Things are finally starting to settle down for Gabriela Cowperthwaite, director of the controversial documentary Blackfish. In December, she was barely able to squeeze in a half-hour phone interview as she drove from an appearance on Carson Daly's radio show to an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. These days, she's still not the easiest person to get hold of, but she is managing to get on top of her inbox.
The new free time “is the big perk of not getting an Oscar nod,” Cowperthwaite notes wryly from her Culver City home. Despite igniting a national conversation, turning Sea World almost overnight from beloved theme park to Rose Parade pariah, Blackfish failed to make it from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts & Science's shortlist of 15 documentaries to the final five.
But forget the Academy. The consensus is in from the rest of the country: Blackfish screened to standing-room-only audiences at Sundance last year and, after a three-day bidding war in Park City, was snapped up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures and CNN Films. It grossed nearly $2.1 million in theaters following its July 19 release and received an even bigger boost when CNN ran it in late October, amassing 21 million viewers over 17 airings. It has drawn international acclaim, even earning a BAFTA nomination, Britain's Academy Award equivalent.And while Sea World has fought back – after months of strategic silence, the park just launched a section on its corporate website called “Truth About Blackfish” – it's Cowperthwaite's disturbing, empathetic film that's winning hearts and minds.
The 43-year-old filmmaker began the project after being haunted by the death of Sea World Orlando trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by 6-ton bull orca Tilikum in 2010.
“I couldn't understand why an intelligent, sentient animal would bite the hand that feeds it,” she says. “This was a strange story, and I couldn't shake it.”
After all, for 50 years Sea World has been telling the public that killer whales are docile creatures who are happy in their tanks. “I'd always thought if I had to be an animal in captivity, I'd probably choose to be a Shamu, getting hugs and fish,” Cowperthwaite says. “I was really ignorant about that world.”
Cowperthwaite had made documentaries for television for 12 years (for networks including Animal Planet, Discovery, ESPN, History and National Geographic). For Blackfish, she drew on interviews with former trainers, expert witnesses in a lawsuit against Sea World, a former whale hunter and a host of found footage that's a testament to her perseverance.
“Gabriela's films are catalysts for change,” says Tim Case of Supply & Demand Integrated, who signed Cowperthwaite for commercial ad representation on the strength of her 2009 documentary feature, City LAX: An Urban Lacrosse Story. “They start movements.”
But before this movement started, Cowperthwaite was just another L.A. parent making the pilgrimage to Sea World. Before working on the film, she admits, she twice took her 7-year-old twins, Max and Diego, to its San Diego location: “I would think to myself that something's wrong, but you're kind of anesthetized – there's thumping music and bright colors, and everyone around you is smiling.”
People who know Cowperthwaite speak of her fearless, relentless pursuit of the truth, both in her personal life and in her film projects. The daughter of a Brazilian psychoanalyst mother and an American real estate developer father, she grew up in Denver speaking Portuguese as her first language, attending private schools and playing soccer. Her first job was as a hot dog vendor; her second, in college, manning a parking lot with her brother.
After graduating from Occidental College with a major in political science, she was on track for a Ph.D at USC when, on a trip to Guatemala, she saw a woman toting a video camera in her backpack and interviewing children on the street. “That's a cooler version of myself right there,” she thought. Even though she'd never picked up a movie camera before, she took a documentary film course at USC's School of Cinematic Arts. “It changed my life,” she says.
She dropped out of her doctoral program and began an unpaid internship working on a documentary about high-speed crashes. “I was just being asked to shoot some footage. It was terrifying but exhilarating,” she says. “Even though the topic wasn't in my wheelhouse at all, I thought, 'This is it.' I felt engaged with life in a way that I hadn't felt in previous jobs.”
She applies a similar tendency to fearlessly leap into the unknown to her projects, says Tor Myhren, worldwide chief creative officer of top advertising agency Grey New York, a close friend since their time at Occidental.
In 2006, Myhren asked Cowperthwaite to make a documentary about his brother Erik's efforts to establish an inner-city lacrosse program in Denver.
“She had just had twin boys, and she didn't even hesitate,” he says. “She moved her entire family to Denver for six months. She shot the entire film and did the first edit essentially on her own. And that to me is fearless. To dive in headfirst and create something that was as good as what she made – it says everything about how brave she is.”
Others talk about Cowperthwaite's ability to engage an audience – as a talented actress, singer and violinist as well as as a filmmaker. Cowperthwaite minored in theater at Occidental and performed in many plays there.
“Gabriela is a fascinating storyteller,” says longtime friend Lesly Hall. “Even if we are just going out for dinner, the way she tells a story about anything makes you drop everything and want to just hear more.”
For all the seriousness of her work, those close to the filmmaker talk about her goofy side. “Ask her to imitate Barack Obama,” her mother, Irma Ponti-Cowperthwaite, suggests.
“I'm pretty sure she knows all the lyrics to Rush's '2112,' and I know for a fact that she once stalked Zack de la Rocha all day outside a record store,” says friend Sarah Skaggs.
After spending more than two years making Blackfish and another year talking about it, Cowperthwaite says she is “percolating” on her next project. She has no intention of selling out her autonomy just for a big paycheck.
“I want to continue to find my own ideas and nurture them. I would prefer to work on projects I feel strongly about and do them with an independent spirit,” Cowperthwaite says. “It's much more gratifying as a filmmaker to be able to piss someone off and not have a corporation be able to tell you what you can and cannot say.
“This film couldn't have worked if I had to be careful about who I was pissing off. I think for documentary work you need to be untethered to the powers that be. You might be exposing them – who knows?”