When Canadian filmmaker and activist Rob Stewart passed away during the production of his last effort Sharkwater Extinction (which hits theatres across Canada on Friday, October 19), many were left wondering how the director’s parents and closest collaborators could continue his mission to stop the illegal poaching, fishing, and deforming of sharks for their priceless fins. One of the people they turned to for help was renowned film editor Nick Hector.
A multiple award winning editor, producer, and professor, Hector, who hadn’t previously worked with Stewart, is one of the most celebrated and sought after craftspeople when it comes to documentary filmmaking. Most notable for his work alongside visionary verite filmmaker Allan King and his collaborations with Sturla Gunnarsson (who was brought onto Sharkwater Extinction as a creative consultant), Hector has spent the past thirty-plus years helping filmmakers assemble their artistic and social visions into completed movies.
But what happens when the filmmaker responsible for the existing footage sadly can’t be around for the final assembly? How much more difficult and emotional is it when one’s tasked with summing up someone’s passionate life’s work, and they’re no longer around to speak for themselves in the editing room? The perhaps unsurprising answer given by Hector when we sat down to chat just prior to Sharkwater Extinction’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month is that it’s extremely difficult and delicate territory that few editors have had to face.
Diving deeply into Stewart’s body of work – which found the filmmaker travelling the globe to expose injustices and shady legal loopholes that put the animals he fell in love with in danger of extinction – and utilizing all the footage and notes the director was able to compile before a diving accident took his life in 2017, Hector set about trying to craft something that says a lot about the person who made it and what they held dear. Granted unprecedented access to Stewart’s extensive archives by his parent, Hector wanted to make something that felt like it was put together by Rob. The main goal for the latest (and hopefully not last) chapter in Stewart’s legacy was to make certain that Sharkwater Extinction felt like Rob’s previous works in every way.
We spoke with Hector about his enormous task, what he was able to find in Stewart’s archives, staying true to Rob’s desire to make “an underwater spy thriller,” and the experience of working on an intensely emotional project.
When you’re asked to come aboard something like this after everything has happened and you start to get a feel for the footage you have to work with, what’s your starting point? Making a documentary that uses the footage of a filmmaker who’s sadly no longer with us to give direction is uncharted territory for a lot of editors.
Nick Hector: Superficially, it is a difficult process. I think it’s useful to begin with how I got brought onto the project. After the tragedy involving Rob, his family began wondering how they could best continue their son’s mission, and they were talking to filmmakers from around the world to get their advice. Rob had actually started editing his footage somewhat, but most of the footage was on a trunk full of hard drives. Universally, most of the answers they got from people they approached was about the kind of films they would have made. “This is the kind of film that I would make based on Rob’s footage.”
When they approached me, my answer was immediately to say that we have to make the film that Rob wanted to make. Every decision that would have to be made should be done so through the prism of Rob’s sensibilities. Step one before even looking at any of the footage was to get a handle for Rob as an artist, an activist, a person, and a filmmaker. I went through every interview Rob ever gave, whether it was in print, broadcast, radio, podcast, or what have you. I read his books. His parents were very generous, and they gave me access to any relevant documents, emails, and journals. One of the things most people don’t get to see through Rob’s films is that he was an extremely prolific journalist.
That wealth of material is everything that a person in my position could have wanted. There wasn’t any sort of screenplay, and obviously with a documentary you need to work hands on with the material. Had he actually written a screenplay and you ran into a problem – and on a documentary film there’s always going to be problems – you would usually have to turn to the director. What Rob did was leave behind this really erudite look into his filmmaking process. He kept detailed notes about how he wanted his films to feel. He knew the kind of structure he wanted for his films, which was to adhere to a sort of classical three act structure. He knew where the inciting incidents should go and what they should be. He knew where the rising action should take place.
Ultimately, and I’m speaking sort of in Rob’s voice here, I like a film to be an emotionally engaging experience in which we anthropomorphize sharks, and the people who’ve seen the film will want to go out and find facts. He always saw documentary as an old school vehicle to deliver facts and to make them seek the truth out on their own. He never thought that people had genre specific sensibilities, but rather that people who sat in their chairs in cinemas were there to feel something and go on a journey.
There were notes about tone, music, soundtrack choices, specific moments. Whenever there was a problem, there was a note for it. I felt so privileged going through those diaries. You would see all of these notes that he had written to himself. At one point, there was this epiphany that he had written down. “I want to make a big picture underwater spy film.”
So circling back to the beginning of your question, other filmmakers that I’ve worked with in the past – particularly Allan King, who’s one of the best Canadian documentary filmmakers – had worked very similarly to this. Allan was the type of person who wanted his workers and collaborators to understand him and his sensibilities before giving them free reign over a project. Then he would come in at the end. On a 24 week edit on one of Allan King’s films, he might have only been in the editing room for a total of two weeks. But whether I cut his films or someone else did, there’s a distinct authorial signature that remains intact. Rob’s films are the same way. You look at this film, and you look at the first Sharkwater films, you can clearly see that these are Rob’s films.
Would this have been a better film if we still had Rob? Of course it would have. It would be impossible to say differently. But I feel comfortable that this came from a good place. All of the decisions made by our team members were rooted in trying to make Rob’s film. All egos were put aside. We chose our collaborators very carefully to make sure they were mature enough, meaning we didn’t want to bring on anyone who might be trying to prove themselves by using someone else’s footage. They understood that the mission here was to make Rob’s film. Checking back with Rob’s fanbase and his collaborators all the time, we got the sense that we were making something as close as we could to the film Rob wanted to make. I feel comfortable that we did a good job in that respect.
Looking at the list of people who collaborated on making Sharkwater Extinction a reality, one can see a number of veteran filmmakers and technicians working together to complete that vision. What were the meetings between these various collaborators like, especially with someone like Sturla Gunnarsson, who was brought in to consult on this project?
Nick Hector: My job was really the heavy lifting. I asked Sturla Gunnarsson to come on board to help consult with the finishing of the film. I had never had a more pleasant experience working in the editing room with someone than the times I’ve worked with Sturla. He’s a genius, and we have such great chemistry together. Other people have described our working relationship by calling us “codependent monomaniacs.” (laughs) We have our editing room dialectic down to a science. Whenever we worked on Sturla’s films, we’d talk about what he wanted his film to be like, and then I’d offer my own take on it. The pendulum would swing back and forth until we created this synthesized version of these two filmmakers.
Here, I went all the way to the point of having a rough cut done before Sturla came in. I don’t want to speak for him, but he was there to provide the input of a filmmaker who would want to protect the director’s vision. The first stage was bringing that dialectic that we had into what I had been doing. Every decision that I had made for that rough cut, he was there to say, “Okay, so where are you getting that from?” We went through moment by moment, proofing the film and proving where those decisions came from and how I made them. It was terrific, and by the end of it, he was comfortable that I wasn’t putting myself into the movie and that I was honouring Rob’s vision. It was a healthy approach, and it was precisely what I wanted to do with this.
Sturla’s biggest contribution was to make me realize something that I hadn’t really noticed before, which is that like most great artists, Rob was actually making an autobiography on some level. Every artist puts some of themselves into their work. In addition to documenting Rob’s work, it’s also a film about Rob that Rob made himself. We wanted to make that point a little sharper and elevate it a bit.
Sturla was essential when it came to the film’s final post production, when it came time for things like colour grading, sound mixing, music, and that sort of thing. He was the team leader there, and he carried the ball over the finish line.
And part of it, is that when a filmmaker gets to the end of a film, the filmmaker needs to be present and available to protect the film. By the time you get to the end, you have so many voices wanting to impart their input. Sturla’s such a strong personality, so he was a perfect choice to protect Rob’s film.
Rob always had a very distinct filmmaking voice, as anyone who saw his previous works could attest to, and since Sharkwater Extinction wasn’t totally complete at the time of Rob’s passing, you were able to draw upon past interviews, unused footage, and bits and pieces of other projects to flesh out what this film was trying to accomplish. What’s the benefit of being able to construct something like Sharkwater Extinction from a lifetime of material, and not just from the limited amount of footage that existed for what was intended to be a specific and exact film?
Nick Hector: One of the most important steps in making this kind of film – if Rob had been with us – is that when he put together our first assembly, the director would have done their scripting, and we would have shaped the film to be in line with that script. Sadly and obviously, we never had that privilege here.
What Rob did when he was shooting is that he would have these things called “explainers” which would serve a couple of different purposes. He would turn to the camera and explain what was happening, possibly to be a part of the film, but also to give himself a note to remember once he got into the editing room. He always wanted to remember how he was feeling or what he was thinking about when he was filming certain events. That helped a lot with the writing process. We would have taken those “explainers” into account, and possibly keep them in or replace them with narration. Those were helpful when taken into account side by side with Rob’s detailed notes.
But there were some things that Rob just would have known for himself that were missing, and that’s when I had to go over all of his speeches, interviews, and works from the past ten years or so. I had to extract all of that missing detail. A good example would be that when he goes to Panama, I had to know about the toxicity that was rising up through the food chain, and that he wanted to talk about that in tandem with the footage he captured. He never got to that point in the film, but we were able to find that context in an interview he did in Germany, I think. We could pull that out, and we had access to the people who were with him on that journey. Even if it wasn’t there in front of us, that context was always easy to find.
One of the things that ended up helping us a lot was that Rob had a very specific way of conducting interviews that pointed us in all the right directions. He rarely ever used a sound guy or a lighting guy. He did all of it himself, and what he’d do is hook up the microphone to his subject, and in an effort to get them comfortable, he’d just start talking to them. Then while that was happening, he’d start adjusting the lights. While he was doing that, he would be upfront with people and tell them what he was trying to achieve and where he saw the film going. Those moments became a sort of audio diary where you could see how he was feeling about the movie as he progressed through production. In one cut of the film, we actually used some of that audio, but because he was working and adjusting lights throughout all of it, the sound quality wasn’t very good. But in those moments we could see so clearly his thesis statement, so we found ways of incorporating it into the film via an unlikely source.
We discovered at one point a completely unused video that Rob made for a Kickstarter campaign. The video never went up anywhere, but there was the exact dialogue that he would use in those interviews. This was the point where he had crystalised the ideas he had for the film, and he put it on tape. It was such a random gift, and it was a pristine quality version of what we wanted to include in the film.
Making any film is an emotional experience, especially in the editing room where so many different choices can change the emotions conveyed in the film. Is it even more emotionally taxing to make those decisions when you’re working on making those decisions for someone who’s no longer with us? Does that add a higher degree of difficulty to your job after you’ve spent this much time with material that’s so deeply and personally attached to the memory of this filmmaker and activist?
Nick Hector: I’ve been doing this for 35 years, and that’s probably the best question I’ve ever been asked. That’s the essential truth about documentary film: the emotional structure is the central challenge. Most of the work that I’ve done during my career has been about really emotionally heavy subjects, but you’re absolutely right that this is a lot more difficult. A man died making this film. Furthermore, his incredibly brave parents put their lives on hold for two years to go and make sure that their son’s mission was carried out. So was it a draining emotional experience? It was downright overwhelming.
Sharkwater Extinction opens in theatres across Canada on Friday, October 19, 2018.