Drama of Northeast fishing industry seen in movie
BOSTON—His knowledge of the fishing life once amounted to little more than what he learned emptying the lobster traps occasionally hauled up on his brother's tiny Boston Whaler. That was before Jay Burke was inspired to try and capture the drama of one the country's oldest industries on film.
The coming years included days at sea, cold calls to New England industry insiders and conversations with people from every corner of the trade -- from fisheries scientists to fishing wives. He even sat through the excruciatingly dull meetings of regional fishing regulators.
A decade later, his fictional feature film, "Whaling City," is nearly finished.
The independent movie was shot last fall in New Bedford, the storied fishing port south of Boston whose nickname is the film's title. Today, Burke is living on credit cards and working to finish the film this spring.
"We're just trying to tell a compelling story about one person trying to sustain himself in a really rough trade," Burke said. "I think on broader sense, a lot of people, especially in America (during a tough economy), can relate to that."
The movie was made during a rancorous period for local fishermen, who've worked since May under new rules with low catch limits that some say are unjustified, but others believe are critical to the industry's revival.
Burke is emphatic that he just wants to tell a story, not make a political statement.
But fisherman Justin Tonnessen, who advised Burke, thinks the movie's depiction of the rigors and conflicts in the industry could win it more allies. The reality series, "The Deadliest Catch," highlights fishing's dangers, but industry-centered movies are rare, with 2000's "The Perfect Storm" perhaps the best-known.
"We need the public support from places other than our own," said Tonnessen, 33, a scalloper.
New Bedford is known as an early whaling capital, from where Herman Melville sailed before writing the novel, "Moby-Dick." More recently, its scalloping industry has rebounded from near ruin to make New Bedford the nation's top revenue fishing port for 10 years running.
But the protagonist in "Whaling City" works in the shrinking groundfishing fleet, which has contracted amid toughening rules aimed at stopping overfishing and rebuilding stocks such as flounder and cod.
Burke, 39, grew up the son of a lawyer and school teacher in neighboring Dartmouth, with no direct link to the fishing industry. He was always drawn to film, though. "Honestly, when I was 10 years old, I had a film story-boarded in my head," Burke said.
Early work in business consulting took him to Australia, where his abiding interest in film led him to night classes. He decided to quit his job in 1999 to give moviemaking a shot at Columbia University's film school, which requires a feature-length screenplay for graduation.
Burke was flailing around for ideas during a visit home, when a walk by New Bedford's waterfront led him to cobblestone streets just as the fog rolled in. Burke was struck by the city's "cinematic" qualities. Combined with the ongoing battles over tightening fishing rules, Burke realized he had the setting and subject for his screenplay.
Burke will discuss only the script's basics: his protagonist, Sean, is a third-generation fisherman fighting to save his boat amid the increasingly strict rules. In a side story, Sean develops a romantic interest in a fisheries scientist.
Brad Harris, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, helped Burke understand the scientific and rule-making process, even arranging for Burke to go to sea on a research trip. Burke's passion for the project is striking, Harris said, adding its timing during historic change makes it an important record.
"The story does more than just make a movie, it puts a marker on the timeline," he said.
The script was vetted by locals and the movie features locals, such as a working fish dealer. It was filmed during 14-hour days in October in locations around New Bedford, from fishermen's bars to an old whaleman's chapel. Lead actor P.J. Sosko, recalls hurrying between four locations in a day -- "unheard of" -- and scrambling to find a new fishing boat after the weather forced the original boat to head to sea to beat an approaching storm.
"We were hustling. It was exciting, though," Sosko said.
Burke won't say how much the movie cost. It's under the Screen Actor Guild's contract for "ultra-low budget" films, which requires production costs of less than $200,000.
Burke is planning a local screening by spring's end, and he'll apply to show "Whaling City" at major film festivals, including Sundance, Tribeca and Toronto.
He'd love to see it go national, but just completing a feature film was his original dream.
"I'm going to make sure this film gets made," Burke said. "After that, who knows?"
Whaling City website: http://www.whalingcityfilm.com/