Writer/Director Scott Cohen on Filming Red Knot at Sea
The story of how Red Knot was made is uncannily similar to the film Red Knot itself, a product of writer/director Scott Cohen’s novel approach and the willingness of his cast and crew to join him on this incredible journey.
The film’s premise is deceptively simple; young newlyweds Chloe (Olivia Thirlby) and Peter (Vincent Kartheiser) take a novel approach to their honeymoon by spending it aboard the Red Knot, a research vessel that’s going from the southern tip of Argentina to Antarctica. On board is the renown biologist and environmentalist Roger Payne, famous for his discovery of whale songs among humpbacks. There’s also a smattering of intellectual, artistic and seafaring types on board.
The thing is, Roger Payne was already planning on being on the ship, as it wasn’t chartered for a film production, and was only subsequently turned into a floating set by the industrious, daring filmmaker Scott Cohen. Red Knot is playing this week in New York at the IFC Center. We spoke to Cohen about how he managed to turn a trip from southern Argentina to Antarctica into the setting for his story about a young married couple trying to figure out if they can, and should, be together.
Tell us a bit about your background.
Yeah, my background’s in photography, film to some degree, and a lot of the work I do with photography is film-based. I detoured into fine art, I was really making work that wasn’t mainstream at all, but I’ve always had narratives running through my mind about how I wanted to work.
So how’d you to come to this idea of a young couple choosing to spend their honeymoon on research vessel?
At a certain point, a number of years ago, a friend of mine was working on a project he was doing in Antarctica and he invited me to dinner. He told me he was chartering a ship with writers and artists and scientists and invited me along.
So the ship and the people on board we see in the film, they were actually doing this trip and you decided to shoot a film on it? With them in it?
Well because of the recession he was able to raise the money and charter the ship. He invited different artists, and I just got o thinking that I’d been developing a story for some time and I wanted to make a feature, and I thought it would be a really interesting vehicle for making a film. The story I was working on was about a marriage that hits a rough patch, and I thought this ship and Antarctica would be a great setting. At the time I was writing about a couple in the middle of the marriage, not at the beginning. So I went to dinner with him again and asked what he thought of this idea, shooting a film on this ship.
This is really setting your degree of difficulty pretty high.
I had to see if I could even logistically pull it off, the ship was going to leave in a few months, so I had to figure out if I could develop a framework. I was thinking very small, five or six of us going down and that would be interesting.
So my friend who was chartering the ship, we talked again, and he told me to start working on it and figure it out. So that weekend I was on a real high, and I wrote a four page treatment, how this story would develop, how it was a relationship story that could happen anywhere, with themes that would tie into being on a ship. My friend and I met again and read through it, and this is when he told me Dr. Roger Payne would be coming, and asked if I could write him into story?
And so now this renown environmentalist is going to be in your film?
So I met with Roger soon after that, he was speaking up at Yale, and I met him and his wife, Lisa Harrow, who turned out to be an actress, so we talked about idea of writing them into story. The critical thing was always going to be, could I get really good actors with chops to do this with me? Because if I could, I’d try to do it, if not, I wouldn’t. It would be just too much effort and money to try and do this.
How’d you go about trying to convince really good actors to join you aboard a research vessel heading to Antarctica, in a few months, with only a bare bones project at this point?
I had a really good document that my casting director, Avy Kaufman, was able to share. It was a treatment with who we had managed to get on board so far. I was able to pull together Atilla Salish Yücer (producer), Michael Simmonds (cinematographer), and then Roger Payne, so I made that my treatment, added some bios of people involved with the project, and that’s what the agents got from Avy, then the agents sent that to the actors. Olivia came on board really early. When I met her, I was writing about a couple in the middle of their marriage, so I thought maybe she was too young, but I loved her work and she was steadfast. She said, ‘I’m going to Antarctica with you.’ And after working for a week or so talking to agents, Avy was telling me it was going to be hard to get middle aged actors to take this kind of risk, especially with a first time director.
Yeah, you really had a lot of variables that weren’t totally in your favor, but then watching the film it feels right that a young couple would do something like this, especially once you get to see what Peter’s motivations are for going.
Yeah, and Avy was trying to lower my standards and expectations, so instead I pivoted and said that I wanted a great actor, but I’ll re-write the story and make it for the beginning of a marriage, so I just re-wired the plot, essentially. So went back to Olivia, I cast her, and then Billy Campbell popped on the radar screen, I thought he’d be a great captain, and then as soon as Vincent heard about it, he called Avy and said that he wanted to talk me, and before I even talked to him I called Olivia and asked her what she thought, and she thought he’d be perfect. So I had her blessing, Avy’s blessing, I had a call with Vincent, I talked to my team, asked what they thought, everyone was thumbs up. So we cast Vincent, and a few weeks later we were on the boat.
Where were you with the script at this point?
The actors didn’t see anything until we got to Buenos Aires, all they got was a treatment and support materials. Like I said, Vincent got cast only two weeks before we left. The irony was that when my AD came on board [Atilla Yücer], whose worked with Terrence Malick, he was really like, ‘I’ll work on it with you, but I don’t know how we can pull this off.’ The equipment had to be shipped to southern Argentina, with the prospect of not having a cast and maybe having to ship it all back.
Filmmaking is stressful enough, this seems masochistic.
I was holed up in hotel lobbies writing, with very close friends helping pre-production. I paid the price when I got home and went into post-production.
We shot so much footage, we didn’t have enough time to shoot enough scenes, the trip was 23 days at sea, but conditions and situations were changing all the time. There was no way to shoot the normal amount of scenes in a day because the conditions kept changing. We’d prep exteriors and have to shoot interiors. I made certain decisions while we were shooting, like setting up an editing suite on ship, so there was things when I realized I had shoot a lot more subtle shots to help me build the story out. We’d shoot between the lines as opposed to on the line. It’s nerve-wracking for actors to not only not have no script, but also to feel like we might not achieve anything. But we were all on this trip of a lifetime, so that alone was amazing thing.
What were the actual conditions like? There’s a ton of really gorgeous shots in the film, and some of them appear to be in bitter cold, others you see the actors without gloves on outside, and it’s sunny and looks glorious.
It was kind of amazing. It was really sunny a lot, when you’re leaving southern Argentina in the winter time, it’s summer and it’s warm. Then as you cross the Antarctic convergence and you enter an entirely new ecosystem, and the weather changes dramatically and it got a lot colder. There was only a handful of days where it was so cold you had to wear all your gear.
The film is inarguably beautiful. What kind of cameras did you use?
We shot on a 35 millimeter, a Red and a 5D. Michael Simmonds and I spent some time thinking about how we would do this, so we focused on shooting exteriors with the 35 and interiors with the Red, because we were going to be improvising so much, and I wanted to bring an editing suite on the boat and have someone edit every day, and with the Red you can really do that. With the 5D, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do that, so I was always shooting little footage with that, like the shot of the coffee tipping back and forth in the mug, a lot of the montage stuff is 5D. The interior is red, the exterior is 35.
What about lighting?
For lighting, we had a gaffer who worked his tail off. We lit every set up in the rooms, we had to light them with very little gear. I brought mirrors with us so we could create some magic in the room. It helped open the rooms a bit.
I imagine it’s not easy to do justice to an environment like the Antarctica that’s so immense, almost alien.
Michael and I discussed this before we left, we wanted to toggle between the confines of the ship and the expansiveness of the sea. We would try every day or so to go mount the camera in the same spot in the upper level and shoot the ship moving and the horizon shifting. We knew we’d never be able to return to the location. I didn’t sleep much, I was always wondering where were, and certainly the horizon and the sky become the dominant characters of the environment. I knew before we went that this was a story about a relationship between two people, which is so intimate, and our most expansive relationship, between us and the environment. Trying to figure out how to tell a story about both of those themes without being a flag waving environmentalist was tough.
There’s that image of leopard seal on a piece of ice…
That was literally a ‘Holy shit where’s the camera?’ moment. We missed other moments that were as miraculous.
You filmed a lot of animals, from leopard seals to penguins to whales. In some scenes, the characters are walking amongst the penguins, who seem pretty chill about it all.
Those creatures are pretty comfortable, they’re not scared of us. It wasn’t difficult for that to happen when you’re down there. The leopard seals at the end of the film, it’s harder, they’re a little trickier.
What about that amazing footage of the whales breaching?
The whales was one of the most magical days of the trip. I brought my composer, Garth Stevenson, on the trip. I love his work, I thought it would be interesting to have him along, and so we put him in the film. I thought about having him in a more significant role. He’s a great guy and a brilliant musician, and he was performing on the bridge of the ship one day. It was a really beautiful day, and he brought his bass to the prow of the ship, I set up a kind of scene that would unfold between my characters, so I had two cameras set up, and a handheld camera, everything was really shot that way on the boat, so anyway the thing I didn’t know was when I told Garth that Roger Payne was going to be coming, he had studied Roger Payne’s whale recordings and figured out how to emulate these whale sounds, which he started doing on the ship. Now all these people are watching and listening, my actors are there, and before the scene I’m about to film, we start seeing whales popping up everywhere, and everyone was thinking that Garth’s whale sounds had somehow penetrated the sounds of the boat and brought these whales up. That scene that unfolded between Chloe and Peter kind of changed after the whales showed up, it changed what happened in that scene.
Amazing. And then you get back and embark on another journey with post production.
It was really long, years, not only because of the process but also budgetary constraints and my steadfastness to hire very particular people. I spent as much time on sound editing as I did on picture editing. My sound designer Richard Beggs does the Coppola films, and he told me all the time, ‘This is not how films get made, people don’t do this, it’s because you don’t know any better.’ I wanted to work slowly, methodically, take breaks, see where we’re at. It took many years, stops and starts. My editor was working for not a lot of money, so whenever he could get a commercial gig I was like, go do it and come back. We shot it about five years ago. But now, IFC really liked it, and we’re looking forward to showing it to an audience there.