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Chasing Coral with producer Larissa Rhodes

Chasing Coral is a terrifying film. Why? Coral reefs around the world are vanishing. The documentary follows a team of divers, photographers, scientists, and producers as they set out to find out why. In this interview, producer Larissa Rhodes gives an inside peek into her role as a producer, while also laying out what you & I can do to help the reefs.

You got your undergrad in Boulder, Colorado. Is that where you grew up?

Yes! I grew up in Colorado, and just like my dad, I went to CU Boulder for my undergraduate degree.

Producer Larissa Rhodes

When did you first fall in love with film?

I always liked movies, my parents and brother are big movie lovers. My Dad bought me my first video camera which I loved to document our family trips, but it wasn’t until middle school that I got my first taste of moving-making (and pulling my first all-nighter in editing) with a film I made with some friends about the Newsboys’ Strike of 1899 for National History Day. Mr. Rosato was a pretty inspiring 8th grade teacher to get us so excited enough to stay up late to finish our edit about a paper strike that happened more than 100 years earlier. Even still, it took a few more amazing teachers and classes (Film Lit in high school and Intro to Film Studies with Dr. Acevedo-Muñoz at CU) before I really started to understand the art of and the historical context surrounding cinema. I didn’t get into film production until my second semester of school when (my now husband & camera operator/additional music on Chasing Coral) Mark, told me I should really take a filmmaking class. So I have him to thank for my start in professional filmmaking. He gave me my very first paying film job.

You earned a BFA in Film from the University of Boulder and then graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts from Columbia University. Do you feel like school adequately prepared you for the ups and downs of documentary filmmaking?

I love school. I love everything about it, from the classes and papers to the reading and exploration of subjects. And as with everything, I think you get out of it what you put into it. I recognize it isn’t for everyone and I don’t think you necessarily need it to be successful in this field, as I have many friends who did not major in film nor do a masters degree and are doing just fine in their careers. For me, however, it was an incredible opportunity to learn from an array of professors and faculty who were knowledge in both theoretical and practical filmmaking.

Director Jeff Orlowski and Custom-Built Drone. Photo by Catherine Yrisarri.

What aspects of the filmmaking process were a surprise to you?

I think the most surprising thing about filmmaking is not knowing what the story will be. With documentaries, you don’t have a script, but you have an idea of what the story could be. The title of the film is fitting, as we really were chasing this story. Albert Maysles was attributed with the saying:

If you end up with the story you started with, then you weren’t listening along the way.

We really had to listen to where the story was going, and Jeff’s vision as a director really shined through year three into the making of the film.

Photo Courtesy of The Ocean Agency, XL Catlin Seaview Survey, & Richard Vevers.

Could you explain a producer’s role to someone who isn’t in the business? The wikipedia article on it is pretty darn broad.

I think there are many different types of producers and may roles producers can play, but the lead producer usually supervises a majority of the production process. The Producers Guild and the Producers Branch Executive Committee of the academy actually regulate Producer credits in Hollywood. In our case, it means managing the production, building the team, understanding what the story is and making sure you capture it, ensuring we have a budget and funds so we don’t go over the budget, and so much more. But one certainly can’t do everything alone. Our co-producer, Stacey Piculell was such a magnificent support on the project, without her our global call would not have been possible. I can also say that she is now one of my very dear friends. I think as a producer, one of the most important parts is be building a talented team that you trust and that you respect. It was a privilege to work with every single member of our Chasing Coral. I really think of them as family. Especially on a documentary, we are asking so much from each crew member that there must be a baseline of compassion for each other or you risk losing the magic and creativity of film.

Your bio reads that you develop and produce “projects that are socially motivated and environmentally conscious.” When did you first start narrowing in on that subject matter?

I think after I went to Bolivia for a study abroad, I made a film about the lithium and the privatization of resources. I learned so much and realized I really was passionate about stories with social or environmental narratives. Then, I got the opportunity to work on Chasing Ice, and saw the power of cinema in its ability to shift perceptions around difficult topics. Those two experiences showed me that while there are many stories to be told, I feel most passionate about stories that are social, environmental, and I would add now, humanitarian in nature.

How did you initially get involved with Exposure Labs?

I started working with Jeff while I was in college producing some commercials for him while he was working on Chasing Ice. Then I got to continue helping him, on Chasing Ice through the festival and distribution. That film brought my passion for science, technology, and the environment together, and I got the opportunity to work under and learn from some other incredible producers (Paula DuPré Pesmen and Jerry Aronson).

Director Jeff Orlowski said in a recent interview:

The approach we’ve taken is that the story itself only really has meaning if you understand why it’s important, and why the subjects of the film think it’s important. That’s the challenge for these kinds of projects, to blend those two worlds together and bring the science and the art of storytelling into that hybrid.

American-Samoa. Photo Courtesy of XL Catlin Seaview Survey, The Ocean Agency, & Richard Vevers.

Why is this film important to you?

To me, Chasing Coral is important because this story is so much bigger than myself or any other individual. This is the story of change and it has already and will continue to alter how humans live on this planet. We are living at a time when we have the ability to change the course of history, for better or worse, and we have to decide how we want to use that power. I hope this film shows people that we all have the power to affect change, as change at the local level can sometimes be the most powerful type of change.

After watching an eye-opening documentary like Chasing Coral, an audience may leave feeling a bit overwhelmed. Does the documentary lay out a plan of action for those wanting to save the coral reefs?

We have found that each viewer is ready for a different call to action. We seek to frame a vision for what we want to see (cities and countries powered by clean energy) and then provide a flexible framework for people to find their own role in the solutions. We are working on our film’s impact efforts, led by the brilliant Samantha Wright, which will help bring this story and the science around the world, but also to the communities in the US that we feel need to hear this message most. You can find out more about our outreach and how to get involved here:

Meanwhile, Richard and his team at The Ocean Agency have launched an initiative called 50Reefs which is a global plan to find and protect the reefs that will be the most resilient that will become the seed banks of our future.

Photo Courtesy of The Ocean Agency, XL Catlin Seaview Survey, Richard Vevers & Christophe Bailhache.

Do you have any other projects on the horizon we should look out for?

Yes, but we aren’t quite ready to talk about them yet!

What advice do you have for a young person looking to make an impact through film?

My parents always told me to follow my heart and to make sure I was always having fun with my work, so that is what I strive to do. I’m fortunate that I have been able to do what I love and hope that I can make a difference with my work. I hope others can find the balance of passion and impact so our world can be full of important stories.


Larissa Rhodes is a film producer and the Director of Creative Development at Exposure Labs, where she develops projects motivated by social impact. Most recently, she produced Chasing Coral, a feature film following a team of adventurers trying to reveal how the oceans are changing. It is premiering at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, along with a companion VR film. Rhodes previously worked on the Emmy® Award-winning documentary, Chasing Ice, and has an MFA in Film from Columbia University. Watch Chasing Coral exclusively on Netflix today.

Featured Image (top of page) Courtesy of Netflix. 

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