Neasa Hardiman’s Sea Fever is a bit of a fever dream, the kind of film that blends reality (life on an Irish fishing trawler) with pure fantasy (sea creatures and some quite literally eye-opening effects!) and asks you to believe in both. The film follows a marine biology student (Hermione Corfield, The Last Jedi) who takes a tragic tour on a trawler that echoes genre favourites like Alien (1979) and The Thing (1982).
Ahead of the Sea Fever’s World Premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival this week, we had a chance to chat with Hardiman about her debut feature’s notably diverse cast (led by trawler’s captain Freya, played by Connie Nielsen), her desire to truthfully represent a real working community, and how a tragic Irish myth ties it all together.
“…the stories that I tell are about men and women who are completely themselves, completely three-dimensional, individual, rooted in their own pleasures and pains.”
Emily Gagne for Nightmare on Film Street: Congrats on the film!
Neasa Hardiman: Did you see it last night?
NOFS: I saw a screener of it earlier this week! It was actually one of my top picks [of the festival]. When read the summary for it, I was so excited.
NH: I would just like to say right now: I love you. [Laughs]
NOFS: But, honestly, I was so excited, as a genre fan, to see something from a female perspective about a smart woman at the helm. I love The Thing, I love Alien, but unlike in those movies, there’s multiple women at the centre here. Can you talk about why you wanted to tell this story in this way?
NH: I so can talk about that! First of all, I think, for all of us, it’s actually really important that we have aspirational stories. I think it’s really important that we have stories about complex, difficult, not-always-likeable women who find heroism in themselves. I think we need those stories. They are a cultural imperative. We don’t have enough of them and need more, so that’s our job [as storytellers]. And as a viewer, I love seeing that. I’m always amazed at how important that feels to me and how important that feels for my daughter and how important that feels for other women.
The second thing is – and it’s a slightly complex point – when you walk into the room, you walk into the room as a journalist and you’re thinking about being a journalist, what kind of questions you’re going to ask, how is this going to work, what are you going to do next. You’re not walking into the room as a woman journalist. That’s not what you’re thinking about as you go about your professional business.
Terence, the playwright, said, “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” And it’s really important to me that the stories that I tell are about men and women who are completely themselves, completely three-dimensional, individual, rooted in their own pleasures and pains.
Yes, of course, there are cultural stumbling blocks for people of colour and for women but those cultural stumbling blocks are not what defines us. And if the only stories we ever tell are about those cultural stumbling blocks, then we are doing ourselves a disservice because we’re playing into the hands of the people who believe those stumbling blocks are right. If I only tell stories about what it’s like to experience sexism, I am not being truthful about the lived experience.
I don’t want to sound like I’m saying “There’s no such thing [as sexism or racism]!” It’s just that part of the mechanisms of those cultural stumbling blocks are to limit it us, to keep us in a realm that’s all about the colour of our skin, or where we were born. Part of our job as storytellers is to go, “Of course that informs our lived experience, but it’s not all of it.”
“I think our job, especially now, is to tell exciting, stimulating, propulsive stories that draw people in and that, I hope, give them an opportunity to, maybe, ask questions and maybe think a bit differently[…]”
NOFS: But you still have moments in the film where you recognize these struggles. Like when the crew isn’t listening to Siobhan and another woman makes a point of saying, “She knows what she’s talking about!” I’ve had it happen to me – and I’m sure you’ve had it too – where there’s a bunch of men who don’t want to hear what I have to say, and I’m thinking, “I know more about this than you do.”
NH: There was point early in the development process where the producers said to me, “Have you thought about making her the only woman on the boat?” And I said, “That’s exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do here.”
During the very first conversation I had with Connie Nielsen on Skype when she read the script, the first thing she said to me was, “I absolutely love the fact that Freya and Jared are partners and that their marriage is a good marriage. You almost never see that on screen.” And why is it a good marriage? Because it’s a marriage of equals. Because they support each other and they share their troubles. In the [film], that falls apart a little bit, but it comes back together again. And there’s never a question of a struggle of power between them. It’s just not an issue. And to me, that’s more reflective of lived experience of the men and women I know that have successful relationships. They are partners.
It was really important to me, to show a functional relationship. And equally, that the boat would be populated with men and women – which is true of those trawlers – who all do their jobs, who all come from different places, who all are a variety of different ethnicities. And that’s not what’s important on the boat. What’s important on the boat is: how funny are you, are you good at your job, and can we trust you?
NOFS: “How funny are you?” I love that. You gotta have fun because there’s a lot of spare time at sea.
NH: It’s important! I had a consultant who I found whose name is Cliona Conneely and she runs a trawler in a tiny little village off the west coast of Ireland. The trawler we used in the movie is hers.
NOFS: Oh wow!
NH: She inherited the trawler from her father and she and her brother run the trawler. She’s married to an Icelandic guy and she introduced me to him and I went, “Oh wow, that’s interesting.” And they said, “Why is that interesting?” And then I realized, oh god, of course would know each other. The ships go down the eastern seaboard and the North Atlantic from North Africa all the way up to North Ireland. And the family-run trawlers, they all hang out together. They drink together.
Quite early on, we were on the trawler and [Cliona] would say to me, “Okay, so now key in the coordinates to the GPS and transmit that to the coast guard so everybody knows where we are and if there’s a problem, everyone knows where we’re supposed to be.” So that’s what they’re doing at the beginning of the story!
[Cliona] said what you’re supposed to do is you radio the coast guard and say, “I’m leaving and I’m going up to Reykjavík and then I’m going up to Oslow and then back down to wherever else.” But actually what they do is say, “I am leaving O’Brien’s Pub and I’m going up to Sven’s and then I’m going up to Olaf’s and then I’ll be going back to O’Brien’s.” [Laughs] Because they’re all pals and they all hang out together. That’s something I really wanted to reflect in the story. That effortless transnationalism and camaraderie that community has.
“What I wanted to do with this film is exploit what cinema’s really muscular and strong at, which is making something that mobilizes emotion.”
NOFS: Why did you want to tell a story on these trawlers specfically? And with sea creatures to boot!
NH: You know, you get drawn to things for many different reasons and the reasons change as you go through the process. But years ago, I went to see the fabulous Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan speak at BAFTA and he said this brilliant thing that’s really stayed with me.
It’s kinda brutalist and I don’t even know if it’s true, but it’s kind of an interesting observation. He said, essentially, there are two kinds of filmmakers: there are those that are world reflectors and there are those that are world builders. They can be equally political – with a small p – and they can be equally grounded and truthful, but they are two different ways of seeing things. And he used the reference of genre and people who want to try to articulate a kind of lived, human, grounded experience unmediated through the camera. And then there’s the other kind that’s Fritz Lang and you have this kind of unmediated reality, but you have this kind of metaphorical element built in. Cinema works like a dream, so you can put a metaphor in there and jump time and the audience understands because it reflects the way that we think. I thought, oh god, that’s so true.
What I wanted to do with this film is exploit what cinema’s really muscular and strong at, which is making something that mobilizes emotion. For me, lived experience isn’t just you and me here in the room. It’s you and me here in the room and whatever you dreamed about last night and whatever you’re thinking about eating for lunch and whatever memories are being triggered, be they painful or pleasant, by this experience. All of that is happening in the same time in our minds as we’re having this conversation. And the wonderful thing about cinema is that you can actually concretize that and you can find a measurement that will give the audience the feeling of being inside somebody else’s full experience, including their dream world.
So, there’s a dream element to the story. But in order to make that work, everything else has to be really rooted and grounded and truthful and authentic and rich and layered. Because it’s only when everything else is rooted and grounded that you, as an audience member, embrace the what if element, the metaphor element, the cinematic dream-like element.
NOFS: One of my favourite moments in the film is when Freya’s telling that legend about Niamh Chinn Óir, the woman who “gave herself over to the sea”. Where did that come from?
NH: There’s a whole kind of mythological saga that comes from Ireland that relates to these kind of mythological figures that are semi-magical. Niamh Chinn Óir is one of those figures, Niamh of the Golden Hair. And that’s the name of the boat [in the film].
Niamh famously lived on an island where nobody ever got old and she fell in love with an Irish man who was a member of the Fianna, which is a big sort of Celtic warrior myth. So she fell in love with him and persuaded him to come with her across the sea to live with her.
It’s quite a famous story in Ireland and it has a sad ending in that [he] gets lonely for his colleagues and he asks to go home to visit. She’s frightened that he’ll never come back, so she gives him a magical horse and he rides across the sea back to Ireland. He doesn’t realize that for every year he’s been on [the island] a hundred years have passed in Ireland and he realizes, when he gets back, that the time of mythological heroes is over. There are these old men who are trying to push a stone up a hill and he reaches down from the horse to try to help them and his saddle collapses and he falls and he’s mortal again and he dies. And she loses her lover.
NOFS: That is tragic!
NH: There’s a lot of tragedy in the Irish mythology. Even when the stories end happily, there’s another story after that! [Laughs]
“There’s a lot of tragedy in the Irish mythology. Even when the stories end happily, there’s another story after that!”
NOFS: What are you working on after this? I feel like this film is just a jumping off point for you.
NH: I really agree with you! [Laughs] I’ve been looking for this opportunity for so long and it’s been an absolute pleasure and joy to make this movie. And I have two more projects I really want to make, both of which have the same kind of rooted, rich, complex characterizations. One is a more kind of contemporary sci-fi about reaching across the cosmos and the other one is about a woman who finds creativity set in 1950s New York.
I feel like this is the kind of cinema – that sweet spot – where you’ve got proper, interesting, grown-up, intelligent people who are doing the best that they can. There are no goodies, there are no baddies. It’s just people struggling with very real pain and real politics and we find a metaphor at the heart of that which gives a narrative drive that lifts the whole thing.
I don’t think it’s fun to only tell stories to people who agree with you. I think our job, especially now, is to tell exciting, stimulating, propulsive stories that draw people in and that, I hope, give them an opportunity to, maybe, ask questions and maybe think a bit differently and maybe step into the shoes of a character they haven’t had a chance to experience before.
Sea Fever celebrated its World Premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival on Thursday, September 5, read my full review of the film HERE. TIFF 2019 runs September 5-September 15 in Toronto, Ontario and you can find all of our reviews, interviews, and news HERE, as well as on Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!