Interview With Michael D. Sellers, Director of Eye of the Dolphin

EYE OF THE DOLPHIN, a MovieBank and Quantum Entertainment ProductionINTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL D. SELLERS/WRITER-DIRECTORQ: This film takes place in a particular setting and besides its more universal themes of coming of age, has a focus on dolphins. What motivated you to make this your next film and to give it this subject matter?A: On many levels the movie is about communication, and being open to the possibilities that are out there. Hawk says “it’s our failure of imagination” that keeps us from being able to recognize the intelligence and beauty of the dolphins, and in a very real way it is our failure of imagination as parents and children that keeps us divided. How easy it is to erect walls and hide behind them. Isn’t that what parents and teenagers do? Yet if we make that leap of imagination, we can understand each other, and discover that we’re not so different. I think it was that idea of the challenge of being open to possibilities – of humans being open to the possibility that dolphins are intelligent and it’s corollary – parents being open to the possibility that teenage children are intelligent — that intrigued me.Q: You are the father of a daughter who is roughly Alyssa’s age. Did that influence you as a filmmaker in your choice of protagonist and the relationship she develops with her father?A: Well, to be truthful – I think the movie was part of a process whereby I was trying to understand, and ultimately make peace with, one of my teenage daughters – I won’t say which one. (I have three…she knows who she is.) I was an absentee father like Hawk, chasing a self-consuming dream, and I missed a lot of her life. She resented it. When I first worked on the story, it was more from Hawk’s point of view—then as I got deeper into it, it was more from the daughter’s point of view. If it sounds like therapy – well, it was. Has it healed us? I like to think it has helped. But I can never get back those years I missed. And I’m not sure she will ever forgive me for it. But I guess if you’re asking …was it personal? Yep. Very.Q: You worked together with screenwriter Wendell Morris to revise the script. Could you talk about that evolution a bit?A: I’ve made a kind of inverse progression from producer to director to writer so I have no problem recognizing and understanding the value of bringing in writing support to help refine a screenplay that isgood but not perfect. I knew that my personal connection to the material was both an asset and a liability. Wendell brought a new perspective which allowed me to step back and get out of the way for a little bit…then reconnect with the material as a director.Q: How did you meet and secure Carly Schroeder, who seems perfectly cast in the lead role of Alyssa?A: When I was in the early stages of developing the film, I was watching movies which were about teenagers but had a realistic perspective that you don’t see in something like, for example, Mean Girls. I watched movies ike Thirteen and Mean Creek – and when I saw Mean Creek I was very impressed with Carly’s performance. In fact it was Mean Creek which caused me to pick up the phone and invite Mean Creek’s producer Susan Johnson so read the script. When Susan decided to come on board …. It was a short step to consider Carly for the role of Alyssa. What really struck me about Carly in Mean Creek was just this kind of inner toughness that somehow was able to co-exist with her vulnerability and femininity. That’s a remarkable combination. And she just holds your attention when she’s onscreen. In Mean Creek she was part of an ensemble yet every moment she was on screen I found myself watching her and contemplating her character. That’s powerful.Q: This is a strong ensemble cast – could you discuss what you were looking for, particularly with the roles of Lucy and Hawk, the primary emotional bonds that Alyssa forms?A: Hawk is a dreamer, a renegade who has something he is pursuing and he will continue to pursue it in the face of obstacles—but along the way he becomes tone deaf to most of the things that matter…family, relationships, love. He’s lucky to have Tamika and Daniel but he doesn’t realize that…and he certainly doesn’t realize he’s missing something by not having children. I had admired Adrian Dunbar’s work in The Crying Game and The General…and I liked the idea of a non-American in the role just to give him an added sense of “foreign-ness” for Alyssa to react to. Keeping in mind that Hawk on some level was me … I think Adrian caught the wild, suburbia-be-damned part of me that I thought was essential for Hawk, and also the passion-for-a-dream part. He also embodied my ex-wife’s favorite description of me – “you can only be young once but you can be immature all your life”. (We’re great friends,Q: Did you create the “lone sociable dolphin” as a sort of counterpart/parallel to Alyssa?A: I didn’t really create it … I recognized it. I think that’s part of the overall theme of being “open to possibilities”…another word for “communication”…..I think the point is that as I was trying to explore the notion of open-ness, and communication, and the possibilities that dolphins represent a certain possibility – within this exploration, I discovered the concept fo the lone sociable dolphin, a dolphin that doesn’t, for whatever reason, fit in within its social group. I think it’s useful to understand that I didn’t impose that model on Alyssa…rather – it existed, I recognized it, and it fit. I think that’s an essential lesson of the film, to be open and pay attention.Q: Interestingly, Alyssa has no “love interest” (other than the dolphins!), which leaves the film free to explore her own growth and emotional development as opposed to descending into a teen romance film. Did you consciously hold back on this to emphasize more of a “girl empowerment” story?A: I felt that we had to make a choice – either go that route, or not. I didn’t see how we could be true to the father – daughter story, and the girl-dolphin story – if we went that way. I was worried a little bit, because, obviously, it’s easy to impose a teen romance and even now I wonder if, from a commercial sense, we blew it. But just feel that it would have wrecked the whole construction of the movie. So we made a counter-intuitive, counter-commercial choice. Yikes. That’s a big responsibility.Q: Please talk about what appealed to you as a filmmaker/storyteller in the cross-cultural focus of the Bahamian culture and the young girl who finds herself dropped in the middle of it, perhaps owing to your own experiences abroad.A: Well, pretty much from the minute I went over to Grand Bahama (which isn’t really grand at all …. It’s beautifully humble in comparison to Nassau) I felt a connection in that the place had the same “we’re struggling to get to economically stable” kind of situation that you experience in most emerging countries. It’s such a different feeling from what you have in the US or America … and although it’s frustrating on many levels for the people who are trying to make things happen — there is also a sense of enormous possibility in a place like that, untapped potential. So there was that whole “island struggling to survive” component that I liked as a backdrop to the story – but also, perhaps moreso, there was the cultural component. Having Alyssa deal with a “fish out of water” situation was a natural, and Bahamas was just different enough to give us some great things to work with. Daniel is a complete revelation to her – she’s never known anyone like that, and he represents a kind of spiritual mentorship. And Tamika. I particularly loved the moment when Alyssa and Tamika walk through the town of Smith’s Point where Tamika grew up. There is a spiritual awakening in Alyssa which comes about when she sees the kind of humble beauty, and the sense of family. There’s a particular little moment of revelation when she peeks through a hedge and sees a mother and daughter hanging clothes – something as simple as that, yet it resonates and opens her spirit a notch.Q: How did you develop the subplot of saving the town of Smith’s Point?A: We’ve all seen the movies were the evil developers are opposed by the heroes who want to keep things the way they are. I wanted the film to contain a more interesting argument than that – an argument wherein the community really does have a demonstrated and real need for the development—in this case the tourist development—of the island. They aren’t evil or foolish. They just have a different hierarchy of needs than Hawk – and it takes Alyssa and Rasca to kind of harmonize Hawk’s needs and those of the community, something that only the evolved Alyssa at the end of the movie can do. I really felt that it was important to portray that – and I also thought it was important that we use the actual people of Smith’s Point, which we did. I loved how they all really got into the town meeting and expressed themselves. There was some great adlibbing in that scene by non-professonal actors who ended up being more convincing than actors could have been, because what the scene was about felt real to them. Joey Jam, who plays Decker—Hawk’s rival– in the movie, really helped – he’s a comedian and is used to being in front of a crowd, so when it got to the point where he was pitching the town his side of the argument, he really got them wound up and it all became very real for the people in the room.Q: What did you learn about dolphins in the making of this film?A: Well, first of all – they were very easy to work with. I had done some other animal work before and the dolphins were by far the best. We never waited for dolphins – they were always ready and they did what they were supposed to do for as many takes as we asked them to do it. But more than that – I think the thing that I came away from it with is a sense that they’re great to just hang out with. I spent a lot of time on the first two trips just sitting on the floating dock right beside the pens, particularly early on when I was trying to work out the story and work out how we were going to get the dolphin behavior we needed on the limited budget we were going to have. I think on one level I was “studying” them – but more than that, I was just soaking in their presence and taking advantage of the fact that the UNEXSO people eventually didn’t require that I have a trainer with me all the time when I was around them. So….it was those “quiet times” with no agenda when I was around the dolphins that I really got to see, and feel, their curiousity, their intelligence, and their kind of sweet soulfulness. They have a way of just sidling up to you, rolling on their side, and watching you with this great big intelligent eye – it’s irresistible. In fact, it was that feeling that they engendered, looking up at me that way, that spawned “Eye of the Dolphin” as a title. I wanted to suggest their spirituality without going supernatural or anything and their eye seemed to be the portal to that.Q: Please talk about the particular challenges of making EOD and doing so in the independent film world, where resources are scant and getting the most production value out of what you have available.A: Well, it was hugely ambitious to try and go out to the Bahamas and get everything we had to get there in fifteen days of filming, but that was all we could afford so we had to stretch every penny. There were so many unpredictable variables – water, weather, animals, and children. (And Carly was a child only in the sense that she was limited in the number of hours she could legally work – 10 hours a day – and she was in every scene on days that were taking 12-14 hours to complete.) It’s absolutely amazing, for example, how difficult it is to try and shoot a boat-to-boat scene and I would get into a very tense situation with the marine coordinators when, for example, I was teling them that we had to shoot the entire scene where Hawk and Decker have a confrontation of Decker’s tourists swimming with the dolphins in half a day. They told me it was impossible and I didn’t argue with them – but we had no choice but to get it done in half a day and somehow we did. But I had to keep coming up with a new shooting plan every fifteen minutes because of all the boat maneuvering time that was keeping us from rolling film. I can kind of feel my blood pressure going up just thinking about it. But on the other hand – what a thrill when you pull it off and grab that beautiful production value without paying half of what people think it should cost. I think that’s part of the indie experience, part of what makes it fun and rewarding. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to be able to shoot one page a day instead of 5 pages a day and have all the money you need for every directorial whim you might have. It sounds like a dream, but it also feels a little boring. I think you’ve got to be a bit of a subversive to really enjoy indie film-making. You’ve got to thrive on beating the system, getting your shots and your scenes without paying anything remotely approaching “retail” for them. I love doing it that way but it’s exhausting.Q: Why will this film have cross-generational appeal?A: There is a certain tone that some successful movies take where there are multiple generations but everyone in the story is just a person, a character, not a “kid” or “adult”. I’m thinking of films like, for example, The Black Stallion, or Empire of the Sun, or more recently In America or Whale Rider. The movies assume that just because a character is 12 or 14 years old, it doesn’t mean he or she is any less capable of being taken seriously that adults around him or her. I really worked hard to have our story have that quality. There are no false delineators between kids and adults—they all inhabit the same story space and they all interact equally. I hope that translates to cross-generational appeal. I know the kids won’t feel they’re being talked down to…and the adults won’t feel they are being portayed in a simplistic, kid-centric way. And the issues that are under examination in the movie are issues that everyone can relate to – loss of a parent, a sense of dislocation, inability to connect with one another and the world around us. We all experience these things in different ways at different points in our lives, and I hope and believe the movie illuminates these feelings and experiences in a way that really does cross generations.

Advertisements

~ by Michael Sellers on June 26, 2007.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: