It’s a homecoming for documentary filmmaker and marine biologist Randy Olson, when he comes to the University of Maine this week. His three-day series of screenings and discussions, set for today, Sept. 21, through Thursday, Sept. 23, at the Collins Center for the Arts, brings him back to the state where he made his first major film, “Salt of the Earth,” a short documentary about lobster fishermen in Stonington.
“Salt of the Earth” will be shown at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 22, as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of its release. The stars of the film, lobstermen Brian and Stevie Robbins, will be on hand to talk after the screening, along with Olson. There will also be a performance from renowned bluegrass musician and founding member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band John McEuan, along with Maine bluegrass group Blue Northern. Admission is $12. Earlier in the day, Olson will give a talk on and signing of his book, “Don’t Be Such a Scientist,” at 4 p.m. at the CCA.
McEuan composed the score for Olson’s most recent feature-length film, 2008’s “Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy,” a hilarious, informative take on global warming, which will be given its Maine premiere at 4 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 23. Admission to that is free. There’s also a free screening at 11 a.m. today of Olson’s movie “Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus,” his 2006 documentary. Olson is a Harvard-trained marine biologist who left his professorship at the University of New Hampshire in 1994 to become a filmmaker. He is currently the Director of the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project. Olson answered some questions for the Bangor Daily News on Monday morning.
“‘Salt of the Earth’ was your first successful film. At the time of its making, what was so compelling to you about the stories of the lobster fishermen of Maine?”
“Well, it all begins with that word: storytelling. I lived in Australia, on an island in the north end of the Great Barrier Reef, and I spent night after night hanging out with the fishermen, telling amazing stories. I’ve always loved great storytellers. When I came back to teach at the University of New Hampshire, I did a film called ‘Lobstahs,’ which wasn’t too good, but it did get an award, which inspired me to make another movie. We set about looking for fishermen on the coast of Maine to tell some stories, and we started hearing from people, who told me I really had to talk to Brian and Stevie Robbins.
“They were super suspicious of us at first, but then somebody gave them a copy of ‘Lobstahs,’ and they said ‘We watched your film, and it’s terrible, so we figured you must be harmless.’ So we went ahead and did the film, and that was the chemistry. My films are not traditional nature documentaries, with lots of visuals. It’s really about storytelling, and human emotions. That film is still the most meaningful one I’ve made, in 20 years of filmmaking.”
“Do you still talk to both Brian and Stevie?”
“Oh, all the time. How could I not? Brian and I share similar senses of humor. We trade e-mails every week or two. The friendship that arose over the making of the movie has definitely lasted over the years. Movies like ‘Sizzle’ and ‘Dodos’ are really secondary, in a lot of ways, to the lobster movie. I’m trying to reach across demographics and find common ground with people, in terms of science. Communication dynamics are so important.”
“Humor is a big part of your filmmaking, as is an approach to explaining marine biology, science and environmental issues that’s open and understandable to the general public. How do you balance between accessibility and hard science?”
“One leads to another, in my book. There’s the simple premise of ‘arouse and fulfill,’ which came from a communications professor at the University of Southern California. To reach a broad audience, you need to arouse interest and then fulfill their expectations on that interest. You look at failed communications, and on one end of the spectrum, people fail to arouse. That’s academics, in a lot of ways. In the case of Hollywood, they arouse, but they don’t know how to fulfill. The best moment of ‘Sizzle,’ to me, is when the two flighty producers say, ‘We’re upset and worried about global warming, but we just don’t really know why.’ That kind of encapsulates the environmental movement.”
“What are you working on currently?”
“I’ve always got movies in the works. One of the most interesting things going on is that my movie ‘Sizzle’ is being adapted into a play by a theater group in Chicago. My book is becoming popular, and we’re going around to science institutes to find out just why they are such scientists, talking about the handicaps scientists often have in communicating their ideas.”
“Bob Steneck, one of my oldest buddies, made a short film in the summer of 1978 called ‘Blue Water, Brown Cloud,’ a film about two divers having a picnic underwater. Bob teaches at the Darling [Mariner] Center at UMaine now. That film was so hilarious and so great, and it was one of my first major inclinations that I wanted to be a filmmaker. He is ten times the filmmaker I am. He can’t find that film, but it’s a classic.”