By Kate Hearst.
It was a combination of being true to the early films that he shot but also my voice as a filmmaker trying to express to a modern audience how unusual and incredibly dynamic these images were.”
Two-time Academy Award®-nominated filmmaker Liz Garbus is not one to shy away from complicated figures, having examined the lives of Bobby Fischer, Marilyn Monroe, Nina Simone, and Gloria Vanderbilt, among others. In Becoming Cousteau, she again tackles a complicated figure, revealing thorny realities about the life and personality of beloved sea-explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau. In our interview of October 6th, Liz Garbus elaborates on how she came to make and shape this thought-provoking documentary.
I understand you partnered with National Geographic to make this film. How did you arrive at the idea of making a documentary about Jacques-Yves Cousteau?
The idea came to us when I was reading a book to my own son. When I say “us,” I mean my with my husband Dan Cogan. I had the same kind of realization … about this legacy [of Cousteau] being lost on a new generation. I spoke to Nat Geo about whether or not they would be interested in partnering on this film. That was back in 2015. It’s been quite a journey since that time.
How did you and Nat Geo get The Cousteau Society to release their vast archival library and agree to have you make this documentary on Cousteau?
It was a lot of patience and support from Nat Geo, and time. It took a long time to build trust and a relationship with The Cousteau Society, and Nat Geo to make that deal possible.
How many hours of archival footage were you confronted with?
Ultimately, we were working with between 500-600 hours of footage. Thankfully, The Cousteau Society had a passionate archivist who was incredibly familiar not just with the archive but also with Cousteau’s story to help guide us through this “ocean” of footage. But these are the kinds of problems that we [documentary filmmakers] wish for.
What were some of your most memorable moments working on this documentary? Did you know, for example, that Cousteau was instrumental in inventing the “aqualung” that facilitated scuba diving before working on this project?
When I first started embarking on this film, he was purely this childhood TV hero of mine, and of course that in and of itself does not make an interesting film. As I started learning about him being an inventor and early pioneer of underwater cinematography and of course diving itself, that was mind-blowing. Also just his prowess as a filmmaker. I thought of him as an on-camera Captain more than a cineaste. There was a lot to learn about Cousteau, from just the window I had as a childhood admirer.
There were several tough moments in your film. For example, it was shocking to find out that the oil industry funded Cousteau’s early underwater expeditions, his ship Calypso, as well as, his early filmmaking career. Was this a difficult part of your film to shape?
Well, that was also a surprise to me as I was listening to his interviews and finding out how the Calypso came to be: how it all started, and that oil and the prospecting they did was a way to keep them stay afloat literally and metaphorically in the early years. I really think that it was important to hear about that because at the end of the day he learned from his missteps. And, of course, at the time, there was not that level of understanding about the effects of drilling and extraction. The danger to sea life when there are oil spills. There’s a terrible one in California right now. There wasn’t that level of understanding at that time. But when he discovered the danger, he changed and pivoted. I thought that his change and pivot was an important metaphor for our world today. … We have been those people extracting oil and we need to pivot, too. So I thought that was an important part of the story.
It’s that age-old metaphor of man against the sea. And that was the mode of humanity for so long and what we need to change. Again, we are all complicit in that….
Cousteau then became a filmmaker, winning the coveted Palme d’Or with his first feature The Silent World in 1956. It’s interesting how you use clips from his award-winning film in several parts of your documentary. At first, when Cousteau garners this success, you include a scene in his film where an injured baby whale is shot for humane purposes. Later in your documentary, Cousteau confesses to not being able to watch his own movie because of the sequence where the crew brutally kills sharks. You hold off revealing this sequence of the slaughter of sharks. Tell me about how you worked on shaping the use of Cousteau’s The Silent World in your film?
It actually came much later in the process. The arc of the film is his education, and I don’t mean about books, but by being an explorer and seeing coral reefs decaying and experiencing warming waters against his own skin. That journey he went on ultimately became the journey of the film. At some point, we had always included the scene in The Silent World of the baby whale who was hit. As we were refining that arc of his own education, we found that clip talking about his regrets and his inability to look at that, which only augmented the arc of the film in which he was looking without making excuses for himself at the mis-steps he had taken early on to protect the environment he had felt so free to exploit.
It’s a shocking scene that show his men beating the sharks to death on the ship.
It’s that age-old metaphor of man against the sea. And that was the mode of humanity for so long and what we need to change. Again, we are all complicit in that. That change needs to happen on a global level today.
I’m interested in the sequence in your film where Cousteau is using divers to experiment with depth and one of the diver’s dies in the process.
Yes, that was in Toulon, France when he was testing the aqualung and trying to get publicity for his aqualung, and trying to market it, and again make money for his adventures and his crew. There are parallels to space exploration and there are perhaps in that ideology casualties that go along with breaking barriers. And for some that created a rift between him and his partner Philippe Tailliez. For Cousteau and many people who worked with him, it was the price of this innovation. But certainly if you’re the family member of Maurice Fargues you might feel that that was an unreasonable price to pay for another human being. But certainly, that was part of Cousteau inventing the aqualung.
Cousteau is also shown in your documentary as a designer of elaborate plans for underwater settlements where people could live under the sea. This is a fascinating sequence in your film. Was there more footage or more of Couteau’s journal entries about his planning for underwater living?
Yes, there are multiple films and journal entries. If this were a documentary series, this could be an entire episode on this event. It was definitely one of the wackier periods but it certainly fit with this kind of notion of explorer-man, colonizer he was molding himself in. It sounds ridiculous, but at the same time, there are people who now think about how humanity cold survive on Mars. These are ideas that perhaps seem wacky, that people have contemplated over time. Indeed, there was a lot more to explore there but the film did not have the space for it.
I’m curious about your coverage of Cousteau’s television shows. They were so extraordinary to a generation of TV viewers, bringing the underwater sea world into people’s living rooms. Did you want to include more about these, but were also constrained by time?
We included them. I don’t think my job as a filmmaker is to include other people’s TV shows. My thrust was to give a sense of how revolutionary this was and how earth-shattering it was for the underwater sea world to be in people’s living rooms for the first time. Of course, now that’s old news for a new generation. But to feel just how tremendously exciting that was at the time as opposed to giving a lot of air time to these shows which feels kind of kitschy in today’s world where technology has advanced so profoundly. For me it was exploring the wonder and magic of the possibilities that were open by that show.
I loved how you inter-wove Cousteau’s concerns about warming of the ocean quite early on in your film. Then, ABC pulls his shows because they thought Cousteau was getting “too dark” for American audiences. Your documentary shows Cousteau discovering the decline of sea life in the Mediterranean due to toxic pollution, the melting of glaciers in the Artic, and other depressing indications of major climate changes. All the while, he is making films about these disturbing events. Then, Cousteau takes a major stand at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio Janeiro to bring governments together to fight pollution and climate change. Was there any concern at Nat Geo that your documentary about Cousteau was “getting too dark,” in the way ABC had thought about his later films?
With me? No, for me, I was very clear early on that his work as a conservationist was at the heart of this project. To me, that was certainly the goal. When people walk away from this film, I hope that people feel they want to re-double their efforts to elect politicians to protect the environment. Nat Geo was aware of that very early on and supportive of that message.
I’d like to talk about the documentary techniques you employ in Becoming Couteau. In this documentary, you’ve spoken about wanting to keep this documentary in Couteau’s “world” and “voice” and that’s why you didn’t want on-camera interviews with people sitting in their living rooms.
In the past, you’ve effectively used animation in many of your documentaries. I’m thinking of your documentary, Gloria Vanderbilt: Nothing Left Unsaid. In Becoming Cousteau, you again use animation in subtle ways, having colorful fish and turtles “appear” swimming alongside Cousteau in what was originally black and white underwater footage. Can you talk about this.
For those early dives, when Cousteau is expressing how his mind was blown from being able to go under the sea and see all the sea life he had never experienced before. For me as an artist, given the imagery and 4K imagery that we are steeped in for the undersea world, I wanted to take these black and white images and instill them with the kind of feeling of that wonder and trippy-ness that Couteau expressed from his first experiences diving. So, it was a combination of being true to the early films that he shot but also my voice as a filmmaker trying to express to a modern audience how unusual and incredibly dynamic these images were. It was more of a POV into that experience. That is why we played with animation during that section.
Becoming Cousteau will be released in select theaters on October 22nd. It will also be available to stream on National Geographic.
Kate Hearst is working on a book, The Cinema of Barbara Kopple: American Activist. She earned her PhD and MFA in Film at Columbia University and has been teaching film history since 2011. Her interview with Kopple appeared in Film International 16.3.