An interview with producer/director Daniel B. Gold
Everything’s Cool is a 100-minute film resulting from four and a half years of work, thousands of miles traveled, and hours and hours spent following some of the country’s most ardent climate change activists.
Co-producers/directors Daniel B. Gold and Judith Helfand finished the final cut of the film just the night before the special pre-screening event at the Sundance Film Festival, and sat down to watch it from credit sequence to credit sequence for the first time along with the audience — and almost all the characters in the film, who were flown in for the screening. The characters, who range from a Park City snowmaker to TV climatologist Heidi Cullen to the “bad boys” of environmentalism Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, met for the first time at the screening of a film that unites them and audiences for those 100 minutes, though their work might never overlap otherwise.
Though the filmmakers had intended to have the film completed for last year’s festival, arriving on screen a year after the improbable success of An Inconvenient Truth in the end seemed like a boon for the filmmakers, who hope their film will take Gore’s message to the next level with audiences.
I snagged a few minutes after the first screening last week to talk with co-producer/director Daniel B. Gold about climate cinema, the power of a good story, and generating public discourse on global warming.
What got you interested in making a film on global warming?
The previous film Judith and I made was Blue Vinyl, which was about persistent organic pollutants, and we tried to make that humorous and entertaining, and had some degree of success in that. Before that, Judith had made a film called A Healthy Baby Girl which had to do with her essentially being poisoned by a drug company, so it was an issue of toxins and environmental health as well. So this is kind of the mother of all environmental issues, and we felt like we could take what we learned from the other films that we’ve made and really put it to use. Little did we know how daunting that task would be.
How long did you guys think it was going to take starting out?
Blue Vinyl took five years, and we were pretty sure this was not going to take five years, but it came pretty close — four and a half years.
What do you think about the timing of this film’s premiere?
If we were able to control the weather, politics, and general karma, we could not created a better timing. It would be impossible. We were really, really trying to have this out in time for last year’s festival application, but we just weren’t ready for it. And it’s a blessing that we didn’t, because Al Gore’s film is extraordinarily important, and we don’t feel in any way that we’re competing with that. In fact, it opened many doors for us. We never set out to make a science film, so it’s not like we found out about An Inconvenient Truth and changed our minds about how to make our film. That was never the case. It just put us so much more at ease that Al Gore was making that film, and made us feel better about being focused on character, and the politics of the pushback on the messaging of global warming.
What were the discussions like between the directors and producers, about what you wanted this film to be or do?
We knew what worked for Blue Vinyl. We knew that humor, intimacy, personality, irony were all factors that all led to Blue Vinyl‘s overall wide acceptance as a relief in the realm of environmental films. I think people really appreciated with Blue Vinyl that they weren’t being lectured to, they weren’t being told they needed to do one thing or another. They were drawn into the entertainment of it. We really came out of Blue Vinyl with the knowledge that we have to make something that captures people’s imagination and never really talks down to people. We talked about creating a movie that transmits information sideways. We never really wanted to be dogmatic, we never wanted to be preachy … but we wanted people to get information. We wanted people to get information through caring about a character.
What is the main message you want people to walk away from this with?
Again, to mention Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth, I think our greatest hope is that people will have seen that film, and I would hope that their reaction would be, “My God, why haven’t I known about this sooner? Why wasn’t I seeing this on CNN several times a week? Why weren’t there specials on every network?” So the hope would be that [people ask], “How is it possible that I didn’t know about this, that it’s far worse than I ever thought, and we don’t have collectively much time to deal with this?” And this is really what we’re addressing — to help people understand that there are actually a lot of reasons that this has never been presented so clearly and so comprehensively before. It’s really an approach of comprehending the pushback, and then hopefully feeling inspired to really support significant action. That’s really the point — we’re hoping that people wake up to the reality, and we’re really hoping that the conversation about change starts to happen on the scale of change and the urgency in terms of time. Those two things seem to be completely missing from the public debate right now, and we have to be very careful that our political leaders don’t stand up and start giving empty promises about solving global warming. People have to really become aware of the fact that the McCain-Lieberman bill, as good as it is in that it’s the only thing going, is so far from being substantial. People have to start to understand that the level of reductions and emissions and the urgency of how soon that has to happen — the whole debate has to shift.
How did you get into environmentalism in film topics?
By complete accident. I was a freelance director of photography, working on other people’s documentaries. I worked for Dateline NBC, I worked for Saturday Night Live, I worked on corporate work, [but] I was never fully satisfied with that work, and always wanted to do more. Judith and I started talking about working together for Blue Vinyl, and I sort of slowly but surely got immersed in shooting that, and in doing the research, and in co-directing and producing. So this a natural outgrowth of that.
So how has your life changed as you’ve been thinking about these things constantly for the past four and a half years?
I turn off the lights a lot more and definitely don’t leave the water running when I brush my teeth. The whole issue of people taking responsibility for this in their own lives is extremely important. On the other hand, this should not be a burden that every individual ought to bear, while the fossil-fuel corporations are getting ridiculous subsidies and tax breaks. This is something everybody has to share. Everybody in America could be changing their light bulbs, but that’s not going to solve global warming. It’s a very tricky boundary — the message that this is an extremely huge issue that has to be dealt with on a large scale has to be brought out to the public, but if you bring it straight out like that, people shut down. And this is ultimately then the problem of how to message global warming. Everybody’s trying to find a way to do it. And we kind of want to make that transparent in our film.
How did you pick the characters for Everything’s Cool? They’re all such strong characters in their own right, and then together they cover a lot of ground in the climate-change debate.
I read The End of Nature, and I knew I had to be in touch with Bill McKibben. I read The Heat Is On, and knew I had to be in touch with Ross Gelbspan. Certainly, having a good guy and a bad guy in a story makes it more appealing to an audience, and Gelbspan’s work is all about the bad guys, and it’s all about discovering what other people had never known. McKibben in 1988 at the age of 28 had the vision with The End of Nature to really see what was coming down the line, and so he clearly was somebody that had been trying to get this message out really as long as anybody.
There was a certain level of chance with who we went with, and a certain level of, as we learned about the subject, we gravitated to the people we found most compelling. At the very beginning of the project, we wanted to show how global warming was impacting everyday people, and that’s why we started with the snowmakers in Park City, and we went to Alaska and shot that. But what we realized was that we were starting to make a film that was trying to prove that global warming was real. And we decided we didn’t want to fall into that trap, because the science had already proved well before we started making the film that global warming is real.
I love the point in the film where Ross Gelbspan quotes James Hansen about why he won’t debate climate skeptics anymore.
Right, why would you debate that? The debate is over. And then he goes and debates. And that is the irony of the whole thing. Because if you just say I don’t want to debate, then you lose the chance to direct the debate. It’s very hard.
We realized we didn’t want to fall into the trap of a film that tries to convince people that global warming is real. We want to start our film at the level that it is real, that the science is there. That’s not the issue. We’re actually starting there. What we found interesting is why that message hasn’t really been communicated effectively. There are lots of people who are working hard on that message. So people like Heidi Cullen at the Weather Channel make incredibly interesting characters, because here is the first climatologist ever to have a full-time job on broadcast television. What’s she going to do with it? So we went to find out.
What was it like having all these characters together for the first time here at Sundance?
Scary as hell. Terrifying. We didn’t know if they would love it, hate, want to hug us, want to kill us.
How was the reaction?
On the whole, it’s been love.
How did it feel actually sitting down to watch it for the first time from credit to credit tonight?
I feel like I want to change a lot of things still, but I’ve been told that it’s too late, and we have to let go of our baby. I think we’ll probably always feel like it could be better, it could be better, but this is the nature of the beast.
Earlier you mentioned that in your head these people had all met, because you’re there in the editing room putting them all together. And they’re having this meeting in your film, even if they’re people who never interact in real life. And this is one of the criticisms of the environmental movement, that it’s scattered all around, it’s fractured. What is your hope as far as bringing folks together?
One of the jokes tonight is that we’d all be together again for the very first time. It does speak to the fact that even though our characters are messengers, and they’re speaking out, they do work in a focused manner, very much in their own worlds. So it was exciting for them to come out and meet everyone and see each other, and connect. But do I envision one environmental movement that has complete unity? In the same way that there is no one cause of global warming, there certainly is no one solution. And along those lines, I don’t think there’s one movement. It would be wonderful, but I think that there’s such a diversity of interests among activists, and one specific aspect of this issue that they care about. I think while unity is important for momentum, diversity is good because it allows them to cover so many points. What we learned in making this film is that nothing is disconnected from global warming. You can make an argument for pretty much anything. We need as many activists out there finding ways to push us to the ultimate rate of change that’s necessary.
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