INTERVIEW: Neasa Hardiman Puts a New Spin on the Creature Feature with “Eco-Thriller” Sea Fever

Sea Fever may have had its New York debut at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, but heed the words of writer/director Neasa Hardiman—it is not a horror film. At least it’s not in the traditional sense of the genre, where a main character is called upon to fight and defeat some sort of evil in order to stay alive.

Don’t misunderstand. Sea Fever‘s characters, the crew of an Irish shipping boat—including old-timers Gerard (Dougray Scott) and Freya (Connie Nielsen) and newcomer Siobhán (Hermione Corfield), a scientist there to observe the trawler’s catch—is in very real , very mortal danger. On the verge of bankruptcy, Gerard makes the decision to veer off-course in the hopes of finding a big catch. Instead, he finds a big…. no, giant… squid.

But Sea Fever is no creature feature. There’s no third act “chase, fight, chase, fight, confrontation, kill,” in Hardiman’s words. Instead, Hardiman—a veteran in the TV field whose credits include “Jessica Jones” and “Happy Value”—has crafted an exploration of science-versus-faith that, in its depiction of man’s relationship with nature, is more like Alex Garland’s Annihilation than Jaws. “Somebody in Toronto called the film an eco-thriller, and I think that’s actually what it is,” she says. “It has a very deliberately different third act. Some people like that, and some people go ‘But where’s the chase and the fight?'”

In advance of its Brooklyn Horror Film Festival screening, Boxoffice Pro spoke with Hardiman about her goals for the film and the power of the theatrical experience.

Is Sea Fever getting a theatrical release outside of the festival circuit?

Yes, in 2020. We’ll do the festivals first, and then do theatrical release. It won’t come out until next year in the U.S..

I’m glad it is. It’s a film with so much mood to it. I saw a screener, but I wish I’d caught it on a big screen.

I wrote and directed the film to be this dreamlike experience that also has a kind of devastating quality. Something very grounded and very rooted and truthful. I never thought of it as body horror. There are nine frames of body horror in the film. That’s it. Nine frames, 24 frames per second… a third of a second? 

Though it’s playing at the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival, it’s not a horror film in the traditional sense.

It’s not. It’s a thriller with a dreamlike element. It’s a character movie. What you’re seeing is nine-tenths of the iceberg—the third act of these people’s lives. They all come with their own pains and their own pleasures and their own anxieties and fears. They all come from very particular places, and they all had particular things happen to them in their lives. Whether it’s escaping civil war in Syria and trying to start up a new life in a place where there’s a lot of prejudice against you. Whether it’s losing a child and struggling in an industry that’s dying. 

Or whether it’s the hero—who’s not diagnosed. She’s never been diagnosed. She lives her life the way she wants to. But if you were to diagnose her, she would be on the spectrum. She would be diagnosable as what used to be referred to as Asperger’s. She carries that with her. The pain of that, and the difficulty of being isolated and needing and wanting connection, but [not being good at picking up] social cues and being very deaf to the nuances between people. And so, therefore, not really being able to make those connections. All of those people bring all that to the boat. And then they interact with one another. That was always what the film is and how the film works. 

Very deliberately, I did not want a third act in the generic tradition of chase-fight-chase-fight-confrontation-kill. It just didn’t interest me. I get bored at the end of second act of films when I know that’s what’s going to happen. Essentially, the story stops. I forget who the critic was who said the problem with those films is that they have this idea that everything can be resolved by fighting. Which is very dull!

One of the things I enjoy about your movie is your main character is a scientist, but you don’t do the whole anti-science, “man was never meant to meddle with the forces of God” cliche that so many movies have.

100%. And that was one of the things that I really wanted to push through in the narrative. To interrogate that thematic construct between science and ethics. [They’re often treated as if] they’re the opposite of each other, which strikes me as wrong, and dangerous.

And it’s so retrograde!

It’s really disturbing, particularly in the world we live in now. Michael Gove in the U.K. a couple of years ago famously said, “We’ve had enough of experts.” What do you mean by that? Or, you know, people in the U.S. at the moment who argue against global warming on the basis that they’d rather it weren’t happening! That kind of magical thinking.

It’s especially dangerous right now, with climate change reaching a breaking point. It’s past time to start paying more attention to scientists.

If you were to ask, “What is the greatest invention that we as a species have come up with?,” people might say the industrial revolution or vaccines or something like that. I think you could make a case that the greatest invention that we’ve come up with as a species is the scientific method. That method of self-interrogation, of trying to undercut own magical thinking.

[The scientific method] demands of us humility and uncertainty, always. And it was one of the things that I really wanted to explore in the film. One of the executive producers when I was writing it said to me, “No, Siobhan needs to be more sure. She needs to be more certain. She needs to be more the hero, so when they ask her questions, she knows the answers.” That’s the opposite of what I want to do! The point is, she doesn’t know. And she says, “I do not know.”

It’s realistic.

It’s grounded, and it’s truthful. The point of the character is she doesn’t know. She acknowledges her vulnerability and she acknowledges her weaknesses, of which she has plenty. But she never stops trying.

Even when she does have that moment when she’s relatively sure what’s going on, and she tries to convince everyone else to stay quarantined and not go ashore—she’s acting very rationally, but she doesn’t convince them, and you understand why. It’s like she’s approaching it from too scientific a place.

I really agree with you. Nobody wants to see a film that’s propaganda, right? Nobody wants to see a film where everything is already decided before you go into the cinema, and you’re just being told what to think. That’s very dull and would be very dogmatic and inappropriate of any filmmaker worth their salt. 

What I’m trying to do is to explore and ask questions about that dichotomy. We’re on a spectrum of rational thinking versus magical thinking. At the extreme end of rational thinking is what you’re saying. If you and I were entirely rational, would we not give up our jobs and go and help the Kurds? There will always be an absolute, cold rationality that privileges the group over the individual.

And there’s an isolation in that. There’s a degree to which magical thinking allows us to connect with one another. Magical thinking allows you to think that things will probably turn out better than they really will, and that allows you to go forward and forget about how we’re all going to die. That’s really valuable, and it keeps us strong and resilient and happy and connected. So there’s nothing wrong with that. 

In the story, I wanted to present that argument equally strongly. Siobhan suffers because she’s not able to engage in magical thinking. It prevents her from connecting with the people around her. And that’s really painful. As animals, we don’t do well without those connections. And also there’s magical thinking that’s there quite early, when Freya is looking into the water. How she manages her grief for her lost daughter is by picturing her daughter as this magical presence that’s with her in the water. She needs [that]. There’s nothing wrong with faith, and there’s nothing wrong with magical thinking if it helps you to be resilient and carry on and it prevents you from breaking down. I wanted to present somebody for whom that’s really sustaining. 

In writing the script, you’re not just writing plot and characters—you’re writing a dialogue between two ways of thought. What was that process like? Did you go through a lot of different versions?

It’s sort of like riding a bicycle. You have the characters and the ideas and the emotions and the throughlines. You have all the elements, and then you have to get the bicycle up and just start going. It’s only when you start going that the thing comes to life under your hands. For me, anyway, as a filmmaker, what you do is gather all the ideas and the impulses that you have, and you sift through them. It’s a process of clarifying and clarifying and clarifying. You have to be kind of a magpie, picking up everything that feels like it might be interesting. Not quite sure why it’s going to connect or how it’s going to connect. Some of it won’t, and some of it will.

It must be easy to get lost in the weeds.

It’s true! Sometimes you just have to keep going with sifting and sifting and sifting, and it starts to clarify under your hands and you start to feel what you have. And then the last thing is creating those voices. I love writing dialogue. It’s the best fun. But it’s the last thing in the process. 

I was really lucky in the cast. I had a really gorgeous conversation with Dougray Scott, who plays Gerard. I needed somebody who was going to be very charismatic to play that part, somebody who’s warm and who has natural leadership qualities. I sent him the script thinking, “If he doesn’t do it, I don’t know who we’re going to get, because he’s the person that really embodies all of that.” He’s had life experience, and he’s a man who’s very strong. He’s quite an alpha male, but he’s also really unafraid to trust. I sent him the script and he phoned me going, “This is a character study. Even if there were no sci-fi elements in this story, it’s a brilliant story. I’m going to do it because I love the character.” And my heart soared, saying, “Now we have a film.”

Sea Fever reminds me quite a bit of Annihilation. Nature’s just nature. It’s not out to get you. It’s above that.

I felt very strongly that Alex Garland was reaching toward something that I wanted to pursue. I think it goes all the way back to, when I was a girl, I was about 12, and I saw The Company of Wolves. It did two things for me. First of all, it said to me, “Irish people can be filmmakers.” And secondly, it said to me, “You can make a serious film in the style of German expressionists.” It has a dreamy quality. It’s a very surrealist film. 

[I enjoyed] this unpicking of fairy tales and stories that are metaphors and analogies but that are articulated quite deep, culturally. The fact that [director Neil Jordan] was making a story like that in this kind of parallel language struck me very deeply. Those stories don’t have to be flattened. They don’t have to be for children. And they don’t have to be for kidults. You can say something truthful and resonant and articulate and grown-up and true in the language of metaphor. That language of metaphor is obviously where we live as visual artists. The birth of cinema, particularly in Germany, with the way expressionist cinema emerged, was a huge influence in terms of how I conceived of this film. The language of cinema is the language of dreams.

[Film can] hit you at this very visceral level. It’s something emotional and cerebral. What I wanted to do with the film is mobilize the language of cinema.

Do you approach your work the same way when it’s TV projects? The schedule and pace can be so different.

If somebody asks me to direct a story that I haven’t written for TV, it’s my duty first of all to eat that story, so I feel like I own it. I know every beat and nuance. And then I bring my whole self to that and use the language in exactly the same way. Sometimes you get stymied when you try to do that. Sometimes people can be frightened. There are sometimes control issues.

I think that’s changing. In Europe, there’s a greater tradition of filmmaking in television. I was so happy and lucky working with the BBC in that respect, because they have a great understanding of what a director is and what a director brings. You come in, and you work with the writer, and you cast it, and you bring it to fruition all the way to the final mix. You are using all of the artillery of storytelling, unifying the orchestra in the best possible way. 

I think we are moving towards that in the U.S.. Companies like HBO and Netflix and Hulu really understand that and are embracing directors and what they can bring. The risk is always that it collapses into a piece of writing. It’s the old Hitchcock criticism: “American television is picture of people talking. You can play it on the radio, and you wouldn’t miss anything.” That’s what we’re trying to get away from. We’re trying to bring that cinematic language into those big flat screen TVs that we watch. I am happy that there is a greater permeability between the two media. And I think the storytelling is better when it’s [done cinematically].

The experience of watching something in a cinema versus on your TV is so different.

There’s something about the cinematic experience. It’s qualitatively different. What you can do as a filmmaker in terms of how you communicate with the audience is different, because they are with you. You embrace them in a completely different way. Part of that has to do with: it’s a big screen, and it’s dark, and you can’t use your phone. You have to engage. I was always afraid to go to The Exorcist in the cinema. It came back for a re-run when I was a teenager. I had a Catholic education! I could watch it on TV, but I couldn’t go to see it in a cinema, because it was a different experience. 

And sound! Sound is a huge thing, experientially. Sound in the cinema wraps its way around you, and it’s a three dimensional experience. Particularly in our movie, the sound is so important. It’s behind you and underneath you, and it moves through the space. That’s crucial. You only get that in a cinema. 

Cinema is that mobilizing of emotion, right? That’s what it does. We’re mobilizing emotion, and we’re using the sensory language of what it means to be human to do that. We are a species that lives in troops. We live in little groups. And all of our rituals and rites are communal rituals and rites. We get together to do things and think our way through things. When somebody is born, we get together. When people get married or joined together, we get together. When people die, we get together. That’s how we process emotion. So if you want to have a profound emotional experience, you have to be in the cinema. You have to be together with other humans. It changes the experience for you.