with the fisherman, even though they had a much more long-standing experience than we’ll ever have. So I don’t think there’s an easy way of dissociating our experience from their experience but we didn’t ever have the presumption that we’d come up with some dispassionate portrait of their experience that was disassociated with ours at all. And I think we always constantly improvising and experimenting with technology and style and how can we do justice to this world. It’s a world in which we had our experience, the fisherman’s experience, the fish’s experience and the—completely overwhelming acoustically as well as visually overwhelming—unremitting presence of the boat, the noise of the boat, you cannot get away from the boat. You’re out there in this sublime seascape, you’re in the middle of the Atlantic at night, and you suffer from agoraphobia in the unbelievably claustrophobic space of the this boat. So we wanted to bring into play— everything: the elements, the birds, the fish, all of the crustatians, and all of the death and blood. We’ve been out on six different trips, so we tried new things every time, and I think on the 6th trip we had realized that we filmed enough and we have 250 hours of footage and better stop.
Did you become more comfortable on the boat as you went along?
LCT: Less comfortable. Towards the end, the last trip was where we had moments of pause. We were working the same kind of hours as the fisherman—22 hours out of 24—and then on the last trip we started looking at our footage more and there was the realization that we had so much rich footage we didn’t need to keep on filming ad infinitum. We really needed to start honing in if we wanted to justice to it.
VP: It never became easier and easier. The last trip was—
VP: Really hard.
And were you shooting on very small cameras? Because there was such an immediate sense that you were there alongside everything, it’s even difficult to imagin cameras were present.
VP: We were shooting on big cameras, which is very uncomfortable because after two days I lost one at sea and after another two days we lost the other one. So then we ended up filming from these small cameras. They fit many things that we wanted to achieve in the film. He was just finishing Sweet Grass and I was finishing Foreign Parts and we wanted to work more with the fisherman and work more with our subject and really share. We had this conversation about how do we really share? Not scripting anything, but we wanted to do something together with them; it was like a collective, collaborative encounter and how do you include everything, how do you translate this? So it was always this dialogue between how do you translate the fear?
And each day, did you have an idea of what you wanted to shoot specifically or was it just the inspiraton that naturally came while physially present?
LCT: We had no idea because we didn’t do any research before we did our research with and through the camera. So like journalists and broadcast documentarians might come in and do all this preproduction and interviews and have all this knowledge before they start filming, but the first trip we ever went out on, we went with cameras so we were filming from the get go and it was the first time we ever witnessed this stuff. I think there’s a kind of rawness to the film that is a function of the fact that this was so new and novel to us and we were experiencing things with wide eyes in a way that was completely revolutionary to us. And by the sixth trip, that sort of dissipated a bit, we knew by the end. And a lot of the frenetic quality and the intensity of it comes from the intensity of our own experience.
I imagine collaborating with another filmmaker can often be difficult but the film has such an incredibly cohesive vision for something coming from two very distinct minds. How did you go about working together?
VP: We have no division of labor. We never said, I’m going to do that and you’re going to do that. So basically we’re trying to understand the day, the energy, if one sleeps, if one does not. There’s no clear division, we both film, edit, we both do sound. We were trying to watch each other to see if we were safe, to see if one needed something, tried not get in the way of each other. If one is filming something, the other is holding him not to fall overboard, so its basically like we don’t even have to talk, we can pass the camera from one to each other. In this one long sequence where we go over the body of the fisherman who are shucking scallops, I was filming to the point where my muscle hurt and I looked at Lucien and started to go up and he would come and pick up the camera and continue shooting and then give it back to me. I could just look at him and he would understand that I need to climb on something and he would take the camera and go smoothly. We don’t really have to talk, we understand how it works.
LCT: Unless I was puking up or your back was out, it was very rare that wee weren’t both up there. They’d set off the alarm just before they’d haul back and fisherman, since they’re working 20-24 hours a day, the other four hours they’re just collapsed in a state of coma and this really loud alarm comes on and gives them five minutes to get on deck in the middle of the night or whenever so we’d both try to get out there. We both had all four eyes working at the same time.
VP: It was also true that by watching each other filming—at the beginning we would film very differently and at some point the aesthetic came together —the way we approach things and even by looking at the footage and agreeing on what was most powerful that resonates to us and really speaks to the experience we just went through, it changed our way of filming.
LCT: On most films, there’s a filmmaker or cinematographer, there’s a division of labor out there and with filming and editing I felt it was the same thing. First of all, you’re struggling with yourself, you’re fighting different possibilities within yourself, and then you’re working with and against each other, and the same thing with editing. There were an infinity of different possibilities for structuring this film. It’s your idea one day, my idea the next day, both of ours the following day, complete crap the next, and then we start all over again.
I’ve heard that you’ve described the film as a "monster" rather than a documentary. And that only seemed fitting, considering the entire thing feels as if you’ev been been swalled up and are in the belly of the beast.
VP: It’s actually interesting because it is really to be in the belly. It felt like being in the belly of the monster but its also the monster because its like a reference to Leviathan. The film seems it’s a monster for both of us—what it does and how the film really imposed on us in a way that was not expected.
LCT: I think it’s monstrous intuitively. It’s monstrous because I think the world is monstrous and most representations of the world are trying to impose order that is usually elusive or illusionary. So we didn’t want to be incredibly reductive and come up with this sort of orderly, tidy, representation that would give you a sense that you came away from this film having a solution to some problem or knowing in some verbalized way what it meant to be a fisherman.
It felt like the revenge of nature.
LTC: It’s monstrous because the world is monstrous but also because as orchestrated and choreographed and formed and shaped by us…the conventions of cinemas—like all art and science have different conventions at any one time but they can be broken and formed and re-congealed—is that we didn’t want to conform to all of the formulas of documentary. We knew we wanted to resist whatever norms and forms of documentary defined the proper way of going about it. So first of all, humans don’t get private place in the way they do in most documentaries, there’s not an obvious plotline, it’s proto-narrative or interjectory, there’s some kind of arc to it but you don’t come away from it feeling edified or feeling this character development.
I think it would be reductive to try and compare it to anything else cinematically.
LCT: Don’t you think it’s absurd that we’re—especially in this country—supposed to think, oh this is what a documentary is like, this is what art’s like, this is what cinema is like. We’re all sensing, imaging, meaning-making, confounding, confused, struggling individuals working through metaphor, through images, through sound, to try and make sense of our lives and never quite succeeding. And the idea that this is how documentarians do it and this is how all these other people should do it and they should meet and rub shoulders with each other and borrow and blend and explode each other is just absurd.
And something that was so important to the film was this enormous sound that encompassed the entire thing. The fact there it was wordless but so engulfed in this dark, throbbing noise spoke volumes above what any dialogue could have in terms of feeling.
LCT: I don’t think we were really disassociated the sound from the image. Conceptually we never thought of it as anything else because we experienced it as one or as a multiciplcity, just a totally sensory immersion and overload. The sound was always as, if not more, overwhelming than he image. No one gives a shit about the lives of fisherman so over-regulated as the fishing industry might be, there’s no public health awareness for fisherman, no acoustic insulation, so first of all they all suffer from carpal tunnel syndrome, they all go deaf very quickly, it has the lowest life expectancy and the lowest morality rate of any profession around. There was something monsterous about the sound from the get go that we wanted to capture.
VP: It’s part of the trauma for sure.
LCT: It always had this goth, grunge, hard-core, heavy metal punk quality to us from the get go that was unit-dimensional to us in our initial offline mix and then we worked with these two people that made it more nuanced and modulated.
Leviaithan opens at IFC Center on Friday, March 1st.