Sundance 2021: Sally Aitken talks Playing with Sharks

Sally Aitken spoke to Solzy at the Movies earlier this week about her new documentary, Playing with Sharks, launching at Sundance.

Sally Aitken, director of Playing with Sharks
Sally Aitken, director of Playing with Sharks, an official selection of the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

How honored were you to have Playing with Sharks selected for Sundance?

Sally Aitken: Are you kidding? It’s the email that you don’t want to go to your junk mail, right?!? It’s such a great thrill for all of us.

A lot of us are going to be watching from home. Is there some sadness in knowing that you won’t be able to experience the film with a large audience in Park City?

Sally Aitken: Oh, of course. It’s every filmmakers dream to be swarming around Park City in your director’s jacket. Bettina Dalton from WildBear Entertainment, my producer, and Valerie Taylor herself, the 85-year-old diving pioneer, were all set to get on the plane. But anyway, we have to be virtual but we’re at quite okay with it.

Valerie Taylor is a pioneer in her own right. What was it that drew you to tell her story?

Sally Aitken: The genesis for the film began with the fact that Bettina and Valerie have a longstanding friendship and professional relationship. Tina, herself a natural history filmmaker, had seen the Jane Goodall film, in which Jane’s life and all that early archive had been put together. Suddenly, there was this epiphany moment which thought, hang on, I know someone who’s had this incredible life with first-hand observation of the natural world.

Tina reached out to me and as soon as I knew about the opportunity and Valerie’s amazing life and her relationship with sharks, I just jumped at the opportunity and so the journey began. I was drawn to so many things in the story, the archive, the idea of witnessing someone through a journey through time in which we also see echoed trajectory of conservation.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Valerie while making the film?

Sally Aitken: I’m still learning them! We’ve been doing interviews this morning. I’m not kidding you. She’s chatting away to the BBC. And then she says, “And then there was this other time that the bull shark came and nibbled my foot.” I’m like, I have never heard that story! I have just been making a feature documentary about you for 18 months, and I have never heard that story. I really definitively cannot answer that question. I’m still learning. What I can tell you is I have learned she is constantly surprising.

I guess that means there’s got to be a sequel or a director’s cut?

Sally Aitken: (Laughs) We’ve got to do something. We would obviously love for the film to reach a very broad audience. We have a lot of additional material they use for educational purposes. We’re beginning to talk about a dramatic version. We love her and we want to celebrate this incredible legacy she’s left the earth.

I would imagine that many Jaws fans will be interested in that part of her story.

Sally Aitken: Without doubt. It is quite something to have the firsthand accounts of shooting the live footage in Jaws. It’s such an iconic movie for so many reasons. Not the least filmmaking, not the least Steven Spielberg’s massive career subsequent to that movie, but also from the perspective of the sharks. Seeing the behind the scenes footage of filming the live sharks in South Australia, back in 1974, cut against what actually made it into the film and then the crazy behind the scenes stories around that, I think is a true delight for any film buff. We’ve been getting a lot of reaction to that intercut, which my editor Adrian Rostirolla did beautifully, I think.

How did the pandemic affect the film in terms of interviews or post-production?

Sally Aitken: We consider ourselves incredibly fortunate that we had already gone to Fiji in our shoot period. We had been able to capture what becomes the climactic scene in the film, a incredible sequence of Valerie today free diving with something like a 60 bull sharks. It’s an amazing scene. It’s now made even more amazing by the fact that our travel is so restricted. But in terms of the film production, Australia had endured an unprecedented number of months of bushfires at the beginning of 2020. We were on the brink of doing some more filming here in Australia and so we had to delay that filming because of the bushfires. We just managed to do the filming, which is some filming of Valerie up in Seal Rocks, which is a very special part of the coast of Australia that she has a long standing relationship with. We had just managed to film that and then the pandemic hit, and then all the quarantines started.

We were on the brink of being in the edit. It’s a great credit to the production company—WildBear Entertainment—that they were able to pull all the archive and all our material really rapidly into a virtual situation. Adrian and I had worked together on another film. We were editing in  our kitchens and our living rooms around our home-schooling of children. But in a funny kind of way, that process which inevitably made our edit periods a little longer than we would have otherwise ideally liked, was actually beneficial for the film because of the sheer volume of archival materials. We are lucky that we have ridden this pandemic in relation to this film really well.

The film’s final run time is an hour and half. How long was the initial cut?

Sally Aitken: (Laughs) Which one? Actually, I don’t even remember. I know we were aiming to bring it all down as much as we could to around the kind of three hour mark, three and a half hour mark. I had gone and I had sort of researched a bunch of other films that are somewhat in a similar execution, very archive rich films. I’m thinking, of course, Amy, Diego Maradona, and Apollo 11. I remember reading that the first cut for Apollo 11 was 14 hours and I thought, Okay, we’re doing all right. As you know, it’s a total iterative process, that process of winnowing down your story and your dramatic acts. It wasn’t 95 minutes, I can tell you that.

Is there anything you wish you could have kept or tried to find a spot in the film but couldn’t really find it?

Sally Aitken: Are you kidding?!? So many things! She taught Mick Jagger how to scuba dive. She rescued herself from a near drowning accident by using her hair ribbons. She tied herself to coral plates so she wouldn’t get taken away in the surge. She was an incredible photographer, artist. She’s an illustrator. She’s a pioneer in macro-underwater photography. Ron Taylor, her husband—really technical man had made her this macro kit.

There are truly so many aspects to Valerie’s life that didn’t make it into the film that you can find in her book and elsewhere. We really tried to focus on this incredible, particular, singular, and remarkable relationship that she has with sharks in this film. It was definitely a painful process of working out what to keep and what we regrettably couldn’t fit.

What are the challenges that came with editing during a pandemic?

Sally Aitken: Well, aside from just that virtual world, I do think Adrian and I were very lucky that we had a pre-existing relationship. We have a kind of shorthand. Being able to be on the phone or on Zoom was not inhibiting to our process. I think one of the greatest challenges, of course, is you can’t get other people to come and watch early cuts. It would have been great to have test screenings and things like that. We ended up obviously sending out the film but it’s not quite the same as feeling that experience of an audience reaction. I do think we were very lucky that it is absolutely rich because we didn’t have to go out and film extra observational scenes or whatnot. So yes, some of the challenges, I think, are a workflow and an audience reaction. And then, of course, having a film release at Sundance and not being able to actually be there with the live audience—that’s tragic.

Last year, my second week of Sundance, I was sick as a dog.

Sally Aitken: Ah. so did you miss the festival? Or were you able to—

I was there the whole time. I missed a number of films because I just wanted to sleep and relax.

Sally Aitken: Yeah. Did you have the opportunity? I guess that’s the flip side. I think Sundance has been incredible about trying to really create this community around the festival, which is, of course, what they’re renowned for. Did you have the opportunity last year to play catch up on some of those films?

There were some that, because of the pandemic, I couldn’t really see them until they sent out award screeners.

Sally Aitken: Right.

Or screeners in general. I remember that Minari was the Grand Jury winner. I would have seen it on that Sunday but I just wanted to relax.

Sally Aitken: Ah. Isn’t that the thing of doing what you do? Of course, you want to be there at the moment that the film is sort of launching into the world, right?

Yeah. I’m seeing all these photos pop up on Facebook from the last three festivals. It’s like—I miss people. I miss traveling.

Sally Aitken: Yeah, totally.

Finally, is it safe to get back in the water?

Sally Aitken: (Laughs) It’s always safe to go back in the water. It’s really safe to go in the water. Look at this. (Sally moved her camera to face the beach.) Well, that’s the best the iconic Bondi Beach. Sydney, Australia. Yeah. To enjoy the natural world is our privilege. I feel alright if I’m swimming with Valerie—put it that way.

Playing with Sharks premieres during the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.

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