Little Fish director Chad Hartigan with actor Olivia Cooke.
Little Fish director Chad Hartigan with actor Olivia Cooke. IFC/LITTLE FISH

The new film Little Fish hit home in many unexpected and profound ways.

To start, it's set in Seattle, as the city and its people face a mysterious, threatening virus. Thankfully, it's not about the coronavirus or our pandemic, even as it feels remarkably prescient. It's very much a story all its own, based on the fantastic short story by Aja Gabel that Mattson Tomlin has now adapted into an incisive screenplay.

It's a science-fiction love story about a couple, played by Olivia Cooke and Jack O'Connell. They must contend with a memory-erasing virus that threatens to steal away the history the two have together. It's directed with a confident hand by Chad Hartigan. I spoke to him about his new film, the parallels to our present moment, and what it means to lose what we love.

We lightly edited this interview for clarity.

HUTCHINSON: After finishing your film, I immediately was motivated to see it again, for reasons I won't be saying here so as not to ruin the experience for anyone else, but I was genuinely struck by how moving it was. What moved you to this story in particular?
HARTIGAN: I first read the script in late 2018 so, obviously, pre-pandemic. It was a science-fiction love story at that time and what really stuck out to me and what I could relate to was my girlfriend was pregnant with our first child then. So there was a lot of love and hope and optimism and joy in my personal life. But in the outside world, it felt like if you ever turned on the news, it was children were locked up in cages on the border and climate change was getting out of control, and the Brett Kavanaugh hearings were going on. It just felt like there was nothing but bad news, and the world was metaphorically crumbling around me. It was a daily mix of reconciling how happy I was and how close I was to the person I loved versus the world being an insane dangerous place. I related to that a lot, and I thought that Mattson did a really beautiful job of telling the story of a complete relationship via small moments and telling the scope of a global pandemic via small moments and just keeping it all real intimate. It gave me a chance to work with great actors and make a piece that had scale and scope and genre, but was still character-based.

I had the feeling that it was coming from a personal place. There were many moments that felt genuinely resonant with our current crisis and the pain of the pandemic. If you were able to tap into that before, it feels remarkably prescient. When did you begin shooting, and when did you wrap?
Yeah, well, we shot it in March and April of 2019. I finished the whole edit in February 2020. So all of it was pre-pandemic. I mean, maybe at the very end, we were starting to hear about it. So it wasn't until the movie was totally done that we went into a lockdown ourselves and it was like, "oh, the world is dealing with something serious." At that point, it was just bizarre. I mean, totally surreal. I had a text chain with the writer and a producer. Every few days we'd be like, "did you see this?" and link to an article that was something exactly like what was happening in the movie. And in fact, there were some things that we took out of the movie that felt too extreme or maybe would take people out of it because it was too much. Then there were things that have turned real themselves, so it was pretty surreal. I never had to go through the process of working on the movie and dealing with the real world because we were actually already done. It's been releasing the movie in a global pandemic that's been the tricky thing to navigate.

Anytime a film is set in a specific place, such as how yours is in Seattle, there will be people who will look at the film closely to see how much it captures the place they hold close to their heart—and that is a lot of what the film is about too, is losing places that are close to you. How much of this film did you actually film in Seattle?
Yeah, not very much at all actually. [Laughs.] We shot most of it in Vancouver. But we did like one week in Seattle. I tried to do as much of the exterior, more noticeable work there but still, like I didn't want to just point the camera at the Space Needle and be like, "see, we're in Seattle." With locations in general, I feel like they're the most under-appreciated tool in an indie filmmaker's toolkit to making the film feel bigger than it probably really is. And so especially with something like this that was going to have a lot of locations, we really concentrated on making sure each one felt really unique to the rest of the locations. There's a lot of diversity of locations. It all felt really specific and we utilized it as best as possible that we could to add a lot of, you know, bang for the buck on the screen. So we did that both in Seattle and Vancouver. We really, really focused on trying to get locations that were cinematic.


Watching the film was a heavy experience because I was thinking a lot about loss and grieving. There was one line that felt particularly profound about the pitfalls of a collective societal trauma. It was "when your disaster is everyone's disaster, how do you grieve?" I want to ask you about that line and theme in particular. Are there any personal answers that you've come to in the process of making this film?
It's funny because that line has really stuck out much more in the post COVID world. It didn't really stick out that much when we were making it, but now it certainly does. I texted Mattson, the writer, and I was like "was this your line or was this in the short story? He had to double-check and it turned out that he had written that. I was like "what made you think to come up with that line?" He was like, "honestly, I don't remember." [Laughs.] And it's true. It's hard to talk about, it's hard to remember how, not just that line, but how the movie in general felt, pre-pandemic versus how it feels now. Especially because I finished it right on the cusp of like right on the border of those two time periods. It just feels like two different lifetimes in two different worlds. There was like the world that we made the movie in and how I felt, and now the movie, the world that the movie is being released in and how I feel. And I'm kind of just like you in a way where it's a new movie to me when I watch it. That line would pop out to me in a way now that it never did before. We try to pose questions like that and other ones that she brings up. What do I love about him? Is it just our shared experiences? Is that all that love is? Those types of things really were part of the goal to bring up questions like these and not necessarily answer them. Just bring them up to bring them up and have the movie kind of feel like it's someone wrestling with them.


When it comes to Olivia Cooke, the last role I'd seen her in was the Sound of Metal. Obviously, that was a different sort of strained relationship but I thought her and Jack O'Connell were phenomenal. It's one of those movies where once you see them in it, it feels like there's no one else that could quite capture that collective journey. Did you always imagine them for these roles? What was the process of working with them?
I actually came to the project late, they had another director, who dropped off and then I replaced this director. So Jack and Olivia were already on board, and I consider that a gift. I think they were a little worried that they might have trouble finding a director to be excited about a project that was already cast. To me, I would try to cast those two people if they weren't already cast because I was huge fans of both. I never pictured anybody else. Working with them was great. They had a big respect for each other. I think they both felt like they had something to prove, which is a good place to find actors. Like Olivia is trying to take more agency in her career, this is her first film she produced, and it's a real passion project for her, and she loved this role. And Jack, it's a different kind of part then he usually plays and has a bit more sensitivity, so he was keen to show this other side of himself. It was kind of the ideal scenario. They have different acting styles, but that's not uncommon for co-leads. The fun challenge of the job is making sure that you're accommodating both styles. I always find that that helps. It helps them feel like two separate characters. The chemistry is still there, but you feel like they're two distinct people. At any moment, this fight could get out of control or maybe this is the last straw. So they were a dream to work with. I'm really sad that this release is all via Zoom and we can't all hang out together again. Usually when the movie comes out, you all get to reunite.

There is the line where it was talking about "every day was something's last day" of things closing. We are seeing that in Seattle with long standing cultural institutions and places we have these lasting memories of. What do you think is lost, and what do you think these characters lose when these historic places are lost?
It's like so many all at once that it kind of feels hard to process. Usually it's just like, "oh, that one place is closing, now that's a bummer. I got some good memories there." Now it's so many, and now imagining going back to the world as it was, just having to find new places to love is daunting. I think the one that I think about the most and that hurts the most is not being able to go to movie theaters, worrying about movie theaters coming back or not. They'll come back, of course, but what exactly that will look like, I spend a lot of time worrying about. I pass by the neighborhood single screen, that was my favorite movie theater. It's got a marquee up that just says "to be continued." It's had that up for a year now. Every time we pass by it, I'm ready for there to be a movie poster on that marquee. But it's still not happening yet. It's tough. I worry that the longer this goes on, the more people get used to not going out and not doing things and not socializing. What are the long term effects of that?

Little Fish is now available to stream.