About halfway through “Hell of a Cruise,” a new documentary streaming on Peacock, a traveler films herself on a Costa Luminosa cruise just as COVID-19 was beginning to spread around the world – and passengers can be heard coughing in the background.
The seconds-long clip is enough to evoke the panic of the pandemic’s early days, a key theme of the film, which centers on the early outbreak on Princess Cruises’ Diamond Princess ship along with other impacted cruise ships.
The ship was quarantined off Yokohama, Japan in February 2020, and the outbreak resulted in over 700 cases and more than a dozen deaths.
“… We were fascinated because the Diamond Princess was the first superspreader event outside of China that we had any type of knowledge of,” director and executive producer Nick Quested said. “And, you know, it’s interesting, the doctors that went on the boat said, ‘We knew everything we needed to know about COVID at the end of the Diamond Princess.’ “
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Quested spoke with USA TODAY about telling a story using passenger footage, filming with pandemic restrictions in place, and the lessons we can take away from the movie, which premieres Sept. 14. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Quested: Well, my partners came to me with the original footage from Spencer (Fehrenbacher, a Diamond Princess passenger and consulting producer). … So, we were fascinated initially by just this first superspreader event, but then we were looking at, and it was like, “Well hold on, what else could Princess really have done on the Diamond Princess?” The response from Princess wasn’t perfect, but it was perfectly understandable given the novelty of what was going on and the distance it was away. I can’t hold Princess at fault for that, but what I think we do need to look at is, once they knew what happened when COVID was on their cruise ships, why would they continue to send boats out?
Quested: Well, obviously we weren’t able to get on the boat because we weren’t even aware of the story until after it had happened, so we’re weaving (together) the passengers’ footage. And what’s interesting about passengers’ footage is that they generally shoot their experiences in the way that you shoot your holiday snaps. A lot of what human empathy comes from is seeing people’s faces and the small facial gestures that we have. You know, you could see someone dying (on) the road, but you don’t feel the grief until you see the person who’s experienced that loss next to them crying. That’s what drives your empathy and sympathy there.
So, it’s hard. You have to carefully craft moments to use the footage effectively because you don’t have the same type of coverage that you would have if a professional had gone in and shot it. So, to create this emotional bond, you’ve got to find nexus points where other people are shooting in the same moments, and you have to use the interviews as reflective moments (of) what was going on in the footage.
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Quested: Well, I was because I’m not really a cruiser. So, I’m not really drawn to it, but people love it as a getaway. … It gives them a little bit of the exotic, but it gives them enough comfort that they are happy. I mean, I think the world divides into those that cruise and then those that don’t, and I don’t think this film is going to convince very many people who are cruisers that they shouldn’t do it. And I think it’s going to confirm to people that aren’t cruisers that’s the reason that they never want to get on a cruise ship.
We tried to give as fair and balanced an account of what we thought happened from the cruise ships’ response at the beginning of the pandemic, as well as the executive branch because you can’t divorce the executive branch of the government and the CDC from this. And the cruise ships were just following the example of the lack of a coherent response.
Quested: Well, it was very difficult to make the film because we made this film (at) the height of COVID. So, we were hiring people locally because we couldn’t travel. I mean, we shot in Japan, in Australia, in Canada, all over America.
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So that was very difficult. And then to look at the film now, I think the film does sort of typify … that there was a panic. And the panic came from this disparate response, because there was cross-messaging, there (were) masks on, masks off, and it was able to be transferred through touch and all this different messaging. Like there wasn’t anything clear at that point. … I think the lesson to be learned is – I think what I found disturbing is that, as the doctor said, we knew everything we needed to know about COVID after the Diamond Princess, and this could have been an opportunity for America to come together and in the end, the politics of it forced the issue into a wedge issue that made America weaker and polarized it again.
Quested: I’d like the lessons not to be specifically about cruising, but about, you know, government response. It’s like, you need to have a coherent response to this and people need to get away from politicizing it. Remember when everyone was a COVID expert and knew exactly how long the pandemic was going to last and exactly what you should do and the only information they really had was, you know, their Facebook feed? Maybe we need to be much more aware of how social media is influencing our culture and really take some steps.
Quested: Well, we played with, like, we went full-on maritime metaphors a lot of the time. Like we were gonna go “Cabin Fever,” or, you know, “The Coming Wave.” … And a title has to be pithy. It has to explain the film, but it has to sort of have a double entendre to it in this sense. So, that’s where we came with “Hell of a Cruise.”

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