Interview with the Filmmaker

Q: The film seems to have cast a wide net rather than concentrating only on the barrier islands. Why?

Many people have heard of the Outer Banks because of their place in history—the Wright Brothers’ first flight, and Blackbeard, Cape Hatteras and the shipwrecks along the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”—but the barrier islands are not ecologic isolates. They are part of a great, interrelated ecosystem, one that runs from the Appalachian piedmont, which is the source of the quartz sand, all the way out to the edge of the continental shelf. The existence of the islands is dependant on the coastal plain and the creative force of the ocean itself.

Q: Creative, not destructive?

The islands move, literally migrate, due to waves pushing the sand from the ocean side over to the sound side and then eroding the beaches. The genesis of these barrier islands is due to five things, according to coastal geologist Orrin Pilkey: a coastal plain, a sand supply, a minimal tide range, rising sea level, and storm waves. This area has the highest wave energy along the East Coast and the storms can be fierce, not just hurricanes but northeasters which can last for days. Coastal geologists love big storms because afterward they can see more changes and evolution in the islands. The storms can slice open inlets, and they throw sand all the way across the island onto the estuary side and erode the beaches, which is how the islands migrate toward the edge of the continent. The islands actually move, like the tread of a bulldozer, rolling over themselves, in reaction to the storm waves.

Pilkey’s book, A Celebration of Barrier Islands, has a great explanation of the geology and how the islands work. It’s a beautiful work of art, too.

Q: So what are the areas that are profiled?

We start with the coastal plain and move east, to the estuaries, also called sounds; then to the barrier islands; then underwater to the edge of the continental shelf. Most tourists on their way to the Outer Banks whiz right through the coastal plain since it’s flat and hot and buggy and difficult to see things because it’s forested, at least where the paper companies haven’t harvested the trees. But there are several National Wildlife Refuges and the Croatan National Forest on the coastal plain, and they have some really wonderful natural areas. The plain is home to a unique kind of swamp, called a dismal or pocosin—great names!—plus carnivorous plants, and some bigger carnivores too. Red wolves have been reintroduced on the Alligator River National Wildlife Refuge, an excellent story of species recovery. Who knew? Wild wolves on the east coast. Lots of black bears, too.

Then come the estuaries, the nurseries for many ocean-going marine species, and wintering waters for waterfowl. The barrier islands separate the open ocean from these estuaries, which are shallow and filled with shifting sands. It’s interesting to go out with local watermen because they can read the water and avoid the shoals where someone like me would probably run a boat aground in five minutes.

I really came to love the salt marsh, which rings the estuary on both the mainland and the sound side of the islands. It’s a highly productive ecosystem and struck me as quite mysterious because so much is going on that can’t be seen. I was recording sound at the edge of the marsh one early morning and though all I could see was a vast field of cordgrass, I was hearing entire dramas being played out, splashings and shrieks and squabbles between birds and other critters, but I couldn’t see anything but waving grass.

The barrier islands themselves, the heart of the film, stretch all along the eastern seaboard of the United States, but we focus on those in North Carolina. NOAA and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences have been doing research on the edge of the continental shelf, so we were able to get some HD footage they shot from a submersible at about a thousand feet underwater.

Q: You’ve said this was a particularly difficult film to shoot. Was that because of the logistics?

Partly. The islands of Cape Lookout National Seashore are reachable only by boat, and there’s no development out there. But also visually, because the barrier islands are rather topographically challenged. The dunes just aren’t very high on barrier islands. The beaches are lovely, and everyone is mesmerized when staring out at the ocean, but after just a day of shooting the surf, the beaches and the dunes, Steve Ruth (the cinematographer) and I realized we were shooting essentially the same things, however beautiful. I couldn’t see making a film that was so visually homogenous so we decided to look at the region from space, and then go underwater and get small.

Q: Diatoms are pretty small. How did you go about putting them in the film?

I was doing some research on fiddler crabs and what they consume, which led me to diatoms. They’re phytoplankton, singe-celled algae that are the base of the marine food chain. I’d only seen black and white micrography of diatoms before but found some excellent color images. They are quite beautiful, another example of the exquisite forms that can be found in nature, and I thought a quick-edit sequence of all these patterns and colors would be visually intriguing. Todd Boekelheide, the brilliant composer, had some fun with it and wrote some really terrific music for the sequence.

Q. Rachel Carson’s writing plays a big role in the film. How did that come about?

Rachel is definitely the soul of the film. She’s most famous for writing Silent Spring, but relying on Rachel was a natural for this film on the Carolina coast. She did research in the area for her book The Edge of the Sea, a classic of environmental writing, and her words are so thoughtful and poetic. It’s a joy to read such solid science so artfully interpreted. While reading her book I was less poet than mercenary though, hunting and gathering quotes and ideas that would frame the sequences about various elements in the ecosystem. Her words provide context and eloquence, and reveal some insights into her personality and ethics as well. There is also a passage in the film inspired by another fine natural history writer, Curtis Badger, from his book Salt Tide. It’s a wonderful moment about embracing mortality, through his love for the salt marsh.

Q: And how did Meryl Streep come to participate?

Who else could provide the voice of Rachel? Meryl is a conservationist as well as a great actress, and holds Rachel in high regard. She also appreciates fine writing and really seemed to enjoy interpreting Rachel’s words. I found it felicitous that when we recorded the narration, Meryl was the same age that Rachel was in 1964 when she died of breast cancer.

Q: After several captivating sequences about the beauty of this unique natural area, there’s a brief section on development that comes as something of a shock. Does development stop the islands from migrating?

It tries to. Jetties are built to trap sand, and riprap on the sound side is put in place in an attempt to stop erosion, but they really have no chance against the power of northeasters and hurricanes. Pilkey says building on the shifting sands of barrier islands is a form of societal madness. Another coastal geologist, Stan Riggs, has done studies on coastal erosion and says the northern Outer Banks will cease to be barrier islands if a big hurricane hits or the pace of global warming remains the same. There will still be islands but they won’t be long, linear barrier islands, and Pamlico Sound will become Pamlico Bay.

The problem is that we love the coast, we all want to live in that romantic cottage by the sea. It’s not just an American inclination but seems to be a human one. Most megacities around the world are on the coast; but Pilkey is right about building a house on sand.

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