The wait is nearly over. ‘The Whale,’ a film we have been excited about for over a year, is being released tomorrow in Seattle and Tacoma and then moves on to open in New York, L.A. and D.C.
Do you have your tickets yet? If not, take it from this Ecorazzi writer who had the privilege of seeing an advanced copy of the film, you should grab them now to make sure you have a seat. As a special treat, we have an exclusive interview with co-directors Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm just for you.
Narrated by Ryan Reynolds, the film follows the story of Luna, the young male orca who was separated from his pod. He ended up in Nootka sound, a narrow stretch of water between two mountains that became his personal playground. Who were his playmates? The humans who traveled along the water by boat.
Luna followed the boats, swam alongside them and begged for his head and tongue to be scratched by his new two legged friends. He played with hoses, logs and anything else he could get his mouth on. No wonder Ryan Reynolds and Scarlet Johansson had to get involved with this film. Who could resist a baby orca like Luna?
However, this idyllic spot to live and play also turned into a battleground over the fate of Luna. Some wanted to try and reunite him with his pod. Many thought that the contact with humans could only bring trouble for the orca. Others thought that this lonely creature deserved a bit of companionship, even if it had to be human. Everyone had a different opinion and decisions were made. But were they to the orca’s benefit or detriment? The film lets you decide.
‘The Whale’ follows Luna’s story as humans try to figure out what is best for him. All the while, you get to know a truly remarkable creature, an orphaned boy you will feel yourself rooting for and thinking about long after the film has ended.
I had the chance to speak with the talented directors and ask some question about the film. See what they had to say.
Most humans only ever get the chance to befriend animals like cats and dogs. What was it like getting to know Luna?
Suzanne: It was almost completely different, but somehow familiar. Dogs and cats are raised around humans and usually get along with us from day one. Between our species we each know roughly what to expect.
Luna had no reason ever to connect with people because he was a wild animal, but when he found himself alone and apparently desperately needed a social life, he tried to make one with us. So it was a real exploration for both Luna and humans. You had to keep asking yourself: “Why is he here? What does he really want? How on earth can we communicate?”
And yet there was that familiarity, too. You’d think, “Something’s going on here that I sort of understand.”
Mike: If anything, it was more like trying to get to know another human — but one with a very different culture and language. You know, you’re stuck on an island with a nomad from Mongolia, and you feel as if you have some things in common but a lot that you can’t understand, but he seems to be a really nice guy so you’ll do your best. More like that.
Very exciting, too, in a different way, because Luna was another species but you felt as if there was so much going on in his mind that you could almost connect at a high level if you could figure out the communication. I think it may take generations to learn how to do that, if humans ever do. Not being able to was frustrating — but as the film shows, it was also tantalizing and wonderful.
At what point in gathering the research for your article did you decide to create a documentary?
Mike: We had no idea at first that we’d ever make a film. It took a long time. We filmed stuff because we were working on a magazine article and then a book, and we wanted the video for information, just like using a tape recorder. But then we just put the video away in a drawer.
Then the stuff humans and people were doing kept getting more and more amazing and dramatic, and we kept filming it, and after about a year doing this, we knew that this was such an astonishing story, and Luna was such a wonderful being, that his story should be told in pictures as well as words. So we started taking that footage back out of the drawer! Six years later, a movie.
As journalists, how did you feel about getting involved in Luna’s story and becoming a part of the documentary?
Suzanne: That was another thing that we certainly didn’t intend to do. As journalists you kind of swear a vow of abstinence: I will not get involved in something I’m writing about. You can care about a subject, but still not get directly involved.
But after almost a year and a half of watching what was happening to Luna, and, as you can imagine, caring about him a huge amount, we saw things happening that we thought were bad for him, and decided that it would actually be unethical in a very human way not to do what we could to help him. So we broke those vows and got involved. It was a hard decision, but in this case, no regrets.
People in the community seemed very much at odds in their opinions on what to do about Luna. Did those disagreements cause much conflict in the community? Not just between officials and groups, but between friends and neighbors?
Suzanne: A lot of people didn’t know what to do about Luna. People were divided about whether he should be allowed to stay in Nootka Sound, or whether the government should catch him and try to get him reunited with his family. There was also lots of debate about how to treat him while he was there. Some people thought it was important to give him some kind of friendship because he seemed lonely, and others said human contact could harm him. Most of people in the small town of Gold River were in the first group, and people from outside were in the second. There was a lot of friction between them.
Mike: We eventually found out, by watching the situation develop, that it was impossible to keep people and Luna apart — not because of what people did but because Luna himself was so determined. So the real choice for people was not between making contact or not. it was between letting chaotic, possibly dangerous contact continue, or taking steps to make the contact safe by intentionally interacting with him in careful ways.
Has this experience changed the way you think wildlife management should handled, or about who should make the decisions? If so, how?
Mike: We have a lot of respect for the professionals who worked on Luna’s case, but there were some bad decisions. Through this we learned a lot about how all decisions might be handled better. Our human tendency is to accept established ideas as if they were the whole truth, when, in fact, they are only part of it, and the rest is not yet known. So to solve the fresh problems, like Luna’s unusual situation, we have to pay attention to all the facts, connecting old wisdom to new information, particularly the fresh information that doesn’t necessarily fit our established ideas.
You know, for any decision we absolutely need as much existing knowledge as we can find — like which pod Luna came from and the fact that whales are very social. That knowledge made a huge positive difference in the way humans related to Luna. But some of the people who made decisions didn’t pay enough attention to the abundant evidence that Luna was willing to risk his life for contact and nothing human beings did could stop that from happening. So they kept trying to stop it because that’s what the established rules said, instead of trying to understand what was new about the situation and how to learn from that how best to help Luna.
How did Ryan Reynolds and Scarlet Johansson get involved with The Whale?
Suzanne: They watched an earlier version of the film and loved it — and loved Luna. And they thought they could help us make it a better movie, which they did. Also, Ryan comes from British Columbia and cares a lot about whales in general, so this was a natural for him. Scarlett, too, feels strongly about the environment and cares about whales. Just as importantly, they both love good stories, and this is one of those.
You premiered the film in the Faroe Islands, a place that is not regulated by the IWC and kills about 800 pilot whales each year for meat. What did you hope to achieve by screening the film there?
Suzanne: THE WHALE is a story movie, not a message movie. So it doesn’t preach at people. But by telling a story about emotions that matter and connections between individuals of different species, it does make people think. The people from the Faroes who invited the film believed that it gives people a chance to get to know a whale in circumstances that are so different from the ones they experience at home that it might give them a chance to rethink the relationship they now have with whales. And from what I heard from people there after the film, that may very well have happened to some of them. I’m very glad we showed the film there.
What do you hope viewers will take away from watching this film?
Mike: Near the end of the movie a First Nations carver, Eugene Amos, says “There are a lot of lessons to be gleaned from this whole adventure, and people are just going to have to take it for what it’s worth. It’s going to be different for each one.” We feel like that, too. Everyone brings his or her own perceptions to this experience, and learns something unique.
This is a narrative, a story film, and all narratives have more than one layer of meaning. They’re like any other emotional experience you go through, from laughing at a joke to falling in love to raising a child. Every one of those things has a whole raft of things you can learn. For us, living around Luna opened many doors to new ideas about other lives and our own, and we hope we’ve done the same with THE WHALE. Those are doors to whole new worlds of experience, full of promise, that you can glimpse in this movie but that remain out there, waiting to be explored.