Exclusive Interview: Gabriela Cowperthwaite on Blackfish


I’m playing a bit of catchup on Blackfish, having missed its premiere at Sundance and theatrical release this year. If you’re like me, you can catch Blackfish when it airs on CNN October 24 at 9PM as part of the Fall Doc series. Blackfish looks inside SeaWorld and other marine parks where whale captivity has led to trainer injuries and even deaths. In 2010, Dawn Brancheau was killed by the whale Tilikum. Filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite spoke to former SeaWorld trainers, included some video captured of trainer accidents, and relied on court transcripts to get SeaWorld’s perspective. They declined to comment for the film. We spoke with Cowperthwaite about the film in anticipation of its CNN airing.

CraveOnline: It seems like you’re closing in on the end of your run for Blackfish, from the festivals to theatrical release and now on CNN. What is your goal for the film?

Gabriela Cowperthwaite: I’m hoping the movie, now that it’s going to be on CNN, is watched by many more people, especially people who have never given two thoughts to this subject matter, people who potentially don’t think very much about animals. My hope is that they will stumble across this on CNN and back into the whole issue. I am one of those people who had not given really tremendous thought to what could be going on at SeaWorld. I am a mother of two kids and I took my kids there. I don’t come from any animal activism.

So I stumbled across this project because I heard about Dawn Brancheau’s death and I’m a documentarian, so I started investigating this because I had a burning question. I was trying to figure out why a SeaWorld trainer would have been killed by a killer whale, because I didn’t understand that. I learned quite a bit about it and was shocked by what I learned. I figured the general public would also be shocked by what they’d learn.

Is it enough to get people to stop attending marine parks? Do you want SeaWorld to completely end the inhumane treatment of animals with the existing crop?

I do believe that we need to stop the captive breeding program for killer whales. One thing I’m advocating for, and I think the folks behind Blackfish are advocating for, is the idea of sea sanctuaries. You cordon off part of an ocean cove with a net and retire animals into that ocean cover. A lot of these animals cannot be thrown back in the ocean. They don’t know how to hunt. A lot of them, their teeth are drilled out or broken from biting on steel gates. A lot of them are hopped up on antibiotics. They wouldn’t necessarily survive in the open ocean but they could survive in sea sanctuaries where people could monitor their health.

Should we go hand out Blackfish DVDs at the SeaWorld gates?

[Laughs] Yeah, I guess so. It’s interesting because I think part of what made this movie work, or is making this movie work, is that it doesn’t tell you what to think or tell you how to feel. I think that the movie is fact driven by design. It lays out the case methodically and it’s all the truth. I’m not shoehorning in all this information that’s just going to make you hate SeaWorld. In fact I left a lot of information out because it didn’t follow this tight narrative I was trying to follow. It was important that this was digestible and it was important that the audience feels like they’re armed with information, not told how to feel.

What were some of the aspects you had to leave out?

Well, I left them out because they’re not necessarily palatable to most people, but there’s a lot of information about the artificial insemination process. We touch upon that but we don’t really get into the truth behind the captive breeding program. It’s incredibly disturbing. I also didn’t even touch upon the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium.

Will those be on the DVD?

Some of it will but, for example, the Sea Lion & Otter Stadium, almost 100% of the sea lions and walruses are blind. They go blind because of the water, something about the ph balance in the water. They’re just performing blind there at that stadium.

The videos of all the accidents are horrific but you really keep it from being exploitive. What was your approach to that footage?

I knew, for one, the footage of Dawn Brancheau being killed, SeaWorld has that footage but it is locked up in a vault for nobody to ever see. The family is fighting very hard to keep that video private and never in public, and I support that. I support them in that. I would never in my life have shown that death video in my film. I want this to be a film that would not hurt her family. I want this to be a film that children can see and there’s really virtually nothing you can learn from seeing that footage that you can’t learn from just simply reading the autopsy report. I’ve got to live with this film and I never ever wanted it to be gratuitous.

Of course, but the mauling videos are also pretty scary. Where was the line for you?

You’ve got to make sure you’re not forcing people to leave, you’re not showing them so much that they can’t take it. Honestly, I think as a director, in the edit you have to have an internal thermometer about what you think is too much and demeaning to the people and difficult for people to watch. Yet, what do you have to show in order to make a point? So I think that I had a fantastic editor, producer, myself, my associate producer, we all would watch rough cuts and we’d weigh in on what felt like it worked and what makes you cringe.

Do you think kids would be any less inspired to study marine mammals if these parks didn’t exist?

I actually think that when you go to these water parks, you don’t leave a Shamu show wanting to be a marine biologist. I think you leave a Shamu show wanting to come back and see another Shamu show. I think if you’re a kid, you leave a Shamu show wanting to come back and be a trainer. There is apparently no data showing people who leave their SeaWorld experience and go give to conservation, or go eat dolphin safe tuna. The numbers aren’t there. There’s a direct correlation between people who go to SeaWorld and then entertain the idea of becoming trainers. So Sea World, in that respect, simply just perpetuates itself.

I was surprised James Earl Jones shot a training video for SeaWorld. Did you ever try to reach out to him?

No, that’s funny, I never did. How fascinating would that be? Some people said it was the perfect metaphor for SeaWorld being Darth Vader.

I wonder if he regrets that now. Since OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) ruled on putting a barrier between trainers and whales, do the trainers agree with that ruling? Are they opposed to it?

I had limited contact with the trainers who are there at SeaWorld, but from my understanding, a lot of them do want to be able to interact with their whales. Do they know it’s safer for them to be out of the water? Without a doubt. I think there are some that are happy to be working at a distance but there are people out there who say these whales have so little environmental stimulation as it is that now you remove people from that equation, you’re giving them even less. How can we not replace that with something? Yet, the bottom line is that in order to take care of the welfare of the whales you have to put people in danger, there’s obviously something wrong with the system.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.