Environmentally Speaking – Improving Our Planet with the Power of Film
Sunday, October 3, 2010 – 2pm
Notes by Brian Geldin
Conceived and Co-Programmed by:
Brian Geldin – The Film Panel Notetaker
Can film make an impact on how we take care of our planet? Do we need to be more environmentally responsible in how we make our films to get our messages across? Where is the intersection of making films about the environment and making films that are environmentally conscious? Join us as filmmakers, industry leaders and environmental experts discuss the impact films have on our planet.
I am going to use this section to first thank Woodstock Film Festival Co-Founder and Director Meira Blaustein for giving me the opportunity earlier this year to conceive this program and to begin finding our wonderful panelists and moderator, Lydia Dean Pilcher, all of whom I also greatly thank for attending the Woodstock Film Festival and participating in this very important discussion. Much of the environmental practices and strategies discussed can not only be utilized by films and documentaries, but also implemented by film festivals such as Woodstock, and I plan to continue helping the Woodstock Film Festival set goals to reduce its carbon emissions, and I also hereby challenge other film festivals to do the same. Below is a fairly extensive summation of the main highlights of the discussion.
Lydia Dean Pilcher – Pilcher is the President of Cine Mosaic, a New York City-based production company with an energetic focus on entertaining stories that promote social, cultural and political diversity, producing some of the most prolific films over the past decade including Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, Vanity Fair, and The Namesake, as well as Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited. For television, Pilcher executive produced HBO’s Emmy award-winning You Don’t Know Jack starring Al Pacino. She will produce Steve McQueen’s (Hunger) upcoming feature film, Fela. She is also the Chair of the Producer’s Guild of America Green Committee. [Note: Listen to an interview with Pilcher on NPR's The Roundtable here.]
Jon Bowermaster – Oceans expert, award-winning journalist, author, filmmaker and six-time grantee of the National Geographic Expeditions Council. From 1998-2008, Bowermaster’s Oceans 8 project, a series of expeditions to explore the world’s oceans, reached corners of the world rarely seen including Antarctica. He’s produced a dozen documentary films including SOLA: Louisiana Water Stories [Note: I saw SOLA at Mount St. Mary College in Newburgh, NY, a few nights earlier. SOLA is a film about the relationship between man and water from the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. Bowermaster began filming in July 2008, but never expected that the reportage would end with the planet’s biggest ecologic disaster – the BP oil spill]. [Note: Read an interview with Bowermaster on AOL Weird News here.]
Larry Fessenden – Writer/Director of the award-winner art/horror trilogy of terror Habit, Wendigo and No Telling. Known for making thoughtful scary films, his film The Last Winter, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2006. He’s also produced a diverse array of independent films including Wendy and Lucy, The House of the Dead, I Sell The Dead, and at the Woodstock Film Festival this year Stake Land and Bitter Feast [Note: I saw Bitter Feast a few nights earlier at The Emerson Resort and Spa in Mount Tremper, NY. The film is about an organic chef who takes revenge on an online food critic who gives him a nasty review by torturing him by forcing the critic to perfectly re-create the same meals he lambasted, or suffer the consequences. I will never look at eggs-over-easy the same way again.] Fessenden’s production company is Glass Eye Pix and also produces ultra low-budget films under his Scare Flix banner. In 1991, he wrote Low Impact Filmmaking: A Guide to Environmentally Sound Film and Video Production [Note: Fessenden handed out copies of his book to the audience after the panel]. He also maintains the website, RunningOutofRoad.com.
Eva Radke – Radke has worked in film and commercial production in New York City for 15 years concentrating on the art department. In 2008, she founded Film Biz Recycling, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to helping the film industry address the triple bottom line: People, Profit and Planet. Film Biz Recycling accepts unwanted, reusable materials from productions that wrap, 80% that are re-directed to local community centers and charities, while the remainder is for sale at The Film Biz Prop Shop, open to the public in Long Island City, NY. [Note: I purchased a pair of retro ping-pong paddles there a few weeks ago.]
Katie Carpenter – Carpenter wears many hats. She is an environmental producer and green production consultant, and an award-winning documentary producer specializing in environmental subjects from climate change to bio-diversity. She produced the Emmy-nominated documentary, A Year on Earth, which was broadcast on Animal Planet and Discovery HD. She also produced Race to Save the Planet for PBS, and has written and produced for ABC News, National Geographic Explorer, and others. Her carbon reduction consultancy, Green Media Solutions, collaborated on a pilot project for the feature film, Away We Go, and also working with NBC’s programs such as Saturday Night Live, Lipstick Jungle, and Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Other film productions she’s worked on include Paramount’s Morning Glory, HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, and Universal’s It’s Complicated. She is also a member of PGA Green.
Mari Jo Winkler – Winkler is a dedicated environmentalist and has been greening films since her work with Curtis Hanson on Lucky You in 2004. She executive produced Doug Liman’s feature film, Fair Game with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, and Dan in Real Life, No Reservations, and Away We Go, for which she initiated the groundbreaking pilot project in 2007. In the fall of 2008, she rode her bike 300 miles from New York City to Washington, DC, on the Brita-sponsored Climate Ride to raise money and awareness of climate change. She just wrapped production on David Koepp’s Premium Rush, a bike messenger movie for Sony Pictures, for which she continued to implement sustainable strategies. She is also a member of PGA Green.
[Note: Joe Berlinger, director of the 2009 documentary Crude, was originally going to be a panelist, but due his latest documentary shoot on Paradise Lost 3, he was unable to make it.]
Notes on the Discussion:
Pilcher began by saying the panel of “rock stars” assembled there who are all passionately committed professionally and personally to protecting our environment, would be talking about how film can have an impact on how we take care of our planet by telling stories and the way in which their films are made. The first part of the discussion would focus on content, storytelling, and messaging, and then they would look at the carbon footprint of productions, examining the practices and strategies to move toward carbon neutrality in their workplace.
Part 1 – Content, Storytelling & Messaging:
Pilcher said anyone in the U.S. can try to impact policy, but they as filmmakers and media makers have something that no one else has: their own bully pulpit to tell stories that millions of people around the world see. How do they get that message to the broader public?
Jon Bowermaster said he uses adventure to lure people into his stories. Starting in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he and his crew did what was called “adventure for adventure sake,” which he encourages especially if you’re younger, because you learn so much about your limits, your teamwork, and your world. He started with rivers in Chile and tributaries of the Yangtze in China. His second book, Saving the Earth, came out in 1990. He’s always had environmental back stories to all of his adventures. It all really changed when he started getting funding for a 10-year Oceans 8 project for National Geographic, looking at the relationship between man and sea. Other than airplane flying, their carbon footprint was very small. They often kayaked, as there’s no fuel involved. During that process, they used adventure. If all they were going to do was talk about the beautiful places around the world, it was not enough. He said he feels it is irresponsible to make these kinds of documentaries today without a powerful environmental backdrop. Each story changed in subject matter every place they went, for example pollution in Vietnam, in Antarctica, global warming, and so on. On mountain climbing expeditions, he tries to get everyone to clean up their trash.
Katie Carpenter, who works on a wide variety of projects, pitches environmental stories. What is her process, Pilcher asked? Carpenter said it’s a different experience every time. When she started working on environmental films 20 years ago, there seemed to be a lot more openness. PBS was open to all sorts of environmental issues including climate change in 1990. As a lot of documentary filmmakers for TV went to cable TV (ie. Discovery, National Geographic), they were reluctant to have a hardcore message, a difference between “light” green and “dark” green. They wanted to make sure it stayed entertaining. Every now and then when you get a film out with some environmental content, there’s a problem of, after making a film that took three years to make, it’s over. The messages didn’t resonate as much as they wanted. That’s when she made the choice to go to Al Gore’s The Climate Project (a climate change leadership program that’s part of the Alliance for Climate Protection) in January of 2007. When an Inconvenient Truth came out, Participant Productions funded Gore to trend a climate cavalry of slide-show presenters, one group of which Carpenter was in. After spending a week in this boot camp, she was completely changed. She had been in the middle of production then (Return to Penguin City). Animal Planet said they didn’t want to hear anything about global warming, just natural history. Some of the skills she learned in The Climate Project helped her and her colleagues to persuade them to make it be part of the story. Now she’s working on a project for an unnamed cable network about environmental issues affecting Africa.
Fessenden wrote his Low Impact Filmmaking book while he was making his movie, No Telling, in 1991. How and why did he connect environmental issues to the making of this film, Pilcher asked? Fessenden said the scary movies he makes comes from deep paranoia and melancholy. They’re actually very sad for movies that are supposed to be scary. There’s not as much gore [Note: “Gore” as in blood, guts and violence. Not “Gore” as the man discussed by Carpenter above ]…that is associated with horror films. When Fessenden was writing a vampire story, he was also reading the book, Silent Spring, which he was saddened by and put him on a course of becoming a filmmaker, and he was passionately concerned about the course of human history, that he always ends up putting messages in his films. Even though he makes relatively “pulpy” films, he feels like it’s a great way to engage people in a story and get them to think about what we take for granted. Horror has the ability to make you realize how lucky you are by not being pursued by a guy with a chainsaw. Personal fear is the motivator (he joked that the Republican party knows that), and something we have to be aware of as we engage in life and as we listen to advertising. By taking out politics out of our environmental shows, they are doing us a disservice. “This is a tragedy that is in the service of consumerism and making us into iPod wearing zombies,” he said. His film, The Last Winter, is about oil drilling in the Arctic, but really about climate collapse where everyone goes crazy and suffers from guilt and despair. In No Telling, he wanted the environmentalist protagonist to be an action hero. In 20 years, it has not caught on. “We need to change the paradigm of what we consider heroic,” he said. “It’s not propaganda. This is coming from the very depth of my soul.”
Pilcher and the other producers on the panel have been encouraged by corporate mandates of the studios to encourage environmental discussion through “behavioral placement.” Mari Jo Winkler has found ways to be open and subversive at the same time in pursuing these opportunities. As a line producer and executive producer, Winkler said she typically deals with production and logistics and very little with the content other than to facilitate the directors and producers. She has seen a lot of change from the early days when executives being blasé about recycling to now where there are entire departments dedicated that handles sustainability. In regard to content, she’s starting to see the idea of behavior placement, very similar to what product placement is. Especially in TV now, these departments are talking to the writers about the habits of what the characters would have, whether it’s driving a Prius or composting, there’s now more infiltrating into films and TV. On the film she just wrapped, Premium Rush, the director was very supportive of their sustainability efforts. The film is about bicycle messengers, so there’s a strong message about alternative forms of transportation, but it’s not the main theme of the movie, so she personally tried to infiltrate where she could green themes. For example, there is a scene where an actor is running away from the bad guy and crosses the street to get on a clean hybrid bus that had an advertisement on it for Million Trees NYC Program. She thinks these are little subtle placements of ideas and behavior that have a green theme will make an impact. If they see a greener world, they may become advocates for a greener world.
Audience Questions & Responses to Content, Storytelling & Messaging:
A man mentions the film Flash of Green made almost 20 years ago starring Ed Harris about a real estate developer on the coast in a town in Florida, where Harris plays a besieged character who goes up against his friend, the developer, made almost 20 years ago. He said he hasn’t seen any films like it since, but it’s worth looking at as a model. Pilcher refers to Fessenden’s Low Impact Filmmaking from 1991, and she could tell when she was reading it, the difference in the climate. It was an era when skepticism really prevailed, but we still deal with it, because it’s easier for people to resort to it. But we have shifted as a culture in accepting the environment as a real issue.
Bowermaster asked if feature films like environmental themes. Pilcher said that strong characters drive good stories. She remembers pitching a “tree-hugger” story to a studio, and they said it wasn’t interesting to make a film about people who do good. You have to think about the complexity of the characters when you create the story. Carpenter reminded us of the film Erin Brockovich. Other films in this vein the panelists shouted out include A Civil Action, North Country, The China Syndrome. Someone in the audience shouted out Avatar. Bowermaster also gave the documentary he worked on this past year called Oceans, directed by Jacques Perrin (Winged Migration), who didn’t want the film to be called a documentary. Disney excised footage from the finished film for American audiences where shark fining was shown.
If you’re developing a script and you want to add environmental elements to it, what are the organizations one should contact and people to have discussions with about it, someone asked? Carpenter recommend a group in Los Angeles called the Environmental Media Association. There are people there you can call up on the phone and tell them what’s up with your film, and they’ll take the time to read your script. There’s also the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), especially where climate change is involved. Bowermaster said he works with environmental groups all the time. On Oceans with Participant Media, he worked with the organization TakePart.com, which is all about social action.
A man in the audience said there’s a saying that without vision, people perish. Where is the movie that shows us what life could be like in a world where we’re totally in tune with the environment with solar panels, for example? [Note: Perhaps one of those movies could be The Singularity is Near, which not only mentions solar panels, but has a sub-narrative about Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future.] Carpenter recalled the movie The Age of Stupid starring Pete Postelthwaite where his character shows how in the future what could have happened to prevent climate change. She said the problem is that distributors don’t think that kind of film will make a lot of money. Eva Radke mentioned the CGI-animated film Wall-E that showed what could possibly happen if we’re not responsible for our garbage, but the problem, not with the film itself, but the marketing of the film, was that she’d go to the grocery store and see a plastic Wall-E toothbrush, so where is that disconnect?
A woman who teaches a course on documentaries and sustainability said that some of her students ask to see films that are hopeful, and not depressing, so it would be great for young people to see examples of how to change your lifestyles. She also had seen the Fessenden-produced Bitter Feast a few nights earlier about a chef who makes food with sustainable ingredients, but he turns out to be a psycho. Her reaction was that’s not really good for sustainability. Fessenden reminded everyone that he is not a propagandist, and he actually likes the chef, who in his defense, says, “I’m going to teach you empathy.” While the film is pulpy, he agrees that critics need to take responsibility for what they’re writing. While the chef goes off his rocker, he’s still very principled.
Part 2 – Practices & Strategies to Move Toward Carbon Neutrality:
Piggy backing off of the woman’s comment from the audience about giving hope to her students, Pilcher said that those of the panelists who have spent time working with the The Climate Project, there’s always a conversation about the “hope” budget. The way that hope can be focused upon is by encouraging people to get involved and to actually take action. It can be done in the stories they tell, but also through the practices of how they make their films. They have come up with a Best Practices Guide on GreenProductionGuide.com, and a Carbon Calculator, which was funded by the studios who were interested in having a third party unify the business in terms of green production.
Winkler talked about what she does on a set to run a green production, which she began doing in 2004. She had gone through every line item on the budget and made lists for every department of what they could they could start doing with the hope to divert as much waste as possible. In the feature film industry, they build a lot and tear it all down and traditionally; most of it all went into dumpsters and landfills. The most important thing she did was engage the filmmakers and the crews by starting every production talking to the director and producers and share with them what her sustainability goals are. With every movie, she’s done a little bit more including everything from diverting plastic water bottles to diverting 90% of our waste, aggressive recycling, and now starting to compost on her last three movies. The way that she’s been successful is being a vigilant leader in this and taking responsibility by using her position of power to affect change through communication and education. She used to find this a lonely process, but she’s met others such as many on this panel, and it is growing. They developed PGAGreen, which is a committee of the Producers Guild of America. Someone in the audience asked what extra costs might be associated with greening a production. Winkler said that now that people have caught onto compostable products, prices are going down. Prices were high at the beginning, but the offset of having to purchase water bottles for instance; you’re not buying thousands of water bottles anymore. Biodiesel pricing is similar to diesel pricing. There are ways to level the playing field. While some things might be more expensive, there are off sets. Instead of buying new products, go to Film Biz Recycling.
Pilcher passed the baton to Radke, who she said “has a blackbelt in re-use.” Radke talked about Film Biz Recycling (FBR), which is a Not-For-Profit organization dedicated to the triple bottom line: People, Profit & Planet. FBR is an active member in the re-use sector in New York City. She said FBR has burst out of the insular bubble that is the film industry and reached out and learned from other industries as well. Her bread and butter as an art department coordinator was working on big TV commercials for the Super Bowl, for example. She focused her energies on the “wrap” days, by trying to figure out how to avoid all of this waste going into dumpsters. So much of that was communication, collaboration, and finding the right donation centers. About 80% of what is available to FBR, gets re-directed. FBR is in a tiny space on a second floor of a building, so larger props are sent to other warehouses to store. “It’s almost as if we’re a wrap consultancy in this certain area,” Radke said. Borrowing from 3M’s mantra: Waste Reduction Always Pays (WRAP). Avoiding dumpsters will save you money every single time. Instead, donate to charity or find a re-use center. You will find someone who will take materials off your hand if they are re-usable. FBR has diverted 135 tons from landfills. She states as an example that the film Away We Go donated props to FBR, and FBR turned all of the children’s items to Hour Children, a charity in Long Island City that takes care of children and babies of incarcerated mothers and parents. Re-use has a direct impact on society. Pilcher said that a lot of the work that the producers on the panel are doing is trying to get studios to mandate these practices. Radke said, “I would stake my reputation on if you mandate that nothing reusable gets thrown away, you will save your production money.”
Carpenter mentioned that Away We Go, which Winkler produced, was in fact the pilot for an industry task force that was looking at ways to reduce the environmental impacts and carbon emissions of films. It was the first film in which a verified carbon calculation was done on a production. They looked at anything that produced carbon emissions such as airplane travel, hotel night stays, all vehicles, generators, and even waste. That carbon calculation was published and went around the industry. And now at least five of the studios are calculating their carbon footprints. From this, they created a series of sustainable production guides that not only Universal Pictures is using, but by all 15 of NBC’s networks are using. Winkler added that the other studios are following suit.
Audience Questions & Responses to Practices & Strategies to Move Toward Carbon Neutrality:
A social worker in the audience said she is always looking for supplies for charitable organizations. Are there any opportunities for individuals to find supplies for someone who needs them, she asked? Radke’s reply: “Heck yes!” FBR is a split personality, They have their mission, which if FilmBizRecycling.org and also the Film Biz Prop Shop. If you have a wish list, you can come in or give them a call. There’s a network she’s involved in called ArtCube, a Google group where art department people post for available and wanted items.
A young man in the audience commented that we live in a society where more is looked at as good. How many of us live in house of hay or something that’s recyclable? How much are we really destroying this planet? Is this just propaganda? It seems like propaganda to him when we’re not living the lifestyle that’s being talked about, though he’s not trying to be pessimistic. Pilcher said his point is worth bringing attention to because our choices have been clouded by the confusion that’s generated in part by a massive political campaign of deception on the part of people who are making profits – materialism and using fossil fuels, everything that’s degrading our planet. It’s part of the challenge why everyone in that room has the ability to raise his or her voice. Bowermaster said one thing that has changed in the last 20 years is that there is an incredible amount of information out there about environmental issues, but he’s not seeing it correlated change in people’s lives. Fessenden said he finds there’s a deliberate unwillingness to connect the dots, for example, Russia was on fire and we just had the Pakistani floods. All of this, and they continue this language that no weather incident can be attributed to climate change. There’s an apology in the mainstream media that they’re literally backing away from the very facts they have published.
Something I rarely do at panel discussions myself, and perhaps I should do it more often is ask questions, because I generally like to listen and learn from others, but here I felt it important to raise my hand, because there are other aspects of the film industry beside the productions themselves, to ask what can film festivals do to reduce their carbon footprints? Bowermaster said that festivals could look at as an example the concert promotion company, Live Nation, which has a growing green component. Fessenden said he had a meeting at Participant Productions where instead of offering you a plastic bottle of water, they offer you a glass of water. He also recommended hybrid vehicles for modes of transportation such as shuttle service to and from venues. Carpenter said that Native Energy, one of Green Media Solutions’ partners, is a company that will estimate your carbon footprint and then purchase for you a “carbon offset” in order to neutralize your impact.