‘Sea Fever’ is a Monster Movie with No Monsters, Just Animals That Gotta Eat

We chat with writer/director Neasa Hardiman and actress Connie Nielsen about the missions that drove them to make a creature feature.
Sea Fever Screenshot
Eagle Film
By  · Published on April 9th, 2020

Humanity’s greatest enemy is humanity. We’ve known it for a very long time, but our fiction seems consumed with self-loathing these days. We suck. The hope is that if we continue to scream our wretchedness to others, someone, somewhere, will listen, and through that tiny bit of comprehension, the world will slowly change for the better.

Neasa Hardiman felt a little rage in her, and she wanted to channel it into a monster movie of the Guillermo del Toro and George A. Romero variety. The creature may look big and scary, but it’s those pesky humans who fall under its gaze that are the real problem. The mirror contains the most repulsive animal.

Sea Fever traps a handful of humans aboard an Irish fishing trawler. There are the sailors, and then there is the scientist. Hermione Corfield is tasked with mapping bizarre patterns within deep-sea behavior, snapping photos, and shaving samples from their catch. Tensions between her and the crew are already high even before a massive, unknown entity takes hold of their vessel, anchoring them to the middle of nowhere. The beast does what the beast does. The humans strive to free themselves as long as they can resist tearing each other limb from limb.

Hardiman wrote her film with a mission in mind. She was sick of a particular lens in which these stories tend to be told. She wanted to place a spotlight on the real-world champions battling against ignorance from their labs.

“What I really wanted to do in the story was glamorize the scientific method,” says Hardiman, “while acknowledging that we get emotional sustenance from magical thinking, and I think both of those things are valid. I feel like there’s a kind of tradition we’ve fallen into, especially in the bigger sci-fi projects, where we’re a bit fearful of science. We reject scientists as if science is something that is unethical or as if scientists are somehow lacking in moral fiber. Actually, it’s the opposite that is true. The scientific method is possibly the most exciting and epoch-changing invention that humans have ever come up with.”

The creature these sailors encounter only finds its way to them as a result of how they, or we, are altering the biosphere through our aggressive pollution methods. The tendrils wrapping around the ship are not evil. How they burrow into the haul and poison the water tanks is not malicious. The creature is merely living in its domain.

Connie Nielsen, who plays the skipper’s wife and the real muscle aboard the trawler, responded strongly to how Hardiman’s script treated the planet beneath our feet. She agrees that we all deserve a good slap; to wake up and see what we’re doing to the world around us. Mother Earth deserves more than our admiration; she demands dignity and deference.

“I would like us all to think about our relationship to nature,” says Nielsen. “Is nature something that we should be scared of? Is there a way in which we can find common ground with nature and treat it with the respect that it does us? That’s what I’d like people to take away from Sea Fever.”

Where tentacles and undersea beasties are concerned, many jump to the conclusion that H.P. Lovecraft must be to blame, but Hardiman admits to having never partaken in the Cthuhlu mythos. Her critter is a symbol for our ignorance, and as such, its influence had to come straight from the science.

“There is an attraction to the deep sea,” she says. “You could drop the Himalayas into the Atlantic, and you wouldn’t even see the top of it. The ocean is so deep and unknowable. We still don’t have the technology to explore what’s going on in this huge body of water. It covers so much of our planet and we know more about the surface of the Moon.”

Building your own animal is a great gift, but it’s also a challenge. We’ve all dreamed of crafting our Wolf Man, or our Dracula. How do you get the most bang for your buck? How can you score the scares as well as the mystery and the titillation?

“I tend to work from the abstract down to the literal,” says Hardiman. “I started out going, ‘What’s the metaphor here that I want to articulate?’ I wanted this to be about the natural world, so I wanted it to be both beautiful and awe-inspiring in the real sense of being terrifying. I wanted it to be mesmeric, so I knew I wanted it to be bioluminescent, and to be pulsing.”

Working on a minuscule budget, Hardiman could not exclusively rely on the wizardry of CG artists. She needed her beast to be present for the actors, and as physical as the trawler they shot a lot of the film on.

“We had absolutely zero cash!” she states emphatically. “I wanted to film in water, and I wanted the actors to have something real to look at. Because the animal was going to be bioluminescent, there is a chaos to the physics of how the light works once you’re in the water, and you can’t fake that.”

The creature consisted of a series of puppet tendrils lit from within and submerged into a gargantuan water tank. The lights would rotate through a pattern of colors, and when Corfield spots the beastie for the first time, she’s responding to its genuine magnificence. In post-production, the puppets were digitally painted over to enhance its bioluminescent nature and tweak the translucent texture of its skin.

“I wanted it to be unclear what kind of level of sentience it had,” explains Hardiman. “We don’t know that about anything. It doesn’t have a face, and I wanted it to be somewhere between plant and animal where it’s a bit unclear. They’re not really tentacles. It’s not a squid. They’re more like the tendrils of a jellyfish. They don’t have a lot of muscle to them. They’re smooth, they’re fine, and they’re more like neurons reaching out to feel their way across the world.”

While it is easy to fall in awe of the creature and direct your frustration and anger towards the human behavior responsible for its uprising, Nielsen would also like to remind us that the panicked humans at the center of Sea Fever are not the monsters I condemned earlier in the article.

Sea Fever also talks about a group of people that are basically ignored,” she says. “All of these small fishing communities are still trying to hang in there, trying to make a living, trying to survive. All of these people are hanging by a thread financially. We don’t see enough films about people who are so exposed financially. We just don’t talk about their lives.”

The creature may put certain butts in the seats, but Nielsen made the film for the characters who could have walked straight out of the tiny Danish village in which she was raised. She recognized their pain, and she saw an opportunity to give voice to it. Like Hardiman, she has a mission here as well.

“I would just like to remind everybody that every story has dignity,” continues Nielsen. “Every person has dignity. Whether they’re rich or not, their stories matter.”

Hardiman concurs. Sea Fever tackles climate catastrophe, and in doing so, it’s asking us to be careful in regards to our neighbors of the sea, land, and cities. We have to protect ourselves from not just the behavior of others, but our behavior as well. We are all that we have.

“Ultimately, it’s a story about ethics,” she says. “It’s a story about taking responsibility for yourself, for each other, and the world. The animal in the story is kind of a metaphor for nature, which is both threatening and beautiful.”

Sea Fever arrives on Digital on April 10th, but you can attend its Livestream premiere on April 9th at 5:00 PM PT by clicking HERE.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)