A Story Worth Telling - Interview with JD Schuyler on Last Man Fishing

J.D. Schuyler is the producer and director of Last Man Fishing, a feature-length documentary film about small-scale fishing and fishery policy that is currently in the concluding stages of production. In this interview with JD, we explore how he became a documentary filmmaker, how he got involved in the conversation surrounding Last Man Fishing, and his hopes for the film after it is completed.

Rachel Chew: Why did you decide to make Last Man Fishing?
JD Schuyler: It all really started 10 years ago when I started in video as a person coming out of college and realized that I wanted to use video for something valuable. I got into sustainable food videos kind of off to the side and worked in that area for a long time which allowed me to get connected with Sitka Salmon Shares in Sitka, Alaska. They are all about sustainable fishing and supporting the small-scale fishermen – it was through them that I realized my passion. They were the ones who pitched the idea of a documentary about the struggle of small-scale fishermen and what they mean to the coastal communities that rely on them.  I’m from the Midwest and I knew sustainable, local food – I knew that story and those values but seafood was new to me and I can’t say that I was fully qualified for it but I was passionate about the idea. They gave us a grant to get started and I thought, “This is a story worth telling”. We have been at it now for two and a half years. Following three characters. We have one character in New England that we’re intimately following and two fishermen in Alaska, each finding new ways to sell their fish direct to consumers, and trying to change the seafood industry.

Rachel: What was the process of getting to know the people in your documentary like?
JD: It took awhile to make the right connections. It took a lot of emails, a lot of asking around, a lot of referrals. Fishermen are a little skeptical and cynical at times. So, I really had to make connections and be really transparent with people to win them over. I did not foresee the amount of time needed to build these relationships but now I get random calls from fishermen who just want to talk about how they’re doing.

Rachel: Do you think that changed your filming process?
JD: My background was in marketing and there people are in your favor – everybody rallies behind you and wants to see you do a good job. With documentary, people are skeptical. A lot of this stuff is super personal and you’re asking people to be vulnerable. It sounds clichéd but you really have to build a relationship before you can get the support from your characters who will give you the personal insights that you are looking for as a filmmaker.

Rachel: How did you move from marketing to documentary filmmaking?
JD:I don’t know if there’s a clear path [laughter]. Marketing allowed me to pick up on the technical aspects but being in documentary you have to have a real passion for it. From my experience, everything about it is difficult. And without that passion and drive you’d be really discouraged. Marketing and documentary don’t really correlate too well even if the actual medium might be the same.

Rachel: So what draws you to documentary filmmaking?
JD: I’m always looking to be educated and informed and I feel like documentaries are a way for me to get a snapshot of someone’s life, an industry, or a social issue. I’m heavily influenced by the documentaries I watch. From a young age I thought documentaries were really powerful, and I think that’s what drew me to them – being able to be a part of something that can open people’s eyes and hopefully educate them for the better.

 JD shooting on the set of  Last Man Fishing

JD shooting on the set of Last Man Fishing

Rachel: How important do you think documentary is as a medium for the message of Last Man Fishing?
JD: I think documentary as a medium is a perfect for this topic. The topic is pretty dense because it’s weighted down with a lot of policy and there’s a lot of geographic disparity in the conversation about fisheries. But you need to see characters in action and get a feel for who they are to understand it. I think this documentary provides the space and medium for that. It might be dry to read a book about fisheries but if you can see the fishermen’s struggles, it’s a good way to get the story across.

Rachel: You mentioned that you have worked on this film for over two years – do you feel like what you wanted to achieve with it has changed throughout that time?
JD: [laughter] I have been told that the documentary you set out to make will not be the one that you actually produce. This one specifically has changed dramatically. I definitely thought about it as a black and white issue initially but there’s a lot more gray, it’s a lot more complicated. I’m trying to navigate all the political dynamics of it to create a concise, comprehensive, story that people can connect with.

Rachel: What is the most interesting thing you’ve learnt through that process of discovery?
JD: I had no idea what catch share programs were and I don’t think very many people do but it’s a form of management that’s, in theory, really good for managing a fishery. It allocates a specific amount of fish to the fisherman and it has a lot of perks. However, through creating these programs to manage a fishery, ocean fishing rights are privatized. I was honestly kind of blown away by that because it changes the way fisheries will look for future generations. It’s pretty dramatic to take a national resource that everybody collectively owns and divvy it up into shares, giving it to fishermen in perpetuity. It’s super complicated but it blew my mind in terms of what it means for the industry in the long term.

Rachel: What kind of impact do you hope Last Man Fishing will have?
JD: I really want Last Man Fishing to connect to your average consumer. Coming from the Midwest I know people don’t always connect with seafood. I hope Last Man Fishing is an introduction to seafood and provides insight on where their seafood comes from. I really want the characters to be expressed in a way that people personally connect with them and can understand the political dynamics of the fishing industry. For instance, our fisherman in New England, Tim Ryder, he’s a father of a four year old, and two years ago when I met him he was upgrading to a new boat. He’s an example of a character, and a father, who has developed through production. I hope people connect with him and then also see his struggle as a fisherman trying to make money and navigate a very complicated, almost dysfunctional, management structure. Hopefully this documentary opens people’s eyes to the seafood industry and empowers them to be more informed consumers. We’re all consumers, we have this opportunity to have a say in what these small coastal communities will look like in the years to come.

Rachel Chew is a summer intern with Artchange Inc. and a rising Sophomore at Yale University, majoring in Cultural Anthropology and potentially History. She cares about stories and people, and is excited to explore how film, a medium she sees as particularly accessible in this age, can carry these stories and build connections around our world.