December 14, 2009 | By Bob Bayless
After a screening of The Cove, I was moved and impressed as well as depressed by the experience. When I heard that cast member and associate producer Charles Hambleton was keynote speaker for a Cinema Innovators Night, held recently at Gordon Biersch in Burbank, I had to attend. Hosted by Tom Hallman, Cinners event founder, the regularly occurring networking event is set-up for investors and innovators in the various film arts and sciences to receive feedback, development assistance, funding or distribution for their products and ideas.
The Cove is one of fifteen films short-listed for the 2009 Best Feature Documentary Oscar. Shot in Taiji, Japan, a town that appears dedicated to the playful dolphins that traverse the ocean off their idyllic coast, the film reveals a town determined to prevent the discovery of a dark and bloody secret—an illicit, but highly profitable, market for mercury-tainted dolphin meat that has dangerous human health consequences.
The story follows a mission of redemption for former dolphin trainer Rick O’Barry, who captured and trained the multiple dolphins that played Flipper in the ’60s television series that instigated a continuing worldwide fascination with the trained sea mammals. Led to a radical change of heart by his close relationship with the intelligent and self-aware creatures, O’Barry came to realize that these magnificent animals should never be held in captivity and set out to expose a Japanese government cover-up of the chillingly brutal caged hunt that takes place in the cove.
Mixing investigative journalism, eco-adventure and disturbing imagery, Hambleton described The Cove as a “real life suspense thriller.” Although the movie seemed to take place in a few days, it actually took over four years and several trips to Japan to complete. Playing like a spy movie, the crew—made up of underwater sound and camera experts, special effects artists, marine explorers and world-class free divers—was in constant jeopardy of jail or physical harm as they attempted the undercover operation to photograph the cove. All involved persevered because of their passion for the environment.
“If this had been attempted in the normal Hollywood or even a documentary way, it never would have happened, because the story kept evolving,” Hambleton commented. “As we discovered more and more, we had to develop new techniques to accomplish what was needed to expose that cover-up.”
For this covert filmmaking, innovative techniques were used to capture the shots needed to tell the story. Gear included cameras camouflaged in specially constructed rocks, night vision glasses, underwater cameras and microphones, model helicopters with camera mounts, and even a dirigible disguised as a flying whale, which for safety reasons was never deployed. All of this equipment had to be placed illegally on private property in the middle of the night, while avoiding the local police, facing down violent thugs, and confronting corrupt politicians.
If only “filmmakers” had been involved, Hambleton feared they would have been too concerned with the process to get the real story. “For example, early on one of the filmmakers kept wanting to go back to the hotel every ten minutes to work on the script,” revealed Hambleton. “Meanwhile, the plot was unfolding in front of our eyes.”
There was no script until it was written by Mark Monroe, who after the fact made sense of the footage, along with editor Geoffrey Richman, who cut Sicko and other films for Michael Moore.
Over 600 hours of footage was shot. Post took about a year. There were several different versions, but it quickly became clear that the focus should be on O’Barry, who at one time had been given the “Keys to the City,” by the citizens of Taiji, but by the time of the movie, was under constant surveillance by the local police, even when he and the team sneaked out of the hotel in the middle of the night. Much of the footage was originally intended for a behind-the-scenes extra, but because of its real impact on the story, was included in the body of the film. Hambleton admitted that he and director Louis Psihoyos did not want to be in the movie, but because of what they were doing, they became part of the story.
The running on set joke was, “We are not actors, but we play them in the movie.”
Currently the film is having a very real effect in Japan with a public outcry to stop the slaughter. It opened theatrically last July and releases on DVD through Lionsgate on Dec. 8.