In 2010, a killer whale at Sea World named Tilikum attacked and killed one of the park’s top animal trainers, Dawn Brancheau. The organization’s official statement was that it was a tragic accident, caused by Brancheau’s ponytail becoming tangled in the whale’s teeth. However, some Sea World employees began to speak out about the incident, claiming that the park was misrepresenting the events, which caught the attention of several reporters and filmmakers. One such filmmaker was Gabriella Cowperthwaite, who decided to investigate the tragedy and educate people about the devastating effects of keeping killer whales in captivity in her documentary, Blackfish.
The film earned rave reviews after playing the Sundance Film Festival and its July theatrical premiere, but now movie-goers who may have missed the chance to see Blackfish can catch its television premiere on CNN tonight, October 24 at 9 PM. We sat down with Cowperthwaite to discuss the film, its surprising influence on Pixar and the message she wants audiences to take away from Blackfish.
Why don’t we start with what drew you to this particular story, and what about Dawn Brancheau’s death made you feel that it was something that people needed to know about?
I basically heard about the story of Dawn Brancheau’s death, didn’t know anything about killer whales, and don’t come from any animal activism. But just thought it was really, incredibly tragic but really strange that a killer whale would kill a top trainer at Sea World, because I know that killer whales don’t kill us. So, I wanted to figure out what happened, so I came in with that question, and then from that moment, started peeling back the onion.
You had some former Sea World employees speak in the film. How did you get in touch with them, or were they the ones reaching out to you?
I reached out to them, although they had already been vocal in the media about Dawn Brancheau’s death. They had said that Sea World was basically blaming her and that they smelled a rat inside. “The spin coming out of Sea World doesn’t swear with anything we ever experienced when we were working there.” They also had been interviewed in “Killer in the Pool,” which is an article by Outside Magazine by Tim Zimmerman. That article was revelatory for me, and Tim came aboard as my associate producer shortly thereafter. They had spoken with and been interviewed by him, so after that I was able to interview them.
Blackfish contains some found footage of Sea World tours and even Tillikum’s attack. How did you come across that footage, and did you have any legal trouble with using it?
A lot of it came to me through the Freedom of Information Act. When OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) came after Sea World and took them to court, a lot of video basically became exhibits in the court case, so then it’s subject to Freedom of Information Act, which is public record. So, I filed for Freedom of Information Act and maybe like, six months or a year later, was able to get some footage.
Did you face a lot of legal opposition from Sea World as a result of making this film? Have they tried to contact you about it?
Sea World has responded to the film, in July, right before the theatrical premiere, and then they said that basically, “this is misleading, it doesn’t take into account all the good we do,” and they made some points in there that we just very quickly debunked because the facts in the film are irrefutable. They’re facts, you know, and they just happen. But that’s really all we’ve heard from them, and since then there’s been no legal challenges or anything like that.
The film has received a lot of strong, positive reactions. Were you expecting that? Did you know that people would respond to Blackfish so strongly?
I didn’t know. As a documentary filmmaker, you’re so excited that people are actually seeing you film, you know? You never know if it’s just going to be this niche little group that sees it, and so I’ve been blown away and I’ve been stunned by the fact that a lot people have gone to see it in theaters and everything, and that people are going to tune in to CNN this Thursday when it has its broadcast premiere.
I know that the team behind Finding Dory actually got in touch with you to discuss Blackfish and possibly made some changes to the film as a result. Without giving too much away, how did they get in contact with you, and what did you consult on?
Basically, Pixar screens films from Sundance sometimes, and Pixar screened Blackfish, and I went up there to do a Q&A, and I just remember after screening the film there that they were very quiet and somewhat uncomfortable. So, we spoke later and they were just very interested in learning more about some of the premises in the film. These are people who do their homework, right? Their films last forever. So they needed to cover all bases and know everything before moving ahead with their script. I’m told that they were pretty inspired, and potentially made some changes.
The film focuses solely on killer whales, but in the course of your research, did you find that there were other animals facing the same kind of problems in captivity?
Blackfish only focuses on killer whales, and that’s kind of the only area I’m very sure about. I will say that out of all the animals in captivity, animals that tend to be free-ranging, highly intelligent, animals who have self-recognition, who grieve their young, who have, really, these complex brains and lives fare the worst in captivity. And then out of that group, killer whales fare the worst. So, even out of that group of animals who generally don’t do well in captivity, killer whales are at the top of that list.
What is the one thing you want people to take away from the film? Or, alternatively, if someone doesn’t get to see this movie, what is the one thing you want them to think about?
I think that there’s two things. One is that I want people to start thinking about the idea of a sea sanctuary, because I think that’s where this whole industry is headed. Sea sanctuaries are essentially the ocean, an ocean cove that’s enclosed by a net and you can retire some of these animals to that environment. You can’t toss them back in the ocean like people think you can. Their teeth are all broken, they’re on antibiotics, a lot of them, they don’t know how to hunt, they can’t chase down their own food, but putting them in a sea sanctuary is essentially like a retirement. And I think you could charge money to go have people see a killer whale actually being a killer whale for the first time. I think that actually would be an amazing thing for people to see, and so that’s the first thing. I think that Blackfish is trying to get that message out. And I think the second message is just that I hope people understand that just because something’s magnificent, and out there and you’re curious about it, it doesn’t mean that it’s yours for the taking.