‘Blackfish’ director finds it hard to move on

By Amy Kaufman
Los Angeles Times
via McClatchy-Tribune

SAN DIEGO — Gabriela Cowperthwaite looked out the window of a train at the ocean and the bros surfing and the fish taco stands whizzing by.
“I’m antsy,” she said, shifting in her seat. She checked her cellphone, which she had largely been ignoring all day.

There were a few messages about work prospects, and another from her husband about their 7-year-old twin boys.

Usually, Cowperthwaite drives her sons to their school in Los Angeles.

But on this Monday in February, she had been with thousands of other kids, touring middle schools to answer questions about her documentary “Blackfish.”

This wasn’t where she thought she’d be a year ago, when the film about the plight of killer whales performing at SeaWorld premiered at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

But “Blackfish” has since become one of the most controversial documentaries to hit theaters in a decade.

High-profile musicians have canceled gigs at SeaWorld, and dozens of celebrities have tweeted about the movie, urging their followers to stop going to the theme park.

Animal rights activists turned up at both the Macy’s Thanksgiving and Rose parades to protest the company’s whale-centric floats.

In December, SeaWorld bought full-page ads in eight newspapers, rejecting allegations of animal mistreatment.

Jim Atchison, the company’s president and chief executive, insists most park guests “see the story for what it is — an activist agenda.”

The experience has engulfed the 43-year-old Colorado native, who had only one feature film under her belt before “Blackfish.” She spends her days sitting for interviews or traveling to screen her film.

Because her movie was nominated for a handful of prizes, she also braved the awards season gantlet, walking red carpets and attending stuffy rubber chicken dinners.

“I even put on fake lashes today,” she said, pointing to her otherwise makeup-free face. An oversized bouquet of flowers she’d received as a gift from a school mom rested on the empty seat beside her, beginning to wilt.

It’s what most filmmakers dream of — particularly those who make low-budget documentaries.

But devoting all of her energy to “Blackfish” has also left Cowperthwaite unable to move on to new work.

“I’ve been doing this for over a year now and have come this far as a steward, which seems to have worked,” she said as the train approached Los Angeles. “So I feel a kind of responsibility to keep steering this in the right direction. But just how do you continue to do that when in your heart of hearts you know that you should be moving on to your next film?”