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An Interview With Jacques-Yves Cousteau

By Rob Sullivan

An image of documentary filmmaker Jacques-Yves Cousteau, an older white man with short gray hair, standing in front of a yellow submarine.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau, best known as the man who first revealed the beauty and extraordinary life of the undersea world, is also a pioneering documentary filmmaker, inventor, innovator and environmentalist. Co-inventor of the aqua lung, he and his teams began the science of undersea archeology, made the first ocean floor search for petroleum, created the first small submarine for scientific work, carried out the first successful experiments in living under the sea, and invented the first underwater television system.

Cousteau's love of film came early. At sixteen he was directing fast paced melodramas in which he always appeared as the villain. In 1930, he entered the French Naval Academy and trained as a Navy flier until a serious accident ended his aviation career. The activities of Cousteau and his colleagues in the 40's and early 50's almost reads like a pulp action adventure novel: Cousteau fights in the French resistance movement; in 1943 Cousteau and engineer Emile Gagnan co-invent the aqua-lung; while under contract to British Petroleum Cousteau and his men find oil in the Persian Gulf; Cousteau and his divers discover an ancient Greek shipwreck off the coast of Marseilles, and pioneer undersea archeology; Cousteau and engineer Andre Laban develop the first industrial equipment for underwater television.

Cousteau produced some twenty short subjects before he made his first full-length feature, The Silent World, a film that won Cousteau the first of his three Oscars. In 1967 David L. Wolper approached Cousteau for a television series. The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau documented a three-year voyage of the Calypso for hundreds of millions of viewers, and became the most popular documentary series in broadcasting history.

Cousteau's journeys made him acutely aware of the damage of human activities on the human environment. His films serve to lobby governments as well as educate and entertain the public. Cousteau has completed one hundred and three theatrical films and television programs, and has written over fifty books published in more than a dozen languages.

Jacques-Yves Cousteau was in Hollywood on November 17 to receive the 1989 Career Achievement Award from IDA. The day before he'd flown in from Indonesia where his crew was shooting the latest installment of Rediscovery of the World, his series for TBS. The next day he was off to Paris to attend to administrative duties for the Cousteau Society, now run by his son Jean-Michel Cousteau. At age 79, Cousteau shows little signs of slowing down.

DOCUMENTARY: There seem to be two theories about the state of the communications business in the world today. One is that the control of the communications outlets is tighter and tighter, controlled by a smaller and smaller number of corporations. The other is that access out to the public is becoming easier, with the proliferation of the cable networks—TBS, the Discovery Channel, etc. What's your take on the situation?

JACQUES-YVES COUSTEAU: I think the important thing is to have a mixture of public television and private television, whether it's cable or anything else. Public television can be criticized as having a certain government control. Private television can be criticized as being controlled by economic interest. What the British have done with the BBC and private television is the ideal mix. Italy has done the same thing, France also. This allows people who cannot have access to private television to go to public television and vice versa. But this can only work if private television is stronger than it is in America. In America, PBS is too weak to play that role. It should be much stronger and have a bigger audience and for this to happen it needs more money. The key to making an attractive television piece is money, and if you don't want money to come from advertising then it has to come from the government.

D: But as far as the potential for filmmakers to get their product out to the public, do you see the possibilities expanding or contracting?

JC: Well, with the multiplication of channels, it's obviously expanding. But along with that multiplication, there is less money per channel, less money per hour. So it's getting easier to go to television, but for low-quality products only. The quality goes down but the possibility to communicate increases.

"I throw into the wastebasket any zooming, and panning. My films are strictly pictures well-framed. I don't believe in being fancy for the sake of fancy."

- Jacques-Yves Cousteau

D: Since 1942, when you made your first underwater film, underwater photography has improved immensely. What kind of technical advances do you foresee for the future?

JC: Well, let's not talk about the future. Let's talk about today. The future is prophetics—nobody knows what the future will bring about. Today the quality of the films that go out to the public is going down. The quality of the people going to the movies is down too, and everybody is looking at television, and television is giving a poor-quality picture to millions of people, and so the public gets accustomed to poor quality. I think the aesthetic downgrading of pictures that are consumed by the viewers is the most important factor today. Also the content does not count anymore. You have no captive audience any­ more. People are home—they go the fridge, they get a beer—maybe that's the crucial moment of the film they were looking at. So they just missed a quality moment of the film. The sense, the meaning of the show is lost. What is left is bedazzlement, diabolic rhythms—shorter and shorter shots with quicker and quicker editing. So you get bedazzled but you don't know what about.

D: Any new advances that you're making now in underwater photography?

JC: What do you mean—technical advances?

D: Yes, right, technical.

JC: We don't care about technical advances. I think I know all the techniques of cinema as well as anybody else. Listen, I throw into the wastebasket any zooming, and panning. My films are strictly pictures well-framed. I don't believe in being fancy for the sake of fancy. When you have a story to tell you don't need those things.

I was reading a quote of yours: "Behind the adventure of the Calypso was the ghost adventure of financing." That's always such a difficulty for documentary filmmakers. Is it easier to find financing in Europe than it is in America?

Oh no. Generally speaking, distributors everywhere don't want documentaries. In movies or in television, we are always sacrificed. It's too bad but that's the way it is.The funny thing is, the public at large appreciates good, quality documentaries, but they're not given what they want.

D: You think the situation is improving or getting worse?

JC: It's always the same thing. I remember very well at the beginning of my career—there was no television at all. I had to go to cinema distributors—unbelievable. To give you an example, The Silent World, it won an Oscar, it was the number one feature film at Cannes. Bon. And it was co-produced by Columbia Pictures. I went with this film to the States, to New York, and met with the Columbia distribution people, and they said no way can we distribute that film. So I pleaded my case. I said, 'Look, the tradition in the States is to make a market test in a small town, why don't we do one?' They said, 'Oh, you are joking, we don't want to waste the time and effort.' So I said, 'Please, make at least a test in one little town.' Finally they said, 'Well OK, we'll show it in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and see what happens.' So I went to Kalamazoo. Well, of course at that time nobody knew me.

D: Right, 1956.

JC: Yes. So I went to Kalamazoo and started making lectures to every possible community group I could. Kids, the elderly, whatever. And finally the week came when they were testing my film. We had against us The Caine Mutiny. That was pretty tough, but we beat The Caine Mutiny in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

So after that Col um bia was obliged to distribute The Silent World, and they made a fortune on it. So this is to show you that distributors have always been against documentaries. They thought there was no chance for that film, and there was.

D: Have you ever wanted to make a fictionalized film?

JC: No, never. I'm not interested. Not at all interested.

D: Let's talk about the state of the world—the greenhouse effect, global warming. Any comment?

JC: The Cousteau Society is not equipped to contribute to scientific research in this field because it requires tremendous equipment. But I am affiliated with lots of laboratories working in this field, and I'm aware of what they find. It is a fact that the Co2 in the atmosphere is going. It is a fact that the ozone layer is decreasing. It is a fact that the temperature of the planet is beginning to warm up. It is a fact that the level of the sea is beginning to move up, ever so slowly. All these things are fairly threatening. For the first time the leaders of the world and the decision -makers in industry are realizing that the threat is no more local or national, that it is global. And then they scratch their heads and say well, maybe it's high time to d o something about it. But it may be too late. And, besides, the major problem of the environment is the population explosion, and in this field we see no solution.

"The audience wants emotion, they want to be touched, they want to be moved, not to be analyzed and tortured."

- Jacques-Yves Cousteau 

D: Since you've been diving, have you seen quite a bit of deterioration under the water?

JC: Oh, of course. Tremendous deterioration. Many of the films I made twenty years ago I couldn't even make today. The animals have just disappeared.

D: Do you feel like you're on a lost mission or do you still retain your sense of hope?

JC: I don't know... It's impossible to predict the future. If The world population was stable, I would have hope. But with the population increasing, I don't see any solution.

D: How close do you think we are to a one-world communication network ?

JC: We're heading to that. No question—it's coming.

D: I should ask the obligatory question: any advice for young documentary filmmakers?

JC: Well, I don't think I can do that because each person has their own individual personality. If I am giving advice, what does that mean? I would give advice automatically biased with my own taste. So I don't think I should. Every single creator must create what they feel. However, and this is only a personal impression, most of the newcomers to documentaries think that they have to give proof of originality. They exaggerate, they intellectualize, instead of trying to express what they see the way that they see it. They try to express what they see the way their inner mentality sees it, and then it's complicated and then it's sophisticated and then it's influenced by psychoanalysis and it becomes unbearable. And also they need to astonish—that's not creative. They should work more with their guts than with their head because that's what the viewers like. The audience wants emotion, they want to be touched, they want to be moved, not to be analyzed and tortured.

D: You're off to Paris now—what's the agenda there?

JC: Well, so many things. I'm running a small world with 150 employees. We're fighting for so many things, apart from making films. The Antarctic, the environment, the population explosion, peace, Third World, education. So many many things.