Beautiful and threatening. Those are two words that writer-director Neasa Hardiman uses to describe the creature at the heart of her debut feature, Sea Fever (read our review here). They’re also a good encapsulation of the film itself.
Set aboard an Irish fishing trawler, Sea Fever sees a smart but socially awkward marine biologist named Siobhán (Hermione Corfield) facing off against a strange (and strangely mesmerising) creature from the deep after it attacks the vessel. What follows is an egg-laying, slime-oozing, paranoia-inducing nightmare—one with a surprisingly poignant ecological message at its core.
A well-crafted thriller with a queasy undercurrent of body horror, Sea Fever is worth a watch any time, but its claustrophobic atmosphere and scenes of quarantining feel especially eerie right now. The film just came out on VOD in the UK and the US, so give it a watch and escape to a different kind of close quarters for 90 minutes.
We caught up with Hardiman to learn more about the tentacled sea monster, resilient heroine, and the lack of elbow room on set. Here’s what she had to say.
SCREAM: Congratulations on your feature film debut! As an Irish director, was it important for you to capture a distinctly Irish flavour in your first feature?
NEASA HARDIMAN: You know, it’s a funny thing. I think you can’t help but do that. I think those things are always there, and they’re always bubbling under the surface. It was a real pleasure to come back to Ireland and work with Irish crews and Irish people, that was great.
But the crew on the trawler in the film are really transnational. The trawler is going from North Africa right up to Norway, and the people who people those boats are Egyptians, they’re Iranians, they’re all kinds of North Africans, they’re West of Ireland people, they’re Scots people, they’re Scandinavian people—and they’re all working together in a way where nationality just isn’t an issue. The woman that I contacted first who runs a trawler out of Galloway—the trawler that we used in the film—was a native Irish speaker with a very rural West of Ireland brogue. She was speaking to her husband who is Icelandic, and I said, “Oh gosh, that’s unusual that you’re married to an Icelandic man.” And they both kind of looked at me, like, no. [Laughs] I realised in that moment that of course it’s not unusual. Those people who fish off the western seaboard of Europe and North Africa—they all know each other and they all go drinking together and they all marry each other.
You mentioned that it was a real vessel that you shot at least part of the film on. What was the biggest challenge of filming on location on the boat?
It was really important to film on the boat, and we started with the stuff filmed on the boat because we wanted all the actors to get a proper sense of what that’s like—what it’s like to be on the sea. The real crew of the trawler were really generous with their time teaching our cast what was involved and how to do the job properly, like how to gut a fish. And it’s scary. And it’s dangerous. As a job, you are more likely to die on a trawler than you are in any other job in Great Britain or Ireland. It’s dangerous work, and I thought it was important for everyone on the production and behind the camera to capture that and understand it.
I did think seriously about filming the entirety of the story on the boat. But the truth is, the quarters underneath are so tight you actually couldn’t get crew down there. You could get the actors, but then you couldn’t get the 18 hairy blokes behind the camera down there to film it. So we created it on a sound stage so that we could take walls out. We kept the claustrophobia of the space; the camera is never outside the space to maintain that illusion of the claustrophobia of the real boat. We built a fully functional interior of a boat—like the whole length of the boat, including the prow and down into the engine room and where they keep the water right at the very bottom. The actors could walk from one end of the boat to the other and never leave the set.
The great thing about the boat is that it’s almost a character in and of itself. It’s a little bit run down, very claustrophobic. How much production design went into that or was it really just what the boat looked like when you discovered it?
We didn’t do anything to the real boat. That’s exactly what it looks like. With the interiors, I did change some of the colours because I had a clear cinematic idea of how I wanted the palette to work. But the structure of it is real.
And of course, we’ve got to talk about the monster because it’s so unique. Where did the inspiration for having that kind of creature come from?
Well, the theme of the story is that… we don’t know. There’s so much that we don’t know about the deep ocean, and yet we’re engaging in all these activities that are having a massive, massive impact on huge ecosystems of which we’re barely aware. So what I wanted to create with this animal was something that was both mesmerising and beautiful that you wanted to keep looking at, as well as something that was potentially threatening by virtue of its scale and by virtue of its desire to take their life. For me, that was really important—to merge those things and keep something grounded about it.
But it was a metaphor for all the life that’s around us—the beautiful, mesmerising, and fabulous things that are unknowable and potentially threatening, because we’re part of it and they view us as a threat. So there were a couple of things that I wanted to achieve about it. I wanted it to be beautiful, and I wanted it to be unknowable. It has this kind of dark center, this blackness that could be nothing, or it could be something—we just can’t know.
And I wanted it to be something that we hadn’t seen before. But everything about the animal is based in reality—every aspect of that reproductive system is from nature. So while the animal is a metaphor, every one of its actions is rooted in truth.
That’s really cool. I noticed there were shades of John Carpenter’s The Thing in there, too, particularly with the kind of body-snatching aspect. Were there any other major influences on the film?
Lots of different things really. I was interested in making a film that would operate with proper deep characterisation that would hold the audience as a drama, but have this propulsive, exciting, thrilling element and a kind of dreamlike element. So I was looking at films like Arrival and Annihilation where there’s a threat but it’s also beautiful, and it’s unknowable. They were big references. And then, as you say, The Thing and Alien, which have a very limited cast in a contained space.
I can see that. And going back to the overarching themes—the film as a whole feels quite timely and relevant, in terms of both those themes and some of the characters, particularly Siobhán. Was that something you knew you wanted to do from the very beginning?
The woman who played Siobhán, Hermione Corfield, and I were talking about the kind of tropes and cliches of what it means to be a scientist. And the trope is that scientists are people who can’t pick up on social cues [which can be a challenge for those on the autism spectrum]. What we were interested in doing was saying, look, neurodiversity is something that we celebrate and something that makes us stronger as a community. People who may display certain brain chemistries that are associated with Asperger’s often have really crucial contributions both culturally and socially and politically. And just because our character Siobhán is a little bit socially deaf and a little bit inadequate at reading the subtext or understanding the subtle messages that people send, that doesn’t mean that she’s not the most valuable person in a crisis. If you were hanging off a cliff, you’d want her on the other end of the rope, because she’d never let go. That was what we wanted that character to be in this story—someone who has quite profound weaknesses that are also quite profound strengths.
One of the things that I love about Siobhán’s character is that she is the youngest one there, she’s still in school, she’s up against all these very seasoned people who’ve got their sea legs, but she manages to hold her own in a way that’s realistic, rather than being a superhero.
That was really, really important to me. And actually, when I was writing, one of the executives said to me, “She’s a too uncertain lead. Make her more certain.” And I really resisted that, because she doesn’t know, so when people ask her, “What is it?” she has to answer truthfully in the way that any good scientist would. That was important to me and to Hermione as well—to tell the truth about how science works. It’s not magic, and scientists don’t have all the answers. It’s a process of discovery and trying to prove yourself wrong.
Absolutely. And I think that’s really important for portraying women realistically as well. We want to be empowering in our representations, but we don’t know everything.
I agree. I love stories about women finding their heroism, but it’s only meaningful if it’s truthful. What I want to see are characters who are conflicted and complex and who suffer but overcome their suffering and overcome conflict and behave in a way that is heroic as a result.
Absolutely, we need more of that, and it’s wonderful that we have more female writers and directors who are bringing these characters to life.
So what’s next for you? Are you drawn to doing more writing or directing, or both?
I absolutely love both, I have to say. It is such a joy and such a pleasure to be able to craft a story and bring it to the screen, I cannot recommend it highly enough. To anybody who thinks they want to do it, absolutely you should do it, it is the best. And it’s challenging obviously because you need to bring your whole self. But oh my god—the pleasure of working with actors and working with other artists is terrific and I can’t wait to do it again.
Sea Fever is available now on VOD in the UK and the US.
Words: Samantha McLaren (@themeatispeople)