An interview with climate mockumentary filmmaker Randy Olson
Randy Olson became a filmmaker after fifteen years as a marine biologist, so the perspective he brings to the craft is rooted in science — but blended with his own irreverent humor. His hilarious new film on global warming is a perfect example.
After quitting his university job in 1993, Olson went to film school and teamed up with one of his heroes, renowned marine ecologist Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Together they produced the short film Rediagnosing the Oceans, and their partnership led to the founding of the Shifting Baselines Ocean Media Project. Shifting Baselines creates short films and commercials on ocean conservation starring the likes of Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, and the Groundlings Improv Comedy Theater. It also produces a truly indispensible blog.
In 2006, Randy’s incisive documentary Flock of Dodos: the Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus drew on his biology background and his Kansas upbringing as he exposed the anarchic battle over that state’s effort to open the teaching of evolution to interpretation. It premiered at Tribeca and has more recently been shown on Showtime.
His new film is Sizzle: A Global Warming Comedy, a mockumentary in which he plays a climate scientist trying to make a hard-hitting documentary on global warming and climate disasters like Katrina. Throughout the film — which weaves in interviews with actual scientists, skeptics, and activists — he is dogged by an earnest if clueless production team and a disrespecting film crew peopled with deniers. It’s An Inconvenient Truth meets Waiting for Guffman, and the result is funny, informative, and also gut-wrenching: when the characters visit New Orleans on the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the true cost of inaction on climate is painted with such stark overtones that the film takes on an important new weight. It’s a narrative step that seems antithetical to comedy, but it works brilliantly, lending a balance and gravity that completes the film.
Sizzle, which also stars comic actors Mitch Silpa, Brian Clark, and Alex Thomas, will premiere on July 19 in Hollywood, then has its East Coast premiere a week later at the Woods Hole Film Festival in eastern Massachusetts. Grist caught up with Olson to talk about his new project, the power of narrative, and the urgent need to improve the communication of climate science.
Why make a humorous film about global warming?
We’ve had the serious, heavy films — too many of them at this point. Ask any film distributor — they’ve seen more than enough somber, depressing documentaries detailing the ways in which we have damaged the planet. The problem is, film is more of an entertainment medium than an educational medium. While academics watch movies in hopes that they will be educated, most of the mass audience goes to films to hear a good story and be entertained. Failing to accept that limitation of the medium is equal to driving a square peg in a round hole. You can do it, but the results usually aren’t very satisfying.
But didn’t Al Gore already convince the world that we have a problem?
Al Gore made a truly great movie — unquestionably the most important piece of environmental media ever created. Spike Lee did the same thing for Hurricane Katrina with his excellent four-hour series [on HBO], “When the Levees Broke.” Both were very effective in the short term in calling attention to these issues. But what about the long term? Both movies have produced a distinct feeling of “medicine” — people feel like, “I took my dose of that, I’ve done my part, please, no more.”
Do we need more media on these two topics? Absolutely. The country jumped the tracks on June 6, 2008, with the defeat of the Senate global-warming bill — failing to even score a majority of votes, much less the 60 votes needed to pass it. Hurricane Katrina is quite simply the saddest chapter in the entire history of the United States, and we need to make sure the experience is not forgotten. It played out on CNN. There was no uncertainty about whether Americans were suffering and whether injustice was occurring. It was punctuated by a president who didn’t show up until five days after. In 1965 when Hurricane Betsy did similar damage to New Orleans, President Lyndon Johnson was there within a day. Katrina needs to be hung as heavily as possible over the head of George W. Bush for the rest of time. It is representative of his style of leadership.
How is the mockumentary format conducive to talking about global warming?
The first challenge in filmmaking is to tell a story. This issue is so important that if it takes me making an idiot of myself to help create a narrative structure through which to engage the issue, then so be it. The vast majority of documentaries fail to tell much of a story. They are overly constrained by the information and desire for accuracy. The result is that they sacrifice entertainment and storytelling, producing media which ends up being unwatchably accurate.
In the film within your film, you interview real-life global-warming skeptics. Some of them are such characters that I couldn’t decide if they were actors or not. But why give them air time?
You must be referring to Dr. George Chilingarian, Professor of Petroleum Engineering at [the University of Southern California], aka “Dr. Chill.” It’s usually the first comment people make about the movie: “Dude, that guy’s not real — no way.” As for giving skeptics air time, it’s about storytelling. This is where scientists and environmentalists, with their emphasis on information and failure to understand basic storytelling, don’t realize that their opponents can actually be valuable communications resources.
A good story needs a source of conflict. And yes, I’m sorry to inform Al Gore and the environmental community of this, but the time has come to accept that there are two sides to the issue of global warming. Gore tried to ignore the opposition in hopes they would go away. With the failure of the Senate bill, the time has come to at least acknowledge there is an organized resistance. No other American film to date has presented this opposing faction. It’s not to say the other side is the least bit right, only to admit they exist.
Your last film explored this issue of how scientists are notoriously ineffective at communicating their findings to the public. Is that the case with climate science, too?
We see the same patterns in Sizzle, but with this film I haven’t been as confrontational with the science community. Flock of Dodos implied that science and science communicators are inept, i.e., dodos. Sizzle suggests that when it comes to global warming, the scientists are mostly just caught in the crossfire between the skeptics and the environmentalists.
The way I see it, at one end of the spectrum we have the skeptics saying there is no reason to worry about global warming. At the other end we have environmentalists saying it’s the end of the world. Caught in the middle are the scientists, just trying to tell the world what their data indicate. As soon as a scientist publishes a major climate-change paper the two groups descend on it and use it to support their agendas. I do believe, in the end, the only solution to this is to improve the overall communication of scientific facts to the public. There is an endless amount of work to be done toward this end.
The guys who play your camera crew are very believable characters, unlike the real-life communications director of a major environmental group you interview. What did you make of her inability to express her group’s position on global warming on film?
There is a cluelessness about mass communication when it comes to the major environmental organizations. They seem to be unable to broaden their voice beyond the same old goody-goody recyclers who are ready to “take action” whenever their favorite NGO says to. There’s nothing wrong with those folks — it’s just that they are only a small slice of the mass audience. There are ways to reach a broader demographic, but it requires an understanding of the mind-set and attitudes of the average non-environmentalist. And that is who [fictional cameraman] Marion Jenkins is meant to represent: the average guy who doesn’t have very deep thoughts or opinions on global warming, he just thinks it all sounds like a bunch of hot air.
So where will those average Joes go to see Sizzle?
For the next few months they will have to see it at film festivals and special screening events at universities and museums listed on our website. It’s a very small movie, paid for out of my own pocket from the skimpy revenues generated by Flock of Dodos. I don’t have the finances to distribute it myself so we will be seeking a theatrical distributor. For Dodos it took us a year to secure the Showtime and home DVD deals. Sizzle has no major celebrities, so most distributors will take a while to get interested.
How did the recent New Orleans screening go?
On June 20 we pulled together a group at Mickey Bee’s Bar in the Lower Ninth Ward, including the folks who are in the movie. As I began my introduction, one woman realized I was about to show documentary footage of Hurricane Katrina and got up and left, crying. She said her mother died in the flooding and she doesn’t care to hear anything more about it. As the movie got to the New Orleans segment and Brenda McGee, one of the Lower Ninth Ward residents, tells her painful story of driving past the thousands of people standing on a highway overpass near the Convention Center, you could hear people around the bar weeping.
There is a tragic sadness in New Orleans that hasn’t gone away. I really hope this film, among other things, can reach people, both in their guts and in their hearts, with the sheer emotional intensity of the New Orleans material. As Naomi Oreskes says in the film, “This climate change stuff isn’t just about polar bears in the Arctic. It’s about things happening right here in our own country.”