I had the pleasure of sitting down with Neasa Hardiman, the writer and director of Sea Fever. This science fiction film was a hit at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. It tells the story of a marine biologist who joins a fishing trawler on an expedition and the group comes face to face with a mysterious underwater creature. I really enjoyed this film and was thrilled to be able to talk to the woman who started it all.
Raquel Stecher: Your film Sea Fever felt classic but also brand new. Did you have like influences from science fiction movies and what was the inspiration for this unique story?
In terms of cinema that, the, you’re absolutely right because the kind of references I was thinking of were Arrival, Annihilation, there was that there were a couple of other, The Thing, there was Alien and there was something about all of those films that I wanted to preserve… The story is less of a roller coaster and more of an exploration… It’s rooted in the transformation of the characters. That that’s actually what the story is. That’s what it’s about. That’s where it lives. And that transformation of those characters is about the kind of central pain of taking responsibility, for yourself or for each other, for the broader natural world and where we are and how we got here.
Raquel Stecher: Siobhan [Hermione Corfield] is such an interesting character. How did you come up with her character and how did you develop it over the story?
Neasa Hardiman: Quite early on in the process I was thinking, what is it if you, is there enough funds in the world? What is it that you want to do with this film that that is different? Or that asks question or that articulates something that feels true? What are the things is I feel like, I’m tell me if you agree with this, but I feel like I’ve seen a lot of films where that figure of the scientist is portrayed as somebody cold, disconnected, often very immoral or amoral, who makes choices that have without any kind of thought about the kind of broader social implications of those choices. They’re often a figure that has to be fought against or that has to be corrected or disempowered in narrative cinema. I’m really uncomfortable with that and I’m really uncomfortable with that idea.
It’s maybe not that surprising because most of the people who make narrative cinema have humanities backgrounds. But I thought, one of the things I want to do is really kind of dig at the roots of thought and go, where does that cliche come from? Cliches become cliches because they’re rooted in something. What is that rooted in? Can we unearth it and look at what’s really happening now? It was really important for me that there are two figures in the story that are really wedded to the scientific method [and] that’s Siobhan and Omid [Ardalan Esmaili]. She’s a very mathematical biologist who’s interested in populations and changes in populations, particularly ecological transformations of what’s happening at a kind of global level. Looking at it through algorithmic modeling.
[Omid’s] equally a problem solver and a, and a mathematician and an engineer. He’s very kind of hands on and uses the scientific method in a very practical way and runs this boat and invents things. It was very important to me that there were two different scientists characters. Because what I wanted to do with Siobhan was explored the roots of that cliche and go, let’s look at what that really is. What is it, where does that come from?
The cliche is the antisocial… sometimes people who are of this character type are quite antisocial. What I think is really not true is the notion of being immoral or the notion of being isolated in a caring.
[Siobhan] does have a slight social deafness. She’s not very good at interpersonal cues. She’s not very good at picking up subtexts and she’s very blunt. I wanted that to be really clear at the beginning of the story.
It was really important for me was to correct that [misconception] or not correct it, but to articulate another version of that. Then also to articulate for what I know to be true of people that are in my life, that that made me think a little bit differently. Which is if I was hanging from a rope off the edge of the cliff, I would want one of those people on the other end of the rope because they would never let me go. They never let me go. And there’s a commitment to honesty and the moral choice, however difficult and however compromising and challenging that I think it goes with that slightly different cognitive style that we don’t celebrate enough. And that’s brilliant. A commitment to focus. Focusing on something and becoming an expert and being able to push forward the minutes of knowledge that goes with that slightly different cognitive style that is amazing.
Raquel Stecher: Siobhan works for something greater than herself.
Neasa Hardiman: Because that’s the moral choice, because there’s a kind of moral clarity that goes with that slight difference in thinking. I really wanted have a figure who embodied that. The roots of this cliche are in something that’s actually much more beautiful and complex and painful and difficult, and brilliant. At the same time I want us to have this other scientific figure in the story in Omid [Ardalan Esmaili] going, “But not every scientist is that.”
There are plenty of people who give their life to science who are also really warm and funny and charming and… don’t have any kind of cognitive difference in that sense. They’re still really good scientists… and really good colleagues. That was already important to me, was to valorize and champion the scientific method. The value of that, of zooming out from your own first responses on what might be your own logic or your magical thinking and to be humble enough to go, “I could be wrong. Let’s explore this and let’s say let’s experiment and find the best solution to this problem.”
Raquel Stecher: Sea Fever has an amazing diverse cast. Can you talk about your casting choices and about the tight knit community of trawler life?
Neasa Hardiman: Trawler life is a really hard life and it has the highest death rate of any profession in our end of the UK. More people die as professional trawler people going in any other walk of life.
It is genuinely really a transnational community. There are people from all over the world working with those. These are little tiny communities. There’s little small boats, sleeping seven people, they all know each other and they all kind of live in each others pockets. You see them on the boats and they’re like cats. They’re climbing all over the rigging. It’s terrifying… They’re really elegant. It’s the movements are really precise and elegant as you can imagine in a space like that sort of thing.
I said to [the trawler consultant] Dana, I went to film, I have this scene where Jonny [Jack Hickey] injures his hand, “Is that truthful or is everybody just so precise that that would never happen? She looks at her brother and her brother looks at her and they went “Well, let’s see, there was Arda, he lost his leg from the knee down. Then there was Shawnee, he lost those three fingers? Then there was a fella got decapitated that time.” I’m like, “Okay, okay, okay, that’s fine.”… it’s hard, hard, hard, hard life and dangerous.
[About the cast]
Neasa Hardiman: Characters are sort of like icebergs, you [only see so] much. But actually you have to have all of their story at the back of who they are and what’s happened to them and what their pleasures and pain is. They were really rich and complicated and that narrows your casting choices then because you have to have somebody who can really embody that and also breath their own life into it and bring something else to it.
I was so lucky because every single one of them, there was no second choice. It was like, well it has to be Hermoine [Corfield]. There’s such subtlety. She’s actually really a brilliant but when she’s in character, she’s so withheld but it’s all there.
It had to be Adalan [Esmaili] because he has this warmth that occurs. And a kind of effortless charm and that there was nobody else who had that.
It had to be Dougray [Scott] because he has this kind of he’s the life of the party. He’s funny and charming and really warm, and really openhearted little bit, kind of dangerous. You feel it often and there’s nobody else that could do that.
It had to be Connie [Nielsen] because Connie has a real authority to her. She walks into the room, everybody turns to look at her. She just has that charisma and… that was her in the movie for sure. She takes care of people. She’s very attentive to what’s going on around her and very attentive to, people who might be struggling or suffering. It’s not saccharin, it’s with a kind of rigor and authority to it.
Raquel Stecher: What do you hope the audience will take away from your movie?
Neasa Hardiman: I hope that that the questions that it might trigger or that, that the things that it might make you think about… That sense that we’re separate from nature and that what we do is separate from other animals. We all kind of know that’s not true. We’re a part of it. The idea of this circular animal that’s got these kind of radiating and tendrils was rooted in the idea. What if this is a diagram of what the them of the story is. There’s an unknowable center to life and to the kind of unity of life that exists on our planet and it radiates outwards. And when you see it, what I hope is the intention with the animal is that you see it as it’s kind of mesmerizing, beautiful, unknowable.
That was sort of the central theme of the story. That idea that we do things that radically transform a world that we don’t actually really understand yet, particularly the deep ocean. There was a version of the script which I had to cut back as it was like, this is just too expositional, but there was a version of script where Siobhan [Hermione Corfield] has a speech at the beginning of the story where she goes, you could drop the Himalayas from root to tip into the Atlantic ocean and they would disappear and you wouldn’t notice. It’s so deep and so unknowable and there’s so much life there that we have no idea. We have no idea how we’re implanting on that life [with] micro plastics, our noise and our melting glaciers… we’re transforming things that we haven’t even had a chance to recognize.
For me that was a really important part of the story was really important part of the story to say we have to take responsibility. We have to take responsibility for our actions. Both to each other, to ourselves, to the world and to what we’re doing and to have respect for the broader system of which we are a small part.