Why This Film's Different
Too many environmental documentaries follow a predictable pattern: they chronicle a problem, they make us feel guilty, they tell us to “care” or “get involved.” They are (what can we say?) depressing and disempowering.
Picture the Leviathan takes a different, Trojan horse approach. This is a film about an environmental issue, but it won’t directly discuss that issue. Leviathan tells the story of an artist and his process. We don't tell the audience what to think or what to do. We let the art, and the charisma of the artist, lead the audience to their own conclusions.
The artist is James Prosek. The author of eleven books, winner of a Peabody Award, James was well established as an artist by the time he finished college. James paints in the tradition of nineteenth-century naturalists who catalogued the world as it was discovered -- but he paints creatures that are vanishing. It’s a truism that in order to care for something you first must know it. And we don’t know the once-dominant, majestic creatures of the Atlantic, some of which humans are fishing toward extinction.
Facts about the oceans’ decline pile up like sand, with little effect on human behavior. This is where art comes in. James is on a quest to paint approximately 40 Atlantic fish species that are significant to humans -- and paint them from life, full-sized, after seeing them alive. Nobody has ever tried to do this -- after all, it’s challenging to observe some of these fish alive. His quest takes him stalking swordfish off Newfoundland; night fishing for deepwater cod; to the Bahamas for giant grouper; to the Cape Verde Islands to see a 900-pound black marlin. He believes he must be there -- right there -- when a true, live, leviathan rises from the deep.
(Courtesy of the artist and Waqas Wajahat, New York)
A Film About Art (& Environment)
Picture the Leviathan shows the passion and effort James puts into making these extraordinary watercolor portraits. The film’s theme -- that art makes a difference -- is supported by three legs: the quest inherent in James’s journeys; the making of the art; and James’s deeply humble, almost mystical relationship to other species.
I (Hal) have been an active environmentalist for 35 years and a journalist for 26. Jason has been in the game almost as long. In that time both of us have come to believe that conventional approaches to environmental problems simply don’t work. People are not affected by facts and figures sufficiently to change their behavior meaningfully. But we have learned that, as individuals and a culture, humans relate empathetically through character and story -- that’s where change happens. Moreover (and despite Jason's early training as an ecologist), we are convinced that art, not science, moves us to the deepest understandings of beauty, horror, or terror.
So we want to bring to the screen the story of an artist working where art and culture intersect with our relationship to the natural environment. And the collapse of fisheries in the Atlantic Ocean -- in all our oceans -- is a monumental, little-appreciated problem with poorly understood consequences. Much attention has been paid to climate change, but what is happening in our seas is arguably equally threatening to human culture.
Why do it?
The film is intended to help, in a small way, shift the culture by altering the viewer’s perception of our relationship to fish and oceans. Because Picture the Leviathan is part of a larger media suite -- the film documents the creation of a body of art that will form the basis for a 2012 book and art exhibit -- it will both expand upon and amplify James’s work and that work’s implicit messages about our relationship to the ocean and its megafauna. The most important thing we can do is make this short (22-25 minute) film available to the largest number of people, to help them begin to feel the power of art and the way that art can show them the world in a different light.
What will we spend the money on?
Shooting one more trip with James, off the East Coast (he wants to catch a mako and / or blue shark); paying our editor to do his magic; securing music rights; outputting and printing DVD copies; paying festival submission fees so we can get the widest distribution.
What if we exceed our goal?
We conclude that all of you are really cool, and we go for a celebratory latte with an extra shot. Then we commission an original score, and continue to collect footage with James -- at his studio, in fish markets, with his publisher, etc. We'd be able to shoot scenes we have wanted to but couldn't afford; more material will allow us to round out our story. Finally, we'll subsidize screenings at museums and aquariums and as fundraisers for conservation groups working on ocean issues.
- (60 days)