Seven Questions with Jeff Kurr, 'Shark Week' Filmmaker/Executive Producer of 'Shark After Dark'
LA has a diverse cast of characters. Whether it's the characters with stirring stories or interesting occupations or the people who are just simply characters, this town has them all. In an effort to get to know some of those characters a little better, we've created "Seven Questions with..." If you have a suggestion for a future Seven Questions subject send us an email.
Today's subject is Jeff Kurr.
Jeff is an LA-based filmmaker who recently wrapped his 24th Discovery Channel "Shark Week" episode, called "Shark After Dark." Shark Week, which kicks off its 22nd year tonight, is cable’s longest-running event and Jeff who produces, directs, writes, edits and shoots has been along for the ride since 1991.
Jeff's documentary "Air Jaws" was voted by viewers as the all-time favorite episode in 20 plus years of Shark Week and is one of the most successful nature documentaries in Discovery Channel history, seen in virtually every country in the world going on 10 years. The San Diego State graduate has also served as a spokesman for Shark Week, appeared in a Diet Mountain Dew "shark rider" commercial and co-wrote the "Field Guide to The Great White Shark."
Jeff, a resident of Ventura County, took some time to talk to LAist about "Shark Week," which include six all-new programs this year, his latest work - "Shark After Dark" (premieres Thursday night at 9pm) and his day job. We even asked him if he lives every week like it's Shark Week, you probably won't be surprised by his answer.
1) How did you get involved with filming sharks? And why sharks?
Why sharks? I got involved with sharks about 18 years ago. I started doing Shark Week since 1991. It just became one of these enduring summer rituals. I just stuck with it year after year. I've become more fascinated with sharks ever year. To me, there the most intriguing and interesting animals on the planet. It's awesome that I actually get paid to go out and dive with sharks, film sharks and study sharks in the wild. It's an awesome profession.
2) Did the danger of working with sharks drive you to the profession?
The danger of working with sharks actually repelled me at first. I grew up in the Jaws generation and I was petrified of sharks when I first started working with them. Gradually, as I began to dive with them and spent more time in the water with sharks I realized that they really aren't that danger. They're an animal that you have to respect, and if you're in the water you have to keep your eye on them. But they're not just going to rush in and attack you without some kind of provocation. To me, there just fascinating and beautiful creatures.
Diving with sharks 18-20 years ago was sort of a pioneering thing. Not a lot of people had done it. Even 20 years ago, people didn't really understand how sharks would react to people in the water with them, because so few people had done it. I looked at diving with sharks as an opportunity to do something that was pioneering, something that was relatively innovative. There were just lots of opportunity to film sharks in a way that had never really been done before.
3) What would you say is the most valuable thing you've learned from your time working with sharks?
The most valuable thing that I've learned about sharks is really that they're not mindless killing machines as they've been portrayed in fictional accounts and in movies. They're actually extremely intelligent in their own way. They have these highly developed senses that we don't have any idea how they work. It's amazing to me that the shark can find their way around in total darkness, which is what we illustrated in our show, "Shark After Dark" in this year's Shark Week. They don't even need light to hunt and they can circumnavigate the globe without a GPS. They have all of these incredible senses and instincts that have been honed from hundreds of millions of years of evolution.
Tell us a little more about Shark After Dark.
What we wanted to do with Shark After Dark is explore an area of shark behavior that really has never been looked at before. What are sharks doing at night with absolutely no light? What we had to do to accomplish this was go into the water after dark with a lot of different shark species and try to get footage of them and observe what they're doing at night. It was scary, I have to admit. It was fascinating and interesting to see these sharks swarming us with no light.
4) Why do you think Shark Week has been such a success?
I think for a lot of people, you can't have a summer without a Shark Week. It's like the baseball all-star game. It's become a fabric of our culture. A lot of people who watch it simply because of the tradition. There are a lot of people who grew up with Shark Week who have become fascinated with sharks. Especially, younger people and kids. My kids love sharks. They can't get enough sharks. Every shark book that comes out, my kids buy it. Every shark documentary that comes on my kids want to watch it. The whole generation has grown up with sharks.
I think another reason is, you can go right off the beach here in LA and come across a great white shark. It's the wild. The ocean is still wild enough where sharks, although they aren't as plentiful as they used to be, they can be anywhere. Anywhere where there's an ocean or a beach, there's potential to come across a shark.
5) How much do you think high definition (HD) has helped the success of Shark Week?
For me, high definition has sort of reinvented the shark documentary. It's opened up a whole new world and just makes the sharks seem to pop off of the screen and makes it feel more real. It allows the audience to have a more vicarious thrill to watch high definition shark footage. A lot of the films I made about 15 years ago on the older video formats, I can't even watch them any more. To shoot great whites on high def, looks incredible.
6) I read that when you're not making shark films, you're directing reality shows like MTV's Parental Control. What's more dangerous to work with sharks or the losing boyfriend on that show?
That's kind of my day job is doing reality shows down in LA. I typically do one shark show at a year, maybe two at the most. In between you have to pay the bills. I'm right here in LA so I work on a lot of reality shows.
I prefer the sharks. I really prefer shooting sharks over some of these shows. You know what you're going to get with the sharks.
7) Do you live every week like it's Shark Week?
Actually I do live every week like it's Shark Week. To make these shows you pretty much you have to live, eat and breathe sharks 24/7. Right now I'm in the middle of shooting a show. It basically consumes you. Thinking about the next dive, what cameras you're going to use, how you're going to get to the areas where the sharks live. All of those things are on your mind. It's pretty much all consumer. For me, yeah every week is Shark Week.
I didn't catch the "30 Rock" episode when they said that. I did see the Step Brothers movie, that was the coolest thing for me. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly were sitting on the couch watching Shark Week, and their dad walks in and asks them to get to work and they say, "Dad, Shark Week is on." The footage they are watching is actually something I shot from a show called "Air Jaws." I thought that was pretty funny. I see constant references to Shark Week in pop culture. It's all over the place. I can say it's a part of the fabric of our culture now.
Shark Week begins tonight on Discovery. Shark After Dark premieres Thursday at 9pm. Get a sneak peak at some of Jeff's incredible footage of Shark After Dark on YouTube.