Gabriela Cowperthwaite ’99 fell in love with documentary filmmaking while at USC Dornsife. (Photo: Erica Urech.)

Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite is still engaged in “good trouble”

A decade after her film upended SeaWorld, the USC Dornsife alumna says her filmmaking career was shaped by her political science studies, which “gave me the idea that there are things out in the world that need our immediate attention.”
ByMargaret Crable

Alumna Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s relationship with SeaWorld began innocently enough. She first encountered the amusement park as a paying customer, bringing her sons to watch performances by captive orcas and dolphins.

She admittedly felt a little uncomfortable watching massive animals splash around in pens not much larger than a resort swimming pool, but she tried to brush off her feelings. “I thought it was probably just me being too much of an empath,” Cowperthwaite ’99 recalls.

In 2010, her attention was piqued by the story of SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau, who was killed by an orca named Tilikum during a performance. Cowperthwaite embarked on a documentary film project on the subject, but it wasn’t a moral crusade: She was driven by curiosity, not outrage.

However, when Blackfish debuted in 2013, it revealed so much unsavory information about the seemingly family-friendly company that it tanked SeaWorld’s profits and sparked legislation to ban captive orcas. For Cowperthwaite, the outcome has become emblematic of her career.

“If I were to say there was a thematic thread across my documentaries, it would be one of pulling back the curtain on the things we thought we knew, but we truly had no idea about,” she says.

The Black Fish Effect

Cowperthwaite grew up in Denver and received her bachelor’s degree in political science from Occidental College in Los Angeles. She next enrolled at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences for a master’s degree in political science, looking to “break her brain open a little.”

“I loved being around people whose wheels are turning, and that’s something you’re going to get at a place like USC, studying political science,” she says. At first, she thought she might pursue a career in diplomacy or academia, but then a filmmaking class at the USC School of Cinematic Arts changed her entire trajectory.

“I completely fell in love with documentary filmmaking and I was like, ‘What have I done?’” she says, recalling her feelings of fear and exhilaration at such a profound shift in focus.

After graduation from USC Dornsife, she interned at a production company that created films for the Discovery Channel, National Geographic and other outlets. Her first feature film, City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story, which followed an inner-city lacrosse team, aired on ESPN in 2010.

Her second film, Blackfish, made more of a splash. Although she’d begun the documentary with the purpose of exploring Brancheau’s story (and to better understand humanity’s complex relationship with apex predators, like orcas), the film eventually developed into a sharp look at the entire SeaWorld business model.

The orca Tilikum in a scene from Blackfish. (Photo: Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.)

Footage of baby orcas captured in the wild, images of Tilikum’s sickly dorsal fin and harrowing stories of other trainer deaths at the park infuriated audiences. It led to a surge of activism so heated that SeaWorld eventually agreed to stop orca performances and end its orca breeding program. The movement acquired its own name: The Blackfish Effect.

Cowperthwaite believes this reaction was due in part to a renewed interest in youth activism. “There was a time when it was not super cool to be an activist. In the 1980s, a lot of our generation said, ‘We’re not going to be like our hippie parents,’” she says. “But I think it became cool again for young people to be an advocate for something, to believe in something and get behind it.”

For the thrill of it

The furor over Blackfish, which included harsh criticism and public rebuttals from SeaWorld, hasn’t dampened her enthusiasm for controversial subjects. Her documentary series Children of the Underground, which aired last year on FX, follows families of sexually abused children who are “kidnapped” and put into hiding to escape their abusers.

Her newest documentary, The Grab, covers reporters from the Center for Investigative Reporting as they expose the powerful corporations and governments snapping up rights to vital natural resources around the world.

“We’re looking at all sorts of stuff that’s going to get me in total trouble once again,” she says. The subject was so fraught that the production crew used encrypted servers to store footage and avoided working in rooms with windows.

She credits her background in political science and international relations with setting her on the path of independent documentarian. “My political science degree gave the idea that things are out there that need to be heard, need to be listened to, and need to be fixed,” she says. “I think my version of documentary was an outgrowth of that.”

Documentaries aren’t her only focus. She directed Our Friend, a true-life drama based on an award-winning Esquire article. Her forthcoming thriller I.S.S. is set on the International Space Station, as crew members fight for station control after the outbreak of war between the United States and Russia. It may not be exposing corporate secrets, but the narrative tension shares overlap with her nail-biting documentary films.

The path from political science major to filmmaker might seem unexpected, but Cowperthwaite says it arose naturally from taking advantage of what USC has to offer. “I think school is what wakes your brain up. Find your version of it. If you don’t like a class, take another class. There’s someone in every school who is excited that you’re interested in what they’ve devoted their lives to, and they’re just waiting to grow your curiosity. Have as many touchpoints in the world as possible, and then you’re going to find yourself and your purpose,” she says.