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Rough seas

Director Neasa Hardiman told David Hennessy why her debut film Sea Fever seems so timely due to themes of cabin fever and isolation, and why redheads are unlucky on a boat.

The Irish World interviewed Neasa Hardiman in January 2013 when the emerging director had won a London Film Award for her script, Sea Fever.

“It’s a very personal story and something I really want to make,” she told us at the time.

Well Neasa did make it because Sea Fever is now available to watch through online platforms and has had the endorsements of Mark Kermode and horror author Stephen King.

“It’s brilliant. For such a small, independent film to reach such a big audience is hugely exciting,” Neasa told The Irish World.

Many have commented on Neasa’s debut film’s prescient themes as the crew of the boat are lost at sea and begin to die infected by something they can’t fully understand. Much like advice we have been hearing for weeks, the film’s protagonist Siobhan tries to tell the crew they must stay on board even when they dock for the sake of the wider population.

“Obviously we didn’t plan for this to happen. It isn’t a complete coincidence or surprise that the film touches on themes that feel very prescient to us because they are themes that we are dealing with culturally across a lot of different crises.

“When I was writing it and when we were filming it, the metaphor we had in mind was climate change. The story probes questions about the ethics of protecting ourselves and protecting others.

“There are times when our immediate gain run contrary actually to our long term gain and climate change is obviously one of those where short term economic need runs up against longer term ecological community need.

“The story explores the ethics of that. When is it alright for me to protect myself and my neighbour against the community? When is it necessary to sacrifice myself and even my neighbour to keep the community healthy?

“It’s awful about the pandemic and that we’re all suffering as a result of it but the concepts that the pandemic brings to the fore are essentially those concepts that we’re dealing with in relation to lots of other issues culturally including climate change.

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“The issue is: Are we all atomised individuals in competition with each other or are we actually one unified community of which we are all a dynamic and integrated part?

“No man is an island. We don’t feel well when we’re just on our own. We are all actually genuinely connected to one another and we have to take responsibility for one another. That’s how we triumph. The awfulness of this pandemic really puts that into sharp focus.”

Lead actress Hermione Corfield plays Siobhán, a young marine science student who has to get her “hands dirty” and set sail with the crew of an Irish fishing boat, in order to help them detect anomalies in their catch. However, Siobhan has severe social anxiety that prevents her from communicating effectively and she soon feels unwelcome due to her hair colour as redheads are said to be unlucky according to boating superstition.

“I was very interested in the figure of the outsider and I wanted to delve into that. I also wanted to tell a story about the value of scientific method when that comes up against magical thinking and the nourishment we get from myth and magical thinking.

“I feel like there’s an undercurrent in western thinking that you often see in cinema which is a sort of rejection of scientific expertise as devoid of emotion.

“It goes back to things like Frankenstein and fear of the irresponsible scientist. That people who have a scientific training and background are somehow disconnected from our universe and I wanted to disestablish that and make a hero scientist: Somebody who is neurologically divergent so she struggles to communicate well but at the same time she’s incredibly moral and incredibly ethical.

“One of the things trawler people say is being able to manage yourself is absolutely crucial. You have to be really relaxed, you have to be rally good humoured. You’ve got to be able to crack a joke and take a joke. Interpersonal relationships are really at a premium so that was the other great thing of having a protagonist who is not really good at interpersonal relationships, who is not very good at reading other people, reading the subtext in what people are saying.

“She’s so totally in the wrong place on this boat where being able to crack a joke and be good fun is absolutely the most important thing.

“The other scientist Omid is incredibly warm and charming and has no problem communicating with anybody as well as understanding and operating the rigours of the scientific methods.

“He and Siobhan finish each other’s sentences because they think in the same way but he doesn’t have the same neurological difference that she does.”

Siobhan joins a crew that is led by Dougray Scott’s Gerard, a sea captain who is clearly struggling to pay the bills while the other scientist has had to flee his life in some treacherous homeland.

“They all have their own back stories. They all carry wounds and scars and grief with them. They’re not what the story is about but they inflect their behaviour in the story.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever been out on a trawler but it’s a very strange experience of being both claustrophobic and agoraphobic at the same time. You’re in this tiny little boat where space is at an absolute premium. It’s just cast iron and wood and it’s knackered and creaking. It’s incredibly claustrophobic and yet you’re bobbing along on top of this deep unknowable Atlantic.

“There’s nothing as far as the eye can see. We know more about the surface of the moon than we do about the deep Atlantic. You could take Everest from root to tip and drop it into the deep Atlantic and it would not hit the bottom. It’s the last wilderness and the last unknown part of the earth.”

When things go wrong, Dougray Scott’s captain has to confess to his crew that he diviated from their course. Nobody knows where they are and they will be a long time waiting if they are to be rescued.

“I’m not a great fan of films that have villains in them so I really wanted everybody in the story to be doing their best and everybody in this story to have their own good reason for doing what they do rather than any malevolence.

“It was very important to me that the audience would understand what Gerard was doing and why he was doing it. He’s trying to provide for the people that he employs.

“Although he does something that ends up in disaster, he is doing it for a good reason and when he sees the extent of the disaster he is horrified.

“That’s the essence of the story, people making what they consider to be the best possible decisions at any moment that just keeps getting them into worse and worse trouble.

“Dougray was amazing. He got on board really early and what he said to me was, ‘What I love about this story is that it’s a sci-fi story but my character Gerard is such a rounded, fully fledged character that you could take the sci-fi element out and it’s still a brilliant story’. Which was really nice of him to say. He was lovely to work with.”

We have to go back to the redhead thing. Are redheads really considered to be bad luck on a boat? “There is an old tradition that redheads are unlucky on a boat.

“Despite all the cliches, redheads are not that common in Ireland. It’s quite unusual. Do you know where they’re really common? It’s really common in Scandinavia.

“There is a theory that the Irish tradition whereby redheads are unlucky on a boat comes from the viking wave of medieval Ireland so in other words, when the vikings were coming down in their long boats, all these blondes and redheads jumping off the boat and pillaging and nicking all the gold and burning all the monasteries. The Irish seaboard communities can see this and developed this tradition of, ‘If you see a redhead on a boat, run’.

“I’ve heard that several times. I don’t know how true it is.”

When will we see another feature film from Neasa?  “I would absolutely love to make another film so it remains to be seen what the future holds but that would be my ambition.”

Hopefully it is not another seven years until our next chat.

Sea Fever is available now on online platforms.

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