Filmmaker Mike Downie explores outbreak on the Diamond Princess

Image by Carl Court -Getty Images

A luxury cruise ship, the Diamond Princess, was swept up in the tragedy of the unfolding coronavirus pandemic. The experiences of this ship, and its passengers and crew, provided an early look at the symptoms and transmission of this novel virus, and now these experiences are being told through a documentary, THE COVID CRUISE, on The Nature of Things.

Filmmakers Mike Downie (Secret Path) and David Wells (Invasion of the Brain Snatchers) tell this story through the eyes of a diverse group of passengers and crew, along with infectious disease doctors who rushed to assist on the floating petrie dish that was the Diamond Princess, according to a press release from THE COVID CRUISE publicist. Remote interviews were conducted across Canada, and in the USA, Japan, India, and Australia, to tell the real-life story of the ship, and its passengers and crew.

The one-hour documentary takes viewers inside a floating coronavirus outbreak on board the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship which departed from Japan on January 20, 2020 for a 14 day cruise, in gripping, terrifying and intimate detail. The journey takes passengers and crew alike through life and death moments and the dangerous evacuation to their home countries.

In February 2020, the ship was home to more confirmed COVID-19 cases than anywhere in the world outside of China. This onboard outbreak provided researchers with a crucial early look inside the behavior and nature of COVID-19, according to the release. Early studies from the Diamond Princess provided the world with invaluable insights into the disease’s severity and its asymptomatic transmission; two vital pieces of information as strategies were being drawn up around the world to battle this pandemic.

“THE COVID CRUISE is the little story that tells the big story of a once-in-century global pandemic,” says the film’s director and co-writer Mike Downie. “But it’s a story that Dave and I hope shines a light on the universal experience and challenge facing all humanity as we collectively battle the scourge of this new coronavirus and COVID-19.”

THE COVID CRUISE is the next step in Downie and Wells’ collaboration, according to the release. They worked together on documentaries for CBC’s The Nature of Things, one of which, Invasion of the Brain Snatchers, won a Canadian Screen Award. They formed their own company in 2015. This documentary is their third independent production made for The Nature of Things.

“The CBC and The Nature of Things were looking for documentaries about COVID-19,” said Downie. “My producing partner Dave Wells came up with the idea of a doc about the outbreak of coronavirus, and the subsequent quarantine, onboard the Diamond Princess and CBC commissioned it based on our treatment.”

In 2016, their first of these documentaries, Running on Empty, examined the ongoing drought in California and the world’s shrinking water supply. In 2019, the company produced Laughing & Crying, that delved into the latest science behind our instinctive emotional behaviors of laughing and crying. According to the release, the duo plan to continue producing documentary films and factual content of the highest storytelling and filmmaking quality, for diverse Canadian and international audiences.

“We filmed some dramatized scenes at the Delta Hotel in Kingston for the film, corridors & rooms doubling for those on the Diamond Princess cruise ship,” Jeremy Katz, publicist for THE COVID CRUISE shared with Kingstonist. “The Kingston Film Office/Tourism Kingston was incredibly helpful in arranging all that.”

Alex Jansen of the The Kingston Film Office echoed Kazt’s sentiments: “We were excited to support this production, especially so given Director Mike Downie’s connection to the area. We were able to help bridge them to potential locations that could pass as a cruise ship, and the Delta Hotel’s beautiful waterfront views fit perfectly. Locally, MetalCraft Marine was also able to supply emergency response boats to use on camera and the production hired pilots locally.”

“We chose to shoot our recreations at the Delta because it actually looks like a ship on the water,” added Downie. “The interiors are nice, almost cruise ship like. But the best part was taking the ferry to the shoot each morning from the cottage my family and I were renting on Wolfe Island. And I have to add that the Kingston Film Office was amazing in helping us pull off the shoot at the Delta in the time of COVID.” 

Downie is perhaps best known for the Secret Path film trilogy that he co-created with his brother, the celebrated musician and Canadian icon, Gord Downie. Secret Path tells the tragic story of Chanie Wenjack, the 12-year-old Annishnawbe boy who died while running away from his residential school in 1966. The three critically acclaimed Secret Path films won Downie a total of four Canadian Screen Awards.

THE COVID CRUISE is produced by Blue Pearl Productions Ltd. in association with CBC and with the participation of the Canadian Media Fund (CMF), Rogers Documentary Fund, the Canadian Film or Video Production Tax Credit, and Ontario Creates.

Watch the outbreak unfold on David Suzuki’s The Nature of Things, Friday, Nov. 27, 2020 at 9 p.m. EST. The Nature of Things airs on CBC and on CBC Gem.  

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