Wild Guide – Covert operation

With The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos and a diverse crew of activists undertook a risky undercover operation to depict what was happening in a secret cove in Taiji, Japan. The end result is one of the most talked about movies of the year.
September 1, 2009

Louie Psihoyos is somewhere in the San Juan Islands when he takes realscreen‘s call. He’s just wrapped a conference call, and reports that his debut film as a director, The Cove, is about to receive Japanese distribution. That’s great news for any film project, but with Psihoyos’ movie, it carries extra weight. The Cove teams Psihoyos, a founding member of the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) with activist Ric O’Barry, who has led a campaign to stop the captivity of dolphins and specifically, the slaughter of thousands of dolphins in Taiji, Japan, commencing every year in September. And it’s a story that, until extremely recently, has been kept silent in Japan.

Psihoyos and O’Barry came to activism from different directions: Psihoyos as a former National Geographic stills photographer and O’Barry as the dolphin trainer behind the ’60s television staple Flipper. O’Barry decided to take action against dolphin captivity and slaughter after Cathy, one of the dolphins that ‘played’ Flipper, stopped breathing while in his arms, which he considered a deliberate act of suicide. Psihoyos, on the other hand, became an eco-activist through his friendship with serial entrepreneur Jim Clarke (the man who started Silicon Graphics and Netscape among other companies), whom he’d met as a photographer for Fortune magazine. Both men, after seeing firsthand via assorted nautical jaunts the weakening conditions of the world’s oceans, decided to put their money and their time where their mouths were and created the OPS. ‘It was Jim’s idea to start an organization to use films – powerful films – and still photography to create awareness about ocean issues,’ says Psihoyos. ‘Jim said we’d need a really simple mission statement, so I came up with, ‘We’re not trying to save the whole planet, just 70% of it.”

The end result of the team’s first foray into filmmaking is the thrill-a-minute The Cove, distributed in the U.S. by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions. Described by Psihoyos as a cross between James Bond and Jacques Cousteau, it captures the exploits of Psihoyos, O’Barry and assorted cinematographers, divers and crew that stake out the secret cove in Taiji where the dolphin slaughter occurs. The film documents the danger the team places themselves in by being there, with police and surly dolphin hunters tailing them at every turn. But it also, in one harrowing two-minute sequence captured with hidden cameras, shows the horror that the Taiji dolphins experience in the hunt.

The Cove, winner of the Audience Award for U.S. documentary at Sundance, is just now starting to garner distribution internationally, with openings in France, the UK, Germany and even Japan on the way. And the Japanese media, until now silent on the slaughter and surrounding issues including the sale of mercury-tainted dolphin meat, is now starting to ask questions. This past September 1, O’Barry arrived at the secret cove with reporters from The Independent and Der Spiegel in tow, and was greeted by various Japanese TV crews for the first time. Interestingly, no hunters were present.

In the following paragraphs, Psihoyos tells realscreen the reasoning and risks behind the making of The Cove, and remarks on how documentary can be ‘the ultimate weapon of mass construction.’

I’d never made a film before. We started on Oct. 4, 2005. A couple of months later, in December, I was at a marine mammal conference in San Diego with 2,000 of the world’s top marine mammal scientists and Ric O’Barry was supposed to be a speaker. Then there was this controversy… in the end he wasn’t allowed to talk about the captivity issue and the Taiji dolphin slaughter. So I called Ric up and asked, ‘Who’s doing anything about this?’ And he said, ‘Just me right now. I’m going to Taiji next week – do you want to come?’ So I told him I’d have to catch up with him, as I had to take a three-day crash course on how to make a movie.

Later that year, we were on another of Jim’s boats, on Christmas vacation with our families. And Steven Spielberg was on the boat next door. He had a kid who was about the same age as my youngest son, and they started having sleepovers on the boats. I’m not a rich guy, and I kind of felt like an interloper in that world, but eventually Steven came over to meet the father of his son’s friend. So he asked me what I did for a living, and I said, ‘Well, I’m trying to become a movie maker.’ I told him a little bit about the idea Jim and I were talking about. And he said, ‘Let me give you a little bit of advice – never make a movie working on water or with animals.’

It was the most unlikely situation within which to make a movie, and it was probably because I was so inexperienced and dumb that I even picked it for a subject. A filmmaker who knew better would probably be too smart to take on a project that challenging.

There’s a lot of awareness about the movie – people know it’s out there, but [some] people are scared to death of it. With the last two minutes of the movie – the main climactic scene – I went through 40 hours of really grisly footage to get that scene. What you see in the film may be shocking but it’s not as shocking as what it could’ve been. It’s a PG-13 movie in the States – a kid watching a cop show in America will see more violence in that than in The Cove. But as Americans, we may love our violence and the more of it the better, except when it’s real.

We’re trying to get legions of people to become activists – and by that I mean for them to become active in their own lives. We’re losing the planet very quickly and I really feel that there are only a couple of generations that can turn it around. I’m currently in the San Juan Islands, and I’m looking at the ocean right now and it’s full of jellyfish. And that’s probably the only thing from the ocean we’ll be eating in 30 or 35 years. The movie to me is not just a movie about one secret cove – it’s a microcosm for the oceans that we’re losing at a terrific clip.

Documentary films are the most powerful medium in the world, bar none – it’s the ultimate weapon of mass construction. It’s the only way I see to get a mass audience aligned on any one subject. We tried to make a movie that was first of all entertaining. It plays more like an Ocean’s 11 film than a traditional documentary. It’s a thriller. From the beginning when I say, ‘I just want to say that we tried to do this movie legally,’ you know it’s not going to be a traditional documentary. (Laughs)

I’ve been a journalist since I was 15 years old, and I was always told that I should be the fly on the wall, and you should never become part of the story. But another good friend of mine towards the last part of his life was Hunter S. Thompson – I’d done a lot of portraits of him over several years and pictures for some of his books. And he said, ‘Never be afraid to put yourself in your own story.’ …I was sort of trying to follow the footsteps of Jacques Cousteau and channel the ghost of Hunter S. Thompson at the same time when we made this movie.

People always ask me if it was really that scary, or if we’d just edited it to look that way. And I always tell them the movie doesn’t show a tenth of how scary it was. Whenever we went back to Japan we faced the threat of arrest. We’d have five hotel rooms, the police would have five hotel rooms. It wasn’t a joke – they were just waiting for something to arrest us over but they couldn’t find it.

I really do feel we were on the side of angels and they were watching over us. We had a dedicated runner, whose job every day was to take footage and run it to the FedEx. It’d be a train ride to Osaka or a flight to Tokyo – she’d vary her route every day. We’d hide the hard drives in an air conditioning duct and time it so she’d get to the airport just in time to get on the next plane. But it was a real heart-thumper to pull this thing off.

To me the most shocking bits are right after the horror, when the guys are smoking cigarettes, the banality of it. And when they’re around the campfire and one of the old guys is talking about how the dolphins remind him of slaughtering all the blue whales in the Antarctic. In those few moments we saw the world in a grain of sand… these guys had a hand in decimating the great whales and now they’re doing it to the small ones.

The most horrific moments of the film are the most surreal. The scene where the diver comes up through the blood surrounded by evergreen trees and the birds are chirping… When I saw that film from the remote-control camera, I thought Salvador Dali couldn’t have dreamed that up in his worst nightmare. What’s shocking about it is the color. But yeah, we had to really go through a ton of really nasty stuff to edit it down into something that a child could watch. But those images will burn your retinas.

About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).