Documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite didn't set out to make a moving film about whales. "I knew nothing about whales. I knew nothing about SeaWorld," she told us in New York this week. "I'm not an animal activist. I'm a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld."
Nonetheless, Gabriela was intrigued by the story of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who died in a 2010 accident with an Orca named Tilikum at SeaWorld. At the time, Tilikum was a 30-year-old whale who'd been in captivity since 1983. He was also known to have been involved in the deaths of two other people before the incident with Dawn.
After a one-year reprieve from performing, Tilikum resumed working before SeaWorld crowds — with trainers and a handful of new safety measures — in 2011. Investigating Dawn's death opened Gabriela's eyes to the inner workings of marine parks like SeaWorld and who really is accountable for accidents involving whales kept in captivity. Her resulting project, Blackfish, airs on CNN this evening at 9 p.m. ET. In our conversation, Gabriela shared what she was surprised to learn while making the film.
POPSUGAR: Why make this movie?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: I had a burning question. I heard about the death of Dawn Brancheau, this tragic event, and I didn't understand why a top SeaWorld trainer would've been killed by a killer whale. I knew enough to know that killer whales don't kill us in the wild and that we're not a food source for them.
PS: I didn't expect this movie to make me feel so sad about Tilikum.
GC: When filming started, my overriding feeling about Tilikum was that I thought he was scary. I made the mistake of reading [Dawn's] autopsy report, and it was just scary. It's the stuff of nightmares. That spurred me to go all the way back to Tilikum's capture, which I felt compelled me to somehow give him some sort of psychological profile in order to explain what happened on that day.
For more about Blackfish, just keep reading.
PS: I'd imagine doing some of this research was hard.
GC: I thought Dawn would have a much bigger voice in the film than she did. I was in touch with her family very early on and told them what I was trying to do. They don't want to talk about that one day that now comes to define her, because she should be defined by how she lived. Unfortunately, when I started peeling back the onion and figuring out what was happening at SeaWorld, I realized that I would have to revisit that day [Dawn died]. And I would have to talk about what happens in those parks, with the whales, and the trainers. And that's tough, because the family didn't want to go down that road. And as a result, you didn't feel her presence always in the film the way I originally intended.
PS: You seem to have struck something universal, a human obsession and fear of huge ocean animals.
GC: I think they are these magnificent creatures, and yet I have no desire to swim with them or be close to them. I have learned about their capacity for bonding with one another and becoming apex predators because they are such amazing hunters, but because of that, I have such a respect and knowledge of how small we are to these animals.
PS: I was reminded of an article in the New York Times about how, in Russia, people pay to take photos of themselves next to circus tigers. It's a universal human desire to control a wild creature.
GC: It starts at a good place. I think as kids, we come out curious. . . . The way we learn and experience things is by touching and by getting up close. And that's how we feel we have to learn. So what that's caused is the marine park industry. Not only are we looking at this animal, but we're so excited that they might be looking back at us. It's a strange type of vanity. I think we've fallen in love with them, and yet the most important lesson we've learned from having killer whales in captivity for 40 years is, ironically, that they shouldn't be in captivity.
PS: Do you hope to enact some change with Blackfish?
GC: I set the bar pretty low, to be perfectly honest. As a documentarian, we come from very humble pie. People don't flock to see a documentary in the theater. The idea that this 80-minute piece of work can do some work in the world — you can't even wrap your brain around it.