Given the toothy reputation of great white sharks, selling moviegoers on the idea of an apex predator as a sympathetic character might be hard, but that's exactly what Hawaii filmmaker Paul Atkins wants to do in "The Devil's Teeth." He views the sharks as misunderstood.
In the feature film he wants to make, based on Susan Casey's best-seller of the same name, the veteran cinematographer hopes to capture the shark's point of view by getting in the water and filming alongside them. He tested the idea in October at Guadalupe Island off Baja California inside a 12-foot-long submersible made from steel tubing. The sub was smaller than most of the sharks.
"I am looking for a viewpoint that is unusual and nothing you have seen before," Atkins said. "I want something that takes the viewpoint of the animal. I'm talking about traveling with the animal. With our sub we could travel right with the shark." Anyone besides Atkins would have a hard time selling this. But he has filmed marine wildlife, including orcas, humpback whales and a lot of sharks, since the early 1980s, from Antarctica to the tropical Pacific. His resumé also includes shots of lava oozing from an underwater vent, and work on commercial films such as Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," just nominated for a best picture Academy Award, and the 2003 Russell Crowe film, "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," that took him around stormy Cape Horn. Malick is serving as the executive producer for "The Devil's Teeth."
Atkins' 1994 documentary about great white sharks and researchers at the Farallon Islands off the San Francisco coast inspired Casey to write her book. The filming put him up close with some of the biggest sharks in the sea. "When you first get in the water you are, of course, afraid because of everything you have heard," Atkins said. "All your senses are completely alive. You are faced with an extraordinary animal which seems as curious about you as you are of it. But the fear of being eaten dissipates quite rapidly." Casey became obsessed with great whites after watching the documentary in 1998. A seasoned journalist — she was the development editor for Time magazine, creative director for Outside magazine and is now editor-in-chief of O, the Oprah Magazine —Casey persuaded biologists at the Farallons to let her visit the desolate, jagged islands where the largest congregation of great whites gather every fall.
Some were 20 feet long and at times there were too many to count. Casey's experiences living with the biologists and watching them work — getting up close to the sharks from their tiny boat — became the focus of her book.
The author, who divides her time between Manhattan and Maui, wants audiences to experience the same sense of wonder and obsession that she felt at the Farallons.
"We need to revere the wildest parts of nature and not try and destroy them or tame them," she said. "There are places that are simply creatures first and humans second. And the Farallons is such a place." Casey believes Atkins has the skills and the moxie needed to float alongside sharks the size of pickup trucks to create a unique film. "He is able to do things in the water that no one else can because he is so experienced," Casey said. "I expect him to show white sharks in a way they have not been shown before."
Although Casey's book was a journalistic endeavor, the movie will be a fictionalized account written by former Hawaii director Brett Wagner, whose short film "Chief" screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2008. Atkins was the director of photography on "Chief," a story about a former Samoan tribal leader who drives a taxi in Honolulu. BECAUSE "The Devil's Teeth" is about sharks, audiences will have definite expectations, thanks to lasting images from the movie "Jaws," Wagner said. "I think the big challenge of this story is that it is a shark movie in which nobody gets eaten by a shark," he said. "It's the anti-‘Jaws.' It is the movie in which the sharks are the victims rather than the threat." Wagner, who recently moved to Los Angeles, saw his first great white sharks after he started working on the script in 2007. Suspended in a steel cage in the clear blue waters off Guadalupe, he understood how Casey felt about the animals. The sharks were charismatic. "The main feeling you had was like being close to a movie celebrity and you just wanted them to come closer," he said. "When one bumped the cage I was able to touch it as it went by and that was thrilling." Atkins is still looking for funding or a studio to back the film. Much of the development has been possible through a $40,000 Sloan Filmmaker Fund grant in 2010 from Tribeca Film Festival. To help pitch the idea, Atkins created a short trailer using footage from the 1994 documentary. He will have to convince backers that working with real sharks is as easy as working with actors. Atkins is confident he can predict what they'll do —the sharks, that is.
"They all have personalities," he said. "Certain sharks are going to be easy to work with and others are not. Some have aggressive personalities and some are more gentle. Some are more curious and others are so skittish they won't approach the camera."
Science-themed projects will get a total of $140,000 in funds
A film that has Jesse Eisenberg and Kate Bosworth attached and another exec produced by Terrence Malick are among the projects to have picked up coin from the Tribeca Film Institute Sloan Filmmaker Fund, which supports films in which science and tech play a major role in the narrative.
A total of $140,000 will be given to help filmmakers create and/or distribute their pics, and also provide mentorship from both the science and film communities. Grant money is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
Among the selections are "The Devil's Teeth," a movie exec produced by Malick about a journalist who teams up with two scientists to protect the great white shark, and "Future Weather," about a teen girl obsessed with environmental disaster, with Lili Taylor attached.
Also on the list of Sloan recipients is "Midnight Sun," set to star Eisenberg and Bosworth and centering on the creation of the atom bomb. Christopher Eigeman directs.
Projects were selected by a committee made up scientists as well as film pros, including producers Julie Goldstein and Anne Carey. Awards will be handed out during the Tribeca Film Fest's TFI Awards, set for April 23.
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