Horror at Sea: Lucien Castaing-Taylor on Leviathan

Lucien Castaing-Taylor’s eye-popping documentary Leviathan screens at Abandon Normal Devices before its UK-wide theatrical release in November. He describes a gruelling shoot

Feature by jamie@theskinny.co.uk | 01 Oct 2013

“We film in people’s faces, we violate,” says Liverpool-born filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor of the cinematic style that brings us Leviathan, an extraordinary, and extraordinarily divisive, documentary set on a New England fishing trawler. Through this violation, the reality of life at sea comes out. When we speak, Castaing-Taylor and his film have, just 20 minutes previosly, won the Michael Powell Award at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and he seems a touch bewildered. “I don’t really like recognition,” he explains. “None of my films have ever been selected for any festival in the UK before; I’ll go back and tell Véréna we’ve won a prize and try and come to terms with it later.”

Leviathan, co-directed by the now Boston-based anthropologists Castaing-Taylor and Véréna Paravel (who are also partners), offers 90 minutes of sensory discombobulation; it’s documentary as art installation, as out-of-body experience. Long, unforgiving takes of aching brutality, natural beauty and wonder, whirring machinery and an almost rhythmic tedium combine to disorientate, appal and entrance. “We’re always interested in tackling a subject that involves humans, but marginalising the human, or putting them in a much larger natural, ecological, cosmological framework” says the director.

“We wanted to make something different,” he continues. “It can’t just be the typical romantic, sentimental thing like, these great guys, risking life and limb to come back with the fish.” And different it certainly is. Some critics have noted Leviathan shares more DNA with the horror genre than any form of journalism. Castaing-Taylor, while not rejecting this assertion, is keen to expand. “We talk about horror, or we talk about film noir, or sci-fi films, or romantic films, but there’s a lot of bleeding, a lot of slippage between these genres,” he explains. “You can see this film as a sci-fi film in certain regards, as a horror film, as an environmentalist documentary, you can see it as an apolitical documentary, as a nature film on a totally different kind of non-anthropomorphic register. I don’t think it’s just a horror film. I think it throws everything in the pot and… and something else comes out.

“We’re always interested in tackling a subject that involves humans, but marginalising the human” – Lucien Castaing-Taylor

“We’re totally sympathetic to the fishermen; it’s not intended to be a criticism of them as individuals, or even their lifestyle, but for me the film is still an ecological film and a very political film,” he continues, illustrating his own interpretation of the work. “There’s no cod left, there’s no fish left, but it’s not the fishermen’s fault – it’s the nations’ fault. It’s the United States, it’s Canada, it’s England, it’s France, Spain – it’s all the governments who fucked up.”

Shot entirely at sea over six trips, each lasting two to three weeks at a time, the difficulties of the environment contributed to the experimental techniques employed. “There are only four still shots in the whole film, tripod based or attached to some hard thing in the boat,” he says. “We started by filming ourselves with more conventional filmmakers’ cameras, but we lost them all to the waves on the first and second trip. So all we were left with was a DSLR, a small still camera that can also shoot video, and then these small extreme sports cameras that didn’t even have a viewfinder. There are only four shots in the entire film that weren’t attached to a human.” The footage this yields is a miracle.

Though directly in their subjects’ faces, Castaing-Taylor and Paravel afford them a freedom to go about their business. “We never do interviews, we never tell people what to do or what not to do,” he explains. “We’re happy for them to acknowledge the camera when they want to; we don’t tell them to pretend as if we’re not there, but we just hang out with them and we don’t really talk to them when we’re not filming and they can tell that we’re working, so they sort of stop performing for the camera.”

With this approach, the filmmakers have captured genuine humanity in one of the most inhumane of environments, conjoining people with a harsh nature we often forget we’re a part of. An opaque, multifaceted and emotive piece that will rile as many as it enthrals, Leviathan is quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen.

Leviathan, FACT, Liverpool, 4 Oct, 9.15pm, £7

Leviathan is released nationwide 29 Nov by Dogwoof