The Unsinkable Henry Morgan isn't your typical documentary. Following the search for the eponymous Captain Morgan's lost flagship, The Satisfaction, the film reads more like an episode of MTV's Laguna Beach or The Hills than anything you'd see on The History Channel. But that decision was intentional on director Michael Haussman's part: to treat these eight specialists, led by underwater archaeologist Fritz Hanselman, like characters in a feature charged “to move the storyboard” along.
This approach fits with Haussman's goal of finding the narrative in any medium, be it music videos (such as Justin Timberlake's Sexyback or Kanye West's Jesus Walks) or commercials. But also, when Michael first got the call about directing the 30-minute film, he thought he was going to be making a mockumentary. “I didn't even know Captain Morgan was real,” he explains to a small audience that's gathered at the film's pre-Sundance screening at the Downtown Independent on Jan. 15.
Like many, he thought the pirate was simply a fictional figure chosen by the rum company, who helped fund this project, to represent their brand. So, the central question of the film became: “How do we put a true identity around him?”
Hoping to avoid the unnecessary drama and gravity of many documentaries of this nature, Haussman intentionally introduced these experts in a comedic fashion. “The point was to knock the pretentiousness out of [the documentary],” he tells the Weekly. “So let's make everyone fuck up in the beginning — not in a clichéd way. Make everyone unknowing.” We see the archaeologist Hanselman struggling to describe his feelings over finding Captain Morgan's guns, the biographer snoozing on the boat, and the model maker asking everyone the same question, “How long is The Satisfaction?”
At first, you wonder why the documentary would feature a model maker or Academy Award winning costume designer Colleen Atwood painstakingly creating imagined replicas of Henry Morgan's ship and coat. Wouldn't actual artifacts be preferable? They would.
But, by the end, you realize that these recreations are necessary to augment the quest for Morgan's flagship and its related contents during this two-week shoot. Because the sunken ship they excavate proves to be not The Satisfaction after all.
Archaeology is a waiting game. And by endearing Hanselman and his team to the audience, the director hopes we will remain invested as the archaeological team optimistically returns to Panama next summer in search of The Satisfaction. Hopefully, this time, they will be more successful in their treasure hunt.
In the meantime, though, we've still got the rum. (“Drink responsibly. Captain's orders!”)
The Unsinkable Henry Morgan airs this Sunday, Jan. 20, on the Sundance Channel at 9:35 p.m.
You can catch Haussman's art show, Gravity, starting Jan. 17 in the Pacific Design Center.