EXCLUSIVE: The Life Aquatic Surfaces in Jacques Cousteau Documentary

Jacques Cousteau in a diving suit, 1972. ©Yousuf Karsh.


Front Row Features

HOLLYWOOD—Jacques Cousteau was the Elon Musk of the 20th century … and then some. He not only was a celebrated adventurer who explored the world’s oceans and seas and an inventor, he also was an award-winning filmmaker, an author of 40 books, who turned focus on conservation and saving the planet. He rubbed shoulders with world leaders who admired and respected him. The slim, permanently suntanned Frenchman with a red wool cap also was a favorite of schoolchildren, who eagerly watched his TV shows (“The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” and “The Cousteau Odyssey”) and non-fiction “adventure” films. He inspired his audiences to think globally.  Like Musk, he also was a celebrity who was a frequent guest on talk shows in the U.S. and abroad, who spread his ecological message in an interesting and fun way that was accessible to all.

“Becoming Cousteau” is a documentary from National Geographic Documentary Films that examines Cousteau’s long and fascinating life. He died in 1997, at the age of 87, leaving behind a legacy that is remembered to this day. Directed by two-time Oscar nominated director Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?”), the film follows Jacques-Yves Cousteau from the time he was a French schoolboy with a passion for making home movies, to a naval academy enlistee who wanted to fly aircraft before a devastating traffic accident led him to diving as a form of recovery. That, in turn, led Cousteau to his lifelong connection to the ocean and desire to explore the world’s oceans from above and below.

Frustrated by the clunky diving suits with their heavy copper helmets, canvas suits and lead shoes, he opted to invent a device that became known as the Aqua-Lung, which allowed him and his fellow diving enthusiasts the ability to dive deeper, and stay under longer without being encumbered. He also developed a device so he could take his movie cameras underwater.

The documentary delivers a warts-and-all portrait of a man whose expeditions initially were funded by oil companies in their attempt to find suitable sites to drill underwater, and a father focused more on his work than on family matters, and later having regrets.  In a case of “if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em,” both his first wife, Simone, and their two son, Philippe and Jean-Michel, joined him on his adventures aboard the Calypso, a former U.S. minesweeper, which he and his crew transformed into a floating laboratory for oceanic research. He later married another woman, Francine, with whom he had two more children, all of whom are involved in the making of “Becoming Cousteau.”

As Cousteau saw what was happening to the underwater environment, he became enlightened to the irreversible horrors mankind was subjecting our most precious natural resource, with the destruction of coral reefs, the warming of the waters and loss of species of aquatic life. Documenting his discoveries in a series of non-fiction films, he received accolades and eventually weaned himself away from the oil companies and turned to television in 1967 to finance his expeditions. As he grew older and more aware of the dangers facing the planet’s oceans and seas, the more cynical and alarming his shows became to the point where TV executives dropped them. Yet Cousteau sailed on and his reputation as an authority on the world’s oceans was cemented. When he died nearly 25 years ago, he left a remarkable legacy behind and raising awareness through The Cousteau Society. All of his children and now even his grandchildren are involved in some way with ocean preservation.  Philippe died in a tragic plane crash, which devastated his father and renewed his commitment toward preserving the environment, detailed in the film.

Mridu Chandra, a filmmaker and veteran producer of documentaries (“Ask the Sexpert,” “Brother Outsider: The Life of Bayard Rustin”) and narrative films that have premiered at the Sundance and other film festivals, is one of the producers of “Becoming Cousteau.” Her documentaries have explored civil rights and peace, gender and sexuality, environmental justice and the law. As a youngster growing up in the ‘70s, she watched Jacques Cousteau TV shows and films, and like so many, was inspired by his incredibly fascinating expeditions. She spoke by phone about making the film, which is now in theaters.

Angela Dawson: What was your introduction to Jacques Cousteau?

Mridu Chandra: Aside from the project, I grew up in the ‘70s and watched his TV show, and was so excited by what I saw. He was a big part of growing up. What excited me about working with Liz (Garbus) on this was having the opportunity to bring it back to the forefront of our consciousness, and to reach out to the younger generations who aren’t aware of who he is. It was like a lost legacy and the importance of that legacy for today—all of those reasons excited me to work on this project.

Dawson: The film opens with him at a gathering before thousands of fans, many of them children. He was like a rock star. Everybody knew who he was: he rubbed shoulders with world leaders and children looked up to him and admired him.

Chandra: That opening certainly speaks to the passion he had at that moment, and then looking back at the rest of his life and all the inventions and passion he had for deep-diving saturations, creating them when he was in the (French) navy. He didn’t just have that passion later in life, but it was there always.  He had that charisma his whole life. That was exciting to see in the (archival) footage and interviews was his curiosity that kept driving him to move forward.

Dawson: As a longtime producer, you’re often scrambling to find archival footage but there was so much to choose from in making this film—550 hours of archival footage, plus 100 hours of audio from his journals, passages of which are read by actor Vincent Cassel. So, was the challenge more about winnowing down?

Chandra: The earliest footage we have is from the ‘20s. In 1923, he was 13 and bought his first (movie) camera and he started experimenting with short films with his cousins and his brother. When we were given access to his personal archives, which had his home movies as well as the films that aired on television and the features he made for television, it was just a goldmine. It was a treasure for us to go through and sort. We weren’t thinking there were all these reels; we were thinking, “This is really exciting.” The fact that they existing was amazing. So, it was about creating order out of chaos, and looking through videos that may have been mislabeled and finding things and seeing how we could make sense of it.

We also looked at other archives because we wanted to do a thorough search, and he was interviewed all over the place. There’s tons of hours of NPR, BBC and television stations in Europe, before he was famous in the U.S. We had a whole team of people at Story Syndicate, so we had a two-pronged approach.

Dawson: Did you consider making it into a limited docu-series for National Geographic?

Chandra: They were a partner on the film. Yes, there is a wealth of material but (the documentary) was the perspective that Liz Garbus brought to the film—this very concise journey in an arc that audiences can relate to. It’s an evolution of a conservationist. He started out as a filmmaker, inventor, a pioneer in underwater diving, and underwater filmmaking. He also was a celebrity. He started to look back on his life and began to question it. That’s something that drove his passion in his later decades—protecting the oceans through creating love and excitement for it in his films. That was the arc that we came to fairly early on. Someone asked me if there was stuff that was left out and my answer is, “Yes, in every five minutes of the film, there’s stuff that we left out.” I’m sad about that but I don’t know (if a limited series) would have been as effective. It’s our hope that viewers will walk away with the message of “an evolution of a conservationist” and how can we apply that to our lives? Of course, there may be more opportunities (to further explore Cousteau) but we made the film we wanted to make.

Dawson: Jacques Cousteau didn’t like calling his film “documentaries.” He preferred “adventure” films. Was that news to you?

Chandra: Yes. I know of him as a celebrity, a television star and an adventurer. I can’t even say I knew of him as an “auteur” filmmaker before I started working on this film. That just made us love him more. So much of our film focuses on the 50 years before he became famous in the U.S. When he started on American television, he already was 68 years old. We thought it would be interesting to tell the story of him from before (that era). When we found that footage of him saying, “I think of my films as true adventure films,” we laughed. It was funny to see him poking fun at my industry, which I thought I shared with him before I made the film, but documentaries then were different. The form of documentary has evolved. They were more like travelogues, and perhaps that was something he was speaking to.  So, he was part of changing the form in making documentaries that were more passionate and narrative. I don’t mean fiction, but more exciting in a narrative way. I love documentaries and I love how that form has evolved, so I wonder what he would say today.

Dawson: He certainly evolved in his thinking about the oceans over the course of his life and career. He started out getting funding from oil companies to go on his expeditions and he wasn’t initially ecologically minded.

Chandra: I wonder if there is a parallel today that’s something new wherein in 50 years we may regret. That aside, looking at Jacques Cousteau’s life (the oil industry) was the only entity that would fund this pioneering research. The Space Race had government funding but exploring the ocean floor didn’t have government funding. Even though he was in the French navy when he invented the Aqua-Lung and worked for the navy after World War II, there wasn’t much interest to map the ocean floor. We still haven’t completely mapped the ocean floor.

So, the fact that oil companies were willing to do that, even if it was for their own interests, at that moment, it served them both. He found the saving grace in (getting his expeditions funded) through television, and he jumped ship. Excuse the pun.

I had the privilege to work with members of the crew who worked on the Calypso from the various decades. Some of the older crew members are still alive and many of the younger crew who heard all the stories. Everybody thought he was going to have a solid career in the oil industry after he created his underwater habitat but to everyone’s great surprise and also to their benefit, he moved onto television. That’s where he really was a visionary because he saw that was where the power was—to go where the audiences are, and he took most of his crew with him.

Dawson: Where is his trademark red cap now?

Chandra: I don’t know but there are diving memorabilia collectors in the U.S. and in France. The reason he wore it was kind of an homage to the early divers who wore canvas suits and copper helmets, with a pipe that led to the surface so they could breathe. He didn’t want to use those suits. He wanted to be free which he why he invented the Aqua-Lung. When people wore the diving helmets, though, they would hit their head so they would wear these wool hats to protect their skulls. So, the cap was a tribute to those early helmet divers that preceded him.

Dawson: Did you sit down and speak with his oldest son, Jean-Michel, who is now in his 80s?

Chandra: No, everything we have with Jean-Michel is from archival interviews, and our connection with the first family was primarily to access the personal archival materials. From the outset, we decided to stay in the world of archival material, so over 90 percent of the film is archival material. There was so much of it and he was a brilliant filmmaker that we focused on that. There’s a difference between an interview conducted today and an interview conducted in the ‘70s, ‘80s or ‘90s—so we wanted to stay in that world.  Even though we interviewed only a few people, their entry point into the film was the decade they knew and could speak about. So, even though they knew about all of Jacques Cousteau’s life, we didn’t end up using them if they weren’t in that moment. It keeps you in that moment in the film as well, which I love how that melds into the film.