Cake, candles, friends, family, and the feeling whe you're forced to confront the fleeting passage of time—it was on his birthday during a global pandemic when acclaimed Director-Producer Mehdi Darlis was given the gift to reflect on the present.
On April 27, 2020, Brett Kincaid, founder of MATTE, sent Darlis an article from The Economist called "The coronavirus cruise: on board the Diamond Princess” which details the appalling episodes that took place on board a cruise-liner when an outbreak of Covid-19 overwhelmed the ship’s passengers and crew. This story lit the fire under MATTE Films that sparked Hell of a Cruise, Peacock’s first original documentary created in partnership with Oscar-winning director Nick Quested and production house, Goldcrest Films.
It posed an interesting challenge: to create a film about a historic event when you’re still living in the height of it. The first worldwide lockdown of its kind forced the Hell of a Cruise team to produce under unforeseen circumstances. And the unprecedented times called for unprecedented methods.
Work days became all-nighters and any informal interviews became exposure risks.
Short flights became long drives so exhausting that one almost ended in a car accident, according to Darlis at the film’s premiere at the Metrograph in New York City. Darlis recounted the 14-hour drive down to Tennessee with a look of disdain, but ended his anecdote on a positive note, “It was all worth it in the end.”
The difficulties and dangers that came with travel meant the Hell of a Cruise team had to think beyond the traditional ways of conducting interviews and shoots when producing the film. One creative solution they found reliable was remote directing, hiring local talents and collaborating from afar. This way, the New York-based filmmakers were able to shoot around the world–from Canada to Australia to Japan–at a time when protesters and activists took to the streets of home.
“What's interesting about passengers' footage is that they generally shoot their experiences in the way that you shoot your holiday snaps”
—Nick Quested, Director
As phone footage of police brutality and BLM protests flooded our Facebook feeds, the Hell of a Cruise team was combing through content from passengers’ devices. Real, raw, and from the perspective of someone living in the moment, this content proved just as, if not more powerful, than what any professional could have captured.
“What's interesting about passengers' footage is that they generally shoot their experiences in the way that you shoot your holiday snaps,” director Nick Quested said in an interview with USA Today. “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.”
“They always say that history will teach you nothing…if you don’t read it. If you read it and here you are… laying out this history. It’s up to everyone to decide if there’s something to be learned here. ”
—Charles Latibeaudiere, TMZ Live Producer
“(We talked) about wanting to make a film that made a difference, that told a story, that made an impact...I do feel very grateful and proud to see how it all came together.”
—Spencer Fehrenbacher, Consulting Producer from Peacock
Hell of a Cruise uses a strategic combination of personal and professional footage, and interviews with passengers and crew. Together, they paint a picture of the Diamond Princess that not only details what happened on board, but asks the viewer to reflect on how we as a society are handling the ongoing Covid crisis.
The intention was to create a documentary that has an effect on the way we think–and Hell of a Cruise was successful in doing so, according to TMZ Live producer Charles Latibeaudiere in an interview with director Nick Quested. “They always say that history will teach you nothing…if you don’t read it,” Latibeaudiere said. “If you do read it, and here you are… laying out this history. It’s up to everyone to decide if there’s something to be learned here.”
But there were more lessons learned than met the eye at the time of production. More than a documentary about the Diamond Princess, Hell of a Cruise is an artifact of the art of filmmaking in 2020. It is a period piece that tells a larger story about its creators and the insatiable appetite of the artist. It is a reflection of the tenacity and adaptability of the MATTE team.
While most creative agencies had to shut down in the early stages of the 2020 global lockdown, MATTE seized the opportunity to pivot into the development of scripted and unscripted projects. Co-founders Brett Kincaid, Max Pollock, and Matthew Rowean expanded MATTE into MATTE Films, launching an original film and content studio with Mehdi Darlis as Head of Original Content.
Hell of a Cruise was developed from April to December in 2020, pre-sold to Peacock in January 2021, and premiered on the platform in September 2022. It marks the first fully-developed project under the MATTE Films banner, and serves as an incredible reminder that even when the world stops, creativity flows. No matter the trials and tribulations, an artist will never let a worthy story go untold.