Action Speaks Louder Than Nerds
With his Oscar-winning documentary, The Cove, director Louie Psihoyos showed us that the best way to inspire film audiences to take on a cause is to keep them on the edge of their seats.
BEFORE HE WON the Oscar, Louie Psihoyos stood up the Academy. On March 4, three nights before the Oscars, Psihoyos, founder of the nonprofit Oceanic Preservation Society and director of the dolphin-slaughter exposé The Cove, was scheduled to appear at the Los Angeles mayor's mansion with all the other nominees. But something came up.
While the Hollywood royalty clinked glasses at the mansion, Psihoyos sat in a truck in the parking lot of a Santa Monica sushi restaurant, wearing a microphone and a wire. He had heard that the restaurant, the Hump, served illegal whale meat. With him was his right-hand man, Charles Hambleton, assistant director of The Cove and OPS's official "director of clandestine operations." In another truck were agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The group listened in as two women wearing wires ordered, then slipped their would-be supper—endangered sei whale—into plastic bags for DNA testing.
Three nights later, The Cove won the Oscar for best documentary, making Psihoyos, a first-time filmmaker, something like a rookie hitting a game-winning home run in the World Series. (Backstage, George Clooney complimented Psihoyos, noting the obvious: The Cove is better than Ocean's 11, because it's real.) The following day, Fish and Wildlife busted the Hump, earning Psihoyos a front-page story in The New York Times. Oprah called. A few weeks later, the morning after filming a segment on her show, Psihoyos flew to Seoul, South Korea, where Hambleton had found another whale-serving restaurant to bust.
It was a hectic month, but Psihoyos, 53, has become accustomed to such juggling. In the past two years, he's spent fewer than 80 days at the Boulder, Colorado, home he shares with his wife, Viki, a former dancer with the New York City Ballet, dividing the rest of his time between film festivals, speaking engagements, and shooting for his next project, a 3-D look at extinction in the oceans. After a decade in which the documentary has evolved from PBS special to de rigueur format for everyone from NYU grad students to Martin Scorsese, Psihoyos has suddenly become the "It" boy of true-life filmmaking. And while solid fact-finding journalism gave The Cove heft, what sets it apart is an electrifying jolt of blockbuster-type action and tension: The Bourne Identity meets Nova.
"It's absolutely thrilling to watch, it enrages you, and it calls people to action," says David Courier, senior programmer for the Sundance Film Festival, where The Cove premiered in January 2009, winning the audience award for best documentary. "The lesson for filmmakers is that if you want to call attention to a cause and if you can do it in a way that satisfies the desires of everyday moviegoers, that's a really smart way to go."
In a post–Inconvenient Truth world, it's hardly news that investigative filmmaking can sway public opinion. But by ditching the established documentary formula (interviews + narration + piecemeal clips) used by everyone from Al Gore to Stacy Peralta to Michael Moore and instead gripping viewers with a fast-paced and viscerally horrifying tale, Psihoyos has upended notions of how nonfiction films can convey serious messages.
The funny thing is, Psihoyos never intended to make a thriller. His vision for The Cove had been a heady film about overfishing and mercury poisoning, with the dolphin slaughter standing in as a metaphor for human abuse of the oceans. The fact that OPS spent months in Taiji, Japan, hiding out in camo, using thermal cameras to film fishermen slaughtering hundreds of dolphins, was incidental. He planned to include the footage as DVD bonus material. That changed only after he hired two documentary veterans, editor Geoffrey Richman and writer Mark Monroe, to help craft his 1,000 hours of raw film.
"When I saw what Louie considered the B roll, I said, 'You're going to have a hell of a DVD extra,'" says Monroe. "It took a couple of glasses of wine to convince Louie. I said, 'This needs to go in the film. You're talking about putting black ski masks on! That's fun!'"
But while the special-ops tactics may come across as a game, filmmaking to Psihoyos is deadly serious work. Like Paul Watson and Sylvia Earle, he's evangelical about the fate of the oceans. When we meet at OPS's headquarters, a solar-powered office in his backyard, Psihoyos tells me that OPS is "in the save-the-world business." A large, imposing man, he speaks from the gut, like a trained actor, and frequently rubs at his eyes. His OPS colleagues say that while shooting they've woken up at 4 A.M. to find Psihoyos online, doing research. "I have this jihad," he explains.
The jihad is new. Psihoyos's first life was photography. Raised in landlocked Dubuque, Iowa, he studied photojournalism at the University of Missouri, where he won the prestigious College Photographer of the Year award. National Geographic hired him as a staff photographer at age 23, and Psihoyos soon became known for his willingness to travel quickly and often; for an ability to translate abstract ideas (he shot stories on sleep and trash); and for his obsession with the perfect shot. In 1998, he rented out the Orlando Magic's arena to shoot Michael Jordan for what would become one of the bestselling covers in the history of Fortune magazine.
Also that year, he met Jim Clark, the billionaire founder of Netscape. Clark started inviting Psihoyos, a longtime diving aficionado, on dive trips all over the world. In 2002, the two were in the Galápagos when they saw an illegal longline fishing boat. Clark said, "Somebody should do something about this." Psihoyos responded, "How about us?" Clark wrote him a big check, and OPS was born.
Psihoyos first heard about Taiji's dolphin slaughter in 2005, from Ric O'Barry, the Flipper trainer turned activist who stars in The Cove. Part of the film's magic stems from the fact that there was not much of a plan. OPS simply showed up in Japan with a lot of fancy equipment, including a dolphin-shaped blimp outfitted with cameras. ("We liked to joke that we were all professionals," Psihoyos says, "just not at this.") But the same qualities that make Psihoyos a terrific photojournalist—artistic eye, monastic work ethic, affinity for risk—drive the story. You would not find Al Gore or Michael Moore pulling on XXL camo, risking jail time alongside a team of novices.
If the ultimate measure of an investigative documentary is what it does to spur tangible change, the jury is still out on The Cove: as you read this, fishermen are killing dolphins in Taiji. But if the measure is creating a groundswell of public outrage, then The Cove has few peers. This past September 2, the day after the dolphin hunt started, Ric O'Barry delivered 1.7 million petitions in protest from 150-plus countries to the U.S. Embassy in Japan.
"It's had a big impact," says Doe Mayer, co-head of the Documentary Production program at the University of Southern California's film school. "My students have been very motivated by this. They've spoken about the possibility of activism based on a documentary."
Psihoyos hopes to have an even greater effect with The Singing Planet, which will be completed in 2013 and focus on the major cause of the marine extinction crisis: the burning of fossil fuels. The idea is to take a nuanced look at issues like acidification and the depletion of plankton. Which might sound a little, well, quiet—if not for the filmmaker. After all, Psihoyos has busted two whale-serving restaurants on hidden cameras, and he's spent the past six months shooting from Abu Dhabi to the Gulf of Mexico, where he hung out of helicopters, filming oil-slicked dolphins.
"I do love the Ocean's 11 aspect of the last film," Psihoyos told me, "and I think we can really bump that up a notch. Our whole life is about picking fights."