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Interview with Neasa Hardiman, director of Sea Fever

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?

Neasa Hardiman: 
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. 

TIFF: Portrait of a Lady on Fire

It’s been a long time since Marianne (Noémie Merlant) saw her own painting entitled Portrait of a Lady on Fire. When one of her art students brings out the portrait it stirs memories of its subject. Years ago, Marianne was hired by La Comtesse (Valeria Golino) to draw a portrait of her daughter Héloïse (Adèle Haenel). The painting was to be part of her dowry when she married a wealthy gentleman from Milan. But there’s a catch. Héloïse can’t know she’s being painted. La Comtesse comes up with a ruse to hire Marianne to be Héloïse’s walking companion. As the two take sojourns Marianne studies Héloïse features and even has the house servant Sophie (Luàna Bajrami) pose as Héloïse. As the two bond its clear to Marianne that she is falling in love with the difficult and tortured Héloïse. Both are destined for other things and must make the most of those precious days together.

Courtesy of TIFF

Portrait of a Lady on Fire/Portrait de la jeune fille en feu is a stunningly gorgeous and mesmerizing film. It’s pure poetry. The way the camera frames Marianne and Héloïse makes it look like we are in a living breathing work of art. Noémie Merlant and Adèle Haenel bring an intensity that is simply awe inspiring. Director and writer Céline Sciamma offers up a lesbian love story that feels honest and true. The film is so intimate that it made me uncomfortable and almost vulnerable in a way that was exhilarating. There are no real male characters. This is a world of women and women only. The sex scenes are highly subversive and real. It’s really unlike any romantic period piece I’ve ever seen. 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire had its Canadian premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

TIFF: Disco

Norwegian filmmaker Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s latest film Disco is a heady exploration of the danger of Christian cults and what it means to lose yourself. Teenage Mirjam (Josefine Frida Pettersen) is a champion dancer, a singer and one of the faces of her stepfather Per’s congregation Freedom. All is not right in her household. Per is controlling, her mother harbors a dark secret about the abuse Mirjam suffered years ago by her biological father and Mirjam is now collapsing during her competitions. There’s a lot of pressure on Mirjam to be perfect from her performances, competitions, church life and as a model young woman. After attempting suicide, she looks for answers by way of other Christian outlets. First she spends time with her uncle, a televangelist who feigns curing cancer and homosexuality through elaborate prayers. Then she seeks an even more radical alternative by attending a youth camp run by a family friend (Andrea Bræin Hovig). In searching for answers Mirjam loses her personal freedom and becomes a shell of her former self. Will she find her voice again?

Disco offers an interesting conceit but the story never quite gels. It felt aimless and without purpose. There are many tightly framed shots which at first I found off-putting but they really transport the audience into Mirjam’s world. We’re up, close and personal with her and this creates a sort of bond between viewer and protagonist. Josefine Frida Pettersen is an internet celebrity and the star of the hit TV show Skam. She’s absolutely stunning and its clear that the camera loves her. Petterson’s performance is reserved and while we don’t necessarily tap into her character’s personal pain we do feel empathy for her situation.

While I didn’t grow up in a Christian cult I was raised in a very religious and oppressive environment and much of what was shown I found highly triggering. It’s important to show Mirjam’s trauma and the lengths these groups will go to strip their followers of their identities in order to gain their obedience. Some of the final scenes are quite shocking. The ending will frustrate many viewers. It’s a risky move on the filmmakers part but realistic within the scope of the story.

Jorunn Myklebust Syversen’s Disco had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Discovery series.

TIFF: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

I am fiercely protective about Mister Rogers. So when I heard that there was a new biopic about him I was skeptical. When I heard Tom Hanks was portraying Mister Rogers in the film I was skeptical. When I arrived for the TIFF screening at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto, ticket in hand, I was still skeptical. In fact I was skeptical for the first half of the movie. Why was everyone laughing? Don’t laugh What if audiences don’t fully understand or appreciate who Mister Rogers truly was? It hit me half way through the film that to really know Mister Rogers, we need to know the affect he had on others. And that is exactly what this film delivered.

Directed by Marielle Heller, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood takes an unconventional route to tell the story of an extraordinary man. It’s loosely based on Tom Junod’s Esquire article from the late 1990s.

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) is an angry and bitter man. Like Junod, he writes for Esquire and is known for his particularly callous approach to writing profiles. No one wants to be interviewed by him except for Mister Rogers who takes a particular interest in Lloyd and sees an opportunity to help him. Lloyd has a difficult relationship with his father Jerry (Chris Cooper) who abandoned the family when Lloyd’s mother was dying. Lloyd is unable to forgive and the two have a volatile relationship. When assigned to write a 400 word piece on Rogers, Lloyd gets more than he bargained for. As he enters Mister Rogers world he struggles to comprehend what makes Rogers tick. The two continue to meet under the guise of the article, which Lloyd eventually writes a much longer profile which becomes the cover piece for the magazine. But it’s through this project that Lloyd learns to reconcile with his dad, to let go of the anger and to find some happiness within himself.

Mister Rogers gets a supporting role in his own biopic and that’s just the way he would have wanted it. Heller and the team of writers craft a unique structure which is part dark comedy and built within the confines of a faux episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. We get (what I believe is) a recreation of the set, the famous intro (cardigan, shoes, song and all) and the closing theme song. There’s the photo board, a picture picture sequence (all about how magazines are made), a visit from Mr. McFeely, a trip to the neighborhood of Make-Believe complete with King Friday and Daniel the Tiger and interstitials show the neighborhood set miniatures and when Lloyd is traveling those sequences are told in similar miniatures. There are dream sequences including a nightmare one that happens on the set. We see the production team, Rogers’ trusted assistant Bill (Enrico Colantoni), Rogers’ wife Joanne (Maryann Plunkett) spends time with Lloyd.

My favorite scene in the film is when Rogers and Lloyd meet at a restaurant and Rogers asks him for one minute of silence and to imagine the people he loves most surrounding him. The real Mister Rogers did this often and believed in the power of silence. We get that one whole minute of silence and as the camera pans we see cameos from Joanne Rogers herself and several other people from his life. I would give anything to watch that one scene again right now.

Courtesy of TIFF

I worry about viewers who didn’t grow up with or appreciate Mister Rogers. I grew up in the ’80s and Rogers was a sort of father figure to me. My own father lacked Rogers’ gentle demeanor, kindness, and understanding nature. I sought that through Rogers. He had a profound affect on how I view myself (to like myself just the way I am), to not be afraid to deal with my emotions and to be kind to others. 

One scene worried me in particular. As Lloyd is grilling Rogers about his “burden” and how he deals with it, Rogers takes out Daniel the Tiger. Lloyd is obviously frustrated that Rogers is not answering his question. But those who KNOW a thing or two about Rogers knows that Daniel the Tiger WAS his way of dealing with that burden. If you don’t know anything about Rogers, doing a bit of research ahead of time will be essential.  A viewing of Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  before watching Heller’s film is all you’ll really need.

Courtesy of TIFF

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a touching tribute and will be a major contribution in keeping the memory of Mister Rogers, and his particular brand of kindness, alive. I started getting emotional from the very first scene and cried throughout. This film really got to me even if it took me more than an hour to appreciate what it was trying to do.

Tom Hanks delivers a solid performance as Mister Rogers and I wouldn’t be surprised if some award nominations come his way. He nails the nuances, the gestures, the slower pace of moving, Rogers’ somewhat awkward body language and even the voice is simply spot on. Chris Cooper’s performance as Jerry shouldn’t be overlooked either. 

Watch A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood but don’t forget to bring tissues.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood had its world premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as a gala presentation.

TIFF: Pelican Blood

Set in the bucolic countryside of Germany, Pelican Blood tells the story of Wiebke, an adoptive mother and talented horse trainer. It’s at her horse camp there that she trains horses and riders for the German mounted police. Wiebke isn’t afraid of a challenge and is determined that Top Gun, her most problematic horse, graduates to the academy even when others doubt her. 

Wiebke is also getting ready to become a mother again. With her adopted daughter Nicolina (Adelia-Constance Ocleppo), they travel to Belgium to adopt a second child, an orphan named Raya (Katerina Lipovska). Everything seems to be fine until Raya start exhibiting some increasingly strange and frightening behaviors. Wiebke learns that Raya has reactive attachment disorder and feels very little to no fear or empathy. As Raya’s behaviors start to spiral out of control, putting the family in grave danger, Wiebke tries everything she possibly can to rehabilitate Raya. This puts a strain on her relationship with her daughter Nicolina and her love interest Benedikt (Murathan Muslu) one of Wiebke’s trainees. As Wiebke looks for a solution, will she have to sacrifice her work and a chance at happiness to save Raya?

“When you take a journey you can come back changed.”

Directed by Katrin Gebbe, Pelican Blood is an understated and terrifying movie. It’s frightening to not only see the effects of Raya’s psychosis but the lengths that Wiebke will go to help Raya. The term “pelican blood” refers to the sacrifice of motherhood which for Wiebke comes at a greater cost having chosen to be Raya’s mother. At the beginning of the film we learn of the legend where a pelican mother pierces her breast and feeds her dead chicks her own blood to bring them back to life.

The third act takes a strange turn which brings the conflict to its resolution. It’s not something I expected but I don’t know how else the story could have been resolved. I was particularly intrigued by how Wiebke’s scar becomes its own character in the movie. It’s very prominent on her face, changes in appearance and then disappears. We never learn exactly where she got it from but it’s assumed that it was from an encounter with an unruly horse. There are plenty of tender moments between Wiebke and Nicolina and also her sweet romance with Benedikt. These help balance out the tension with Raya.

I really hope Pelican Blood gets distributed in the US. It’s a fine film, very inventive in its storytelling and its solutions, offers fine performances and is enjoyable as both a dark family drama and a pseudo-horror flick.

Pelican Blood had its North American premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their Special Presentations series.

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