Hailing from Ireland, Neasa Hardiman has made quite a name for herself as a visually creative director whose career has spanned from films to television including Jessica Jones, Inhumans, and Happy Valley (which she won a BAFTA for). Her most recent film, SEA FEVER, centers around a crew of West Ireland trawlers marooned at sea as they struggle for their survival against a growing parasite. Tense and horrifying, the film, which was originally inspired by the climate crisis, feels eerily topical in regards to the on-going COVID-19 pandemic that has taken hold of the world.
For the release of the film, I had the chance to chat with Neasa about all thins SEA FEVER. During the interview, we discussed everything from building tension and claustrophobia, to superstitions of the sea, as well as the parasitic creature design.
When watching this movie, I couldn’t believe how closely it related to what we are experiencing in the world with COVID-19. Obviously, the movie was made before the pandemic, but can you elaborate on how the story came to be?
Neasa Hardiman: I wish I could say I had a crystal ball so I knew [COVID-19] was coming, I so did not know this was coming and it is very weird. Essentially, where the story came from was I wanted to make a tense, propulsive story. I love sci-fi, I love psychological thrillers, I wanted to make something that was a really grounded sci-fi with its roots in psychological thrillers. I wanted a character that would be tense and propulsive but would also give us something kind of chewy to think about in terms of the ethics of taking responsibility for ourselves and for each other and for our world and to do that while using the language of cinema. What I was really writing at the time was in regard to the climate crisis but I think it resonates now. The questions that the film asks are questions about taking responsibility for yourself, me taking responsibility for myself relative to my neighbors, me taking responsibility for myself and my neighbors as a bigger group, and then me taking responsibility for my part in the bigger group. I kind of think that this central idea that the central figure in the film has is that we misrecognized ourselves as existing outside of a community or an ecosystem rather than what we really are which is an integrated and dynamic part of a broader whole and that’s sort of what the story is. I think that’s why it feels very contemporary.
The film is very confined which allows for a claustrophobic feel that heightened the tension and horror. What was the process like in achieving that as well as working in and around water?
Neasa Hardiman: Never shoot in water, isn’t that what they say (laughs)? We were very limited, in terms of budget we were very limited, so I knew when I was writing it had to be an ensemble film, it had to be a film where people were going to be thrown together. I come from a Western Ireland background and I knew a tiny bit about fishing, I know a lot more about it now obviously. The idea of these people who are living this really economically precarious life and were trained together on these fishing boats that go off out of the West of Ireland are exactly like that. They are 6-8 people on a boat, it’s like a family. They go off into the deep Atlantic for three weeks, it’s incredibly claustrophobic and you are on the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. As I’m sure you know, we know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deep Atlantic. So they are going off into the deep, deep Atlantic Ocean, going deeper every time because of overfishing, because of the climate crisis, these guys have to go deeper and deeper and further and further out, exploring waters that nobody really quite knows what’s down there. It’s like being in a desert, you know? You’re out days and days and days from shore, nothing around you but water. That’s quite aquaphobic and yet you are in this tiny wood and cast iron box and you can’t get off and that’s incredibly claustrophobic. The space on the boat is at such a premium, they are really living cheek by jowl.
It’s incredibly dangerous, more people die through working on (unintelligible) in the UK and Ireland than through any other work. You wouldn’t know it when you are on a tour that they are such dangerous places to be. There are chains and ropes and things moving and changing and huge big pieces of machinery and no safety at all. When you see the guys who work the boats they’re like dancers, climbing all over the boat like cats – they’re hanging off the edges of it with these massive pieces of cast iron swinging around. As you know, one of the characters gets injured quite early in the story, when they are operating the wench. I was talking to the woman who runs the boat that we used in the story and I said to her, “A character has an accident quite early in the story and I can see how incredibly graceful you guys all are on the boat and how deft you are at giving each other space and everything. Is it really unrealistic to have this character have a really serious accident?” And she looked at her husband and they both looked at me and burst out laughing. She then said, “Well okay let’s see, there was Michael two week ago, he lost his three fingers because the rope went taut at the wrong moment. Then there was my father, he lost his leg from the knee down and he’s been fishing since he was 12. And then there was this guy that got decapitated about two months ago.” The stories are unbelievable and they are all so kind of blase about it because it just happens so often.
You also included superstitions that a lot of fishermen have – mainly in regards to Siobhán red hair. Did you do a lot of research into other superstitions?
Neasa Hardiman: Yeah, they are very superstitious, it’s true. And they’ll laugh about it with you, they’ll go, “Oh yeah, I know it’s a whole load of nonsense but still…”. My own feelings are I think it’s to do with control because when you go out on a tour you’re at the mercy of the weather and you are at the mercy of the show of fish, you don’t know what kind of catch you are going to get, what kind of weather you are going to get, to a certain degree. It’s kind of a gambling occupation because they are at the mercy of so many things. I think they have these rules that they follow that makes them feel like they are in control. There’s a whole load of things that aren’t in the story but that they [fishermen] all observe – throwing salt over their shoulders, nobody is allowed to wear anything green, you are not allowed to talk about farm animals on a boat, there are all kinds of weird stuff that they observe. They laugh and say it’s ridiculous but they still observe it and I do think it’s about control. With this story, what I wanted to do with the superstition was to use it as a way of building community. If everyone performs the same rituals you feel like you’re a family, you feel like you’re banded together. These are people who are from all over the world but they all know each other from North Africa to Norway. Anybody who fishes in the Eastern Atlantic or Western seaboard of Europe – they all know each other. They all go to the same pubs whether it’s in Norway or Sweden or wherever. They are all kind of fishing those waters and they all know each other and they all go to the same pubs and this is how they connect. There’s magical thinking in that.
When I was doing the research into the storytelling, I knew I wanted to tell a story about friends as well as the scientific method and butting that up against magical thinking and what happens there. I knew I wanted a scientific hero, I knew I wanted a hero that was committed to telling the truth and committed to the scientific method wherever it took her and committed to figuring out the truth – just for the love of the truth. I knew I wanted people who were also different from that. The more I found when I was with the fishing people is that they are really different from that and they are really good fun to be with because they really prioritize humor and good nature and being easy to get along with, as you can imagine. If you are going out to sea for three months and there’s going to be 7 other people on the boat and you’re not able to get away from them, you better be able to take a joke, you better be good at dealing with other people, and you better be good company. Those are the things that they really value, that and being really practical and really good at your job. That was kind of great because the more I read into magical thinking, the more I realized it’s part of what glues us together – rituals and jokes and making actual connections and jumping into each other’s minds even though we’re not really able to [physically] do it. As long as we don’t let it take us over, as long as we don’t start to believe things just because we wish they were true. When I was writing [the script] I was thinking about the climate crisis but I knew magical thinking wasn’t going to help us (laughs).
When it came to the creature design what was that process like?
Neasa Hardiman: I’m a big nerd so I did research into what kind of deep-sea animals might we draw from. Everything that the animal is and everything that it does is all rooted in truth. The animal itself is kind of an amalgam but I did work with a marine zoologist and it is a credible, believable animal who has characteristics that exist in the natural world. If you were to identify it as something it would kind of be a really huge jellyfish. Something like that could be in the deep ocean because once you are in the really deep ocean you can build a huge body cause you are not so subjected to gravity so your body can get much bigger than it could if you were on land. The other thing was I wanted to be truthful and I wanted it to be beautiful. I didn’t want to make something that was grotesque, I didn’t want to make something that was monstrous, I wanted it to be a correlative for the unknowability of the natural world. Something that was beautiful and awe-inspiring but also huge and scary. The advantage, of course, of the deep sea is that you can have bio-luminescent and that becomes something that makes you want to look more at the animal. I wanted it to be centralized and symmetrical so it didn’t feel like a mammal. I wanted it to have this kind of black hole at the center so there was nothing you could look at and find a face. You couldn’t anthropomorphized it, so it remains kind of unknowable for us, really alien and foreign to us that we couldn’t really see an expression. I wanted it to be something that isn’t like a squid but had these kind of long tendrils like a jellyfish, that are elegant and iridescent and beautiful and almost like a unified nervous system – they move together sort of reaching at us to kind of explore the world rather than anything monstrous. The other thing that I really wanted was when you see the creature from above, it pulses in this big unified way so that it would look briefly like it’s looking back at you, like the iris and pupil of a human eye.
Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask about the casting because everyone did such a phenomenal job bringing this story to life.
Neasa Hardiman: I was so lucky. I mean Hermione Corfield is just terrific, she’s amazing and came on board really early. The character is neurodivergent, she thinks differently from everyone else on the boat and that makes her both really good at her job but also very lonely. She’s kind of a Cassandra figure in the story who moves from being very isolated to forming a relationship and really taking responsibility first of all for herself and for the other people on the boat and then ultimately for the world. She brought such emotional intelligence and such commitment and such courage to the story, she’s really phenomenal. She really was up for that final sequence where I didn’t want it to be chase-fight-chase-fight-confrontation, I wanted it to be something that honored that character and her commitment to taking responsibility and respecting the world around her. I think Hermione understood that and really gave that a lot of grace and a lot of emotional truth, so I was just so lucky to get to work with her. It was an amazing cast and as you know there are only seven people in the story so it’s a real ensemble and it was really important that they would all get on together. Dougray Scott and Connie Nielsen were amazing, both of them have such charisma and natural leadership. Connie is just terrific, she’s really tall, forthright, funny, so generous, and gave such an intense performance, she was really committed to it. She herself comes from a rural fishing community in Denmark so she really got that character and understood her. Dougray is just delightful. I wrote the script with him in mind because there are very few actors that have that big alpha-male energy but he also has this great tenderness and sensitivity and generosity. He’s had such a rollercoaster life himself and he brings that to the story. When I spoke to him the first time I told him that his character had this terrible tragedy at the heart of this story where he’s lost his child and he’s trying to take responsibility for everybody and he makes this one mistake and it’s just eating him alive – the guilt and the shame of it. Dougray was just wonderful about it and wanted to do the film because this guy’s journey is so tender and so loving and his relationship with his wife (played by Connie Nielsen) is so tender and so loving and his despair is so beautifully articulated. He brought that to life so well, he was amazing.
SEA FEVER is now available On Demand and Digital. For more about the film, check out our review here.