Filmmakers Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm are gearing up to release The Whale, their second documentary chronicling the life of killer orca Luna. The Whale is set to be released at the SIFF Cinema in Seattle on September 9th, with additional cities to follow. As the movie sheds light on Luna’s moving story, the filmmakers remind people that unless wild animals specifically need humans’ help to survive, whales like Luna need space to travel and hunt for food.
Recently, the husband and wife co-directors took the time to answer our questions. Check out the interview below, where Parfit and Chisholm discuss what their first interaction with Luna was like, how they convinced Ryan Reynolds to narrate and executive produce the film, how they chose the final material for the movie and more.
We Got This Covered: You two first came into contact with Luna after the Smithsonian sent Michael to Nootka Island to write an article about him, which was published in November 2004. What was your interaction with him like when you first met him?
Michael Parfit: Well, we tried to stay away from him, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. But our first meeting with him was sort of stunning, because as we were driving across the bay, trying to stay away from him, we were going on a boat, quite fast, so we thought, no problem, he can’t catch up to us. Then all of a sudden, he went boom, right there, right beside the boat. He sprayed us with water, so we were sort of stunned by him, right from the beginning. We went on the shore on the beach, and watched him from then on. This initial meeting was as stunning as all the rest of the experiences.
WGTC: The official focus of the article was the political clash over Luna’s fate, and whether the government should have kept him alive. How did you both come to the conclusion that Luna should be saved and protected?
MP: Well, the article we did for the Smithsonian was about the attempt the government made to try to connect him back to his family. For us, watching what was happening with him, it became clear over the course of the years that we were there that he was going to make contact with people, no matter what. So it became very clear to us that there was a need to figure out how to have a relationship with him that was not dangerous. It was all about trying to figure out how to learn how to respect an animal that is far more intelligent and aware than we ever expected.
WGTC: While you were in Nootka Sound, you were filming your interaction with Luna for the 2004 article. Why did you decide to use your material to make The Whale?
MP: That’s a great question. We were just filming as part of the article, but we were there for so long, and we got so much stuff, that we thought, wow, what are we going to do?
Suzanne Chisholm: We weren’t filming interactions for the article. It was much later on that we started interacting with him and becoming involved in the story.
MP: Yeah, we were watching him from the shore for a full year-and-a-half or so before we ever really got close to him. But the decision to make the movie really came about because as we watched the story, we started to realize how extraordinary the story really was. After all these years, running around the world, writing articles for National Geographic, this was one of the most dramatic and heartwarming and amazing stories I have ever run into. I certainly think this is a story everyone should see.
WGTC: You wrote another article about Luna for the Smithsonian, which was published on its website this month. In it, you described how movie studios didn’t have any interest in making a film about a whale. What was the process like getting Paladin to agree to distribute The Whale?
MP: Our company is Mountainside Films, that’s the company that made the film. It’s a different kind of story, it’s not a typical movie. It’s about a relationship to a whale. I think sometimes people don’t want to make something that’s that different, because it’s so unknown how it’s going to do. So it really needs people who are really committed to the story to make it.
So that’s how it really came about. We didn’t have to do any persuading to get Paladin to decide to distribute it. They just saw the movie and loved it, so that was great. But making the film, and taking all that time, all those years to do it, would have cost a studio millions of dollars to have crews there all the time. But we were just there, and we just went ahead and did it, and we’re lucky that we were able to be there.
WGTC: What was the response of the people of Vancouver Island after you announced you would be making The Whale? Did they support you?
SC: Very, very much so.
MP: The movie, very much like Luna himself, is very much loved by the people here. We’ve had such a wonderful response. The movie has not yet opened, but the people that live here are extremely supportive of us. Something interesting is that as we’ve talked about it elsewhere in the world, people are fascinated with the idea. That’s been unexpected. We thought people on the coast would be interested. People who are miles, hundreds of miles from the coast, are fascinated with the story because it’s so unusual. This whale, wanting to make contact with people not for food, but for friendship, or something like friendship.
WGTC: Ryan Reynolds, who was born in Vancouver, narrates and serves as an executive producer on The Whale. How did you get him to agree to work on the film?
MP: That was not difficult.
SC: He loved the story.
MP: We just sent him a copy of the film.
SC: A rough cut.
MP: Yeah, we sent him a rough cut of the film, and he loved it, and that’s how it all came about. Some things are difficult, and some things just fall into place, and he was perfect for the role of the narrator. He just did a wonderful job, and was wonderful to work with. He was very easy to work with, and he really cared. He cared about the whale. He grew up where Luna’s family lived, so he really cared about the film and the whale. He’s got stuff in the narration that’s first person, and he talked about how much this little whale meant to him. He was a totally natural fit for this film.
WGTC: Having co-directed The Whale, did you have any disagreements on what material you would include in the film?
SC: Actually, if you could believe it, we didn’t, which is quite amazing, because we’re married as well. But with any film, there’s always a tremendous amount of material that you have, that you have to boil down to a very small amount.
MP: Yeah, we had over 400 hours of footage overall. As a married couple, we have a good division of labor. I sat in there, editing it, and Suzanne criticized me. (laughs) That is not true! But we both loved this whale, and this film is an expression of that. Personally, the whole film is an expression of our love, and the love that other people have for this extraordinary creature.
That concludes our interview with Michael Parfit and Suzanne Chisholm. We’d like to thank them for their time. Check out The Whale when it hits select American theaters in September, and Canadian theaters in October.