Whether you're a researcher into cetacean communication, or you're a filmmaker following those scientists as they attempt to unlock the secrets of whale song, there is one truth, according to Drew Xanthopoulos, director of new documentary Fathom. "There is no guarantee of seeing whales."
Fathom, which debuted this week at the Tribeca Film Festival before debuting on Apple TV+ next Friday, took Xanthopoulos to the remote corners of the world that are the laboratories for field researchers exploring humpback whale language. After all, if you want to hear the whales sing - and sit with the researchers who are patiently trying not only to translate their songs but examine the underlying culture of cetaceans - then you have to go to where they are. In this case, it meant traveling to Alaska, to sit by the chill waters with Cornell Lab of Ornithology Postdoctoral Fellow Michelle Fournet, and to French Polynesia, where Scottish Oceans Institute Senior Research Fellow Ellen Clare Garland is undertaking her own, interlocking research.
So why travel to the ends of the earth to make a movie about whales when the whales may not even be there? "I fell in love with the science," said Xanthopoulos, who first heard some radio stories about whale cognition, evolution, communication, and culture, then started reading books, then started attending conferences, "with 50 talks a day about every aspect of every species of whales you can imagine. ... The collective picture it all painted was crazier than any science fiction movie I've ever seen or book I'd ever read. And it occurred to me that, if this is having this much of an emotional affect on me, then the people actually out there at sea doing the work, it must be profound."
[inset-1-right]However, with no assurances that he would ever see a whale, Xanthopoulos set certain criteria for his human subjects. "I wanted scientists who were going to spend long period of times out at sea. People who leave home for long periods of time. That physical transformation was important." Another criterion? "People who were asking questions that I thought were very profound, and had profound implications for the audience about how we see ourselves in relation to everything else." The final, and arguably most important, requirement? "You need to find someone that you actually like, and likes you in return. You're making friends along the way. I don't pop in their homes with a camera rolling."
Both Xanthopoulos and producer Megan Gilbride are long-time fixtures in Austin's film circuit and its diaspora: both are UT grads, and both have lectured in the UT Radio Television, and Film Department. As a cinematographer Xanthopoulos has brought his distinctive vision to Austin-shot and Austin-connected films like Kat Candler's original short of "Hellion," Rose Bush's "Vultures of Tibet," and Kyle Henry's Chicago-shot Rogers Park. Gilbride was also a fan of his work as a director, especially his crowdfunded documentary The Sensitives. As a seasoned documentary producer herself (having worked on Tower and Dear Mr. Brody with Keith Maitland, as well as Where Soldiers Come From) this was a natural fit for them to work together.
However, Fathom's location shoots left Xanthopoulos without the traditional infrastructure and support system of a filmmaking community in a big city (you can't exactly run to the rental store for a replacement lens in the middle of Alaska). Gilbride recalled that he had a solar charging station with him, "which is how he would charge batteries so he could shoot, and boot up had drives so that he could charge up data every day. They stopped working on literally the second day in Alaska, and Michelle rewired them so they would work."
The two locations created wildly varying challenges for Xanthopoulos. He said, "In Alaska, it's so quiet that you can hear whales from 30 miles away. In French Polynesia, the water's so big and the chops are so huge that it's hard to hear a whale 30 feet away." However, that gave him an insight into the challenges that the researchers face every day, and how it affected their approach. "Michelle would sit out there in the quiet and just listen to hear the whale's breath so she could go out there and do their work. Ellen's hide-and-go-seek is completely under the water. She can't hear anything, so she has to throw a hydrophone down to listen in on a singer, and then completely guess which direction to go to find them."
Gilbride's job had its own complications (she described the role of producer as "part lawyer, part labor attorney, part tax accountant, part business manager - and I collect the trash"). However, for Fathom she was not going to be on hand for immediate on-location troubleshooting on location - sadly, she noted, she didn't get to head to the Pacific - which instead translated into a lot of prep work, and then finding the story within the footage. The process allowed the duo to insert some unexpected influences into how the story was told. She said, "Drew and I both love sci-fi films, so we were talking about this movie as a sci-fi film, and thinking about shots from films that we wanted to steal." There are also some nods to the one of the all-time great aquatic adventures: Jaws. "It couldn't have less thematic relationship to the film, but getting to think about little steals of things on boats."
[inset-2-right]Finding the focus of the story meant they had to lose "a lot of amazing whale facts," Gilbride said, but cutting them made space for the real subject: a tribute to the under-discussed complexities and challenges of field research. "Field research is expensive and unpredictable, and it really stresses the lives of scientists, but we learn so much that you can't model on a computer," she said. "Even if a field season is quote-unquote unsuccessful," she said, "if it prompts you to ask to ask deeper and different questions, or it gives you new questions to ask that are better questions, that is so innate and important to the scientific experience."
Historically, whale research (like much marine biology) was a male-dominated field, and there are conversations in the documentary about how women have not only entered the field, but also created specific spaces for women researchers. Xanthopoulos admitted that being the only man in those remote environments created some awkwardness - for him. "when I peed, I was just mortified about how loud it sounded on the boat," he said. "For men, there's a big distance between the source and the destination, so it made a really loud noise."
However, he noted that both Fournet and Garland were more than welcoming - as were the whales. A year before filming, he went on a test excursion with Fournet. When the whales did swim by, he realized exactly how much their presence, and hearing them breathe, affected him and would inform the film. "The things we tell ourselves about how we're all connected to everything else and we're part of a much bigger picture, they became emotional. I internalized it in a way that you can't if you just intellectually repeat it over and over again. It was profound."
Fathom is streaming as part of the Tribeca Film Festival, and debuts on Apple TV June 25.
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