Telling the story of a way of life

First published in the MLA newsletter, September, 2009.

When Iain McCray Martin graduated from Deer Isle-Stonington High School and moved away to Emory College in Atlanta, he found himself constantly answering questions about what it’s like to grow up on an island in Maine.

“It’s a completely foreign concept to people,” he said. Martin began taking film courses and realized he could use filmmaking to bring the story of his home to a larger audience. “I had the opportunity to tell the story of the people I grew up with and a way of life that needs to be given more exposure. I can help bring this to a people who’d otherwise never have access to the industry or the way of life,” he said.

The result of three years of filming is Life By Lobster. It’s a documentary that follows the lives of five young lobstermen and the challenges they face.

Growing up in Stonington and attending school with the five featured lobstermen gave Martin not only the inspiration but the access he needed to make the documentary. “I grew up around these guys,” said Martin. “That helped because they wouldn’t pigeonhole me; they would talk to me. They were incredibly patient and happy to be in the film.”

Martin hadn’t worked on a boat before making the film but he says that gave him a more objective point of view. “I wanted to make sure I told a story that was genuine but also understandable to people who don’t know anything about fishing,” he explained.

Martin found himself walking a fine line between needing to remain behind the camera and wanting to get involved. For example, the film shows Mac, one of the film’s main characters, working late into the night to finish his gear work. Martin says he wavered between wanting to lend a hand and wanting to capture the story. “What you have to do as a filmmaker is make a compelling film.” Part of that, he says, is being ready with the camera to capture daily frustrations. However, there were times, especially on the boat, when he found himself helping with tasks.

Nothing in the film comes from a script. “In this day and age, what is billed as documentary is sometimes a pre-fabricated scene. With lobstering, everything you see is real footage,” Martin said.

This leads to challenges when filming on a boat. With the boat in constant motion, “you have to develop this ability to get a shot without it shaking like you’re experiencing an earthquake,” Martin explained. His reoccurring nightmare was that either he or his camera would go overboard. On top of that, there were logistical issues. He had to work hard to stay out of the way, avoid stepping on ropes, and still get the shot. However, it was important to Martin to film lobstering as it’s actually done. “I didn’t want them to be putting on a charade,” he said.

Martin says the film started out as small project that he thought he could finish in a summer. Then, he received funding from The Perfect Storm Foundation, and director J. Miller Tobin came on as a producer, as did Opera House Arts in Stonington. With this help and additional funding, Martin was able to continue shooting another two years. And that, Martin said, was “necessary to do these guys justice.”

The film became a look at how young people start with lobstering. Many lobstermen in the documentary, such as Ben Weed (see interview on page 3), have been lobstering from an early age. Others, such as Mac, got a relatively late start.

“It’s important for me to portray these guys as real human beings as well as incredibly talented individuals,” said Martin. However, there was a process before people felt comfortable in front of the camera. He describes his preliminary interviews as “a real awkward first date kind of feel.” Eventually, Martin says, both he and the guys got more comfortable. “They trusted that they could speak freely without me using it against them,” he said.  “At first they really avoided profanity. I told them to talk as they’d normally talk.” He describes the final result as a natural portrayal rather than a sanitized version.

Martin decided to include subtitles in certain scenes. Background noise, such as the engine or hauler, obscured some of the speech. Martin also had to judge whether or not audiences outside of Maine would understand the thicker accents. “It’s funny because, being from there, I understand what people in the film are saying. I had to watch it with other people to get their opinions.”

Music plays a key role in the film. Most of the soundtrack, scoring, and narration comes from Joe McGuinness—a blues musician who Martin met in Atlanta. Martin says long before he started filming, he pictured the opening sequence in his head as he listened to a song that begins, “Well, it’s six in the morning…”

The film premiered at the Stonington Opera House and was a feature of the Maine International Film Festival. Life by Lobster will have screenings in Atlanta and at film festivals across the country. Martin is happy that both fishing and non-fishing audiences have responded positively to his film.

“The thing to take away is the importance of this industry; to the people who do it and to the communities who are affected by it,” he said. Martin wants audiences to “see people who are continuing this tradition and are affected by lobster prices being driven down and expenses driven up.” He urges people to buy Maine lobster but not just when the price is down. “Maine lobster comes from people who depend on this industry as a way of life.”

Life by Lobster Trailer