Ivy Meeropol on the Confronting the Complexities of Coexistence in “After the Bite”

“It’s an incredible thing that’s happening here, but not everybody sees it that way,” Meg Winton, a staff scientist for the Atlantic Shark Conservancy says of Cape Cod in “After the Bite,” an attraction for years for those looking to cool off in the summer in the waters just off the coast of Massachusetts. The locals have been excited for tourists for years when they’ve been of the human variety, pumping much-needed income into the local economy, but more recently, things have taken a turn when a greater number of seals — and by extension, sharks — have arrived, spreading fear both in the sea and along the shore, particularly following the 2018 death of Arthur Medici, a 26-year-old who was boogie-boarding at Newcomb Hollow Beach when he was bitten by a great white.

In “After the Bite,” director Ivy Meeropol observes the ongoing fallout as town council meetings in Wellfleet are overwhelmed with safety concerns, with more than a few eager to challenge longstanding mandates of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that would allow for the slaughter of seals to ward off the sharks, while scientists are fascinated by larger shifts in the ecosystem that have brought the marine life down from their typical waters, due in no small part to climate change. Meeropol marvelously captures ripple effects of all kinds in her latest film, presenting on a broad scale how environmental changes have pushed one species seeking to survive for another to fear for theirs while creating an engaging dialogue among various parties in Wellfleet from scientists to the fisherman and lobstermen who have been equally attuned to the water for their work while regular folk around town share their equally valid points of view as debates unfold that could eat the community alive as readily as the sharks.

The idea of coexistence really comes to the fore, not just within Cape Cod but their neighbors in the sea and a place that’s typically a destination for entertainment with the high tide — and the high camp of nearby Provincetown — emerges as an equally provocative locale for considering our place in a ecosystem. With the film set to make waves upon its premiere this week on HBO, Meeropol spoke about she was able to pull together so many viewpoints into a cohesive and compelling doc, braving the waters to film and at the very least creating an healthier atmosphere for conversation about issues of our ecosystem.

How’d you get interested in this? 

The Outer Cape is a second home to me. I grew up going to Wellfleet with my family and I’ve spent a lot of the time in Truro, so it was born out of actually experiencing it myself somewhat, I wasn’t on the beach when the fatality happened, but it was something I was fully aware of and noticing the changes that were happening and I thought how the community was reacting was really intriguing. That was what drew me in at first, and then I wanted to know, well, why are [the sharks] here and why are they coming so close to the beaches now? Growing up there, we never saw seals and we never heard about having sharks there.

The film unfolds quite gracefully, showing how one part of the ecosystem affects another, but was it difficult to wrap your head around?

It was a really challenging edit, and it’s interesting how it played out because in the end, it was the story I set [out to tell]. I knew from the get-go before we even started shooting, that I wanted to start with the shark bite and wind up with this twist that there’s something we should be much more concerned about, which is the climate change and the potential pandemic from avian flu. I started thinking about it before the pandemic, and then I couldn’t raise the money to do it because of course the pandemic and studio people who I was potentially going to raise money from would say, “Of course, there’s something scarier than great white sharks now, and it’s called COVID.” So I spent that first summer on the Cape myself, just meeting people, going to meetings and observing and reading a lot and doing some filming actually with my phone – one of the scenes in the film actually is from my phone footage. But I was able to start really thinking a lot about what was happening there before I even started in the field.

My crew and I knew there would be the scientists we wanted to talk to, and we wanted to follow lifeguards. But then some of the story just came from just being there and living it and listening to people, like for instance, Dana Franchito, the wonderful parking lot attendant. I started chatting with him one day [after] he showed up with his duct tape covered surfboard and I just found him so compelling. The way he talked about what was happening was so beautiful. It was a joyful experience making this film in the field. We all were just consistently in awe of the wildlife and the people we were meeting. and you feel so privileged to get invited onto someone’s fishing boat or be welcomed into the world of a scientist, but [then] the challenge with having so many voices was how do we balance all those voices with it feeling focused or a satisfying narrative that leads somewhere? It was important to me though that the scientists actually who are in the film are all local people as well and I think that helped us to focus the story by always returning to the fact that this is a portrait of a place. All these scientists know each other, the fishermen know each other, so it’s such a big story, but if we focus on a place where these changes are all happening now and it’s new experience for everybody there, that was how we were able to tell such a big story through characters.

The relationship between John Kartsounis and his daughter Alexandra, who’s a surfer, takes up a limited amount of screen time, but seems like a real backbone for the film in terms of outlining a generational divide. What was it like finding that as a through line?

Yeah, someone like John Kartsounis represents the faction in the film who are angry about how many seals are in the water and the sharks, and [how] it’s affecting their way of life, one that’s very much about preserving what they see as their right to use the ocean, and John could easily be be seen as someone you could just dismiss as having kooky ideas that are not going to go anywhere. You see him at the Barnstable County meeting trying to say that we need to amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the local politicians saying, “That’s a federal issue. You’re not going to get that.” So what was important to me through his story with his daughter was to show why it matters to him. And I take it from the film too that we all live in our bubbles and people can relate to it, so I wanted to show him as someone who’s upset because his daughter who loves surfing saw this happen to Arthur Medici, and was traumatized and had not been in the water to surf again since. In the grand scheme of things, people can look at that and say, “Well, who cares? They’re privileged people, so [how big a deal is it] you don’t get to surf?” But everyone can relate to a parent caring about maintaining something with their kid that was meaningful, so that’s why that storyline is there.

What kind of challenges were presented just by shooting out on the water?

Oh, I can’t tell you. I was a novice myself and my two cinematographers, Soren Nielsen and Stephen Maing were just phenomenal working on the boats. But it always felt risky. You could spend a whole day thinking, “Well, are we going to get anything?” So it was definitely challenging. We had one really rough experience where we hit a rogue wave and all of us almost went completely in the water and all of our gear. You’re out there and you’re thinking, “Well, we’re not too far out and the weather’s calm. This isn’t that dangerous,” but it’s always a little bit challenging. I had days where I was out with fishermen and they weren’t catching anything and I wanted to see more, so there are many, many hours of footage with just not much happening on a boat.

There was one shot that was particularly remarkable to me – it looked like you threw out a camera with some chum.

That was our brilliant cinematographer Stephen Maing, who’s also a wonderful director. We had an underwater GoPro camera on a stick, and some of our best footage of sharks actually is him with the GoPro. We were on the pier in Chatham where the fishing boats all come in, so all the seals are hanging out there and the fishermen, as you see, are throwing them the remnants of the fish that they brought in, so [Stephen] just stuck the GoPro in there with the seals going crazy, going after the fish that was being flung to them. I found that very powerful because on the surface, we’re all looking [at the seals going], “Oh, they’re so cute and so calm but under the water, they’re living a whole another life.”

From what I understand, you may not have had permission to film some of the scientists because of bureaucratic red tape, but how did you end up working with them to get footage?

Yeah, it is tricky because it’s government research. NOAA is overseeing some of that, so it was challenging to get those permits and I discovered that there’s this wonderful guy, Milton Levin, a SEAL research scientist, who films every time [he’s doing on-site research] because he had started sending me stuff once we started following that part of the story, and I think it’s really powerful when he’s out there swabbing the noses of the seals. And it could be challenging. I could not have made this film though without the partnership of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, and that was a big, a very big deal to get because they are understandably cautious about having a film made because a lot of people end up vilifying sharks. I had Zoom meetings with their whole board and met with the executive director Cynthia Wigren, and really had to persuade them that I was trustworthy, and to my great pride now, they all love the film. So it’s a great relief to me.

Was there anything that happened that changed your ideas of what this could be?

Because I started conceiving of this before the pandemic, I thought that there was going to be a lot more about the potential threat to the local economy because that’s what was driving a lot of the concern of people like John Kartsounis and none of that happened, so I had to figure out how to still show how upset they were without emphasizing something that really wasn’t a problem. In the end, the Cape became an attractive place to be during the pandemic. People retreated to these vacation communities where there’s empty houses during the year from the cities, so it was the opposite effect. The pandemic turned that part of the story in a different direction.

Then there were characters that I followed who I still love, and I love that footage, who just didn’t end up making the final cut. I wanted to explore more about the establishment of the National Seashore, but some of that winds up feeling a little academic, and it wasn’t part of what was happening in people’s lives. We had enough that was too big picture, and I had to keep coming back to, “Let’s go to the beach with our characters. Or let’s see Dana again,” For instance, we filmed with Michael Packard, who [infamously] ended up in the mouth of the whale and that actually happened when we were filming. I had just filmed with him because he’s the last person on the Cape to dive for lobsters and he was one of our first shoots. I was interested in him because he doesn’t use lobster traps. He dives for lobsters, so he’s just an incredible character. And weeks after we first filmed with him, he ends up in the mouth of the whale. I thought, “Well, there’s some like human/wildlife interaction.” But it didn’t really fit [with the rest of the film].

That’s going to make an incredible bonus feature someday. And since this has shown at the Provincetown and Nantucket Film Festivals already, have you been excited about maybe the conversations that started sparking already?

That’s my favorite thing to do — to have those conversations, First of all, that was our premiere in Provincetown and a lot of the people are in the film were there and seeing it for the first time, so that was really important to me that they all felt good and well-represented. And to see them all afterwards — fisherman talking to the scientists, and everyone having those conversations, like that’s what I want this film to be about us getting past our own narrow view of where we fit into the natural world and start to see that we’re all in this together. That happens at these screenings. And people really want to know how many sharks are out there and how dangerous is this, but the bigger question that people are taking away from this is that we have to start paying attention to how we’re going to co-exist with wildlife, not just sharks and seals, but all over the world.

“After the Bite” premieres on HBO on July 26th at 10 pm EST and will stream thereafter on Max.

Zeen is a next generation WordPress theme. It’s powerful, beautifully designed and comes with everything you need to engage your visitors and increase conversions.