Award-winning director Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais returns to Canadian cinemas with the unexpected sophomore doc feature What Lies Below. It’s a unique follow-up for the filmmaker after his breakout black comedy Whitewash, which was a Fargo-esque film that featured Sideways star Thomas Haden Church battling the horror of Canadian winter. Whitewash earned him the award for best new narrative director at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival and the Claude Jutra Award for best emerging filmmaker at the 2014 Canadian Screen Awards. What Lies Below shows that Hoss-Desmarais is equally talented at the reigns of a documentary.
The film accompanies eco-activist, fishing expert and motivational speaker Lawrence Gunther on a journey around Canada as he and Hoss-Desmarais explore the often-dire changes to the nation’s water systems and their repercussions into other aspects of society, like recreation and commerce. What Lies Below is equally notable for including Gunther’s blindness into the film, as Hoss-Desmarais observes the subject and his trusty guide dog navigate Canada’s waters while fishing and canoeing with an ample lust for life. Lawrence’s visual impairment serves as a salient metaphor for the blind eye that too many Canadians turn when it comes to environmental causes, as the issues rippling out of sight are serious concerns.
The film is in the midst of a festival run that began with its appearance as the closing night selection at Toronto’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival. POV talked with the Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais about his new doc, his relationship with Gunther, and the rapport Canadians have to water.
EH: Emanuel Hoss-Desmarais
POV: Pat Mullen
POV: Your previous film, Whitewash, is a very fun dark comedy. What Lies Below is a different film altogether. Why follow a drama with a doc?
EH: I was not planning this project. This film was something that came to me through a producer I was doing commercials with, Alex Stephen, and he started talking to me about this man, Lawrence Gunther, whom I had never met. I became interested in this person, and his brute force and his humanity. When Alex told me that the subject matter would be about the state of our oceans and fisheries, I was quickly interested because I can’t qualify myself as an environmentalist, but I’m definitely a lover of nature. I try to be eco-conscious in my day-to-day life, like I have my second electric car in a row.
I wasn’t looking to make a documentary. It just landed on my lap. We had a lot of freedom. We hadn’t scripted anything. Lawrence did a lot of the research. He is obviously very educated in the subject and so I followed him. I was taking care of finding a story to thread it together and he was on a mission to find out everything about our water.
POV: So Lawrence was involved from the very beginning?
EH: I think the project basically came from him. I think at first the guys wanted to make a television series, but I thought it was good material for a feature doc where we could jump to points around the country and look at the state of where we are.
POV: I like how much the doc spans the country—from coast to coast and north to south. How did you plan which locations to visit?
EH: That was mainly Lawrence. There are problems everywhere right now, so he suggested about a dozen ideas. From there, I selected topics that were more urgent or more cinematic.
POV: The film looks at the cultural and recreational qualities of water, but after I watched it and was walking over here to interview you in Toronto, I was wondering how city dwellers would see the film since they don’t necessarily encounter bodies of water on a day-to-day basis.
EH: For us, it was important to create that link and share the love that people have who get the chance to experience and enjoy the water.
POV: And with that, I like how the film uses Lawrence’s blindness as a metaphor for the things we don’t see. How open was he to having that aspect of himself be such an integral part of the film?
EH: He was very open about it. At first, I thought that the documentary would only be about water, and I wasn’t sure that I’d be the person to tell that story. I knew I’d have to tell the story of what lies under the water above water. The fact that it was coming through Lawrence let me see it through his humanity. He was so open and generous in terms of talking about losing his sight at the age of seven and his experience throughout his life after that change.
POV: I think this is the first time I’ve seen a doc in which a protagonist with a disability leads the research. Were there any complications with having Lawrence as the guide? He seems to be very active and outgoing.
EH: It had its complications, but I find, if anything, that the documentary doesn’t portray enough about Lawrence. He is such an incredible human being. I think he accomplishes more in a month than I do in a year. The guy has so much leadership and stamina. He’s not scared of anything. He’ll walk and bump into three things in the same minute and not be frustrated. The fact is that he can have a friend of his wife drop him off at the lake for a day with a collapsible boat, unfold it, and go out with his GPS and dog. He was super easy to follow. I don’t remember one moment where his blindness was a barrier to anything we wanted to do.
POV: I think that really comes through with how eager and active he is. And what about with the locations you visited? You get really close to sites of resource extraction. Did you have any encounters or complications with corporations or anyone who tried to prevent you from telling this story?
EH: In fact, no. I think in large part to Lawrence’s charm, he has a way—and it’s not sneaky in any way, it’s so earnest—of talking to someone and explaining what he’s really after. He approaches people in such an honest way that they are really open to let him in. There were also a few moments where we barged into somewhere we weren’t allowed to be. Anywhere he went, there was no issue. We were such a light crew shooting with small SLR cameras that we didn’t even look like we were filming a feature. We just looked like four friends walking around as tourists and making a tiny doc, which is what we were doing.
POV: How long was the process? It seems like the tight-knit crew developed quite a relationship.
EH: We spent the equivalent of about a month together. This was all segmented, though. We would fly somewhere and come back home, and then six months later, we would meet somewhere else and fly back home and so on. It was over the span of a few years.
POV: So it wasn’t like The Amazing Race with the crew flying from Ottawa to Nunavut to BC.
EH: No, no. [Laughs.] The magic of editing!
POV: I noticed that, when we see Canadian documentaries, there’s usually a whole catalogue of logos with Rogers’s sponsors, broadcast partners, and whatnot, but this one seems truly independent. Why did you go that route?
EH: It all came out a very simple process and that’s the reason why I decided to jump aboard. I come from a fiction and advertising background where commercials are made quickly, but for feature films, the process of getting it financed is just as complicated as making it—and that may be even more so for documentaries. In this case, the producer I was doing commercials with and myself both invested time and money into this film. This was all privately funded. It was what we could do to get this story out. We wanted to invest time and money into telling it so it can be heard. We had a very short window where I was available, Lawrence was available, and the producer was available, so we decided to jump into it rather than wait for answers from funders.
POV: That’s probably very freeing.
EH: I think the advantage of that is the total freedom with which we were working. The disadvantage, I guess, is that we were learning the complications of what happens when the film is done and how to get it out there. I think that if we had more of a structure, we would have had a better understanding of how to get it out there. I still don’t know how it’s going to live or what’s going to happen to it.
POV: With documentaries now, streaming and VOD is often the way to go. But I guess you still have to build some attention for it, especially for a doc like this, which is about a cause.
POV: It’s funny, though, thinking of environmental causes. I was looking through your list of credits and saw an unexpected link between What Lies Below and a previous work was actually The Day After Tomorrow. [Roland Emmerich’s disaster blockbuster.]
EH: [Laughs.] That’s funny. And surprisingly true.
POV: It’s a big jump.
EH: With The Day After Tomorrow, I used to want to be an actor and I was studying film. One of the ways that I paid for film school was through acting gigs in different films. I auditioned for that mega-production, which was filming in Montreal at the time, and I got the role of the zookeeper whose zoo gets destroyed by the huge waves of water. [Laughs.] So, you’re right that there is a link between the big catastrophic effects that could one day destroy us, but I’m quite confident—or hopeful—that an event like that won’t happen.
POV: Would you ever direct a film of that scale?
EH: No, no. When you’re doing a film with that much money, there are so many people involved in the decision-making process at the writing stage, the editing stage, and all through production. I wouldn’t be able to deal with that. And with a film like that, you’re working full time for three years or more. I also don’t think I’m as strong a director for something with huge special effects. That’s not my forte. I’m more into intimate storytelling, directing actors, and filmmaking on a smaller scale.
POV: You see that in the doc. And with What Lies Below, what can the audiences do if the story inspires them?
EH: I think the first thing would be to look up Bluefish Canada and see how they understand everything Lawrence is trying to say with that group. This will offer answers for what we need to do to protect the beautiful waters we have and which many people have grown away from appreciating. Even myself, I see how my life and the lives of people around me have shifted away from water. I used to spend so much time around water and in the water, and now if I’m away at a lake, at a friend’s place, I’m spending more time on my phone than enjoying the water. I hope we don’t forget that it is important to connect with the land and the water.
What Lies Below premiered on the Closing Night of this year’s Planet in Focus Environmental Film Festival.