Saga of the Submarine Squalus – How Self-taught Documentarian Mike Garland Became a Filmmaker at 63
Indie Film Junction | September 9, 2020
Indie Film Junction | September 9, 2020
Retirement usually marks the end of a career and the beginning of days filled with leisure activities. That’s not the case for Mike Garland, who decided to dive into filmmaking and learn how to craft one of the most complicated mediums. In collaboration with writer, historian, and producer Karen Raynes, Mike has made two historical documentaries. Their first film honored World War I veterans from Hampton, New Hampshire, and their latest offering covers the remarkable story of a submarine rescue.
IFJ: Congratulations on the release of Saga of the Submarine Squalus! Can you tell us what it’s about?
MG: Our latest documentary tells the incredible story of the sinking, rescue, and salvage of an American submarine named the “Squalus”. This submarine was performing its last trial run on May 23rd, 1939 when a system malfunction caused it to sink off the coast of New Hampshire in 243 feet of water. Twenty six of the crew members died almost immediately but thirty three men were still alive and trapped on the ocean bottom. During an extraordinary rescue operation that lasted almost 40 hours, all the trapped men were brought to the surface. To this day, it is the greatest submarine rescue in history. After four months of monumental effort, the Squalus was raised from the ocean bottom and towed into the Portsmouth New Hampshire Navy Yard where it was repaired, refitted, and recommissioned as the Sailfish. The Sailfish would later join the Pacific Fleet and sink a number of Japanese ships in World War Two.
IFJ: The story as told in your film is really compelling and unfolds in surprising and exciting ways. What initially drew you to this idea, and how much did you know going into the project?
MG: Karen Raynes came up with the idea for the film. She is a local historian and writer who volunteers at our local museum. One day at the museum in 2018, she was viewing a model of the Squalus that had been built by a local man who was directly involved with the rescue and salvage operations in 1939. Karen realized that the 80th anniversary of the rescue was coming up in 2019 and that it would be a great topic for a film. She then proposed the idea to me and I thought it sounded quite interesting but I knew absolutely nothing about the Squalus events. Upon doing some research, I became quite enthused about the prospect of doing this film. Interestingly, I mentioned the project to my wife who grew up in Portsmouth, New Hampshire and she immediately said the subject matter would be of great interest to the seacoast community and she was so right about that. Karen and I have been astonished by the overwhelmingly positive response we have received from the community following each local screening. Many people have approached us after a presentation to share either their memories or some other connection to the event.
IFJ: Given how long ago the event you covered took place, it seems likely to hit some dead ends in the research phase. Without giving too much away, were there any general aspects of the story that proved challenging to develop due to limited information?
MG: Fortunately, there is quite a bit of information out there about the events. Karen did a lot of research in libraries, museums, and other institutions. She has a real talent for knowing who to talk to and where to go to get the information she needs. I mostly did my research on the Internet. Both of us studied the available books and periodicals on the topic. We also received a lot of help from the Portsmouth Navy Yard. One of the more frustrating problems was the inability to find a photo of the Squalus being towed into Portsmouth harbor. It was one of the high points of the salvage operation and there were many photographers and onlookers capturing the event on film. It seems inconceivable that such a photo does not exist somewhere out there. I ended up finding a photo that was a poor substitute for the real thing but something was needed during that part of the narration. Another problem was that we were unable to find portraits for five of the men who died on the Squalus when it began sinking. We do a tribute to the twenty six men who perished and found portraits for twenty one of them. For the other five, we had to substitute an image of a wreath.
IFJ: You co-wrote the documentary with Karen Raynes. What was the working dynamic like, and what was your strategy for developing the core idea into the fleshed out story?
MG: From the beginning, Karen and I had a pretty good idea on how we would approach the structure of the film. I would handle the more technical narratives concerning the building, sinking, rescue, and salvage of the Squalus. Karen would focus on the human interest aspects of the narrative which included the setting of the scene on the day of the sinking, the emotional impact on families, the benefit concert to raise money for the families of the lost men, and other related items. Like all partnerships, we had a few disagreements from time to time about some elements of the film but we were always able to find a good compromise. Our differing skill sets compliment each other quite nicely. We work well together.
IFJ: What kind of document did you end up working from when you started cutting the film together? Was it a formal script, an outline, or something different?
MG: We mostly relied on a general text outline that mapped out the whole project and we constructed detailed text outlines and notes for each of our segments of the film.
IFJ: What was the biggest challenge you faced while editing, and how did you overcome it?
MG: At an early stage of the project, I knew this story could not be told effectively without creating visual representations of what was going on beneath the ocean surface. I knew from my earlier work that animation could be done with the editing software via the use of keyframes and composite layering techniques. However, I was not quite prepared for how much time and effort would be needed to accomplish my goals. There was so much trial and error involved in the process especially when you are learning as you go. Ultimately, it was the brute force technique of constant experimentation that got me to the point where I was fairly satisfied with the results. I must admit that I was a bit hesitant at first to show the early animations for fear that they would not be received well. I was pleasantly surprised that all who saw them thought they got the job done by giving the audience a clear idea of what was happening.
IFJ: What did you learn from making Saga of the Submarine Squalus that you wish you knew going into the project?
MG: I think one of the most important things that Karen and I learned for future consideration was the absolute need to construct a detailed spreadsheet of every visual, sound, and music asset that is collected. The process of pulling together a documentary of this length ends up to be an elaborate juggling act of using assets, discarding them, reusing them, and so forth. A spreadsheet is a very important tool to have during the initial process but it can be even more important when revisions may require you to add additional footage or issues come up that force you to track down the source of an asset or deal with some other need that you did not anticipate.
IFJ: What software did you use to make the documentary?
MG: Cyberlink PowerDirector, Cyberlink PhotoDirector, Cyberlink ColorDirector, and (surprisingly) Microsoft Paint
IFJ: How did you get into filmmaking?
MG: I took a filmmaking class in college and had an enjoyable learning experience but never pursued the activity further. Over the years, I have been impressed with the work of Ken Burns and quite a few of the documentaries I have seen on the History Channel and HBO. Watching those films instilled a nagging itch in me to try my hand at making one someday. So after I retired at the age 63, I started creating some short films just for the fun of it where I learned some basic skills. In 2016, I was talking to Karen Raynes about a project she had in mind about honoring local WW1 veterans and I asked her if she needed any video assistance. To my pleasant surprise, the answer was yes and I took the plunge without really knowing what I was getting into. With a lot of hard work, Karen and I created that film and were quite pleased with the results.
IFJ: I understand you’re a self-taught filmmaker, and there can be an intimidating learning curve for all the software and craft you have to learn for a project of any size. Most people start off with shorts or projects that turn out terribly and never see the light of day. Can you describe what your experience has been like?
MG: Making the WW1 documentary with Karen was a wonderful steppingstone and gave me some confidence that I could tackle this more complex video project. Since I was already familiar with the software that would be used on the Squalus film, I felt ready to expand my working knowledge of those tools. Of course, at times I questioned whether I had the skills to fully realize the results we had in mind but through steady perseverance and riding out some stressful moments, I was able to come pretty close to the target. Also, we had a lot of help along the way. Both my sons gave us great feedback and advice regarding the content and technical structure of the film. We also had excellent assistance from our friend, Josh Silveira, who helped us narrate and critique the film. He is a high school teacher who has done a number of successful documentary projects with his students over the years.
IFJ: Your foray into movie making happened at a later age than the average filmmaker. A lot of people at any age who want to make films don’t because it seems too daunting or they’re intimidated to make something and release it to the public or they think it’s too late to do it. What advice do you have for them?
MG: Like so many activities, you need to start small and build your confidence to take on larger projects. You should never hesitate to ask for help, guidance, or honest feedback from others. Sometimes constructive criticism is hard to accept but it is absolutely necessary to request it and listen to it. You may end up not acting on it but you must at least consider it. From my limited experience, it seems that it is easy for a filmmaker to get so absorbed in their own subjective viewpoint that they lose objectivity and forget that the most important thing to consider is how an audience will react to their work. At times you really need to stop and step back and view the project from afar and try to see it through the audience’s eyes. That way you can get a sense of the overall pacing and flow of the film which is so crucial to a successful reception of your work. Another really important lesson to learn is to be ready to let go of creative elements that you may be overly attached to but essentially do not work in the best interest of the film. You might be quite proud of a particular scene, effect, interview, or other item that you have toiled over for long hours and consequently stubbornly refuse to see that it actually detracts from the overall impact of the film. Filmmaking is a difficult balancing act of responding to creative inspiration and staying objective. In summary, my advice to a starting filmmaker is to be always on the lookout for any opportunity to use your skills in new and challenging ways, be openly receptive to advice and criticism, and not be shy about letting the world see what you have created. Even a poor reception of your work can be considered a training exercise and spur you on to do better.
IFJ: What’s next for you?
MG: Perhaps Karen and I will discover a new topic that will excite us but it will be hard to match the dramatic power inherent in the Squalus story. However, we both know so well that there are many compelling stories out there waiting to be discovered. On a personal note, I would like to explore the possibilities of animation techniques that are available in dedicated software applications. The rather simple animations I did for the Squalus project has kindled an interest to learn more about that art form.
IFJ: Where can people find you online to stay informed about your future projects?
MG: Well, I am not currently active on social media other than my YouTube channel.
Director Mike Garland
Runtime 49 min
A documentary film about the sinking, rescue, and salvage of an American submarine named the “Squalus”. This submarine was performing its last trial run on May 23rd, 1939 when a system malfunction caused it to sink off the coast of New Hampshire in 243 feet of water. Twenty six of the crew died almost immediately but thirty three men were still alive and trapped on the ocean bottom. During an extraordinary rescue operation, the trapped men were saved. To this day, it is the greatest submarine rescue in history. After four months of monumental effort, the Squalus was raised from the ocean bottom and towed into the Portsmouth New Hampshire Navy Yard where it was repaired, refitted, and recommissioned as the Sailfish. The Sailfish would later join the Pacific Fleet and sink a number of Japanese ships in World War Two.More