It was 11 years ago that South African filmmaker Craig Foster’s life changed forever. While free diving in an underwater kelp forest in False Bay near Cape Town, he encountered a courageous, inquisitive young female octopus. For the next year, he went every day to win her trust as he chronicled her life on film and the two formed a strong bond as he learned about the delicacy of life and the humanity’s link to nature. Anyone who has seen “My Octopus Teacher,” the documentary chronicling their relationship, has been moved by their story.
The Netflix film, which won the PGA Award, is up for Best Documentary Feature at the Oscars. Recently, the American Cinematheque held a Zoom conversation between Oscar-winning filmmakers Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin (“Free Solo”) and “My Octopus Teacher” directors Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed.
“The film was a massive collaboration with a team that’s all over the world,” noted Ehrlich. “I started working with the project four years ago. I’d been free diving with Craig for about six months. I was working as a marine science journalist and was really interested in the kelp forest ecosystem. I’d gone on a dive with Craig a couple of years before and noticed immediately kind of going into an environment with someone you think you know well. I could just see that he was picking up signs and animals and behaviors that I never dreamed were possible. I was also fascinated about how he could cope with the cold water and how that had become such an important part of his daily practice.”
Six months into their free diving, Foster told her about his desire to make a movie about his relationship with the octopus “but he hadn’t gone into too much detail about it. And he sent me the treatment. I remember I was sitting at my desk at work and just started crying. Something in the story just resonated with me on a level I didn’t really understand. At that point, despite the fact, we had no funding, we were going to be making the film in an attic, I quit my job.”
After months of watching rushes, they were able to put a cut together. They had tried to include interviews in this cut, but they hadn’t worked out. “So, we’d gone with a more traditional natural history voiceover approach, where Craig kind of told his story, but he was telling it from a script. At that point, our executive producer managed to get the film onto the desk of James Reed.” Reed, a nature documentary filmmaker and producer, said that even in the first cut “you knew that you were watching something really special,” adding there was “this sense of incredible access to this unique octopus. You could tell from how it was filmed he was right there as all these things were happening. I was pretty blown away by it.”
He was then introduced to the Ehrlich and Foster though other than a quick meet on the phone with Foster, he avoided any long chats with him. “I didn’t talk to him again until I arrived in South Africa and we sat down at his kitchen table. And for three days, we just talked about what happened and what let him to do what he did. It was an incredible personal experience. You kind of know when you’re sitting there, it’s just moving you in so many different ways, just hearing it from him. I think Pippa and I both came away from that situation and thought we’ve just radically done something quite new and interesting to the film. “
After the interview with Foster, they restructured the film around him. “You had such incredible personal access in the footage that you were seeing and now suddenly the way the story was told, was equally personal and sort of unpredictable and unplanned,” said Reed. Foster wasn’t the only one who shot the octopus. An old friend of Foster’s cinematographer Roger Horrocks came on board at the diver’s request to shoot footage. “When Craig was filming the octopus, he started to see these incredible things, he got a hold of Roger,” said Ehrlich. “When Roger wasn’t filming on other parts of the world, he came and joined Craig in the kelp forest.”
Ehrlich also shot underwater footage. “Because most of the octopus footage was in the can by the time I came on board, there were some things we needed to get. We had to put Craig back into that environment.” “She’s been modest,” noted Reed. “But the amazing stuff she shot after the relationship had happened gave context to the environment and Craig and everything.”
Foster, who is also the film’s producer, doesn’t like being in the limelight. But since “he understood that we were really going to understand her a lot better through him and to bring him into the relationship, it was going to be greater than the sum of the parts,” said Reed. “So, by the time I sat down with him, he’d adjusted to the idea. Reed admitted, though, at first glance Foster is not an obvious choice to be a central character of a movie. “I love him and he’s brilliant, but he’s an unusual character.”
And Foster himself didn’t think he had the stuff to be the central character. “Neither did a lot of people around him at the time, to be honest,” said Reed. “As it was, it worked really well.” Foster, said Ehrlich, was always aware how transformational the octopus was for him. “That was something he really wanted to share. Although he wasn’t on interview in the earlier versions, we were always telling the story from his perspective. But there was something very powerful about sitting him down.”
For Ehrlich, the whole point of making the film was to get across the need for conservation. “I’ve worked in a conservation organization for a really long time,” she said. “I think what I’d realized very quickly is that when you approach something directly and you put the issue very upfront, it’s very, very powerful and it’s very important.” She felt that they an incredible opportunity with “My Octopus Teacher” to tell a story “about nature and really change people’s hearts and get them to think about their relationship with the natural world in a different way without feeling guilty or feeling shut down.”
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