It’s not Bender’s first brush with Oscar fame. He produced Academy Award best-picture nominees Good Will Hunting and Pulp Fiction, as well as Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill, and other Quentin Tarantino blockbusters. But this was his first Oscar win — and it couldn’t have happened to a better project, he says, calling the film “possibly the apex of my career, bringing making a difference and making movies together into one.”
Bender is no political newbie, either. He was a top Hollywood fundraiser for John Kerry‘s 2004 presidential campaign, and backed Harold Ford Jr.’s 2006 Senate race. As for 2008, he says he would “drop everything” to campaign for Al Gore if the former veep decided to make another run for the White House.
In the meantime, Bender is throwing his Hollywood heft behind a far less celebrated agent of environmental change: the wee compact fluorescent light bulb. Together with Wal-Mart and Yahoo!, he has helped launch 18Seconds.org, an online campaign that aims to push energy-efficient lighting into every American household.
Bender spoke with me from his office in Los Angeles, sharing behind-the-scenes insights into An Inconvenient Truth and its improbable star.
Congratulations on the Oscar. How do you feel?
Thank you so much! I feel great.
How did this experience compare to previous years when your films were nominated?
With Pulp Fiction and Good Will Hunting, we were the underdog — up against Titanic and Forrest Gump. We knew we didn’t have a chance, so I just never got that nervous. This time I couldn’t sleep. We were the big movie, we had big box office, and everybody was like, “You guys are gonna win — it’s in the bag.” But you just never know what’s going to happen. We were like, “Yeah, we might win. But there are some other really good documentaries there.” So I was much, much more nervous this time around, because, for one, we had a good chance, and two, the issue is of course the No. 1 issue facing us in our lifetime.
Come on. You really didn’t think you had the Oscar sewn up?
It’s funny. Davis [Guggenheim, director and co-producer], halfway through the Oscars, I saw him, and he goes, “I don’t think we’re going to win.” We honestly didn’t know what to think. That said, the feeling was that we really had won already, in the sense that the movie had already accomplished so much more than anyone had ever dreamed, with it doing over $46 million around the world; with the U.K. sending out DVDs to every school in the country; with Congress all of a sudden starting to introduce legislation. And on and on and on.
How do you think An Inconvenient Truth has influenced Congress?
I’ll give you some examples. I met recently with a Republican congressmember who I’m not going to name. He had seen the movie, and asked the Republican staff scientists to watch the movie and report back to him. They all sit down in his office and he says, “Tell me, is there any information in this movie that is not accurate?” They said, “It is all accurate.” That’s a big step, a big deal. Then his 18-year-old son saw the movie and said, “Dad, I’ll vote for you, but only if you do something about global warming.”
Another story: I was down at the Conference of Mayors, I was sitting next to Barbara Boxer who was saying that the movie really helped the Democrats to do their job, because it gives a broadened awareness of the problem, it gives wind to their backs. It’s powerful to hear somebody say that.
And surely the Oscar will only boost this effort in spreading public awareness.
Yeah, the Academy Awards put an amazing amount of focus around this issue. From Al and Leo getting up, to [winning for] best documentary, to Melissa Etheridge winning [for best song]. It was amazing. We definitely expect to see an uptick in DVD sales around the world as a result, which will in turn feed more money into the Alliance for Climate Protection, which is where all of Al’s profits are going, and a percentage of Paramount’s. That, in turn, will expand public-outreach campaigns, which will spread more awareness. It’s a positive feedback loop.
Give us the back story on the pitching and making of the film.
I saw Al’s presentation early in the spring of ’05, and immediately realized that it had to be a movie. I teamed up with the other producers and director Davis Guggenheim, and we approached Al with the idea. He was skeptical at first: “How are you going to make a movie about my slide show?” Raising money happened fast, but imagine the pitch: “We want to make a movie about a slide show with Al Gore, and by the way, give us a million bucks.” We approached Jeff Skoll; he saw the presentation, and right then and there he said, “OK, I’ll write you a check.”
Was that the budget — a million bucks?
Just over that, yeah.
Not bad for doing $46 million at the box office. And particularly given that you produced it in an unbelievably short time frame, as I understand it.
The soup-to-nuts production process — from the time we came up with the idea to the time we released it at Sundance — was six months. It’s kind of unheard of. Everything about this movie was a miracle. Most documentaries are long-term projects because you’re following people, and you shoot, and then you edit, and then you shoot some more — it’s a wonderful process, but it’s very long. Davis Guggenheim’s last film took two years. Al really drummed into us, made us understand that the issue was so urgent, and timing was critical.
Paramount wanted to release the movie in the fall because documentaries normally take six months to do advance PR, and we said, “No, no, no, that’s impossible. We need to release it immediately because there’s too much urgency to this issue.” And they said, “OK, we’re in.” It was a big coup when Paramount got on board, which happened because of John Lesher at Paramount Vantage. Basically it was his first couple weeks on the job, and he said, “I want this to be my first big project.”
How did you get it made in such a short amount of time?
I know it sounds cliché, but making this movie really brought out the best of every single person involved. Challenge No. 1 was dealing with Al’s schedule. I’ll never forget saying to him, “If we want to make the schedule we’re talking about, we’re going to have to start shooting in a month from now.” He pulled out his calendar and basically every day of his life was booked — he was crisscrossing the globe doing his presentations. And he said, “Look, I will make myself available for whatever you need me for. This is too important.” The scheduling got so hectic he good-naturedly referred to it as Kill Al: Vol. 3.
There were other scheduling feats that were memorable in different ways. I’ll never forget that we were meant to shoot in New Orleans on a Wednesday in early September 2005; Gore was going to speak at an insurance industry conference on how the increasing intensity of storms due to global warming would affect the industry. Then, two days before we were scheduled to shoot, Katrina hit.
Wow. That’s chilling.
One of the big things that Davis brought to the movie was making Al’s slides more visual — he made them move, for instance, where before they were static. He incorporated a beautiful color palette. That took time.
But on the day before we were all set to shoot the presentation — the one that weaves throughout the whole movie — Al comes in and says he’d just gotten these extraordinary slides, and he showed them to us, and we were like, “OK, we have to put these in the movie.” But we’re on this hard, hard deadline. So basically the crew and our co-producer Lesley Chilcott stayed up the entire night reworking and reformatting everything to make sure the slides were ready for the shoot the next morning.
There are so many examples like that of including material at the very last minute. You know in the movie there’s a slide that shows the CO2 and the temperature curves going back 650,000 years? When he’s up on that people mover?
Before we shot the movie, that chart only went back 450,000 years. That was the most up-to-date. Then right after we started shooting, Al received this data that scientists had now actually gone back another 200,000 years and he was like, “We’ve got to be able to get this into the movie.” The scientists hadn’t even released that information, so Al pushed hard to get their permission.
And remember that statistic that 2005 was the hottest year on record? Right before the premiere in January 2006 we got the information, so at the last minute we redid the slide to include 2005, and Al did a voiceover. I know it sounds nerdy, but these kinds of things were very exciting for us.
You’ve spent a lot of time with Al Gore. What are your insights about him personally?
He’s the hardest working actor in Hollywood, hands down. I have never seen someone work this hard in my entire life. Sometimes he’d come by the editing room and we would start at 8 or 9 in the morning and it would be midnight, and we’d say, “OK, maybe we need to pick it up tomorrow.” And he’d say, “Come on, you guys.” And we wouldn’t stop it until 2 or 3 in the morning. And, you know, he would be way ahead of us. We’d all be crashing, and he’d just be leading the pack.
And the thing is, he’s genuinely funny. We’d be in the editing room working and working, and he’d just crack a joke and clear the tension in the air.
But above all, he’s really personable. Whenever I see him, the first thing he asks me about is my son. He really is a family man — he loves, loves, loves his family. We all know this, because it’s so public, but it is nice to see firsthand how much they all love each other. It’s really touching and inspiring.
Do you think he’ll run in 2008?
I have no idea. He’s working on another campaign right now — the SOS concerts on 7/7/07. He’s doing these train-the-trainer programs, where he’s training 1,000 people to deliver his climate presentation. That’s really what he’s focusing on.
I personally would drop everything in my life to support him if he were to run, and I know a lot of people who would. But whether he does or not, I have no more information than anybody else.
Are you working on a sequel on climate solutions, or chronicling his effort to seed the grassroots climate movement?
There probably won’t be a sequel. You know, the movie gods are very funny about these kinds of things. They’ve shone down on us. This movie is a little miracle. It is the third-biggest documentary of all time, and that’s a hard act to repeat. But we will definitely pursue other ways to follow up on the success of An Inconvenient Truth.
Do you see a renaissance of socially engaged filmmaking?
Absolutely, 100 percent. But we’re not the beginning of it. I feel like we’re a big part of the movement, but what’s been wonderful is, there have been documentaries every year now for the last few years that stand out. Super Size Me, Fahrenheit 9/11, Bowling for Columbine, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room. It’s what happens at a time of crisis and volatility. So much has been happening in the world — war, global warming, and other destabilizing forces — that people are craving meaning and importance. I feel like people are looking to documentaries to fill that need.
I’ve heard some criticism that An Inconvenient Truth spoke to largely white, highly educated, middle- and upper-class audiences. Do you feel like you were able to preach far enough beyond the choir?
When we were releasing the movie, we thought, “Are we leaving any audiences out?” I was hoping that everyone was going to see it. And maybe there was a way to reach more people. We had a pretty successful program to help diversify the audience. We got some sponsors to enable schools to see the movie for free, and ended up getting literally hundreds of thousands of high-school kids of all different ethnicities and economic backgrounds who would not have seen the movie to come see it.
Al also addresses this in his train-the-trainer program. I’m an official trainee and went to the first workshop. He’s bringing people together from so many backgrounds — for instance, there was an 18-year-old young man, an Inuit Alaskan, right next to a 55-year-old man from somewhere in the Midwest who was married to a woman who was a part of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a very conservative group. There was a lot of emphasis on diversity.
You have been closely involved with Wal-Mart and Yahoo! in launching the 18Seconds.org campaign, which aims to help push the compact fluorescent light bulb into the mainstream. Tell me about it.
The idea is that if you take 18 seconds out of your life to change one bulb, you’re going to save $30 over the course of the light bulb and use 75 percent less energy. Beyond that, you’re going to become part of a movement that’s going to better your country. For me, the compact fluorescent light bulb is like a Trojan horse into people’s minds: They start thinking, “Oh, that was easy — I’m saving money, and I’m helping my country. What else can I do? Oh, I’ve got my appliances, my thermostat, my this, my that.” There are 50,000 things you can do.
What steps have you taken personally to lighten your environmental footprint?
Just about a month ago I had a complete energy audit of my house, and we’re now taking steps to ramp up efficiency. I’m looking into getting a solar system installed, and I’m now making my house carbon-neutral. The big hitch in my lifestyle is my air travel — I haven’t found a way to cut down on that.
What convinced you to take up the climate cause? Was there some kind of conversion moment?
Growing up, my parents always took me to do things in nature, so I had this foundation of respect for the natural world.
The first really pivotal moment for me was in 1998, when I was invited to go to Camp David to screen the movie Good Will Hunting. It was a period in my life when I felt there was something missing. I couldn’t figure out what it was. That was the first time I’d ever met an elected official — here I am meeting the president [Bill Clinton] and Hillary and Madeline Albright and all these people, and I quickly came to realize that these people are actually making a difference in the world, and that’s what I needed to do.
As far as committing myself to the climate issue, the really big moment for me was seeing Gore. I guess you could say he was the high priest of my conversion. I believe if we lick this climate crisis, people are going to look back and the tipping point is going to be one person: Al Gore.