Friday, September 30, 2011

An EXCLUSIVE interview with Director NICK STRINGER!


By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     It has often been said that space is the final frontier…but is it really? Do we actually know enough about our own planet to go searching for signs of life on others? While the stars and planets may inspire and fascinate mankind, there are still so many mysteries to be explored here on Earth. From the rise and fall of ancient civilizations in Africa to the discovery of previously unknown animal species in New Guinea, there is still so much to learn about this world that we live in.
     This planet’s great oceans hold, and often hide, some of the most fascinating, exciting and downright scary mysteries of all. Who needs to worry about aliens attacking us, when we have fearsome Great White sharks patrolling our waters and looking for their next meal? How was it that we put a man on the moon some 20 years before we discovered the remains of the Titanic, which was still conveniently located here on Earth?
     We know so much, yet so little, about ocean life. From jellyfish to sea horses, dolphins to hump back whales, the wonders that we seek amongst the stars can be easily found just a few feet off of our shores. One of the most fascinating sea creatures of all is the female Loggerhead Turtle, who spends the first 20+ years of her life migrating around the world, only to find herself laying eggs on the very beach that she was hatched.
     The epic adventure she takes during those first few decades is the subject of a remarkable documentary called Turtle: The Incredible Journey. From her first rush to the ocean as a small hatchling to her return to the beach to lay her eggs some 21 years later, Turtle documents every aspect of this phenomenal creature’s life. Beautifully shot, the wonders of underwater life are displayed in vibrant colors juxtaposed with the cold darkness of this world that we still don’t fully understand.
     Director Nick Stringer offers up more than just a film with great underwater footage. There is action, adventure, romance, comedy and horror on display, all of which keeps the viewer riveted to the screen. With narration by actress Miranda Richardson, Turtle: The Incredible Journey is not just a documentary, it is a moving piece of filmmaking.
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee caught up with Stringer to discuss the film and the magic of bringing this real life story to the screen…

SPAZ: Turtle: The Incredible Journey is just about to drop on DVD. How are you feeling about the project and everything leading up to it?
NICK STRINGER: I’m really pleased by the response we’ve had to Turtle. The film is still on release in the US and has played in about 130 theatres in 30 cities so far. It’s done well at the film festivals and seems to have attracted a wide audience especially families, which is really pleasing. There’s also been a number of special screenings in the US and elsewhere around the world which have helped raise awareness and money for turtle conservation. So all in all, I’m delighted that, in its own way, Turtle is making a little ripple.

SPAZ: How did you get involved with the film?
NICK: Twenty years ago, I was lucky enough to see a big female loggerhead lay her eggs on a beach in Florida. For that short moment I witnessed what this creature had spent 20 years trying to achieve. I was completely awestruck and her story has stuck with me ever since.
After March of the Penguins, it seemed there was at last an appetite to see stories from the natural world on the big screen. I’d always wanted to tell a story of the sea and telling it through the eyes of the turtle seemed the perfect way to do it.
There are so many unknown journeys in the ocean, but the loggerhead’s odyssey around the North Atlantic is one of the few we’re beginning to understand. It is truly an epic. It begins from the moment she is born and lasts for the next 20 years of her life. It takes her around the entire North Atlantic and ultimately back to the same stretch of coast where she was born. And the odds are stacked against her, just one in 10,000 loggerheads survive the journey,
There is something enigmatic about these creatures. The turtle is like the old sage of the sea, they have been around since the age of the dinosaurs, more than a hundred million years. They have seen so much change and survived so many natural catastrophes. It would be a travesty if they were to disappear on our watch.

SPAZ: Turtle has a great balance of drama, comedy, joy, sadness, action, adventure and even some genuinely scary moments. This is everything that Disney, Pixar and even reality TV strives for. Was it hard to choose which moments to leave in and which to leave out?
NICK: What happens in the natural world is as good as anything we can dream up in Hollywood. I think that many of the elements you mention are inherent within the turtle’s story. There are some spectacular scenes in Turtle, but we had to work very hard to capture them and in the end very little got left on the cutting-room floor.
The biggest challenge was to bring the emotional narrative to life and how to balance it. It’s a fine line. The last thing I wanted was an all-singing all-dancing Nemo, but you have to feel empathy for the protagonist. Many would argue against that but when you get close to animals, you realize that they are individuals with individual challenges and they no doubt experience things that we identify with; fear, contentment, cold and pain. So it’s right to bring an emotional dynamic to their lives. But we also have a duty to inform, so hopefully we achieved both. For me, Mel Finn’s beautifully lyrical script handles it masterfully.

SPAZ: While this film follows the first 21 years of the titular character, how long did it take you to actually put together this project?
NICK: The film took us two years to make. While I’d have loved to have followed a single animal for 20 years, I think even the ultimate purist would forgive us for filming a number of different turtles across the Atlantic to tell the life of one individual. We relied heavily on the film’s scientific consultant, Dr Jeanette Wyneken, a leading turtle biologist, to advise us when and where to film the different stages of the turtle’s story. The ‘Saving Private Ryan’ scenes of hatchlings emerging and swimming out to the Gulf Stream were filmed in Florida. With extraordinary luck, we captured rare footage of juveniles in the Azores and the adult turtles were filmed in the Florida Keys and the Caribbean.
Two years is still a high-pressure schedule for a film of this kind. Finding turtles at sea can take time, filming them actually doing something is a test of will. You can spend days waiting for the weather to settle and then spend more days diving on reefs looking for signs of activity and still see virtually nothing, but then the ocean always throws up surprises. One of the highlights came after two weeks of looking for mating turtles and on the very last day of filming a radio call came in from our spotter plane. They had sighted a pair of turtles just a few hundred meters from our boat. Slowly, the cameraman and DOP Rory McGuinness approached them and we were finally rewarded with a wonderful scene to two turtles locked in a loving embrace. He swam in their company for more than an hour until his air finally ran out. It was such a good feeling to finish principal photography on a high.

SPAZ: Miranda Richardson’s narration is perfect, adding the right amount of emotion to each scene. How did she get involved with the project?
NICK: The moment I heard Miranda’s voice I knew she was right. She has a wonderful story-telling voice, considered, understated but powerful. Whether she would do it was another question, but it turned out that she was a great lover of nature and as a WWF ambassador she is a champion for wildlife conservation. So I think that swung it and she’s been a big fan of the film ever since.
When we met she had a very clear vision of how the narration should be read. It made me nervous, but she pitched it beautifully and I was sucked right in.

SPAZ: When dealing with all the different elements, how treacherous does filming a movie like this get for the film crew?
NICK: The risks are always there, we work in quite small crews and everyone looks out for one another. We were buzzed by sharks, stung by Portuguese Man O’War and attacked by swarms of midges on the beaches of Florida, but thankfully that’s as bad as it got. I think the worst enemy is really the weather. Working in small boats tens of miles off shore made us quite vulnerable. Squalls whip up quickly and our boat was twice swamped by waves. We were also caught in a bad lightening storm, but Rory assured me that the safest place to be was in the water, so we duly jumped in and ended up with a great underwater storm sequence.

SPAZ: In this day and age, does it still amaze you that these wonderful sea creatures are still so mysterious to us, no matter how much we study them?
NICK: Yes, very much so. The oceans are in some sense our own Inner Space. There are so many unknown journeys and undiscovered creatures. The loggerhead turtle’s journey is one of the few we are really beginning to understand, but things are changing quickly and it’s an incredibly exciting time to be exploring the oceans. Satellite tags have opened up our understanding of how fish, turtles, whales and sharks travel the oceans. There really are superhighways for ocean life and discovering them is helping us to understand where they go and how best to protect them. Still, we face a huge uphill battle as fishing fleets around the world continue to plunder the oceans, decimating fisheries, destroying marine habitats and taking so much unnecessary by-catch. It is the most destructive and wasteful industry on Earth, yet because it happens on the oceans, it remains largely out of sight and out of mind.

SPAZ: While the film is entirely kid friendly, it certainly provides adults with a reminder of things they may have forgotten since their schooldays. Were you aiming this film at a specific audience or hoping for it to reach viewers of all ages?
NICK: I really wanted to make something that would appeal to kids and adults alike. I especially hoped it would appeal to families and that seems to have happened with audience ratings being particularly high on weekend matinees. At some of the screenings I’ve been to, it’s been really exciting to see kids as young as 6 or 7 in the audience lining up to ask questions. I think it’s important that we keep telling stories from the natural world and that we continue reaching out to the next generation.

SPAZ: While you certainly touch on many issues in the film (environmental and otherwise), you do it with subtlety and grace. Do you feel that holding back a little leaves the viewer a little more emotional than if you just hit them over the head?
NICK: It was tempting to do be more confrontational. As a wildlife film maker, I’ve been privileged to be able to explore the natural world and see how it’s changing. In the Caribbean, stunning reefs that I had dived on 15 years ago had completely died off. All that was left were bleached and broken corals. Nearly, everywhere you go the story is the same. It’s probably the greatest natural loss in our time and it’s something I am passionate about. But with Turtle I wanted to engage the wider audience, including young kids, rather than scare them off so yes I held back a little and let the imagination take care of the rest. My approach was to stay true to the turtle’s story and somehow I think something more powerful comes from it. And one also has to have hope, and I think in the case of the Atlantic loggerhead there are some reasons to be hopeful.

SPAZ: Society has been so fascinated with space exploration for so long, yet we have so much more to discover and understand here in our vast oceans. Do you hope that a film like Turtle might take the viewer one step closer to understanding… and perhaps inspire them?
NICK: The oceans are the last great frontier on Earth and you don’t need a rocket to go there. Our attachment to the oceans runs deep. The weather, the air we breathe and our very survival is dependent on the oceans, so exploring should be paramount.
In some ways the turtle embodies our relationship with the ocean. Once a land dweller, the turtle returned to the ocean and made it home. But it’s still something of an alien in the sea. It still has to breathe air and return to the land to lay its eggs. And given the turtle starts its journey on a beach from the day it’s born she’s the perfect protagonist for us to follow on a journey into the sea. To that end, I wanted to immerse the audience in the turtle’s odyssey; to experience it through her eyes and to capture the enormity of her journey, to see the other great nomads of the sea and experience the spectacle and magic of life the oceans. Hopefully that inspires.

SPAZ: What’s next for Nick Stringer?
NICK: Right now I’m making a documentary about a new remote underwater camera that can track and film large marine creatures for the first time. It’s really exciting as it could ultimately open a little window on the lives of some of the oceans most magnificent creatures.
I’m also writing my next feature film. It’s still in it’s infancy but the subtext is about a man’s changing relationship with the natural world.

SPAZ: What is currently spinning in DVD player?
NICK: The kids tend to hog it with Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder but I still try and get out to the cinema. Recent films include Tree of Life, The Skin I Live In and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Thanks to Nick Stringer

Special thanks to Mary Flynn, Lauren Watt and Tony Perez

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