The Urge for Urchin

By Steven Libowitz   |   January 23, 2020

Writer-director-producer Jason Wise – whose previous documentaries include the much-lauded SOMM trilogy, had little idea what he was in for when he started making his latest film, The Delicacy, about Santa Barbara’s urchin diving industry.

“Urchin is my favorite food, and I wanted to spend more time up there,” said the L.A. resident who did a lot of underwater photography before embarking on the wine trilogy.

What he ended up with is a tale that covers the divers who pluck urchins from the bottom of the ocean amid extraordinarily dangerous conditions, the environmentalists and merchants, and the chefs who prepare the much-desired delicacy at restaurants all over the world. Plus sharks.

“It’s a food film, not a shark attack movie, but it was crazy out there,” Wise said. “And it’s not like any food movie I’ve ever seen before. Every one of the divers knows someone who’s passed away somehow doing their job. It’s an incredibly dangerous way to make a living. No accountants have that problem.”

The divers are a wild and dedicated bunch, the filmmaker said. “It’s a nature documentary on people, and people are animals. Part of why it took so long to make was having to find a way to create a narrative while stepping back and observing those animals in action.”

Not to mention the environmental aspect, the “insane difficulty in collecting urchin,” the culinary aspect. “There are so many things in that one organism. Urchin is a simple thing, but an intensely difficult story to tell.”

Stephanie Mutz, the only female urchin diver working in the area, along with several other divers, plus some chefs who serve urchin and many others who appear in the movie and its Emmy-winning composer Trevor Morris are expected to be on hand when The Delicacy has its world premiere on Friday and Saturday, January 24-25, as part of SBIFF’s Features and Screen Cuisine programs.


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