Luna: A Whale to Watch

The true story of a lonely orca leaps from printed page to silver screen, with a boost from new technology

Luna sought the company of humans on Nootka Sound. (Fred Lazuk)
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But to us that wasn’t enough. Luna’s life deserved more than fading newsprint. We were starting a book and were working on that 42-minute TV show, but we began to believe that Luna’s life had a grandeur and beauty that seemed bigger than all those things combined. When our CBC editor saw the first 40 minutes, he said he thought it should be longer, and we began to talk about a full-length movie. But who would do it? The studios had said no. It would be nobody—or it would be us. Yes! we said, trying to persuade ourselves. Finally, with our editor’s encouragement, we decided to make a full-length, nonfiction feature movie.

It has now been over five years since I first sat down at the computer and started editing. Things have not been easy. The obstacles between a digital camera and a theatrical screen are still many and high, and there’s more excellent competition every day.

We called the film Saving Luna. My son, David, and a composer colleague wrote the music—again using new technology to manage live performances. We sent the film to festivals and held our breath. We got in—to some. Not Sundance, but Santa Barbara. Not Tribeca, but Abu Dhabi. Not Berlin, but Bristol. And yet the biggest of doors—to U.S. theaters—remained closed. Our film joined a category that studios and distributors tend to call, sometimes with disdain, “festival films,” as if only cinephiles can enjoy them.

And then out of the blue, diving through the sky with a roar and a smile and a flash of green light, came our very own superhero: Ryan Reynolds, last year’s People magazine Sexiest Man Alive and star of this year’s Green Lantern, one of the most anticipated superhero movies of the summer. Ryan had grown up in Vancouver, not far from the waters in which Luna’s family still roamed. He had heard about the film through our agent and he loved it.

He gave a copy to Scarlett Johansson, the actress, and the two of them became executive producers. Ryan took over the narration, which he did with his characteristic dry humor and easygoing delivery, adding funny asides as we went along. Then both of them worked with us to make a new film out of pieces of the old one and new footage we shot. It’s called The Whale.

This was another advantage of the new technology: we could just crank up the home computer and begin again. We worked on the film for another year. And at last that combination of homegrown story and Hollywood star power opened the final doors. The Whale, and Luna, are finally about to reach the big screen. It has been an amazing journey, made possible by technology. And what does it symbolize?

“I certainly don’t want to go on record as saying the studio system is going to die, not in my lifetime,” David Courier told me with a laugh. “Huge special-effects-driven films and big Hollywood glamour are going to be around for a good while, because people often go to the movies as an escape. But then there are other people who go to movies just to see a good story. Independent cinema is providing a lot of the good stories.”

It is at least a partial shift in creative power. When the hard-boiled novelist Raymond Chandler went to Hollywood in the 1940s, he watched in frustration as studio executives demoralized the storytellers.

“That which is born in loneliness and from the heart,” Chandler wrote, “cannot be defended against the judgment of a committee of sycophants.”

So the irony is this: technology is freeing us from technology. The machines that once gave money veto power over originality are becoming obsolete, and freedom grows. Now, a story may rise more easily to our attention simply because it is stirring. People can follow their passions into the smoke of a shattered nation, as James Longley did, or into the life of a whale, or into the endless wild landscape of the imagination, and bring what they find back in their own hands.


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