TIFF ‘19: ‘Sea Fever’ Director Neasa Hardiman and Actor Hermione Corfield Talk Eco Thrillers, Red Heads, and the Use of Body Horror

Sea Fever is a parasitic environmental horror about what waits for us beneath the waves. It follows a PhD candidate Siobhan (Hermione Corfield) who would rather study specimens in a lab rather than interact with people. However, she is sent out on a fishing boat for field research, only to come upon a massive unknown creature. She must help the crew understand the beast and figure out a way to escape its grasp.

Neasa Hardiman, who wrote and directed the film, is known for her work on dramas such as Happy Valley and Jessica Jones. So why did she decide to pivot to the terrifying seas? I was able to speak with her and Corfield during the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival to learn more about Sea Fever and what it was like to research and film on a fishing vessel.

Note: interview has been edited for clarity

Mary Beth McAndrews: I absolutely loved Sea Fever, it is a film very much up my alley. My first question for you, Neasa, is why did you want to do the ocean?

Neasa Hardiman: There’s an early draft of the story that Hermione [Corfield] read, and is probably quite relieved that I redrafted, where her character has a speech where she goes, “The thing about the Atlantic Ocean is we actually don’t know what’s in it.” You could take the Himalayas from root to tip and drop them into the Atlantic Ocean and it wouldn’t even change the texture of the surface of the water. We’re changing the texture and the ecology of that space with our noise and with our plastic and with our pollution and with our melting glaciers without even knowing what we’re changing! So that’s why the ocean.

MB: The ocean is the scariest thing to me! Where did the idea for the film’s creature come from?

NH: First of all, it’s all rooted in real research. Everything that animal does is rooted in a real behavior. So, the notion of having a host that you gestate through, that’s all real. Of course, I put all those behaviors into one animal that doesn’t exist. That was really important for the creature to feel plausible, to feel that it could exist. 

The second thing is, on a more poetic level, I wanted to make something that would feel like a metaphor for the natural world that is beautiful and unknowable and frightening. We alter the circumstances of that world at our peril because we are a part of it, and we’re in love with it. I wanted to make the animal something you wanted to keep looking at, not just something glittering, but something that’s gorgeous.

MB: It was gorgeous, too. Hermione, I have a question for you. I loved you in Rust Creek earlier this year. It feels like with Sea Fever and Rust Creek, despite being very different movies, each have a similar female character who seems one way but is actually very different. What’s it like playing these characters who seem unapproachable but actually have more emotional depth to them? 

Hermione Corfield: I think with Rust Creek it was that she was a fighter. She at first seems ordinary but has the ability to stand up for herself, fight back, and be resourceful. With Siobhan [from Sea Fever], she is such an intelligent and linear thinker, but then, of course, you need to have this emotional depth otherwise you have a 2D character, the methodical scientist. She’s trying to connect with people. She easily connects with science, she easily connects with animals, she easily connects with the natural world, but she really really tries to make that human contact. Her problem-solving and her practical approach is also her attempt to be useful and be a member of the crew.

MB: That’s interesting because I kept drawing comparisons to Alien, I’m sorry! Siobhan reminded me of Ash in Alien but better. I feel like whenever you have a scientist character they are always very methodical, usually a guy, and they’re the annoying, logical one that no one likes. But, you make Siobhan so likable and interesting. She’s a fascinating character, which leads to my next question. You have three generations of women on the boat and I wanted to hear more for you about that. You created a matriarchy on the boat.

NH: That was a really conscious decision. It was really important to me that we peopled the boat with a really diverse range of characters and that we never make sex or ethnicity a thing. It’s true of the boat, it’s true of the crews that you guys [gestures to Corfield] met. When you’re on the boat, how good are you at being on the boat? How useful are you? How trustworthy are you? How courageous are you? How skilled are you? Those are the things that matter. They [the fishing boats] are actually quite diverse. This is how we live our lives and yet for some reason in cinema, not always, but often, we get boxed into these narrow definitions. So it was really important to people the boat that’s reflective of our lived experience and of the lived experience of people that work on these boats because they are really transnational. And there are women working! They’re working all over the world and they’re working on these boats.

HC: The women drive the action [of the film] as well. Freya is a doer, in terms of her couple, [Siobhan] is a doer in terms of decision-making, pushing the ideas, and the science, and Olwen was also a doer. She was there as a maternal figure, though Freya does feel tougher than Olwen interestingly. That is interesting thinking of it as a matriarchy.

MB: What was it like researching for this film?

NH: It was great fun! Really, really early on I made contact with this brilliant woman who owns the boat that we used [in the film]. The boat belonged to her father and now it belongs to her and brother. They skipper the boat out of a tiny little village on an island off of the west coast of Ireland. They’re native Irish speakers. The boat is their boat and they run that little kind of tight-knit community with a transnational crew. She was incredibly helpful. She was a super smart woman, really thoughtful, and really reflective. There were things in the story that I wanted to feel authentic and she came up with some really good ideas. She said to me, “if you want to kill a boat, what you do is drop a rope off the back so it tangles with the propeller. You’ll kill the drive shaft and that will kill the boat.” So that moment [where Siobhan drops a rope off the back of the boat] was her. She taught the cast how to gut fish.

MB: Oh, what was that like?

HC: I have gutted a fish before! Well, actually, I knew how to properly filet a fish, but I never knew how to gut a fish. But they were so cool. I spent a lot of time when it was cold sitting in the wheelhouse chatting with them. 

MB: So you filmed on the boat on the water, or did you have a set as well?

NH: We filmed all the stuff that you obviously see on the deck was all on the boat. But, the truth is, that underneath in the crew quarters, space is at a premium. Originally I was thinking, “Oh, it’d be great [to film down here].” But you can’t fit a crew down there, there’s just no way. So we had to rebuild the interior. We made a choice to rebuild it and make it so that the camera is never in a space that it couldn’t actually be in on the boat. So we’d be able to take out walls and put the lens just inside the wall. So, you have room for all the big, six-foot blokes that are on a film set, and still, the space becomes yours. 

HC: It was so nice, that space. It felt like a play. You could go down the ladder and go down the corridor, it all felt connected. It felt really intimate. I didn’t appreciate how the space was going to be used until I saw it. It was really magic to work on it.

MB: It was magic to see you meld the spaces. So, this film could have gone hard into body horror. And there are those moments, but you didn’t use as much gore as I was expecting. Did you want to avoid gore and make it a more emotional story?

NH: I’m going to be really boring and just say yes. You’re absolutely right, there is another version of the film that could very easily lean into that and that could be much more about spectacle. That’s just an aesthetic choice, it’s whether that’s the kind of thing you like or not. I feel like the story stops when you do that [body horror] and it becomes about spectacle. I think there’s some profoundly socially conservative undertone about that kind of story-telling. We need that idea of peril, that idea that we’re vulnerable, that we’re animals that can be wounded. But it’s not something that I find any narrative or emotional value in lingering on as spectacle. It’s more about mobilizing than about “look at, it’s disgusting.” The eyeball scene is nine frames, half a second.

MB: Wow, and it’s still so effective. It was stuck in my head.

NH: You don’t need anymore. You need that surprise, but you don’t really need to see it. It just slips by.

MB: Would you describe Sea Fever as horror?

NH: I wouldn’t. Would you describe it as horror?

HC: No. I thought about it last night. Eco thriller is the term I’ve heard thrown around.

NH: I like that, that works for me. We did a test screener when it was really raw, and the green screen was still showing. We were showing audiences just for storytelling. The first question I asked the audience was “if you were to describe it to your friends, what would you say?” A man and woman said it’s a thriller with a sci-fi element and an ecological element. But no one said horror. I don’t think it’s a horror film. 

HC: I don’t think so either. Like you said, you don’t linger on the gore. It isn’t about the scare factor. It’s about problem-solving and what’s going to be around the next corner, but not in a jumpy way.

MB: This movie is sort of political with an environmental message, would you agree?

NH: I think so. Political with a small p, we aren’t trying to preach to anyone! We’re just trying to ask questions and raise issues. I really want to set up the idea of economic necessity. It’s not people who are damaging the environment because they’re greedy. It’s that they’re forced into the situation because they themselves are in crisis. The fact that these things happen is because people are desperate and forced into behaviors that don’t see alternatives. 

HC: It’s like the Somali pirates. They were fishermen, then didn’t have anything to fish anymore. So they resort to violence. 

MB: One more question. Where did the redhead superstition come from?

HC: Isn’t it anti-Celtic?

NH: So I was reading the Hollywood Reporter review where they said there’s this idea in the story about redheads being bad luck and in brackets it said, “Good luck with that in Ireland.” And that’s wrong! There are fewer redheads in Ireland than there are in Scandinavia. It’s a Scandinavian trait. The reason there are redheads in Ireland was because we were invaded by Vikings. So there is a theory that redheads are bad luck because redheads are Scandinavians, which means they’re Vikings and they’re coming to pillage your community! 

Read our review of Sea Fever here. 

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