Louise Osmond discusses the life of sailor Donald Crowhurst
Deep Water tells the story of Donald Crowhurst, an amateur yachtsman who decided to enter the most daring nautical challenge ever proposed to man: The first ever, solo, non-stop, round-the-world boat race.
The film culls a generous amount of 16mm footage from the BBC vaults to chronicle Crowhurst's disastrous 1968 round-the-world yacht voyage. Donald was the owner of an ailing marine electronics business, a loving husband, and the father of four boys. He bet everything he owned to compete in the race, and become a minor celebrity in the process. But as the truth of his ten-month voyage became apparent to the world, it was revealed that his journey had taken a dark twist.
Directors Jerry Rothwell and Louise Osmond obtained the exclusive footage from Crowhurst's trip, turning it into one of the most daunting documentaries of the last decade. This afternoon, I got the chance to speak with Osmond about her trials and tribulations in bringing Crowhurst's story to the screen.
Here is our conversation:
Hi, how are you?
Louise Osmond: Good, good, Paulington. Thank you so much for calling!
How did you first get involved in this story?
Louise Osmond: I had just worked with producer John Smithson. He was the producer on the film Touching the Void. He was involved in this film, and he asked me to come on board and direct it. I was just over the moon, because this was a story I'd wanted to make for years. I'd tried to put together a proposal to make it a couple of times, but that never worked out. Then this opportunity presented itself. And that was just perfect.
What was it about Donald Crowhurst that pulled you into his life?
Louise Osmond: The most exciting thing about it for me was that it was just such an amazing human story. In the sense that; he was a man who set out to attempt something that was beyond him. And he gets in over his head. That is a situation that anyone can identify with. It is just a great human story, where you see him pulled further, and further, and further into a situation that he can't really break with. And he can't quite bring himself to stop. Once he actually sets sail, he is again pulled further and further into the situation and the deception. And he can't quite bring himself to stop it. To me, it was a great human dilemma. I think we've all been in a situation where we'd like to tell a white lie to get ourselves out of trouble. But then we realize that white lie has gotten us into more trouble. He was someone you could empathize with. And his family brings alive this story. As a filmmaker, who just wish for a story like this. The narrative has these incredible twists and turns of fate. Each time, you feel that events are conspiring to trap Crowhurst. Whenever he has a chance to make the right decision, he doesn't make it. It's just a wonderful true story. You can't believe it is true, though. You think that at some point, someone has made some of this stuff up. But it is all sadly true.
After being so involved with Donald's story, can you empathize with the reasons why he faked his journey?
Louise Osmond: I think his family gives a pretty good explanation in the film. I think they were pretty honest about it. They have spent many years trying to understand why he would do it. They felt, at the time he set sail, he wasn't a man who would have done what he did. I think he was caught in a position that he couldn't get out of. To enter the race, he had to borrow huge amounts of money. If he turned back, and gave up the race, he would have been left bankrupt. It's clear, as the movie progresses, that the boat he embarked with will not be able to withstand the race. Its not going to survive the dangers of the Southern Ocean that he is heading into. He can't turn back, because he will be bankrupt. And he can't go forward, because he knows his boat will not survive the Southern Ocean. So he is trapped in this dilemma. And he is stuck out at sea by himself, facing all the pressures of isolation. He reacted to this very profoundly. So, do I empathize with him? Do I understand the idea of being further and further out in a storm, being trapped by circumstance? You have nowhere to turn. And you make what you think is a small decision. The downward plight begins with a very small exaggeration. The minute he begins that small exaggeration of his progress, he is immediately somewhere people think he isn't. So it becomes detrimental that he quits the race. Because people think he is hundreds of miles ahead of where he is. He traps himself again, and again, and again. It's hard not to empathize with someone who was in that position. Human sympathy alone allows you to realize what he was going through on that boat, alone. You understand the errors he made. In trying to correct a small problem, he made a much, much bigger disaster.
What sort of relationship did you form with Donald's family through the process of making this documentary?
Louise Osmond: They had come aboard the project before I was involved. I think they've come to terms with this. Clare Crowhurst (Donald's wife) is a really impressive woman. I think she decided, "I am going to do this. I am going to make this film." So, she was amazingly open. And trusting of the process. The interviewing process was very grueling. I think we interviewed Claire six hours in one day. It was a very intense film interview that went right back through the events of that time. As the interview went on, the story became very difficult for her to tell. She was just willing to go with that. She trusted that we would make an honest portrayal of her husband, which I hope she thinks we did. They were amazing. Simon Crowhurst, his son, offered an amazing perspective as well. I think part of Claire doesn't understand why or how Donald could have made those decisions that he made. He ultimately abandoned her and their children. But Simon had a better understanding of it. He was so young at the time, and he just remembered his father as this hero figure. He didn't discover the truth about what had happened to his father until he was about sixteen. And that came as an enormous shock. To find out that his father had died on this around-the-world race. One day he was in the school library. He was allowed access to a new library when he changed schools at age sixteen, and he found this book about the race. It basically laid bare the truth about the acts his father had committed. And he was absolutely thunderstruck by it. The whole family was, really. They've had to live with it ever since. That is part of the film, really. You see that the consequences of his actions have stayed with that family all of this time.
How did you come to be in possession of all the 16mm film footage that is on display throughout the documentary?
Louise Osmond: Well, the BBC had it. This is really interesting, because this was really the birth of reality television. This happened during an era when cameras were small enough, people could take them anywhere. They were relatively easy to operate; these 16mm cameras. The BBC gave one to Donald Crowhurst, and French Television gave one to Bernard Moitessier (actual winner of the race). They asked them to make films of themselves. And to make recordings. That footage was in possession of the BBC archives. The BBC was also filming his story before he set out, as a news story. While he was away at sea, they were also following the family. So there was this amazing archive resource. It was an amazing gift. When they found Donald's boat floating in the mid-Atlantic, they found his logbook. That was given back to the family. So, you had all of these different elements. It was just an amazing resource of information. Sometimes in the editing bay, when we were cutting the film, we would look at footage. And it would make the hairs on the back of our neck stand up. You thought you might find a clue, or some sort of answer as to what had happened to him, in that footage.
What sort of restoration of the footage did you have to do?
Louise Osmond: The footage was of really amazing quality. I've seen much, much worse material come from One-Inch tape and Beta. This 16mm footage was beautiful. I don't think we did any restoration at all. We might have cut around some bits that were particularly bumpy. We wanted it to be as authentic as possible. We were happy in a way to keep the material in its true state. I'm sure we could have buffed it up, but there was no real purpose to do that. Moitessier's footage was simply amazing. Donald didn't film too much. I think there's only about eight minutes of him on the boat. But Moitessier's footage was beautiful. He had a really talented eye for shooting film.
How did these guys get some of this footage, being on this boat by themselves?
Louise Osmond: I think they used a variety of things. Most of them, I think, had a sort of fixed position. They had the camera situated on the mast, or the rigging. They also had something they could put the camera in so that they could film themselves. Moitessier was probably the most experimental. One of the first shots you see is of him climbing the mast and shooting down from there. These are just some incredible shots. They were very inventive. None of the footage seems to have been shot from a tripod. I think they just found a way to attach the camera to the rigging. Something they kind of fixed up themselves.
Did you ever have to reenact or recreate some of the footage that we see?
Louise Osmond: It is all from the archives. The only thing that we did to create some extraneous materials was, when the boat was discovered, we re-took a lot of photographs from the interior of the boat. What was funny about the photographs was how much they revealed about his state of mind. These pictures are completely chaotic. The cabin was completely ripped apart. The ship's entrails and its machinery were strewn about. I think he had time to mend his ways in those last days. We took those photographs to the production designer, and he recreated the cabin. So, we basically rebuilt the whole cabin, going and getting fittings from the Sixties. Everything was from that time. We, then, used that as interior footage, the idea being that we could bring about his world. But, also, as the film goes on, suggest his state of mind and his distress.
What sort of process did you have to go through to locate everyone that you interviewed?
Louise Osmond: We didn't have so many. Which always makes it easier. All of the interviewees were eyewitnesses. So, the producers had already tracked most of the people down. They were all in place before I came onboard. Once the family agreed, it was easy. Most of the people in the film still live where they were at that time. So they were easy to track down. Then we gathered them into these sets that we had built, which were these slightly provocative spaces that we filmed in. We did those interviews over the course of a week.
During the making of this film, did you ever get out on a boat by yourself just to try and get into the mindset of Crowhurst?
Louise Osmond: This is an interesting question. This was a tight schedule, so I really didn't have time to. A couple of years previously, I had done a film about diving on a wreck in the South China Sea. There was a moment on that boat, where they were down investigating the wreck, and I was waiting for them to come back up. There was this extraordinary sensation of being in this boat with nothing but the sea around you. You could see from there, that it would be quite a romantic experience, I guess. But I found it incredibly lonely. It was also kind of innerving, in a sense. It's a hard thing to explain. But it's incredibly the same. You see that if problems arise, there's just nothing there. I think Donald loved that isolation. I think he loved the freedom of it. I think I would fear this profound sense of loneliness. I find it enormously stressful. Its well documented how stressful it is for sailors sailing on their own. They get little sleep. It's kind of a strange, alien world. Bobbing about, it's quite close to being in space. Its sort of like that movie Solaris. It feels very unreal. And kind of inhuman. Maybe I have a bit too much of a vivid imagination. I didn't actually spend that much time on a boat alone, on my own.
How deeply did you delve into the lives of the other sailors that entered the race?
Louise Osmond: We do touch on some of them. Bernard Moitessier was a great character, and he had a similar experience with this isolation on the sea, out there alone. But he responded in a different way. He makes an incredible decision at the end of the film, when he is faced with sailing home or not. So, he was a very important secondary character. We needed to see how he responded to the exact same things that Donald was experiencing. Generally, speaking of the other participants, they were important to the story. You could come from Donald's quite claustrophobic world and enter the excitement of the race. One by one, all of Donald's competitors were out of the race. That's one of the reasons the pressure begins to mount on him. He starts to immerge as one of the winners of this race, which is horrible because he is exaggerating his progress. That's part of the vicious twist in the story. One by one, all of his competitors start to go out, until he is left as the winner. That is just part of the extraordinary roller coaster of the story. His family was expecting to welcome home a hero. They were a day away from the best day of their lives. They were going to welcome home this extraordinary father who had won all of this prize money. And he was going to be a hero. Two hundred thousand people were going to show up to welcome him home. Of course, it wasn't to be.
One of the things I was interested in, that the film doesn't really touch on, is what Donald took with him on the journey. Do you know what kind of food he had, or if he had any books with him? Any sort of entertainment outlets?
Louise Osmond: He took a pretty sparse collection of stuff. Local sponsors gave him stuff, so he had local foodstuff given to him by the storeowners of the small town he set sail from. He had canned meat and vegetables. He had some beer. He had a bottle of champagne. But he took very, very few books. He took the kind of books you always promised yourself that you were going to read. The really big, important books. I don't think he took anything other than some film and the tape recorder. There was really nothing in terms of games. I don't even think he took a pack of playing cards, though I might be wrong about that. I don't think so.
Reading the last bits of Donald's log book, do you think he went mad at sea?
Louise Osmond: I think it is pretty hard to avoid that conclusion. I think that is what happened. Yup. I think the process of the situation kept building pressure on him. I think all of that wound down on him. He didn't know if he should go back. He didn't know what to do. So he gets caught in the pressure of this deception. Then the fact that all of the other competitors have dropped the race. He is left the winner of this race, and he knows it's a lie. With the pressure of that, it's hard to imagine that he didn't go a little crazy. He had two hundred thousand people waiting for him. Double the size of the audience for the Superbowl would be standing on the dock, waiting for him. Wanting to welcome him home. And his journey was a lie. The absolute pressure of that finally did him in. He knew he couldn't do it. I think in the end, he couldn't cope with the position that he placed himself in. Which was an amazingly tragic story.
Do you feel like you went through the journey with Donald at this point?
Louise Osmond: It's funny. You do get involved in it in a way. I think what is true of everyone that worked on it, is that they really cared about it. There is the presence of the family. For them, it was so real. They had to live with that all of this time. I think we were all very conscious that we were telling a story that would set their life on film. Yeah, I think we all felt that we would have done something similar had we been in the same situation. When you start to think like that, it becomes hard to judge Donald. What would you do in the same circumstances, faced with the same problems? It's easy to say you would never do that, but faced with those elements...I don't know. I don't know what to say about being in that position. That's why it's such a wonderful story. It's the kind of story that stays with you. Watching the film, you are kind of forced to think about what you would do for your family, and what you would do to sort of salvage the situation.
Thanks for talking to us today.
Louise Osmond: Thank you for making the time. Take care.
Deep Water opens on August 24th, 2007.