Interview: Gabriela Cowperthwaite on Tackling a Whale of a Problem in the Riveting “Blackfish”

Gabriela Cowperthwaite was pursuing a political science doctorate at USC when she began to get interested in making films, an interest that was confirmed after she spent a year interning at a documentary production company with no compensation except for creative fulfillment.

“I realized that documentary is the land of the curious,” Cowperthwaite says, now 12 years into a successful career making films largely for the likes of National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. “It was a really perfect fit for me in that you never ever stop asking questions and maybe you discover a little truth here and there on the way.”

With her latest film “Blackfish,” those questions led to something big – the ticking time bomb that exists at sea parks such as SeaWorld where the treatment of killer whales that have been taken out of their natural habitat and confined to small tanks has led to increasingly volatile behavior, ultimately culminating in the death of veteran trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 at SeaWorld Orlando. An incident that pierced the theme park’s long-standing ability to make its guests forget the “killer” part in killer whale, a small piece about it in the L.A. Times caught Cowperthwaite’s attention and soon she would learn it wasn’t the first incident of violence.

What “Blackfish” reveals will likely shock audiences, even those who already believe our fellow mammals of any kind do not belong in captivity. But what will awe them as moviegoers is the efficiency and effectiveness of the way Cowperthwaite and editor Eli Despres have constructed the film to chart the devastating psychological toll put upon the whales that are pulled away from their families in the open water and subsequently stored in inhospitable conditions, primarily through the story of Tilikum, the bull orca responsible for Brancheau’s death and whose sperm has been used throughout SeaWorld around the world to fill out the casts for the theme parks’ shows.

Through the testimony of former SeaWorld employees and outside whale experts as well as a slew of video evidence, the film distills into layman’s terms how each attack by these ordinary peaceful creatures was precipitated point by point, not only making a strong case against SeaWorld’s current practices, but unfolding as if it were a taut crime procedural that’s as invigorating as it is infuriating.

On the eve of “Blackfish”‘s release, Cowperthwaite spoke of her own learning curve when it came to the 40-year history of killer whales being held in captivity for entertainment purposes, the importance of distinguishing the film as a documentary rather than the work of an activist and how the film grew into something bigger than her wildest expectations.

How did you get interested in this subject?

I actually came into it with the question of how did a top female SeaWorld trainer come to be killed by an animal that she presumably loved and presumably loved her. I’m a mother that took her kids to SeaWorld, so I just thought that incident was a one-off, an aberration. In my mind, killer whales don’t attack human beings, so I just couldn’t understand how this could’ve happened.

There’s actually footage from inside SeaWorld where you hear what the guides tell guests of the park, which is then contradicted by former employees and other experts you have in the film. Did you just go in with a camera and act as if you were a normal tourist to get that footage?

We never hid our cameras. [The employees] knew they were being filmed and they made comments that they themselves were told to make to the public. From what I learned about SeaWorld, they don’t necessarily encourage you to look outside of their park for any scientific information, so what they’re telling you is doctrine. When [the employees] are repeating those things, that’s what they’ve been told to say and that’s probably what they believe. Everybody outside of SeaWorld in terms of the scientists or biologists or animal activists — SeaWorld can paint a lot of those people as crazy activists. [Their belief is] who could know better about killer whales than the people who are touching them everyday? I think they see themselves as their own brand of science.

Was it a different experience for you going to SeaWorld after you decided to make the film?

It’s funny because when I first began interviewing the SeaWorld trainers, they were echoing my experience in terms of loving that park or believing that it’s a beautiful, glorious place. So I knew if I could start the film from that place of authenticity, which was not only the former trainers’ perspective, but my perspective, eventually I had to follow them through to their disillusionment and through to their kind of release at the end. What some of them say feels like they’re in a confessional. They feel like they needed to get the truth out there in order to feel good and forgive themselves for what they did. Not all of them feel that way. A lot of them feel like, “I’d never take back those years ever because they taught me a lot,” but I think in general, the story structure echoed their trajectory, maybe allowing them a release at the end and their experience to come full circle.

From what I’ve heard from the former trainers you interviewed, you were a lot more specific in your line of questioning when you first approached them and eventually began to broaden them. Did that shape how you approached the film as a whole?

That’s a very documentarian approach in that you think you know, but you really have no idea. In general, I had an idea of what this movie would be and it was more of a philosophical film where I was exploring human beings’ relationships with animal counterparts. Then suddenly, I’m starting to hear things that didn’t fit into that original narrative, so all of a sudden, you’re really doing true documentary because you’re letting the story guide you. You don’t necessarily know where you’re going to end up, but I trusted the process.

It was striking, though, how you were able to portray that relationship between the whales and humans, or at least convey a whale’s emotional state in terms that were relatable to humans. Was that a difficult thing to depict?

One of those big philosophical questions that we have to ask ourselves is we know our side of the equation — we know that we love them — but how they feel about us? You’re left creating a story. And maybe that story is right. Maybe they are capable of loving us back, but we don’t know necessarily because we don’t take food out of the equation. And that wouldn’t be a good idea. [laughs]  So when we began this kind of 40-year mad scientist experiment of putting a top predator in captivity, I actually think we were trying to make a friend. We were curious. But what happened was we learned what they need to be able to survive or thrive, but we also fell in love with them. And when we fell in love with them, we realized they could make a lot of money. That becomes the defining moment for what created this industry.

There isn’t a lot of violence in the film, though it seems like there is. How did you decide where your limits were in terms of what you would show?

I definitely wanted kids to be able to see this and I didn’t feel the need to overtly traumatize anybody. To me, that falls into the realm of the hysterical and I tried very hard to not do that, only because it would feel manipulative. I did not have access to the death of Dawn Brancheau, and the family’s fighting very hard to keep that from the public eye, but I really stood behind them from the beginning and I never, ever would’ve considered putting that in my film. I don’t think there’s anything educational you could gain from that that you can’t gain from reading that autopsy report and  I have to live with this film for the rest of my life. I couldn’t if I knew that I was traumatizing audience members and certainly traumatizing the family.

When it’s being embraced for advocacy purposes when that may not be your intention as a filmmaker, what is that experience like?

My goal was to create an airtight 83-minute document that was going to be truthful, fact-driven narrative. To imagine what that document could be capable of, I’m not sure I ever had that skill set. As a documentarian, you’re excited when people are seeing your movie on purpose. [laughs]  So I don’t think you think that far ahead. But the moment I learned these truths, I knew that it was my mandate to tell them. That was it. And if someone uses the film for their own cause, more power to them. I hope at some point, the documentary ceases to be mine, ours and it becomes yours. I trust it’s in safe hands from here on in.

“Blackfish” opens on July 19th in Los Angeles at the Arclight Hollywood and the Landmark and in New York at the Sunshine Cinema and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center before expanding across the country on July 26th. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.

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