National Geographic first approached Liz Garbus at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival about directing a documentary focused on French sea explorer Jacques Cousteau. Garbus, who grew up watching David Wolper’s ABC series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” was intrigued. So, for the next four years she and her production team researched the iconic oceanographer, filmmaker and conservationist. Then in 2019, after years of negotiating, the Cousteau Society granted the Oscar-nominated director exclusive access to a treasure trove of never-before-seen archival video and audio footage, which allowed Garbus to create the intimate, engaging doc that she originally intended upon. The result is “Becoming Cousteau,” which screens at the Toronto International Film Festival. Garbus talked to Variety about the film.
Cousteau co-created the Aqua Lung, won both the Palme d’Or and the Oscar for his 1956 film “The Silent World” and became a world renowned conservationist. He lived so many lives. How did you decide to make this a one-off and not a docuseries?
I wanted it to be a complete experience. I also wanted it to be something that would introduce new people to [Cousteau] and for those of us who knew and loved him, it would be a walk through memory lane that ends up giving you more than you knew [about him]. So the doc needed to be a film you consume in one sitting.
Do you think 10 years ago, when climate change wasn’t making headlines, that anyone would have wanted to see a film about an environmentalist?
Yes. I think people have tried to make this film over the years because of course 10 years ago many of us were all very aware of climate change, but it was still being belittled by huge factions of society. But I will say that the message of the doc and Cousteau’s warning to the world [about the climate crisis] becomes more and more urgent every day.
You gained exclusive access to the Cousteau Society Archives, which is controlled by Francine Cousteau — Jacques’ second wife whom he started a second family with while married to his first wife, Simone Melchior. How did Francine feel about including the affair in the film?
Francine is extremely protective of the archive, but I had editorial creative control of the film. So, at the end of the day it’s the film I wanted to make and that’s how it had to be.
Before he rallied the world against environmental disaster, Cousteau accepted work locating oil-drill sites in the Persian Gulf to finance his sea expeditions. He also didn’t respect sea life. Did you always know that you wanted to include this part of his life in the film?
No. It was something I discovered during research. Here was a person who initially was exploring for the fun and for the adventure and then because of his decades under water, and literally seeing the destruction environments, he had a realization — an epiphany. So showing his early adventures and hubris in the beginning made his ocean conservation efforts later in life that much more urgent, moving and deeply felt.
The doc reveals that Cousteau disdained the word documentary and “became furious when they label my films as documentary.” Did that make you laugh?
That was a little wink to the doc community. For all of us to laugh and realize how far we’ve come.