'The Cove' was covert, dangerous filmmaking
How does one expose the secret systematic slaughter of 23,000 dolphins?

It helps to have a billionaire, plus a dedicated activist, a neophyte filmmaker, two of the world's best free-divers, a former avionics specialist from the Canadian Air Force, a logistics whiz trained in transporting pop-music stars around the world, a maritime technician, a military infrared camera for night cinematography, unmanned aerial drones, a blimp and fake rocks specially designed by George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic to hold secret cameras.

Also required? A willingness to risk arrest, police harassment and potentially much worse.

That was the "Ocean's Eleven"-style team assembled to make this year's Sundance sensation "The Cove," the unconventional true-life environmental thriller that brings to light the mass killings of dolphins, specifically those exterminated in the Japanese port village of Taiji, just south of Osaka. The footage in the film, which opened in L.A. theaters Friday, is shocking -- a tranquilly beautiful Japanese bay turned red with the blood of dolphins, as well as graphic images of fishermen spearing the gentle, highly intelligent sea mammals.

Unlike their larger cetacean brethren whales, dolphins are not protected by the worldwide ban on commercial whaling that has been in effect since the 1980s. Taiji, a bucolic town filled with boats bearing the images of happy dolphins, is, as shown in the film, essentially a dolphin bazaar for marine theme parks hunting for their next attraction, and they are willing to pay $150,000 per dolphin. Unselected dolphins are herded into a heavily protected secret cove where they're slaughtered for food, never mind the fact that, as the film makes clear, dolphin meat is chock-full of mercury -- or as one on-screen scientist states: The creatures are essentially swimming toxic waste dumps.

The $2.5-million film, three years in the making, was born of the friendship between National Geographic photographer Louie Psihoyos and Netscape founder Jim Clark, old dive buddies who spent the last 10 years traveling the world searching for the best reefs, which they soon realized were dramatically deteriorating each time they returned.

Psihoyos recalls being in the Galapagos Islands and watching "long-line fisherman fishing in a marine sanctuary" and seeing "bombed out reefs in Indonesia." In response to the devastation, Clark launched the nonprofit environmental group the Oceanic Preservation Society, and Psihoyos began working on what initially was going to be four TV documentaries about the endangered oceans and their species.

Psihoyos started attending mammal conferences and stumbled upon the hero of his documentary, Ric O'Barry, in 2005. The 68-year old O'Barry, an endearing and obsessed activist, was the original trainer of the five dolphins who played "Flipper" on TV and blames himself for the worldwide popularity of commercial sea parks with their live dolphin acts, a practice he now decries. "A lot of the dolphins in the third world are in people's swimming pools. It's a copycat syndrome," says O'Barry, now a marine mammal specialist for the Earth Island Institute, and leader of the Save Japan Dolphins coalition. "People go to Sea World, and say, 'Wow I can do that.' There're dolphins all over the Caribbean, and Mexico -- the whole area is like a dolphin theme park with deplorable conditions. When I see them there, I feel directly responsible. I know the TV series helped to contribute to this mess. There are $2 billion in profits that come from the captive dolphins."

Filmmaking 101

At the time, O'Barry was on his way to Taiji, where he's been going several times a year in an effort to stop the slaughter, often with journalists in tow, and he invited Psihoyos to join him. Seeing the filmic potential in the trip, Psihoyos signed on, although the acclaimed photographer first decided to take a three-day filmmaking course.

"We're all professionals, just not at this," says Psihoyos, with a laugh. "I don't know if this movie could have been made by a professional crew. A professional crew would have turned around and ran. A producer would say 'This is nuts. How long is it going to take? How much is it going to cost?' There were just too many unknowns. The risk of getting hurt or jailed was daily. It didn't take filmmakers to make this film. It took pirates."

Indeed, the film depicts two commando missions into the cove, which is surrounded by razor-wire fences and policed by vigilant fisherman, desperate to keep their business out of the spotlight. There were actually 14 cloak-and-dagger operations into the protected cove to accumulate enough footage, and a dedicated runner who every day personally and craftily spirited the film out of town. "The reality was a lot scarier than the film shows," Psihoyos says. "We got ran out of town by the police twice." These days, when O'Barry makes his still frequent pilgrimages to Taiji, he always goes in full-blown disguise.

Clark brought in another diver buddy, actor-filmmaker Fisher Stevens ("Short Circuit"), to produce and comb through the nearly 600 hours of film. Stevens in turn brought in other professionals, including editor Geoffrey Richman ("Murderball" and "Sicko") and writer Mark Monroe.

Stevens insisted that Psihoyos actually become the on-screen narrator of the story, providing a charismatic and handsome figure through which to tell the story. "He didn't want to do it at first," recalls Stevens, who eventually convinced him. "The idea was this is not a just a documentary -- it's more like a thriller."

Psihoyos says that many of his stories for National Geographic had "an activist bent," but he also had maintained the belief that "a journalist is supposed to be a fly on the wall, he's not supposed to be part of the story. Still I realized if nobody gets active, then nothing would get resolved. I felt it was time to stand up."

Psihoyos and O'Barry hope the film will generate awareness and help bring change to the situation in Taiji. As a country, Japan has also opposed extending the international whaling ban to dolphins. Speaking before the film's commercial release, O'Barry noted, "[The Japanese] don't know this tsunami of bad publicity is coming their way. In Japan, they call it 'giatsu,' which translates into external pressure. . . .[This] movie is giatsu on a massive scale."

rachel.abramowitz

@latimes.com