When Fisher Stevens approached prominent oceanographer Sylvia Earle about featuring both her life and her work in a documentary, she resisted the idea.
Turning the camera on her efforts to protect the seas was one thing, but putting herself center stage made Earle uneasy, Stevens said.
Actor-filmmaker Stevens managed to persuade her to change her mind, and the result is “Mission Blue,” directed by Stevens and Robert Nixon (co-producer, “Gorillas in the Mist”) and available on Netflix.
“If we want to save the ocean, we have to see it through her eyes and get people engaged through her life and her passion,” Stevens said.
Earle, Time magazine’s first “Hero for the Planet,” is a former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration whose many honors include the 2011 Royal Geographical Society Gold Medal.
The founder of Mission Blue, among other organizations, Earle’s focus includes creating a global web of “hope spots,” marine sanctuaries in which activities including drilling and commercial fishing are prohibited. A number of such protected ocean areas have been designated during the film’s more than four years of production, Stevens said.
Stevens hopes the documentary’s bluntness paired with Earle’s optimism, encourages individuals and governments to respect the vulnerability of every body of water, whether oceans, rivers or streams.
“I hope people want to get in the water, be careful what they put in it and what fish they eat,” said Stevens. An avid scuba diver since his Florida days starring in Fox’s 1993 series “Key West,” Stevens said he’s seen firsthand how much some fish populations and coral reefs have deteriorated over the years.
The documentary tracks Earle as she pursues her longtime dedication to exploring and aiding the seas. How her commitment developed and its effect on her personal world, including her roles as a wife and mother, also a key part of the film.
Earle, who will be 79 on Aug. 30 and who Stevens said puts him to shame as a hardy diver, is a trailblazer in many ways.
In the 1960s, she made the then-bold decision to temporarily leave her family to undertake an expedition with an all-male group of 70 colleagues, Stevens said. In 1979, she set a women’s depth-diving record of more than 1,200 feet – “Terrifying, but not for her. She’s an explorer,” he said.
Although the issue of environmental protection can be divisive, Stevens said he doesn’t expect the film to stir controversy. That’s in contrast to “The Cove,” the Oscar-winning 2009 film he helped produce which depicted how fishermen in a Japanese village herd dolphins into a cove and spear them for their meat, which is considered a delicacy.
The fishermen of Taiji said the hunt is part of their village’s tradition and condemned Western critics who eat other kinds of meat as hypocritical.
When asked if his filmmaking has affected his on-screen career, Stevens said only in that it can cloud the perception of what he does. He’s still an actor who enjoys working in films and on stage, he said, adding, “but you don’t have to do just one thing.”
“I love making documentaries, love the people I get to meet and the life of it and the freedom of filmmaking, as opposed to when you’re doing a feature and you have the studio and the producers breathing down your neck,” he said. “There’s a great freedom of expression.”