Monday, February 28, 2011

Filmmaker Q&A: Teresa Demarest, "Keiko The Untold Story"

“Keiko the Untold Story” is filmmaker Theresa Demarest’s passionate telling of the life of Keiko, the orca who starred in the blockbuster “Free Willy”, after he was released into the wild. Watch the film Thursday March 10th at 7pm. Click here to get tickets.

What is your overall summary for the film?

Nowhere in recent history has a captive mammal garnered so much attention as Keiko, the orca star of the 1993 hit film, “Free Willy.” The film’s success, partnered with growing public interest in animals held in captivity, launched a children’s crusade that called for Keiko’s release into the wild. The result: a multimillion dollar project that spanned four countries, weathered endless controversies and lasted nearly a decade. Yet, the question of whether or not the mission su

cceeded continues to frame the debate regarding the fate of the other 42 orcas still held in captivity around the world. Through first-hand accounts by the marine mammal experts charged with his care, “Keiko The Untold Story” follows Keiko and provides insight into the unique culture of orcas, and explores what the impact of being taken from his pod had on Keiko’s survival instincts.

Four years in the making, this compelling documentary by first-time filmmaker Theresa Demarest presents never before seen footage of Keiko in the wild, along with exclusive accounts of his day-to-day existence by Keiko’s last two caretakers, Colin Baird and Thorbjorg (Tobba) Valdis Kristjansdottir and explores unanswered questions about his life, his legacy, and the untold story of his extraordinary years in Iceland and Norway.

What was your inspiration for creating the film?

Keiko first swam into my life in 1996, while I was recovering from several major surgeries related to my second battle with breast cancer. The day Keiko arrived in Oregon, I barely had the strength to watch the move from Mexico to Oregon on TV. But soon I found myself mesmerized by his spirit after an eleven-year ordeal surviving in a tank that was never designed for anything larger than an eight-foot bottlenose dolphin. There was something about the story, something about the people involved in the story, something about him and his spirit that got me going.

Several months later, I drove to the Oregon Coast Aquarium. I just had to see him. I worked my way through the crowd, and finally got my chance at the viewing window. To my amazement, Keiko swam directly to me and banged the window with his head with a noise so loud as to be slightly frightening. The bang of his head against the glass echoed throughout viewing room and caused a stunned silence in the crowd. Then he just hung motionless in the water directly in front of me, just staring at me. You could hear a pin drop. My heart was pounding. I nodded my head up and down at him. He nodded back at me. Then he banged the window again… boom… It was kind of scary… the force of it was so powerful I thought the glass might break…. Then he took off real fast down to the opposite end of his tank out of view. I thought that was the end of it.

Then all of a sudden, he’s swimming sideways across the front of our window. Really fast, with his tongue hanging out, as though he were saying, ‘Look Look at what I can do… Look at me!!’” Then a small child squeezed through the crowd to stand in front of me and Keiko seemed mesmerized by the child and move down to pay attention to the child. I stepped away, and that was the moment this movie began for me.

What was the most challenging part of creating the film?

Everyone told me that this couldn’t be done and even if it someone did it … no one would care. I was primarily a musician, and had only minimal experience as a filmmaker. When I started this project, I didn’t even have the most basic tools necessary with which to put paint to canvas. Without going into the sad details of the humungous learning curve, suffice to say that it became immediately clear that I needed to become a good leader. I needed help and I needed skilled competent folks to follow my lead. My horse and a poem by Rudyard Kipling became my constant companions. I knew a part of the story that the majority of the public did not know. How to tell it, affording the right footage, securing interviews from places all over the world, writing the music, refining the narrative.

What was the most enjoyable part of creating the film?

Because I have spent most of my career as a musician, creating the music for the film was the most gratifying, and yet more difficult than I had imagined. The first rough cuts of the film contained way too much music and overpowered the voice-overs and I had to adjust to the facts of movie-making and music. Naomi Rose, a prominent marine mammal biologist with Humane Society International is a key cast member and science consultant on the film. She has seen the most rough cuts of any member of the team. In the beginning of the process, she would say quite politely: Theresa, this rough cut is pretty good, flows well, maintains the integrity of the story.. but….. “ …. The music is way too loud”.

Who (or what) is your inspiration?

Keiko, his apparent courage and willingness to just keep going in the face of the most extraordinary adversity. That adversary would be us unfortunately. The chief predator of orcas is man. He was an immense character that most people didn’t really know. Then comes all the cast members. Key characters in Keiko life… awesome individuals who I continue to admire daily.

Is this your first time participating in an ocean-focused film festival?

Yes and I am very excited to be there.

What was the most memorable moment in creating the film?

Interviewing Thorbjorg (Tobba) Valdis Kristjansdottir over Skype with a film crew from Iceland because we didn’t have the money to actually go there. Sigurdur Grimson and his crew at GrimsFilm in Iceland did an awesome job with our unusual requests.

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