Documentary filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite didn't set out to make a moving film about whales. "I knew nothing about whales. I knew nothing about SeaWorld," she told us in New York this week. "I'm not an animal activist. I'm a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld."
Nonetheless, Gabriela was intrigued by the story of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who died in a 2010 accident with an Orca named Tilikum at SeaWorld. At the time, Tilikum was a 30-year-old whale who'd been in captivity since 1983. He was also known to have been involved in the deaths of two other people before the incident with Dawn.
After a one-year reprieve from performing, Tilikum resumed working before SeaWorld crowds — with trainers and a handful of new safety measures — in 2011. Investigating Dawn's death opened Gabriela's eyes to the inner workings of marine parks like SeaWorld and who really is accountable for accidents involving whales kept in captivity. Her resulting project, Blackfish, airs on CNN this evening at 9 p.m. ET. In our conversation, Gabriela shared what she was surprised to learn while making the film.
POPSUGAR: Why make this movie?
Gabriela Cowperthwaite: I had a burning question. I heard about the death of Dawn Brancheau, this tragic event, and I didn't understand why a top SeaWorld trainer would've been killed by a killer whale. I knew enough to know that killer whales don't kill us in the wild and that we're not a food source for them.
PS: I didn't expect this movie to make me feel so sad about Tilikum.
GC: When filming started, my overriding feeling about Tilikum was that I thought he was scary. I made the mistake of reading [Dawn's] autopsy report, and it was just scary. It's the stuff of nightmares. That spurred me to go all the way back to Tilikum's capture, which I felt compelled me to somehow give him some sort of psychological profile in order to explain what happened on that day.
For more about Blackfish, just keep reading.