When a trawler hits an unseen object and becomes marooned in Neasa Hardiman’s feature directorial debut SEA FEVER, marine biology student Siobhan’s (Hermione Corfield) research excursion takes an unexpected twist. As the crew of six, led by husband and wife Gerard (Dougray Scott) and Freya (Connie Nielsen), learn that a mysterious water-borne parasite has infected their water supply, they find themselves in a struggle for survival.


In conversation with FRIGHTFEST Paul Risker, Hardiman whose credits include HAPPY VALLEY for the BBC and the finale of MARVEL/NETFLIX’S JESSICA JONES, discussed her desire to reframe the genre language in SEA FEVER, and why the film’s political point resonates so strongly in pandemic stricken 2020.


FRIGHTFEST: Interviewing filmmaker Pablo Larraín, he spoke of how you discover the film in the final cut. Would you agree that filmmaking is a process of discovery?


NEASA HARDIMAN: There’s the old adage that you write a film three times - one when you write it, one when you shoot it, and one when you cut it. I think that’s true and I worked with Slawomir Idziak, a brilliant director of photography who shot Krzysztof Kieślowski’s films, and went onto shoot on a whole load of big fabulous Hollywood movies. He said about filmmaking, “It’s a little bit like being pregnant and when you’re shooting you’re absolutely sure you’re having a boy, and then you come to edit and you find this girl.” [Laughs].


It’s another version of that same idea that when you come to the edit, while you have a blueprint in the screenplay that is your intention, when shooting the film you are collaborating with the embodied presence of those characters through your actors, and they will deliver an extra kind of humanity and spin that may inflect the story in certain directions. So when you capture all of that material and bring it into the edit, your job is to be sensitive to how those inflections are playing. Once it’s embodied, once it’s physically present onscreen, it’s something slightly different, and you experience the screenplay in a different way to how you experience a film.


The old cliches are true that what has to be written on the page can simply be the most fleeting of expressions in the actors eyes, and everyone in the audience will understand. There are those transformations that automatically happen, then there’s the transformations that happen just by the virtue of choosing either this actor or that actor.


Two actors can have a certain sensibility that creates an inflection in the screenplay that you either want to lean into, or away from depending on how you want the audience to feel. The result of the story should emanate like an emerging property from all those individual scenes – it’s an alchemical process in one sense.


FF: As well as the interaction with the actors, what did your collaboration with the genre form contribute to your initial intent?


NH: I’m not that interested in heavy genre; it’s just not my thing. I love films that use the artillery of cinema, that use that dream reality of the ‘what if?’ I love cinema as spectacle when it is connected to something that feels grounded and rooted in character and reality, that articulates real genuine source bots culturally that we need to address.


The films I responded to myself were ARRIVAL, ANNIHILATION and ANOTHER EARTH, those that use that sci-fi ‘what if?’ element to explore something truthful, authentic and human. What I wanted to do with SEA FEVER was to say, “We all share this genre vocabulary, and I want to quote from that and then reframe it, and use it to say something different and more grounded.” I hope that has a resonance.


SEA FEVER is essentially a story about the conflict between the individual and global need, and the competing needs of economic survival and ecological survival. It’s essentially a story about value and reason in the scientific method when it butts up against magical thinking and superstition, and how all those things inflect one another.


We have this bad habit in our sci-fi storytelling of castigating and demonising the scientist, of making them the person who has no moral compass. I wanted to carefully position a scientist in the story that looks like that cliche because she’s difficult and cold, and she struggles to communicate with people, to then try to reframe that by unearthing what may be the origins of the cliché, and look at her as mirror divergent – to look at her as somebody that is cognitively different, who struggles to catch nuance, but is also very lonely, is struggling and is in pain. Then to put her as the moral centre of the story, saying the point of the scientific method is that we acknowledge that we don’t know, and we look for the answers truthfully, rather than reaching for the most emotionally convenient answer for our big problem. So that was the essence of what I wanted to do with the story.



FF: In this story of the conflict of man versus monster, you favour the psychological and human drama over the spectacle of the creature. An audience will always bring expectation to a film, and sometimes they are required to set these expectations aside to critique the film being offered, as opposed to the one they expect.


SEA FEVER requires a patience, as it reveals its conviction in the third act when it addresses the moral conflict of self-preservation, the survival of the few versus the welfare of the collective.


NH: The third act of films like this are conventionally confrontation, death and victory. When we got to the end of the second act I thought, ‘This is not where I want to go with this film’, even though that is the genre template and I wanted to quote genre tropes to then reframe them.


I find it boring when I see it in other films and it drives me mad that at this point the story has stopped, and it’s chase, confrontation and death, which is not interesting. I forget who the critic was that was talking about a different film altogether and saying that the interesting thing about this particular series of films is that there is a fundamental belief that every problem can be solved by fighting. I wanted to utterly avoid that trope and so I wanted the third act to be something that was more truthful to the character of Siobhan. It’s about respect for the biosphere and seeing ourselves as a dynamic part of a broader whole, but you’re right that some people then come to the film with the expectation of chase by chase, fight, and it’s disappointing when they don’t get that. But for me as a viewer, I wanted something different and I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to nourish those parts of the audience that want something different, and want a story in the third act that is about heroism in a different form.’


FF: In the third act, the film becomes an effective and prescient piece of filmmaking in pandemic stricken 2020. Would you agree that the flexibility of genre storytelling is limited only by the limitations of the imagination and thematic enquiry of the storyteller?


NH: The story of meeting the unexpected monster is obviously a big archetypal story - it’s BEOWULF; it’s as old as our culture. The reason why that story is an archetype is because it has this deep nightmarish quality that we all respond to, but you can articulate that story in different ways and it can mean a myriad of different things.


SEA FEVER was rooted from the get go in the conflict between individual and global need – this is the beating heart of the film. When I was writing and then when we were filming it, we were thinking about this painful awareness of how fragile our ecosystem is. For me, when writing this, it was rooted in that idea that ‘no man is an island’, and we are in this together.


We fail to recognise ourselves as existing outside of our own ecosystem, rather than seeing that we are all connected, and we are a dynamic integrated part of a community and a system. The whole story builds to this moment of saying, “Look, we have to take responsibility, not only for ourselves, but for our community and more broadly, for our whole world.”


This was rooted in the climate crisis, but the reason why it resonates so readily now is because it’s the same political point. Not to be too grandiose about it, but this neoliberal idea that we’re all atomised and there is no such thing as society, and we’re all just working on our own is demonstrably clearly not true. We are a species that lives in communities, in troupes and in prides. We are connected to each other and we don’t do well when we’re isolated and on our own. So this was the big drive of the story for me, and why it hits home now is because it’s the same political message that ‘no man is an island.’


Signature Entertainment presents SEA FEVER on Blu-ray & Digital HD from April 24th.


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