A Talk with Sean McNamara
McNamara Dissects the Shark Attack

Hopefully, the experience didn’t bias me—but, thanks to film’s producers, I consider myself blessed to have been able to spend some informal time with the cast and crew of Soul Surfer in New York City for the film’s premiere.  Also on hand were Bethany Hamilton and her family, plus Sarah Hill, Bethany’s youth group leader.

Following the screening of the film, members of the press were also given the opportunity to chat in roundtable format with family, cast, and crew, including director Sean McNamara.  I also got to speak with him over the phone earlier this week.

Sean, I’d like to ask you, technically, what goes into one of the sequences in the film: how you designed it.  The sequence that centers around the shark attack has kind of a self-contained narrative structure to it: the journey to the beach, the swimming and surfing, the attack, and then getting Bethany out of there and to the hospital.  Obviously, there’s a lot of time compression that goes into that.  How much of that is planned ahead of time, and how much gets worked out in the cutting room?

AnnaSophia Robb as Bethany Hamilton in Soul Surfer

I tend to storyboard, like with the sequences in the water and the scene with the shark, when I can’t shoot the way that I’m used to on the land.  It’s a way to communicate.  But everything was scripted: they were traveling to the beach, they got out of their truck, walked down… Obviously, we scouted a lot of areas and kept the script in mind when we were scouting. 

Then the shooting of the shark attack really had to be plotted out.  We rehearsed it in the ballroom at Turtle Bay, you know: in the meeting room; and we rehearsed it in the pool.  We had the water team there, me, the helicopter unit: everybody was there, and the doubles.  Everybody had to be in the same position because we shot it in six different locations.  Then we took it from the pool into the beach cove right out in front of the hotel, and rehearsed it again. 

I just wanted to make sure that all the actors instinctively knew that Bethany was on the right, Holt was pulling her in front, Alana was on the left, and that Alana’s brother ran ahead to make the phone call.  We literally rehearsed that so we could always recreate that.  From the helicopter, nobody could talk to the actors, so we had to know that it would work and everybody knew where they were supposed to be.  So that was really plotted out.  We had drawings, and big whiteboards, so everybody knew what to do. 

So then we shot it, and in editing we put it all together.  And I always liked that Bourne Identity quick cutting; that was always the intention, to go there. But what happened in post, we put a Bourne thumping fast track behind it while we cut to give it an edgier momentum.  And then Marco Beltrani came in, our composer, and he kept the beats alive that I wanted for the intensity, the drum pounding; but he made it a Hawaiian beat, and added in the Hawaiian chant.  That was what I thought was really interesting.  That was not an element that was drawn up in pre-production.  But it added a haunting element that I thought really, really worked.  And it was a fine line of keeping the chanting in, plus the thumping of the drum, which I was thinking of as a metaphor for her heartbeat.  Pounding forward.

So the sequence where they’re carrying Bethany on the board through the jungle trails back to the truck, were you shooting extra footage there for coverage, or shooting pretty efficiently to stay within budget, since you shot 35mm film stock on this?

Every shot we shot is in the movie. And as we were shooting, because we had such a limited schedule, I didn’t think we were getting enough.  If you look at the sequence, they get to the beach, and then there’s some shots of them looking down, which I kind of stole from The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: it was called a “squish lens,” and I just loved that look.  And I wanted to make sure it didn’t seem easy to get to the car.  The reality was that it took her an hour and a half to get from the ocean to the operating room, so I was trying to portray that: wow, this just keeps going; it’s incredible.