Sea Fever
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Credit: Bright Moving Pictures // TIFF

Sea Fever's Neasa Hardiman on why inclusivity was crucial to her sci-fi thriller

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Nov 21, 2019

On its surface, Sea Fever is a creature feature flooded with tension, terror, and thrills — but within the depths of this sophisticated sci-fi drama lies a humane message, waiting to be discovered like sunken treasure or a mysterious nautical species.

Sea Fever follows an Irish fishing trawler on a fateful voyage. It all begins when socially awkward marine biologist Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) comes aboard to conduct some research on the local sea life. The close-knit crew take their time to warm to her. But once a run-in with a strange sea creature leaves them marooned in the middle of nowhere, the skeptical scientist and superstitious sailors must find common ground to sail toward survival.

Ahead of the film's U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest, Sea Fever's writer/director, Neasa Hardiman, sat down with SYFY FANGRRLS to talk about her movie's message, forged in character, casting, and inclusivity.

Hardiman has built her reputation as a director by taking the helm of TV shows like the grim crime-drama Happy Valley, the breathless bio-mini-series Z: The Beginning of Everything, and superhero dramas Inhumans and Jessica Jones. With Sea Fever, she charted a course all her own with an original story and a bold ambition. "I wanted to tell a story about the scientific method and about magical thinking," the Irish filmmaker said, nodding to the internal conflict of Sea Fever's heroes. For while the crew of the trawler believe in bad omens and folklore, new arrival Siobhán believes in the scientific method and rationalizing.

This culture clash was just one part of Hardiman's wish list for her latest film. "I wanted to tell a story that was about the outsider and the struggle to connect," she explained. "To tell a story about somebody who thinks differently." Specifically, Hardiman and her leading lady Corfield wanted to dive into the perspective of a person on the autism spectrum, specifically Asperger syndrome. "Oftentimes, people who are not neurotypical in that way end up in the sciences," Hardiman said. "Not every scientist by any means, but people who have that kind of atypical neurology are often drawn to the sciences because they're particularly good in that area."

Hardiman feels this has led to a harmful cliché, where mad scientists with "no moral compass" are conflated with those who are neuroatypical, thereby stigmatizing people on the autism spectrum. "We wanted to interrogate that trope or that cliché," she continued. "And say, 'Gosh, who is that person, really? And what does it mean not to be neurotypical? What does it mean to be ... unable to read the social cues of people around you, which makes you an outsider? How does that feel?' [I wanted] to really kind of drill down into that, into the pain of that, into the pain of not really being able to connect with other people but really wanting to. And [I wanted to show] that weakness also being a strength because, going back to Siobhán — and lots of other people think like she does — she has great clarity, a great clarity of purpose, great clarity of moral and ethical duty. And if you were hanging off a cliff, you would want somebody like Siobhán, the other end of the rope because they would never let go."

In creating Sea Fever and its heroine, Hardiman found direction in the words of autism activist Zosia Zaks, who wrote, "We need 'all hands on deck' — as much diversity as possible — to right the ship of humanity." The Irish filmmaker explains, "In other words, everybody has something to offer. Just because ... you're not very good at connecting with people, you're an outsider, it does not mean that you are not valuable and important and courageous and that you've got something crucial to offer to the rest of your community. And the rest of the community needs to embrace you."

Credit: Credit: Bright Moving Pictures

This embrace of inclusivity also extended to the rest of the film's cast of characters, which is diverse in several ways. For one, the trawler's crew of seven includes three women of different generations, 20-something Siobhán; the steely, middle-aged co-captain Freya (Connie Nielsen); and an elderly but lively cook Ciara (Olwen Fouéré). However, Hardiman noted she didn't want gender to play a major role within the film. "It was really important to us than that gender wasn't a factor in the storytelling," she began. "I'm not saying that gender is unimportant, because obviously gender throws up social obstacles for you and for me and for every woman has their social obstacles. But those social obstacles do not define you, and they do not define me. And they are not at the front of our minds when we are doing our work. That was really how I wanted the film to reflect. That actually when it comes to doing our work, we are just doing our work."  

She sought to make each character an individual, not a stereotype or token defined by one element of their identity. "They all have a really rich and diverse backstory," Hardiman said. "And they all have their own pain and their own grief and their own joy that they bring with them into the story. And it's inflected by their bodies, but they're not defined by that. And that feels to me to be more truthful of lived experience. And so Siobhán is a scientist. She happens to be a woman. You know loads of female scientists. I know loads of female scientists; just because we don't see them on screen doesn't mean they're not out there. They are! (Laughs) We do ourselves and each other a great disservice when we don't just normalize that."

In line with this, Hardiman matter-of-factly sought to make her trawler crew reflect the world she knew. "Ethnicity was a big factor in this," she said. "Because the boats are like that. The boats are really cosmopolitan, actually. Even though they're rural people. They're really transnational. And they don't care. They actually don't care [about your race], because all that matters is: Are you good at your job? Are you funny? Are you friendly? Can I bear to spend two weeks with you in a tiny confined space? That's really all they care about."

To that end, Hardiman cast Iranian actor Ardalan Esmaili as Omid, an outstanding engineer who is also a Syrian refugee, though that is not made explicit in the film. Hardiman said of this, "I wanted to have that Syrian refugee in the story, but his Syrian refugee-ness is not what the story is about. His story is about the fact that he's a really resourceful, intelligent, warm, open-hearted man who is incredibly good at his job. And it was really important to me that he was another kind scientist as well."

In this way, Omid becomes a foil to Siobhán. "Here's another scientist who's just as good as she is, who doesn't have any of her traits and is incredibly warm-hearted and funny and open," Hardiman said. "And he just happens to have had to flee his country. But that doesn't define him either."

What does define the characters of Sea Fever is how they come together to move the ship of humanity — and the literal ship in the story — forward in its time of crisis.

Sea Fever made its U.S. premiere at Fantastic Fest.

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