Pippa Ehrlich and James Reed interview: ‘My Octopus Teacher’ directors
After spending time with Craig Foster, going through the footage he had captured of an octopus in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa and assembling it into the movie that would eventually become “My Octopus Teacher,” Pippa Ehrlich sensed that something wasn’t right with the film. “We reached a point where we had a cut that we were happy with but something just wasn’t quite working. We had a feeling it was about the voice of the film which at that point was a voiceover,” Ehrlich tells us in our recent webchat (watch the exclusive video above). That was when the executive producer brought in James Reed to help. Reed went down to South Africa and interviewed Foster over three days and both he and Ehrlich knew they had discovered what the film had been lacking. “It was the most interesting conversation I’ve ever had in my life. You never really know how that sort of story is going to be told and you have no idea how emotional it could be. We knew we found the missing ingredient to the film,” Reed explains.
“My Octopus Teacher,” which is currently streaming on Netflix, chronicles Foster exploring the kelp forests in the ocean near his home. Foster, originally a documentary filmmaker, went through a tough time with his mental health and started freediving as a means of escape. One day, he encountered an octopus while diving and a friendship developed between the two. The documentary chronicles Foster’s nearly year-long observing of the animal in its natural habitat. The film has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year’s Oscars and secured a major win recently at the Producers Guild Awards in the Best Documentary category.
While Foster did serve as a producer of the film, Reed did have slight reservations about how he would allow him and Ehrlich to operate as the directors of the film. Reed explains that there three factors about Foster that helped to avoid any conflict on this level. The first was that Foster was a really good guy. The second was that although Foster was a filmmaker, he hadn’t made a film in ten years, which gave him space from the project. The last, and possibly most important factor was that Foster had approached his experience underwater without any intention of making a film. “He was just documenting it and not trying to have intent and just wanted to record this animal’s life because his interest had become a lot more to do with escaping and getting what you can from understanding nature rather than turning it into films.”
The experience of getting nominated for an Oscar was something that Reed and Ehrlich didn’t think would happen, partly because several predictions had left them off their lists. “We were really casual about it. We made an arrangement to watch it together but it ended up happening 20 minutes earlier than expected,” Ehrlich says. Luckily, her friend who was with her at home put on the nominations announcement and everything happened really quickly for Ehrlich, who also ended up mildly annoying Reed afterward. “The next thing I knew, they read out, ‘My Octopus Teacher,’ and I jumped about two meters in the air and started shouting. I immediately called and he was mildly irritated because I called him in the middle of a meeting. It was a crazy afternoon.”