HBO’s ‘The Last Cruise’ Director On The ‘Horror’ Of Creating A COVID Time Capsule On Screen

Halfway through HBO’s latest gripping documentary The Last Cruise, you might realize you’re actually watching a horror movie play out in real-time. It’s a consequence of how the film, premiering March 30th, was shot – director Hannah Olson combed through hundreds of hours of home video footage, shaky cell phone clips, and some awkward panoramic cabin tours to transport audiences. First through time, to the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic – a disaster that would eventually claim over 2 million lives and counting. Then to the ship itself, from its claustrophobic staterooms to its crowded crew decks to see how a virus with the unparalleled ability to spread asymptomatically was able to survive and thrive because of our own willful ignorance and blinding privilege.

It’s also a consequence of having yet to make it to the other side of this unprecedented outbreak, something Olson’s film can’t help but remind us of.

We chatted with the director about why the story of a cruise ship felt like the perfect COVID-19 time capsule to capture on film and what we can still learn from those early mistakes.

Technically this is a documentary, but it certainly feels like a horror film at times – because of the subject matter and the way it’s filmed. Did you get that feeling while making this?

I think I knew it was a horror film when it felt like the getaway car had a bomb in it. These Americans in particular had been quarantining for weeks on the ship in their staterooms, totally claustrophobic. And then they get on the plane to head back to the United States, and all of a sudden they’re placed on the same plane with people who are infected with the virus. It was this feeling of, ‘Well, we thought we were safe, but actually it’s just the beginning.’

Why did a cruise ship – this cruise ship – feel like the right setting to document the early days of this pandemic?

This was the first major COVID-19 outbreak outside of China, so it was kind of the signal that, ‘Okay, this might become something larger than just a localized outbreak.’ We also had the headlines, saying the ship was quarantined in the Japanese harbor with COVID on board. I was reading these headlines, and at the same time, I was also starting to look behind the headlines into the social media that was coming out of the ship — looking on TikTok and Instagram and Facebook and Twitter and seeing what people who were actually on the ship were posting. It was obvious once I started poking around that the ship was being reported about like it was quarantined but the crew were still working, sleeping, and eating together. I just wondered ‘Did these people not count?’

What surprised you when sifting through this footage? What do you think audiences might be surprised by?

It was appalling to me how much we knew so early on. Scientists studied the ship and learned that the virus was spread by asymptomatic carriers and that the virus was airborne. The first mentioned asymptomatic transmission was on February 3rd, and it wasn’t until April 27th that the CDC started recommending testing people without symptoms. It wasn’t until April 3rd that the CDC recommended that people start wearing masks. And you can watch and see the footage in February of people in masks on the Diamond Princess. For as many mistakes as were made, everyone was masked because we knew it was airborne that early on. People were still flying around the world at that point. I don’t think of myself as an investigative journalist, but I felt like I was uncovering the secret about how much we knew.

We’re still not on the other side of this thing. Was it difficult emotionally or psychologically to revisit the beginning of the outbreak? To be reminded of how clueless we were as to how bad it would eventually get?

Of course! I was riddled with anxiety, but I was also interested in looking beneath the surface of the terror to see this whole world of social dynamics playing it out. In my own life, I began to think a lot about class and the way the class plays out in moments of crisis. Scientists were interested in this boat because it’s a closed system; the whole world is contained on a single vessel. As a filmmaker, I think I was attracted for the same reason, only I wanted to look at it through a social lens.

You compiled hundreds of hours of video footage to craft this. Why was that the right style and method for telling this story?

I really wanted the film to be an experiential one. It was like making a magic trick. We tried to treat the footage like it was a verité scene so the music, the claustrophobia, those were very deliberate choices for me. Also the idea of excluding any experts … in hindsight we know so much about the virus, but I wanted to limit what the viewer could see to what people on the boat were experiencing.

What’s even more horrifying than seeing this outbreak play out in real-time is seeing how the virus disproportionately affected people on that ship. There’s a clear line that emerges from the footage you found. Why focus on that?

I really wanted to look at how the virus would reach across class and country lines so differently, to examine the complicity of white passengers in this case, and what their relative comfort cost those below deck. The cruise is like the go-to luxury, on the cheap for Americans, but at what costs? Many of the crew I interviewed were paid as little as $3 an hour and they have long days with little time off. This crisis only exacerbated those class differences. I was in New York when the pandemic started, and the way that I was watching class play out in my own life, with Uber drivers and bodega workers… I started making this film before we even had the phrase ‘essential worker’. It was something that I was starting to watch play out as everyone was having food delivered to them, exposing poor people to the virus. So for me, this was a film about who gets to take cover, who gets to be in quarantine.

There was a real stigma attached to people who came back from those cruises at the start of the pandemic. How difficult was it to get your hands on that footage?

There was a lot of fear, especially with crew members who are told not to talk to the media by Carnival, the corporation that owns Princess. So the crew members, in particular, were taking a large risk in talking with me, but it was an important story. They should have a right to tell their own story and share their experience.

Did Carnival ever give an explanation for what happened on that ship?

I submitted several interview requests, but their PR team was disbanded shortly after this crisis.

The most heartbreaking thing is how so many workers on that ship would still jump at the chance to cruise again.

I think that’s the horror of global capitalism today. Even when we hear that some of the crew members are making as little as $3 an hour on board, and still that’s a good choice for them. Maruca the pastry chef makes less than $3 an hour, and this is still the best job she could get. She’s currently back in the Philippines and is unemployed. Luke, the performer that we saw from Knoxville, Tennessee is working as a UPS driver and taking small jobs. Dede is back in his fishing village with his father and trying to piece together a living that way. It’s been devastating.

How do you think this doc will fit into the larger filmography that will eventually focus on the past year?

I think other films will have large sweeping retrospectives of the way that this has changed an untold number of industries and lives and the mass amount of death and tragedy that has occurred. But for me, I just wanted to make a little time capsule showing this one brief moment. It felt like a moment that was pivotal because it was a moment that gave us the information that we needed to stop the pandemic. We just didn’t listen.

‘The Last Cruise’ hits HBO and HBO Max on March 30th.