The 11th Hour.

Leonardo DiCaprio at the premiere of The 11th Hour.
Alex Berliner © Berliner Studio/BEImages

When celebrities embrace environmental concerns, cranky naysayers pop up like toadstools after a rainstorm. But the mansions and private jets those critics seize upon, while easy targets, might not be the real problem. It might just be that green-leaning celebrities and their handlers need to open themselves up to harder questions from their media allies first, to help forestall that crankfest.

At a recent press conference for The 11th Hour, Leonardo DiCaprio’s eco-documentary, the ballroom of the Regent Beverly Wilshire wasn’t packed with journalists eager to take a swipe at the star and his producers, but rather with a random assortment of starstruck bloggers, earnest greenies, and a couple of bored-looking representatives of the mainstream media.

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According to a reporter I met in the elevator, the Warner Entertainment office had set up a tiered system where media outlets that could provide some free ad time or space for the film got face time with DiCaprio, those with smaller budgets or sterner editors got to participate in roundtable discussions with him in a hotel suite, and the rest of the herd could take turns asking questions of four key players at the press conference: producer-directors Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners; Bioneers founder and film subject Kenny Ausubel; and, yes, DiCaprio.

Grist’s editors had received confirmation for the roundtables, but my name wasn’t on the list. I’d done a fair amount of homework, and planned to ask about engaging working people and families — blue collar, middle management, small business owners — in the environmental movement. Saving the earth can seem to be kind of an upper-middle-class concern, but DiCaprio’s known to be a down-to-earth guy among film crews. I thought he might have some insights.

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After sampling the nicely laid out buffet in the check-in suite and seeing the rows of goodie bags on display, most of the press traipsed down to the ballroom to wait for the press conference. I took my place among them. The chairs were in rows, and the mood was of suppressed excitement. After a 10-minute wait — right on time for a big star — DiCaprio and the others filed in.

Let the Games Begin

DiCaprio, wearing a black polo shirt and a film-noir haircut, is affable and low-key, with a charisma that positively beams. Producer-sisters Conners Petersen and Conners are attractive, dressed like they live in Santa Monica and work in the media. Everyone is very friendly.

A lively young woman is shouting in Japanese into her cell phone, the word “Leo” heard plainly. This group is thrilled to be there — they look at DiCaprio with the expectant air of dogs that would like to be petted.

While the press release we’d been given answers most of the standard questions — complete with a pre-done Q & A with the sisters that I’ve since seen liberally excerpted around the internet — the reporters want to ask the same questions of the movie star.

Q: So, how did you get involved with the movement, Leo?

A: I became an actor at a very young age, but I also had a deep respect for nature. I think I was a little biologist when I was younger. I watched documentaries on the loss of species and habitats for animals around the world, and it affected me in a very hard-core, emotional way when I was younger.

DiCaprio answers thoughtfully, but the reporter can’t ask him a follow-up question — everyone’s allotted only one. Which is too bad, because the image of little Leo sprawled on a sofa in Southern California looking at images of the natural world deserves further exploration.

But it’s on to the next in the row. No shouting press here — this is as orderly as a third-grade classroom at a non-progressive school.

Judy Sloane from asks about how we can all live green.

DiCaprio gives a solid but predictable answer: drive a hybrid, don’t throw away plastic bottles, install solar panels, do what we can, and so on. Conners and Conners Petersen — whose sororal beauty seems to beguile many, including Ecorazzi — both understand that not everyone can do everything, but we can all learn where our food comes from, if our furniture is made from endangered rainforests, if our clothes are made in sweatshops. And by learning, consumers can make effective, organic, sustainable, and humane choices.

Ausubel charmingly admits that he drives a non-hybrid four wheel drive because he lives in the mountains of New Mexico. He’s got an old hippie vibe; he’s the only one on the panel who discusses social class as a factor in environmental issues, and he tends to go off into rants about the corporate power structure. (No one asks about how Time Warner, parent company of domestic distributor Warner Independent Pictures, figures into that structure.) Ausubel also introduces the line from Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo — “We have met the enemy and he is us” — but the crowd is too young, and they look at him quizzically.

And so it goes, row by row. Some of the journalists are so inexperienced that they ask a question that’s already been asked, just because it’s their turn. It’s obvious that no one has actually seen the whole film.

Suddenly, with a row left to go, the Warner publicist announces that there’s time for only one more question. Disappointed rumblings from the back row, but no one protests. And then it’s Grist’s turn.

All the lite ‘n’ easy questions have been asked and answered. Conners Petersen was pretty passionate about consumers affecting corporate change. I’ve got only one shot, so I ditch my question about spreading the word to the folks on the block and go for a quality-of-life topic. I introduce the showbiz equivalent of the “conscious consumption” issue that peppers their press materials.

“Is this a union film?”

Simple Question, Complicated Answer

The filmmakers seem flummoxed by my question. “It’s a documentary,” they offer. “It’s an independent film.” “It’s so low budget.”

None of which prevents a film from having a union crew, I point out. And having a union crew would seem to fit this film’s progressive agenda.

At this point, the rest of the press seems sort of embarrassed by the exchange — it’s so rude!

Attempting to explain my question, I remind the filmmakers that they just finished talking about how people should be aware of their choices. That they are advising consumers to avoid rainforest wood, sweatshop clothing, and chemical additives. To me, that also means watching films that have been produced in an ethical way.

DiCaprio stresses that any profits he gets from the film will go into nonprofit organizations — which is nice, but Hollywood bookkeeping is notorious for ensuring that even very popular films don’t turn a profit.

The producers then explain that it was just them and the editor and Leo in his mother’s garage, and everyone else was a volunteer. They latch on to this: Volunteers! Good! People really cared! Did we mention it was in Leo’s mother’s garage? The press sheet does include a disclaimer that its long list of credits is not contractual.

As the ballroom empties, one of the Warner media handlers tells me that this was the filmmakers’ first press conference, and that the question just threw them for a loop. Outside, another Warner rep comes up to point out that according to his information, 90 percent of theatrical release documentaries do not have union crews. By then, I’m more interested in the fact that the crew not only weren’t union, they apparently weren’t paid at all. DiCaprio once bought an island to develop as an eco-resort — did he and his team really need unpaid labor to make what the press is fondly calling his “homemade” movie?

That same press flack also mentions that they’ve done 80 interviews and no one has asked this question yet, thus undercutting his colleague’s positioning of the sisters’ inexperience with the press — and, at the same time, making the point that no one asks any questions that aren’t easy to answer.

Sean Hannity can ask DiCaprio all the noisy questions he wants about private jets, and whether DiCaprio recycles. Gotcha! journalism is the mirror image of the softballs tossed by environmental media and celebrity-obsessed weeklies — neither is designed to get an informative answer, and both are designed to make the questioner look good.

Why Any of This Matters

So what, you may be thinking. It’s a good cause, and DiCaprio seems like a good guy. If people wanted to volunteer to help him out, what’s the harm? Besides, those Hollywood types can afford to skip a paycheck or two.

That may be true. But as I see it, it’s impossible to discuss — and attack — climate change without addressing issues of social class and economy. Encouraging conscious consumerism without addressing the underlying class and labor issues is irresponsible — no matter how green the product, how progressive the process. And it is, if you ask me, irresponsible to put out an “environmental” film that doesn’t quite follow the rules.

Rules like this:

  • According to Kate McGuire of California’s Department of Industrial Relations, no one may work without pay (volunteer) for any organization other than a registered nonprofit or a state agency. Nor may any volunteer take the place of any paid worker.
  • The Directors Guild of America confirms that no DGA member may work without pay on any production, volunteer or not, and that the Guild was not approached by the production company to work out a low- or no-budget contract option. IATSE (the technicians’ union), the Teamsters, the Writers Guild — all have similar provisions, and none was approached by the production.
  • The Screen Actors Guild is tough on members who violate the bylaws — some even get expelled. DiCaprio, as a SAG member, worked on this film under a union contract made with Eleventeen Productions, an arm of Tree Media Group, the Conners sisters’ production company. His Pension & Welfare benefits were paid, as well. Other union members may not have been so lucky.

In a Los Angeles Times piece the weekend after the press conference, Rose Apodaca talked up the volunteer aspect of the film. The warm and fuzzy “it takes a village” theme of her article indicates that the Warner PR team has decided on a way to mention that The 11th Hour was made in part by unpaid workers — and make it sound like fun at the same time.

And maybe Hollywood really is full of eager volunteers who wanted to work for this good cause. I contacted Ross Day, the location manager and a Teamster member, who told me that his union allows members to work without pay on public service announcements, and that he considered this to be within the same realm. He said “it was all for a good purpose” and he felt that the message was important, so he was glad to volunteer. DiCaprio, he added, is a good guy.

The 11th Hour has an important message to deliver, and DiCaprio is obviously sincere about his work on this project. That’s admirable. And many people in the film business are well aware of how ungreen the industry is, so donating their time might seem to be a way to compensate. But would The 11th Hour remain unmade if not for free labor? Was it truly the only choice? Perhaps DiCaprio’s homemade movie-making team left some of its conscious consumerism on the cutting-room floor.