While Eli Roth (Cabin Fever, Hostel) has long enjoyed provoking audiences with his horror films, he’s found no such satisfaction in the case of his latest feature Fin, which documents a real-life nightmare.
Roth’s first documentary spotlights industries that are leading to the death of more than 100,000,000 sharks each year, and could very possibly bring about their extinction. To bring his story of global scale to life, he traveled the world for five years, placing his lens on the mass slaughter of sharks by illegal fin traders, shark killing tournaments and others.
Roth’s aim with Fin was to dispel the notion that sharks are monsters, and to accentuate their importance to the well-being of the planet, as a whole. Since making it, he’s continued to advocate on the creatures’ behalf, getting a major shark tournament in Fairhaven, MA cancelled, with the help of his social media followers.
Fin debuted on Discovery+ July 13, recently claiming the Ischia Film Festival’s Award for Best Documentary. The project was produced by Lionsgate and Pilgrim Media Group, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Nina Dobrev on board as exec producers.
In conversation with Deadline, Roth touches on the genesis of Fin, ways in which viewers can get involved in his effort to protect sharks, and his starry feature Borderlands, based on the video game series of the same name, which is currently in post-production.
DEADLINE: What led you to direct Fin? I understand you started to think about the project while hosting Discovery talk show, Shark After Dark…
ELI ROTH: Yeah. I’m a total shark geek. I grew up outside Boston, going in the ocean, terrified of them, believing 100% I would be eaten by a shark. For part of the show, [Discovery Group EVP, PR] Laurie Goldberg asked if I wanted to go on a dive, and I said of course I did, because I thought it was time to confront my greatest fear, which was sharks.
There are few times in your life [where] your entire system of belief shifts, and you realize it was based on nothing, and that was the before-and-after moment of getting in the water with sharks. They were so intelligent, so curious. They were much more like dogs than I ever imagined they would be. They had no interest in eating me whatsoever.
So suddenly, I realized, around the time of Moby Dick, people thought whales were monsters. People [called] orcas ‘blackfish’, and [didn’t] think of them as mothers with families. Of course, after [Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s 2013 doc] Blackfish, everyone really changed their perception of orcas, and I started thinking, “We have to do this for sharks—or we’re going to lose them all.” Because experts [on the show] were telling me, “It’s just so sad. We’re killing 100,000,000 a year.” That’s 273,000 a day, 11,000 an hour, and it just doesn’t seem possible. It seems like a made up statistic. Like, how can you actually kill that many sharks?
So, I pitched the idea [for the film] to Pilgrim Productions—to Craig Piligian…and to [Lionsgate President, Worldwide TV and Digital Distribution] Jim Packer, who’s a diver. They said, “If you can get on a fishing boat, we’ll give you the money to make this doc,” and it started me down this five-year journey of making the film. I thought [production would take] a couple of months, but it took me all over the world, and I just went deeper and deeper. I thought, “If I’m really going to make this, I have to go for it. I can’t just be one of these activists, like the ones I made fun of in Green Inferno. I have to get in the water, go diving on camera with sharks, out of a cage, just to show how gentle and cautious they are, and how little they want to do with us, and then show the massacre.”
And what I uncovered is so shocking. It’s like the entire world is involved in a Ponzi scheme, and Planet Earth, the citizens of Earth are the ones getting robbed. The entire industry is an industry of death that’s based on money and greed, and there’s so much propaganda to act like everything is fine that it really reminded me of the nefariousness of the tobacco industry.
This is a billion dollar industry that is so bad for you on every level. There’s absolutely no reason to have a shark out of the water, and then you realize how many politicians are bought, and how many government agencies are completely corrupt, like NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration]. After the movie came out, NOAA Fisheries put out a video going, “Sharks in the United States are completely healthy.” Meanwhile, I’ve been going after them, and a bunch of people have been going after them on Instagram for attending these shark kill tournaments, which are horrible. It’s decimating the population.
Really, at this rate, there’s going to be nothing left in 10 years. Some sharks take up to 30 years to reach sexual maturity. They live to 70, 80, 90 years old. They have very few offspring; their gestation period can be from 12 months to three years, and they’re getting killed [at a rate of] 11,000 an hour or so.
DEADLINE: How did you figure out how to grapple with such a massive story, and such a logistics-heavy production? Who did you consult with?
ROTH: The first person I brought in was Dr. Reese Halter…[who’s] an environmental scientist. I had Reese on as a guest on Shark After Dark. I said, “Reese, where do I start?” and he said, “Talk to Gary Stokes and Peter Hammarstedt at Sea Shepherd.”
Then, [I spoke with] other activists. I asked Joe Romeiro, “Who should I interview?” He said, “Go to Mexico and talk to Regi Domingo. Regi’s a friend of mine. She’s got an NGO called NakaweProject, but she’s out in the villages.”
So, we contacted Regi, we contacted Sea Shepherd, and Sea Shepherd hooked us up with the Minister of Defense of Liberia. They said, “We just caught a pirate vessel and they’ll hold it for you, if you can get here with a camera.”
I was editing House with a Clock in its Walls and I said, “Hey guys, I’ll be right back.” I didn’t tell them where I was going. [Laughs]
[On the Liberian pirate vessel, there] were people with machine guns, and I thought, “Jesus.” There were multiple times I thought, “I could die, or get someone killed doing this. This is incredibly dangerous.” But I also couldn’t stop. I had to tell this story, and I had to finish it.
But with our producing team, I basically put out the word to every single activist I’d ever met going, “Can you help me?” and all them said yes. Then, we had a fantastic cinematographer named Doug Glover. [We had] a drone and a couple of small cameras, but I didn’t want to make something with this patina of beauty. I mean, I wanted beautiful photography in there, but I wanted it to be effective like Blackfish.
You know, Blackfish was the model. What you saw in Blackfish was so horrible, but so emotional. It really got you. It was unforgettable, and that’s what I wanted. So, we had to have a very, very small crew. It was just camera, producer, sound, me. I would go in with a camera, very low-key, shooting stuff on iPhones when I had to, hidden camera when I went into the market in Hong Kong. I didn’t want people to notice what we were doing.
DEADLINE: During production, you spoke with a number of individuals who are responsible for the mass slaughter of sharks. It must have been challenging to keep your cool in those situations…
ROTH: One thing that I learned from the activists is, keep your mouth shut and just be very polite, and let people get their side of the story out, and most often, they’ll just hang themselves when they speak. So, I almost took the Borat style of journalism, where you just go in and say flattering things and let the cameras roll, and they’ll give you everything you need.
DEADLINE: Was there a learning curve in helming your first documentary feature? What about the process did you find most challenging?
ROTH: Well, I wanted to get over my fear of shooting without a script…and this fear of, “Am I just going to lead everyone down this rabbit hole, and the movie amounts to nothing? Is it going to be boring? Is it too much scientific fact? How am I going to tie this together? What’s the story?” Really, it was the hardest process ever, editing the film.
The thing that I learned was, never give up on your documentary. If I’m in the editing room on a movie, I’ll go through every frame of the film, to make every scene work, but editing a documentary is so overwhelming, especially because I’m in it. I must’ve rewritten the voiceover 200, 300 times, just trying it out, trying to tie it together, finding a way to explain it simply, finding a way to not be over-preachy or overly emotional.
Being so emotionally tied up in the subject matter, the hardest thing for me was finding objectivity. And what do I cut?
DEADLINE: How can viewers get involved in your effort to bring the mass slaughter of sharks to an end?
ROTH: Right now, on finthemovie.com, there’s a button where everybody can write their rep to pass the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act. That will go a long way. But really, the other thing we can do is, as consumers, you can tell health food stores not to carry shark products. You can tell Amazon not to carry shark products.
You can look at your supermarket. There’s 10 different fake labels for shark. Shark has 32 times the mercury that you’re allowed to eat, but it’s not tested, and it gets sold to often very poor people, in neighborhoods where they say, “This is a good source of protein.” But you’re actually poisoning pregnant women, children; it’s causing brain damage. It’s horrible, what eating a shark does to you. So, we have to drive the industry to zero.
Now, with the [killing] tournaments, [we need to go] to every single town that hosts these, saying that shark killing season is not okay. Years ago, we all got together and protected the whales…and we have to do the same for sharks, or they’re just not going to be able to recover. Then, the consequences are devastating for everybody.
DEADLINE: Will you continue to push for the protection of sharks through documentary projects?
ROTH: I definitely want to continue with a series. I’d like to make a series called Sharkos, and that series would continue following shark activism all over the world, so that there’s a constant pressure on these companies. We’re going to go to different companies and say, “Who is part of the solution, and who is still part of the problem?” Instead of punishing companies, we’re going to say, “Please help us,” and reward the companies that come over, that help solve the problem.
DEADLINE: I know you’re in post on your next narrative feature, Borderlands. What can you tell us about it?
ROTH: I’m right in the middle of my director’s cut. I’ve never gotten to work with a cast on this level, and I’ve never gotten to make a movie of this scale before, and world create, and I’ve always wanted to do it.
I’ve always wanted to do my own kind of Star Wars or Fifth Element, something that’s totally bonkers and fun that has the insanity of Mad Max, and a bit of Escape from New York in there. It’s totally nuts and so much fun, and even with Covid, we were the only movie that never shut down. Everyone was super careful. Thankfully, everyone stayed healthy, and I really am setting out to make a classic, not just some adaptation of the game.