Well before Cutter Hodierne won the Directing Award for U.S. Dramatic Film earlier this year at Sundance for his first feature “Fishing Without Nets,” his story already had become the stuff of legend, having been named after the cutter-rigged sailboat that his seafaring parents spent the first three years of his life sailing on. So it’s only natural to believe it was the salt water in his blood that led the director to take on the daunting task of filming his hijacking drama on the open water just off the East African coast. But you’d wrong.
“I actually get fairly seasick, so that added even more to the trouble,” Hodierne laughs now. “Nothing can prepare you for filming on the ocean, but I had a respect for the ocean that was, hey, when the ocean says no, the answer’s no. We 100% were at mercy of the sea.”
Yet Hodierne countered the rising tides by making some waves of his own with “Nets,” a thriller that manages to be as invigorating as the moist air rising over the ocean while considering the taut situation from a perspective rarely seen in films – that of the pirates. Tracing the path of an impoverished young father (Abdikani Muktar) who reluctantly accepts the only way he can see in his village to provide for his family — by knocking over a French oil tanker — the film finds intrigue not only in the ensuing negotiation between the hostages and their untrained captors but in Somalis’ fascination with the cultural and class differences that distinguish them from the other men on the ship they take over.
It’s just one of the many bold choices made by a filmmaker brimming with confidence, something that’s been evident ever since Hodierne first made the 2012 short which the feature is an expansion of and no doubt attracted the attention of Vice Media, which deigned “Fishing Without Nets” to become their first feature production. Shortly before the film opens around the country, Hodierne took a moment to talk about how an obsession with pirates led to a five-year journey to make the film, working with nonprofessional actors with whom he didn’t share a language and the happy accidents that led to some of the film’s most striking moments.
Initially, I was just completely enamored with Somali piracy and the epidemic that was going on. I tried to write a TV series or a movie like “Traffic” where you’re seeing a topic from every angle – the sailors on the ship, the military chasing after them, the counter-piracy forces, insurance agents who were handling the ransom. I was really fascinated by all these things, but I would just keep gravitating back towards the pirates and who they were and why they were doing this. Their story is what really would always get me going the most and I just realized more and more that no documentary is every going to be able to get in and see this in a really clear way and no fiction film is going to think to do it from that standpoint, so this [seemed to be] is the most fresh angle and I just had a real rich curiosity for their stories.
I’ve read that most of the dialogue in the film was improvised, even though you gave outlines for each scene. Even if you have a translator with you, was it interesting to be filming scenes that you’d only have a full understanding of after they were done?
Yeah, it’s really a pretty cool process because it makes you really pay attention to the things that are most important in an actor’s performance – the body language and the tone, and it takes some emphasis off of the specific word choices in a scene. I would watch a take and know exactly what’s supposed to happen in the scene, but I didn’t know all of the exact lines, so now I’m watching a scene where two people are playing out action that I basically wrote and I’m armed with a lot of information to pick up on what’s being said. When I would watch the monitor, I wouldn’t get hung up on what the words are, so it just makes you really watch performances in a different way. It tests your communication skills as well. I had to be very precise both with the actors but then also with the crew that we’re working with. Sometimes language would be an issue there, but it trains you to speak clearly and concisely.
When I spoke to Tobias Lindholm, the director of the similarly-themed “A Hijacking,” he spoke about being able to use a real ship that had been hijacked and much of his cast had some connection to a real hostage situation because he filmed in Africa, which gave the film an authenticity even he didn’t expect. Did you go through something similar?
We worked on a working ship and most of the hostages in the film are the actual working crew of the ship. We cast entirely with Somali living in Mombasa, Kenya and around that area and some of them had a checkered past. We very much took our lead from the short film of let’s really be immersive and let these settings and characters inspire the movie. The Somali actors were really a big part of that, going beyond acting in the film to provide authenticity and dialogue and new ideas. They were huge.
We [also] had a ship that had been attacked and crew members who’d evaded pirates before. One had been a hostage who’d been held by pirates and we had Somalis who’d been in militias and a couple worked as pirates. I definitely admire anyone else who went to those measures [since] we really went for it in terms of making it as realistic as possible.
I’ve also heard you were able to divide this shoot into two separate parts. Was it nice to have a break where you could reassess things?
We did the shoot in two pretty substantial chunks – the first was a bigger, longer shoot and for a variety of reasons, we ended up coming back, putting together an assembly of what we had shot, then went back and filled in a little bit what we were missing. We planned a pick-up shoot [already], but the logistical challenges we ran into caused that pick-up shoot to [act more as] part two of principal photography.
There is nothing like being able to refine what you need from a script standpoint while you’re editing footage of the film, to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Even if your script was rock solid, certain things happen on set that are great or you discover something new and you go a certain new way, and you start editing and you see something differently, so being able to go back intentionally to fill in holes, you just come at it with a much different perspective.
What began as logistical challenges that caused delays, we turned into a strength, which was to edit and to really refine our story. We added scenes, but we also decided there were things that we had shot that we definitely didn’t need, so it was a very informative process. I would probably do something similar to that on my next movie intentionally.
The film has a remarkable opening scene, which follows the protagonist as he walks through his village with his back to the camera, and what’s particularly notable is this almost chaotic mix of sounds that feels like the mixed messages he’s receiving – living in poverty and living above the law and yet having people around him making ends meet through piracy. How did that scene come about?
That’s an awesome thing to point out [because] it’s an audio tape that was recorded by a filmmaker friend of ours who had been working as a sound recorder on some shoot in Somalia back in the late ’70s. We used it in the short film – [there’s] a similar walk through his village – and as soon as I heard [the recording], I was like wow, this is incredible. There’s something so entrancing about it. What was really crazy was at that point, this audio tape was thirty-something years’ old, so as we were digitizing it, the tape literally burned and as it spun into the system, it burned apart. It disintegrated as we digitized it.
All of it got saved on a digital form, but it [felt] like, whoa, it was meant to be. It was just hours and hours of really creating these sounds that we ended up using other places in the movie too, but that one in particular just has that striking drum beat and sounds like it’s his feet walking, but it’s actually not. It’s one of my favorite little details of the movie.
“Fishing Without Nets” will play in Los Angeles at the Cinefamily until Sept. 28th and the Cinema Village in New York beginning on October 3rd before expanding throughout the country. A full list of theaters and dates is here.