Nominated for best documentary feature alongside “Collective,” “Crip Camp,” “The Mole Agent” and “Time,” Netflix’s ode to nature, “The Octopus Teacher,” has gained traction in the Oscars race over recent weeks. The film, which chronicles a diver named Craig Foster, who documented his time swimming with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa, has recently picked up wins at the BAFTAs, alongside a surprise win at the Producers Guild of America Award.
“My Octopus Teacher” has been years in the making, beginning with Foster’s own solo journey and then, over time, adding first director Pippa Ehrlich and then James Reed. The film depicts the year Foster spent with the octopus, earning its trust and using his visits to the ocean as a means to cope with his own dealings in life that led him away from his prior work. Partnering with the Sea Change Organization, the documentary looked to create a link between nature and humans with its two protagonists.
We got to speak with the filmmakers Ehrlich and Reed who stressed the need for that human connection. They discussed how they joined the project, why the shoot was done without wet suits and breathing equipment, and shots that were left behind in pursuit of a more cohesive story.
How did you both first get involved with the project?
Pippa Ehrlich: This project started before either of us was involved really although it really wasn’t a film at the time. It just began with Craig going into the water every day and meeting this octopus. He documents everything that happens to him underwater and he continues to do that to this day. So what was happening was that he just started recording everything he was seeing with the octopus and earned the trust and you see how it unfolds in the film but he never had any intention to make it into a movie. Craig and I had known each other for quite a while then and we’d been diving together regularly because I’d been interested in learning how to track underwater, so we’d been spending quite a lot of time with each other and had done a bit of work together. I think we were at a point where he had a lot of trust in me and he knew that I was very competent in the kelp forests and he asked if I’d like to be a part of this project.
I read the treatment at my desk at work and it completely blew me away and I literally had tears running down my cheeks. I realized this was something that I really wanted to do so I quit my job and started working with him as we spent months and months figuring out what our story was going to be. Of course, once you get into the story of the octopus the storytelling just becomes very easy and focused and it flows. At a certain point in our production though we knew that the story was really strong and the voice was really strong, but something just wasn’t quite working. Because Craig is quite shy and not that comfortable on camera – though we had shots of him in the film – he never spoke directly to camera and the narrative relied completely on scripted voice-over. We knew we needed something else and at that point, our Ellen Windemuth got the film in front of James and he does this incredible and refreshing interview-driven style of filmmaking. We were very excited when he agreed to get involved.
James Reed: I got sent the cut of this amazing story of the octopus and like Pippa said there was this acknowledgment and effort to put Craig in there. The story has two hearts and it’s half Craig’s and half the octopus’s and Craig’s just wasn’t coming across with authenticity and intimacy while the octopus’s side really was. That was the challenge, to bring Craig’s side of the story and make it as personal, accessible, and intimate as possible. Part of bringing me on while I do have some background experience in this was having a fresh perspective on it and someone who didn’t know the history of the project, didn’t know Craig, and had very little knowledge of it beyond the original cut. I had the unique opportunity to go in and have some new sense of curiosity to it and I could meet Craig for the first time and ask him questions I really wanted to know the answer to and didn’t know the answer to and you just can’t do that with someone you’d been working with long term as Craig and Pippa obviously had been.
Was there ever a point in the collaboration where visions of where the story went differed from one another or did you always have a very similar end goal in mind in what you wanted this story to be?
Reed: I think the answer is yes and no and I think the important thing you asked there is the end goal. I feel like, despite some differences in opinions and different life experiences, we had a lot in common as well in terms of the end goal and what we wanted to achieve. The differences we had we look back on in hindsight and they seem small.
Ehrlich: When you have two directors on the job who didn’t know each other at the beginning, it can be challenging because we’re both really attached to the project. When you’re not agreeing It doesn’t feel great even if it’s only over small things. Looking back on it now it feels really silly and as for the bigger vision our ideas were very, very similar. The place we differed we would compromise and I think it’s really good that we did.
Reed: You’re right to ask that question because it is inevitable. Creative things are very personal so how you feel about something or how you feel something should be reflected in a film is really a bit of you and a bit of your own life and you of the world. So when you disagree on things it can feel personal. Sometimes though a bit of well-managed conflict is good for the creative process and you kind of challenge each other a little bit.
Ehrlich: Everything gets interrogated a little bit but a number of different minds. I think that’s why the film has such a huge appeal because all of these minds who all wanted something that they loved in the end and we all ended up with that.
I imagine, with the type of footage you had, it must’ve been tough to cut moments out. Are there any in particular that you wanted to leave in but ultimately didn’t?
Ehrlich: There’s one scene that neither of us had the heart to cut but ultimately it didn’t make it in and it’s the scene where Craig is getting to know the forest and while he’s getting to know the smaller creatures like the octopus but he’s also getting to know the predators. There’s this moment where he’s swimming behind this huge stingray and these guys are like four meters wide and in one moment it turns around and swims over Craig and covers his body. It’s a very powerful scene and we kept it in for as long as we could and argued for it all the way but at a certain point, it just became a block in the flow of the main narrative.
When did you make the call to perform the shoot without the wetsuits and without the breathing equipment?
Ehrlich: That’s just how Craig does it and it’s why he wanted to work with me because he knew I could do that with him. A lot of the stuff that you see underwater is shot by Roger Horrocks and he was wearing a wetsuit. Shooting without the equipment though makes you a lot more agile. At some point, it just becomes more practical to be free diving.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film? Are people responding in a way that you’d imagined them to?
Ehrlich: I think in terms of what we wanted people to take away, we wanted them to see the secret life of animals you could never imagine a human being getting close to. Certainly what James and I have learned throughout this process is to think differently about every animal that lives on this earth. We’re used to thinking that baby lions are sweet or that dolphins are really intelligent but the fact that an octopus, which is a snail without its shell, is fully sentient, is amazing. And it’s a creature we share our planet with and we wanted to inspire some awe and respect for all these wonderful creatures that live here with us.
Reed: There is the important point about our relationship with the natural world but what I think appeals to a broad group of people as well is that there’s also a lesson here about how a personal deals with insecurity and grief and disappointment. As a human character, Craig is talking us through this period of his life where he’s dealing with very human, universal issues. The context with which he’s dealing with them is very unusual but what he’s dealing with are very familiar. I think that’s where it gets really interesting as a film because it’s a completely alien world in some respects and an unfamiliar creature but it goes through things we can all relate to, it’s just the context is very different.
“My Octopus Teacher” is available now on Netflix.