EXCLUSIVE: We have your first look at Matthew Heineman’s gripping new film Retrograde from National Geographic Documentary Films, a visceral, ground-level immersion into the last nine months of America’s long war in Afghanistan.
In addition to releasing the trailer today, National Geographic also announced what it called a “robust” release plan for the documentary, including theatrical, broadcast and streaming: Picturehouse will premiere Retrograde in theaters this Friday in New York and Washington D.C., followed a week later by Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Colorado Springs, Colo., and Dallas. The documentary will premiere on National Geographic Channel on Thursday, December 8, then becomes available to stream on Disney+ the next day in the U.S. only (with a broader international rollout to come). The film debuts on Hulu on Sunday, December 11.
Heineman, winner of multiple Emmys, two DGA Awards and an Oscar nominee for 2015’s Cartel Land, gained extraordinary access to a unit of U.S. Army Special Forces – better known as the Green Berets – for Retrograde, as they fought alongside Afghan National Army forces in Helmand Province.
“It took years, really, to get permission both within the Green Beret community and ultimately at the highest levels of [U.S.] government and military to get permission to embed,” Heineman told Deadline. “It was the longest embed that they’d ever granted anybody in the Special Forces community.”
After President Biden announced in April 2021 that he was ordering the withdrawal of the last remaining U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan, Heineman remained behind with Afghan National Army troops and their commander, the dynamic Gen. Sami Sadat. The director documented the emotion of Green Berets as they were forced to tell their Afghan Army counterparts that their long partnership was over.
“Like most of the films I’ve made,” the director observed, “they start out as one thing and they end up as something completely different.”
A release about the film noted, “Retrograde captures the final nine months of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan from multiple perspectives: one of the last U.S. special operations forces units deployed there, a young Afghan general and his corps fighting to defend their homeland against all odds, the civilians desperately attempting to flee as the country collapses, and the Taliban take over. From rarely seen operational control rooms to the frontlines of battle and the chaotic Kabul airport during the final U.S. withdrawal, Heineman’s latest film offers a cinematic and historic window onto the end of America’s longest war and the costs endured for those most intimately involved.”
As the Taliban gobbled up territory after the U.S. exit, Heineman and his co-cinematographers Timothy Grucza and Olivier Sarbil filmed Gen. Sadat and his troops trying to hold the line against the surging Taliban. As Taliban fighters bore down on the capital, the filmmaking team captured the human drama at the airport in Kabul as Afghan civilians desperate to evacuate pleaded for a seat aboard the last U.S. military transport planes leaving the country.
“There’s a thousand reasons why the Afghan Army lost to the Taliban. And this film is not an examination of that,” Heineman said. “This film is not an attempt to figure out the how and the why and the who. This film is an attempt to humanize this experience.”
“Retrograde is an unflinching and masterful document of the complications and consequences of war,” commented Carolyn Bernstein, executive vice president of scripted and documentary films for National Geographic. “We are thrilled to give this important film an unprecedented release plan ― in theaters, on National Geographic Channel and streaming on both Disney+ and Hulu ― in order to reach the widest audience possible.”
The documentary premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in September and was recently named to DOC NYC’s shortlist of the year’s best feature docs. Last month, it earned a nomination for Best Political Documentary at the 2022 Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards.
Retrograde is an Our Time Projects production directed by Heineman and produced by Caitlin McNally and Heineman. Executive producers are Carolyn Bernstein, Baktash Ahadi, David Fialkow and Joedan Okun; the film is edited by Pablo Garza, Heineman and Grace Zahrah, with cinematography as noted above by Grucza, Heineman and Sarbil. Music is by H. Scott Salinas.
“Save the rainforest” has been a constant refrain among environmentalist groups for the past half-century, but no recent film captures the immediacy of the threat better than “The Territory,” Alex Pritz’s documentary feature debut, which had its premiere earlier this year at Sundance.
National Geographic Documentary Films acquired the rights to the movie after it screened, and given the distributor’s current interest in gripping thrillers (“Free Solo,” “Fire of Love”), it’s no surprise that this feature, covering the embittered conflict between Brazilian cattle ranchers and an Indigenous group in the Amazon rainforest, fits right into its lineup. But “The Territory” is more than meets the eye, revealing its most profound observations in stages across its running time. The film’s luscious cinematography captures the sun-dappled island of jungle where the Uru Eu Wau Wau reside, a land slowly being consumed by flames as farmers and other settlers illegally raze the forest for pastures, with few repercussions.
While the two opposing groups are given near-equal amounts of screen time, Pritz does not draw a false equivalency between the two; in fact, the longer time is spent with the farmers, the more alarming their gap of understanding toward the Uru Eu Wau Wau becomes. A particularly zealous cattle rancher, whom Pritz repeatedly returns to, describes his settlement as a divine right and bemoans the Indigenous group’s defense of their territory: “Why should they be allowed to stay? They do not work the land, they just live in it.”
Pritz heightens the stakes with the story of Neidinha Bandeira, a Brazilian environmental activist who has received death threats because of her work. But it’s only after the Uru Eu Wau Wau choose to trek deeper into their land — a decision brought on by both a violent tragedy and the looming threat of the Covid-19 pandemic — that the film takes on a life of its own. Bitaté, a young leader for his people, works with other Uru Eu Wau Wau members to set up drones and additional cameras to document illegal settlers in their home. (When a journalist requests to send cameramen into the jungle to follow their guerrilla activism, Bitaté responds, “Send us the shot list — we’ve got it covered from here.”) Cinematography credit is shared between Pritz and Tangãi Uru Eu Wau Wau.
To see the villagers take matters into their own hands, capturing proof of the encroachment on their land that the government chooses to ignore, is a special kind of thrill.
On the long list of movies that don’t get made anymore, the romantic comedy is typically at the top. In technical terms, this isn’t strictly true; as the mid-budget film has been driven out of the multiplex to free space for blockbusters and IP, it’s found a foothold on streaming services eager for couch-friendly content. The Netflix rom-com is practically a category unto itself, delivering standbys like Set It Up, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Always Be My Maybe. This past Valentine’s Day, viewers had their pick between I Want You Back, on Amazon Prime Video, and Marry Me, the Jennifer Lopez vehicle that paired its theatrical run with a day-and-date release on Peacock.
But even as the romantic comedy survives, it’s dwindled from its peak. That heyday is typically associated with established celebrities like Julia Roberts or Sandra Bullock and the star vehicles built on their proven appeal. (Today, Bullock’s The Lost City is a charming throwback; in 1998, it’d be just another week at the box office.) Yet the most financially successful rom-com of all time—the film that draws the greatest contrast between the genre’s past as a cultural juggernaut and its present as a sweet diversion—didn’t have a single star in its cast. It wasn’t produced by a major studio. It never even hit no. 1 at the box office, despite spending five months playing in wide release. At the time, the stupendous success of My Big Fat Greek Wedding was extraordinary. Today, it’s practically unthinkable.Written by and starring then-unknown actress Nia Vardalos, My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t structured like a typical rom-com, in part because it wasn’t conceived as one. The plot may hinge on the nuptials between Toula (Vardalos), a Greek American waitress, and Ian (John Corbett), the mild-mannered teacher she meets at work. But the relationship that truly drives the story is between Toula and her loud, overbearing, tightly knit family. Throughout the movie, Ian and Toula stay on largely solid ground. It’s Toula’s ambivalence toward her relatives that changes, helped along by a few squirts of Windex. “The story was to be told through Ian and Toula’s eyes, but it was about the family—the smothering, ever-suffocating, loving family,” Vardalos tells The Ringer. Because the conflict was largely internal, she felt free to cut down on more conventional, external sources of strife. “I wanted very, very much to not follow the standard romantic comedy formula of ‘he cheats on the girl and wins her back,’” she explains. “I didn’t want them to break up, because the only villain in the screenplay was the world against Ian and Toula.” Structural quirks aside, My Big Fat Greek Wedding nonetheless became the high-water mark for the romantic comedy as a commercial force, eventually grossing more than $350 million worldwide on a $5 million budget. The film’s triumph wasn’t entirely commercial; Vardalos received an Academy Award nomination for the screenplay alongside such luminaries as Todd Haynes, Alfonso Cuarón, and eventual winner Pedro Almodóvar. Greek Wedding would ultimately yield a short-lived sitcom on CBS, which fizzled after just seven episodes, and a sequel in 2016, to modest success. (The premiere was sponsored by Windex.) The extended afterlife wasn’t what anyone anticipated when My Big Fat Greek Wedding first hit theaters, 20 years ago today. “I never, in a million years, thought the movie was going to do what it did,” says Jonathan Sehring, the former president of Greek Wedding distributor IFC Films. And in 2022, it probably wouldn’t. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is, in some ways, a timeless story about culture clash and immigrant solidarity. Its unlikely breakout as a bona fide phenomenon is also the product of a bygone era, one where word of mouth and the luxury of time could help a small, charming comedy beat out The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers to become America’s fifth highest-grossing film of 2002. It’s a fairy tale romance that became a fairy tale in itself.
Most accounts of My Big Fat Greek Wedding start with the one-woman show of the same name Vardalos staged in Los Angeles. But that origin story reverses the true order of events. The script for My Big Fat Greek Wedding isn’t based on the stage show; the show itself was adapted from a script Vardalos wrote after she was fired by her then-agent. “She said, ‘I’ve been sending you out like crazy. But the problem is—what are you, anyway?’ And I said, ‘I’m Greek,’” Vardalos recalls. “She said, ‘Well, that’s the problem. You’re not a visible minority … and there aren’t any Greek roles.’”At the time, Vardalos—a Canadian expat who’d spent time performing with Chicago’s Second City—had been scraping by on voice-over work and occasional bit parts on shows like Boy Meets World and Curb Your Enthusiasm. In the absence of explicitly Greek stories, Vardalos strung together some of her own, borrowing a friend’s computer with Final Draft pre-installed and channeling the anecdotes she’d been telling at parties for years. Some of the details were changed: Two sisters were consolidated into one; the fictional family ran a restaurant; the setting switched from Winnipeg to Chicago. But some of the most memorable details from the movie are entirely true to life. It’s hard to make up a story as vivid as Aunt Voula’s lump that turned out to be her twin, though comic legend Andrea Martin puts her own stamp on the delivery.
Once Vardalos had the screenplay, she had to convince Hollywood’s gatekeepers it was worth producing. (Her manager at the time took three months to even read the script, Vardalos says.) It’s here where the one-woman show comes in. Vardalos rented out a 99-seat theater, hired a stage manager she knew from her Second City days, and promoted the show by handing out flyers at local Greek Orthodox churches. Looking to expand the audience, she scraped together $500 for a one-time-only ad in the Los Angeles Times. It happened to find exactly the right audience.
Rita Wilson, the actress and singer, is one of the most notable Greek Americans to break out in the entertainment industry. She’s also married to Tom Hanks, who had recently started his production outfit Playtone—named for the fictional record label in That Thing You Do!—with Gary Goetzman, the former child star who partly inspired the character Gary Valentine in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Licorice Pizza. Wilson had recently caught some live theater in New York and was curious about the offerings on the West Coast. Then she spotted an ad in the L.A. Times that seemed right up her alley.
Based on Wilson’s raves, Hanks and Goetzman went to see Vardalos’s work for themselves and jumped at the chance to expand Playtone’s film slate beyond Hanks’s own starring roles. (The company’s first credited feature was 2000’s Cast Away.) Vardalos had other suitors prior to Playtone, but most wanted her to relinquish the lead role and change the characters to fit into a more recognizable immigrant community, like making the Portokalos clan a Hispanic family. “I was like, ‘Listen … J.Lo would be amazing. I will write something else for her. However, this is a Greek family,’” Vardalos recalls. Only Playtone had no problem with Vardalos channeling her firsthand experience—or casting herself as Toula.
“I never thought, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to replace me with Julia Roberts’ in that meeting,” Vardalos says of her first formal sit-down with the Playtone crew. “But for every second outside that meeting, that’s what I thought.” Vardalos’s contract had a standard provision that said she could be replaced within the first three days of filming in case of gross incompetence. On day four, she shot a scene when Toula cries while trying to convince her father to let her go to night school downtown. Freshly secure in her dream job, Vardalos shed real tears.
At the time, Hanks had a years-long relationship with the premium cable channel HBO, collaborating on acclaimed miniseries like Band of Brothers and From the Earth to the Moon, the 1998 space drama that Hanks led as a producer and director. To secure financing, Hanks and Goetzman turned to the actor’s serial patron. HBO wouldn’t typically contribute to movies it wasn’t airing itself. (“We didn’t do that shit,” executive Chris Albrecht memorably told journalist James Andrew Miller for Miller’s oral history of the network.) But Hanks was a special enough case for HBO to make an exception, ultimately underwriting about half of My Big Fat Greek Wedding’s budget.
Playtone’s other major producing partner would be Gold Circle Films, whose president Paul Brooks still calls Vardalos’s screenplay “one of the best scripts I’ve ever read.” IFC’s Sehring credits Brooks with pushing for My Big Fat Greek Wedding as a true theatrical experience, though Brooks says now it was a no-brainer: “We viewed it as a film that if we got lucky with it, could just reach families everywhere,” he says. As niche as a comedy hinged on Greek American in-jokes may seem, plenty of viewers can relate to the idea of an overbearing parent or the awkwardness of assimilation. “We thought it was just so relatable. Everybody, no matter where they come from, no matter what part of the world, sees themselves, and their families, in this movie.” My Big Fat Greek Wedding even opens with a textbook “lunch box moment,” a trope now so established it’s inspired entire critical essays. Just swap in moussaka for the traditional food of your choice.
“The joke is that Nia wrote My Big Fat Greek Wedding and I directed Fiddler on the Roof,” says director Joel Zwick. “Because that’s how I perceived it. I saw my family.” Zwick had largely worked in television prior to Greek Wedding, including the sitcom Bosom Buddies, Hanks’s breakout role opposite the late Peter Scolari. When Hanks sent him the script, Zwick found himself nodding along. “Even though it was about Greeks, it wasn’t very far from the Jewish people,” Zwick recalls. “I mean, my father didn’t do Windex, but [he] had this insane thing that everybody who was famous was Jewish”—just like Toula’s dad insists every word, including “kimono,” comes from Greek. By being specific, My Big Fat Greek Wedding ended up universal.It’s one thing to make a good movie, and quite another to get people to see it. Were My Big Fat Greek Wedding made today, it’s easy to imagine it topping Netflix’s Top 10 for a week before the content churn gives way to some new flash in the pan. It’s less easy to see how it could go toe-to-toe with Star Wars or the MCU—though as it turns out, part of the distribution strategy was making sure the movie didn’t directly compete with behemoths like the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man, which premiered just weeks after Greek Wedding first hit theaters.
The first time Bob Berney saw My Big Fat Greek Wedding, he watched a woman literally fall out of her seat laughing and break her hip. The screening had to pause so she could get medical attention, but IFC’s then–head of distribution had seen enough. “We decided to start small and try to recreate that full house atmosphere in every way we could,” Berney says now. Most comedies may not feature explosions or stunts, but they can benefit just as much from the theatrical experience as any blockbuster—not that you’d know that from how few get brick-and-mortar releases these days.
At first, My Big Fat Greek Wedding was marketed like a supersized version of the one-woman show, with screenings held at Greek Orthodox churches and booths rented at Greek cultural fairs. The limited release focused on cities like Chicago with major Greek populations, and expanded gradually, to make sure showings were packed enough to achieve the communal, contagious laughter that first sold Berney on the project (minus the personal injury, of course). Most importantly, Playtone, Gold Circle, and IFC never let the movie get too big, keeping theaters packed and the scale modest. My Big Fat Greek Wedding eventually did big-budget numbers, but it was never truly competing for screens with epic studio fare.
“We all together made a conscious decision to keep it special, keep it limited, keep it sold out,” Berney explains. “Like, let’s not cave to the pressure of the exhibitors, or even ourselves, to get ahead of the skis just because it’s doing well. We always felt like if we expanded, it may have done well, but it could have just easily fallen off before it became so widely known.” My Big Fat Greek Wedding stayed on around 1,000 screens—not 1,500, or 2,000, or 3,000—for most of its run, which Berney considers crucial to its success. (By comparison, Warner Bros.’ latest franchise tentpole Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore just opened at more than 4,000 theaters nationwide.) The scarcity strategy worked; at one point, Sehring recalls, a staffer had to record a voicemail message for frantic theater owners explaining that IFC had no more prints on hand and to call back the next week.
As a result, Greek Wedding didn’t explode and fade away. It kept going, and going, and going, past anyone’s expectations for how long the frenzy would last. “On July 4 weekend, it crossed $20 million, and I was like, ‘We’re done. Okay, that’s it.’” Vardalos says. Sehring assumed the cutoff would be when the film was sold to the airlines, when the domestic box office total was already at a stupendous $100 million. Who would go see a movie in a theater when you could watch it at 10,000 feet? But Greek Wedding was still less than halfway to its eventual haul. At first, the audience skewed older, a demographic that isn’t prioritized by today’s young-oriented event movies. Only gradually did Greek Wedding break into the zeitgeist—though once it did, it stayed there for months.
Everyone involved with the film had a different “aha” moment when they realized how big the craze had gotten, or would become. For Vardalos, it was when Eugene Levy—Martin’s former costar from SCTV—gave her a co-sign after a preview at Montréal’s Just for Laughs. For Berney, it was when actor Michael Constantine, who died last year, threw the opening pitch at a Mets game and unveiled a bottle of Windex to thunderous applause. For Sehring, it was when he saw the movie on a plane and could feel the cabin physically shaking with laughter. Regardless of when it sunk in, the sheer scope still surprises, as does the longevity. During the pandemic lockdowns, Berney caught a drive-in screening on the roof of a parking garage. The jokes still landed, even in a car.
Sehring understands why most producers wouldn’t gamble on a theatrical release for a movie like Greek Wedding today, considering the viable alternatives. “If you’re a producer and somebody is covering your costs plus 20 percent, plus 50 percent—hey, that’s better odds than saying, ‘I’m going to take this movie out theatrically,’” he acknowledges. “That’s why the streaming model looks so attractive.” But he’s still a believer in the theatrical experience, which is why he recently helped work on the rollout of Drive My Car. Ryusuke Hamaguchi’s three-hour drama is a very different movie from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but both help challenge the idea of what a rewarding theater experience can be.Berney, who currently runs the entertainment company Picturehouse after a stint at Amazon, doubts the current landscape could support a slow burn like Greek Wedding’s. “Even with the traditional theatrical windows, it’s become blockbuster after blockbuster after blockbuster,” he says. “If anything, movies are just going to come in and out quicker than ever as the windows shorten and movies go to either (video on demand) or streaming faster than they ever did.” Companies with their own in-house streaming services to promote, like Disney and WarnerMedia, seized on the pandemic to shorten the window between a movie’s premiere and when it’s available at home. (After controversial, audacious experiments like WarnerMedia releasing its entire 2021 slate day-and-date on HBO Max, standard practice seems to be settling around 45 days, just half of the once-conventional 90-day window.) Meanwhile, what does get released in theaters is increasingly judged on its first weekend or two of returns, an instant gratification that’s the opposite of what made Greek Wedding such a smash.
Regardless of whether there will be more hits like My Big Fat Greek Wedding to come, the original still endures. Vardalos is well aware it’s still her calling card, even as she’s moved onto other projects. She’s currently working on a comedy serial for Audible about motivational speakers in Rochester, New York, though she still hopes to round Greek Wedding out into a trilogy. “I know a lot of people say, ‘I’m not that person,’ or ‘I want to do other things,’” Vardalos says. “But I am that person. I am Toula. I’m totally okay with it.” It’s a cliché to urge your audience to be themselves. But like all the best rom-coms, My Big Fat Greek Wedding embraces clichés fiercely enough to give them new life.
Picturehouse is set to release the pre-hiatus final concert film of the Japanese boyband pop sensation Arashi exclusively in AMC Theatres for one night only on March 22.
The Arashi Anniversary Tour 5×20 Film RECORD OF MEMORIES was released by Shochiku on Nov. 26, 2021, and grossed $39.5M, making it the highest grossing live-action film in Japan in 2021.
Arashi has consistently been a top performing act since their debut in 1999, and are composed of five members: Masaki Aiba, Jun Matsumoto, Kazunari Ninomiya, Satoshi Ohno and Sho Sakurai. In 2019, their compilation studio album 5×20 All the BEST!! 1999-2019 was named the best-selling album of the year worldwide, and most of their singles and albums have ranked as top sellers on the Oricon music charts.
In addition to music, the band are actors with Ninomiya having appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-winning film, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA.
RECORD OF MEMORIES showcases the group’s 20th anniversary tour “5×20,” which was their last concert in front of a live audience prior to their current hiatus. The film was directed by Yukihiko Tsutsumi (FIRST LOVE, 12 SUICIDAL TEENS) who also made the group’s debut film PIKA☆NCHI in 2002. Tsutsumi used over 100 cameras during the production. The tour itself, attended by 2.37M people, broke records for concert admission in Japan. A documentary about the group called, ARASHI’S DIARY-VOYAGE, following the trajectory of the group’s members in the two years leading up to their hiatus, is now available on Netflix in 28 languages and 190 countries.
The theatrical release of RECORD OF MEMORIES is being handled between Picturehouse and GAGA Corporation, the pic’s international sales agent.
Husband and wife Ed Harris and Amy Madigan will star in SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND, a $4.5 million budgeted indie that will be produced by Picturehouse, John Boccardo’s Blind Faith Productions and Neil Koenigsberg. Lou Howe is directing from his adaptation of Dennis McFarland’s critically acclaimed 1995 novel.
Harris and Madigan have previously starred together in several features including GONE BABY GONE, PLACES IN THE HEART, ALAMO BAY, THE LAST FULL MEASURE, THE RULES DON’T APPLY, SWEETWATER, RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAGA to name a few including the Harris-directed Oscar winning POLLOCK. Harris earned an Oscar nom for playing artist Jackson Pollock and Madigan co-starred as Peggy Guggenheim. The two are also starring in Harris’ THE PLOUGHMAN which he’s also directing and in pre-production on. Both Harris and Madigan have co-starred in theatre productions such as the world premiere of Beth Henley’s “The Jacksonian” in Los Angeles and New York; in the revival of Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer winner “Buried Child” in New York and London; and most recently, in the world premiere of David Rabe’s newest play “Good for Otto” in New York.
In SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND, Harris and Madigan play siblings with a dark past riddled with unresolved family issues. Harris is a world-weary war correspondent who returns to the small town of his youth to reunite with his sister, a librarian at the local school for blind children. Together they confront these issues as they strive to solve the cold case murder of a blind student who disappeared years before.
“It will be wonderful to see the magic Amy and Ed will bring to SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND,” Bob Berney, CEO of Picturehouse tells Deadline. “It’s a terrific gift for Lou to have these two actors portraying an estranged brother and sister in this exciting new drama.”
Come December, Harris will be seen co-starring in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s THE LOST DAUGHTER, which is winning rave reviews from its Venice and Telluride premieres. He is currently filming the fourth season of HBO’s “Westworld” in addition to prep on THE PLOUGHMEN, which also stars Robert Duvall. Madigan will next be seen in Scott Cooper’s thriller ANTLERS.
SCHOOL FOR THE BLIND will be Howe’s second feature film. The Harvard and AFI graduate wrote and directed the well-received GABRIEL, which earned its star Rory Culkin a Gotham Award nomination, as well as an Annenberg Fellowship from the Sundance Institute for Howe.
Koenigsberg, a founder of PMK PR and also a talent manager, was a producer on films A WALK ON THE MOON, AMERICAN HEART, THE GIVER and TAB HUNTER CONFIDENTIAL. He originally optioned the novel and brought it to the attention of Berney and Boccardo.
Boccardo produced the recent documentary THE FABULOUS ALLAN CARR and was executive producer of WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?.
CAA Media Finance will arrange for the film’s financing and will rep the pic’s distribution rights.
Picturehouse is a Los Angeles based film marketing and distribution company led by CEO Bob Berney and COO Jeanne R. Berney. The company acquires, markets and distributes global content across all platforms. Originally formed in 2005 as a joint venture between Time Warner’s HBO Films and New Line Cinema, the Picturehouse brand has a long history of storied excellence.
In the opening minutes of Liz Garbus’ new documentary, famed explorer and filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau is shown talking to a group of young children. As he patiently answers their questions about his work and life under the ocean, they gaze at him in rapt wonder. Filmgoers, especially those of a certain age who grew up devouring his iconic television series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”, will feel exactly the same way while watching BECOMING COUSTEAU, receiving its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival.
Although his reputation has somewhat faded with time, it’s hard to overstate how revolutionary Cousteau’s film and television work was. Nowadays, you can’t channel surf for more than two minutes without encountering a beautifully photographed nature documentary. In 1956, however, when his Oscar- and Palme d’Or-winning feature doc THE SILENT WORLD (co-directed by Louis Malle) became an unlikely commercial hit, there were very few films utilizing underwater photography.
Garbus’ documentary takes a deep dive (apologies for the pun) into Cousteau’s life and career, using copious amounts of archival video and audio footage, as well as excerpts from diary entries read by actor Vincent Cassel, to deliver an immersive, intimate biographical portrait. While clearly laudatory in detailing its subject’s impressive achievements, the film doesn’t shy away from addressing some problematic professional and personal aspects, including his early neglect of his parental responsibilities.
As a young man, Cousteau aspired to becoming a French Navy pilot, but his life changed when he was involved in a serious car accident at age 26 that left him with severe injuries. When he began swimming to help himself recuperate, he became fascinated by free diving and spearfishing. “It seemed like the act of a mythical demigod,” he says of the latter.
“I became an inventor by necessity,” Cousteau says. He created a waterproof housing for movie cameras so he could film underwater and co-invented a revolutionary breathing apparatus, the Aqua-Lung, in order to dive deeper and longer. In 1951, he converted a former British minesweeping boat into a research vessel dubbed Calypso, which became iconic via his films and television series, and inspired John Denver’s 1975 hit song.
Along the way he married Simone Melchior, who loved the sea as much as he did. Nicknamed “The Shepherdess,” she oversaw operations aboard the Calypso even while avoiding the media spotlight.
Cousteau disdained the term “documentary” for his cinematic efforts, referring to them instead as adventure films. Television producer David Wolper recognized the potential of his work, resulting in the hit television series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau”, which ran on ABC from 1968 to 1976. When Cousteau began emphasizing environmental themes in a largely downbeat manner, the ratings suffered and the show was dropped, although he created a second series for PBS that ran for several more years.
The documentary chronicles Cousteau’s evolution from prospecting for petrochemical companies to finance his expeditions to becoming a staunch environmentalist, creating the Cousteau Society to spotlight the fragility of underwater ecosystems. He spearheaded efforts to protect Antarctica and was involved in the creation of the first Earth Summit, held in 1992. He’s shown posing for the event’s official photo, chatting and laughing alongside dozens of world leaders.
Garbus doesn’t shy away from dealing with Cousteau’s sometimes messy personal life. His obsessive dedication to his work kept him away from sons Philippe and Jean-Michel for long periods when they were young. Philippe later became instrumental in his father’s career but died in a plane crash when he was only 38. A severely depressed Cousteau declared, “I’m going to work to the bitter end. That’s my punishment.” Simone died of cancer in 1990, and six months later he married the much younger Francine Triplet, with whom he already had two children.
BECOMING COUSTEAU succeeds beautifully in its goal of reminding viewers of Jacques Cousteau’s important legacy of underwater exploration and environmental activism. Consistently engrossing as well as informative, the film delivers a richly humanistic portrait of a complex, indefatigable figure who introduced multiple awestruck generations to the wonders beneath the sea.
The multiple generations who grew up mesmerized by the underwater cinematic adventures of Jacques-Yves Cousteau will be able to learn a good deal more about the man’s life and work in BECOMING COUSTEAU. Among the many gifts of Liz Garbus’ filled-to-the-gills documentary is the way it positions the French explorer as an initially unwitting pioneer of the environmentalist movement, which took shape in his literal wake. This National Geographic Films production, set to bow in October after its Telluride Film Festival premiere, will add much to older audiences’ appreciation of the man’s achievements, while younger viewers will learn how he changed perceptions of the sea beneath in profound ways.
Kids who grew up watching Lloyd Bridges in “Sea Hunt” on television in the late ’50s and early ’60s had no idea that swimming with the fishes for prolonged periods unattached to long oxygen tubes was unheard of in their parents’ generation. The first of many surprises in this account of the French seafaring explorer’s life is that Cousteau himself co-invented the Aqua-Lung, a wearable air tank that allowed for prolonged deep dives unconnected to tubes from the surface. It went on the market in 1946.
It was only by accident that the young Frenchman ended up in the water in the first place. After joining the French navy in 1935, Lt. Cousteau broke 12 bones in an accident and found that frequent swimming sped his recovery. Two others then joined him in some pioneering underwater photography, and the desire to go ever-deeper led Cousteau to “become an inventor by necessity.”
The “Three Diving Musketeers” developed air tanks that allowed them to go down an unheard-of 60 meters without a suit, but then one of them died at 120 meters. Lead-souled shoes enabled the explorers to stay down on the sea floor, and for several years diving provided something of a respite from the war raging above and around them.
An amateur cinematographer from his early teens, Cousteau kept developing new ways to photograph underwater and, in 1951, with the assistance of charitable contributions and volunteers, he was able to purchase a boat, the Calypso, which for years served as his home base.
Early on he engaged Louis Malle as a camera operator, which led to a collaboration that produced LE MONDE DU SILENCE (THE SILENT WORLD), the first documentary to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1956. It subsequently copped an Oscar and was a big hit internationally.
There were some initial missteps about which Cousteau was ashamed, notably the killing of some sea creatures for his film and collaborations with oil companies to find deposits under the ocean floor. But by the 1960s deep underwater exploration was seen as a parallel event to the manned journeys into outer space, another new frontier. Cousteau became a household name thanks to the David Wolper’s ABC series “The Undersea World”, which was on ABC for 10 years beginning in 1967. Overall, Cousteau’s shows, consisting of 550 hours of archival material, scored 40 Emmy nominations and 10 wins.
Given how Cousteau himself was photographing his activities from the very beginning, Garbus had an embarrassment of riches to draw upon, and there are moments when it feels like panic is nearly creeping in as she endeavors to jam in tidbits about her subject’s personal life (two wives, long absences, the death of one of his sons, the dissolution of his TV contract) as the man became ever-more famous and busy. “I’m a bad husband and a bad father,” he confesses at one point, and it’s easy to see how the subject’s nomadic, off-the-grid life was not conducive to anything resembling a coherent family life.
It was on one of the Calypso’s journeys through the Persian Gulf that the Calypso’s crew discovered oil in Abu Dahbi, from which Cousteau and company were able to benefit. Later, he was a key figure in the first Earth Summit. Publicly, the man was a popularizer, someone who put a hitherto little-regarded aspect of global life firmly on the map. Privately, he became increasingly pessimistic about the environment, sensing the economic interests were prevailing over ecological concerns.
BECOMING COUSTEAU will well serve as a reminder and clarifier for those who remember him from their youth, and an invigorating introduction for those meeting him for the first time. There’s a lot more to experience and learn from where this stuff came from.