Mike Downie discusses new doc ‘The Covid Cruise’

Queen’s alum on shooting a film during COVID-19

‘The Covid Cruise’ airs Nov. 27 on CBC TV and the free CBC Gem streaming service.
Screenshot from the documentary.

Mike Downie’s latest documentary The Covid Cruise chronicles the outbreak of COVID-19 on The Diamond Princess cruise ship as it was stranded on the coast of Japan in February.

Downie, ArtSci ’86, also directed Finding the Secret Path,a film about his late brother Gord’s album, which protested the death of Chanie Wenjack. However, Downie’s newest film presented a special challenge: shooting during quarantine.

In an interview with The Journal, Downie discussed how the film came together.

“I first heard about this story along with everyone else in the country,” he said. “If you recall, back then, everything was in Wuhan, and [the cruise ship] was just a little blip on the radar.”

When CBC put out a call for documentaries about COVID-19, Downie did some research and discovered just what a nightmare scenario had unfolded for the passengers of The Diamond Princess. 

“You start to get into the story […] and you just start to get the real sense, ‘Oh man, this is a microcosm story.’ It’s not exactly a small story but it’s a microcosm of what was about to happen,” he said. “What happened on The Diamond Princess was what was about to happen all over the world.”

The documentary details staff members struggling to cope with the developing infections at a time before anyone knew much about the behaviour of the virus, and the difficulties of quarantining on a confined ship. 

“Of course, as a filmmaker, those are pretty good elements. That a smaller story tells a much bigger story. That it’s contained,” Downie said.

The events which unfolded on The Diamond Princess were a precursor for what would happen around the globe with some vacationers not recognizing the gravity of the situation at first, and then fear and panic setting in as more and more became sick.

“They just knew so little about the disease and I couldn’t help but think they just didn’t know what they were up against,” Downie said.

From a purely logistical standpoint, one of the surprising things about the documentary is the amount of actual footage of The Diamond Princess it features given the filmmakers weren’t onboard themselves during the crisis.

“Invention is the mother of necessity,” Downie said. “So, because we were so limited—we can’t go anywhere as filmmakers, we can’t leave the country certainly, basically can barely leave the province—the research on this was really critical to reach out to as many passengers and crew as possible and to also try to find passengers who had also filmed part of their experience.”

It helped that one of the passengers interviewed for the film, Phil Courter, is a retired filmmaker and had shot lots of footage from the ship. Others had taken videos on their smartphones.

But this only got them part of the way there. As with many documentaries, the filmmakers needed to fill gaps in the visual narrative by shooting re-enactments. With the help of the Kingston Film Office, those re-enactments were shot at the Delta hotel on the Kingston Waterfront at Johnson and Ontario Street.

“They basically gave us a floor that wasn’t booked so we wouldn’t have an issue bumping into customers,” Downie said. “Once you get in the hallways and the rooms, with a little bit of help, they start to take on the appearance of a cruise ship.”

But shooting during a global pandemic is no smooth sailing.

“Nothing was a straight shot because of COVID,” Downie said. “When everyone arrived, we had to use a digital thermometer, take their temperature and then everyone had to sign a release saying that they had no symptoms. You had to do all those things. Then we had someone who was our safety observer just to make sure we were staying within the rules to avoid any transmission. It was a real good challenge, but it definitely worked out and we used a lot of the footage that we filmed there.”

Another challenge for Downie was directing the documentary’s various interview subjects from around the world without leaving Canada.

“I would be directing from home, and you can’t see everything,” he said.

As a result, he had to trust each local crew to do their parts well and follow health guidelines without being able to oversee the entire process. 

“It was really quite odd. It was a lot of paperwork, and it was a lot of really trying to double check, triple check that everybody understood: nobody can get sick from this. We’re making a movie about COVID but nobody can get COVID,” he said.

“Every crew did a great job,” Downie continued. “I guess they were slightly empowered by the whole thing—not having a director there telling them exactly what to do.”

Even under normal circumstances, documentary filmmaking requires a degree of improvisation.

Downie explained how you can plan all you want but once you get to your shooting location, you often have to rethink how to shoot the scene based on the conditions in the environment. But since Downie could only see many of these locations through a phone camera on FaceTime, he left it up to the local crewmembers to make their best judgments on how to set up a shot.

One line from the documentary that sums up how many of the passengers must have felt comes from Gay Courter, Phil’s wife, who explained the etymology of the word ‘quarantine.’ It comes from Venetian naval history and the Italian word ‘quarantina’ for 40 days because it’s how long they’d leave plague-ridden ships stranded at sea, sometimes leaving all the passengers to die, before burning the ship.

“In hearing from a few of the passengers, you got a real sense for how cut off they were, and how vulnerable they were feeling,” Downie said.

“They started to worry that they might be getting infected through […] the ventilation system on the ship, but they didn’t know. They were just in their rooms and then they’d hear, ‘Oh another 50 cases were confirmed yesterday’ and they just knew that more and more people were getting sick, but they didn’t really know what the transmission was so they must have really felt like sitting ducks.”

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