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Interview: Davis Guggenheim and An Inconvenient Truth
Alex Steffen, 4 May 06

Davis Guggenheim directed An Inconvenient Truth. Alex Steffen spoke with him by phone yesterday, and asked him some questions about film-making and global warming.

Alex Steffen: My first question was how did you decide to get involved in making An Inconvenient Truth?

Davis Guggenheim: Laurie David and Lawrence Bender, the producers, came to me and said they’d seen Al Gore’s slide show, and it’s unbelievable, and let’s make a movie. And I said to them directly, I don’t know how you can make a movie about a slide show, and I don’t know if Gore’s the right messenger. And they said, “Just trust us. He’s giving the slide show in two weeks. Go.” And I went to see it and I was blown away. Now, I’m not an environmentalist, but I had this profound experience where for the first time someone had laid out the whole thing, and explained it to me, connected the dots, and I left after an hour and a half thinking that global warming is the most important issue, and if I do one thing in my life it’s to help more people see Al Gore do this. I had no idea how you’d make a film out of it, but I wanted to try.

AS: It seems to me that the question of how to make a movie about a slide show is part of a larger one of how do you tell a good story about something that’s as abstract and huge and large as climate change?

DG: That’s the problem with global warming / climate change, I think, and why people have such a hard time connecting with it. It’s very hard to touch and to see and to know how your life fits into it, because it’s so huge and broad. When you see homeless people, you know – you see them outside your house and think that’s a problem, but global warming is much more abstract. So, that’s a challenge, and my instinct was that if I could tell Al’s story in the movie, that perhaps, if we learned about him and learned how he became so invested, then maybe we would too.

AS: It seems to me that you took a more interesting tack than just telling Al’s story, which is that you actually talked about his own struggle to tell that story of global warming

DG: He’s been saying this for a long time. You know, An Inconvenient Truth is the title for a bunch of reasons, but one of them was that he was given this burden to carry as a young man in college. Early in the 70’s he brought Roger Ravelle to Congress and held hearings as a congressman, hearing as a senator, and people weren’t listening. And people read his book and people loved his book, but people weren’t acting. This guy’s been out there, ringing the alarm bell but no one’s listening. And I thought that f we connected to that struggle, if we understood that, than maybe we could get the message across.

AS: This is a topic that lots of people have worked to try to tell good stories about. Did you explore other avenues of telling that story before landing on this one?

DG: No, I purposely -- maybe stupidly -- didn’t think about other environmental films, other global warming films, and I really haven’t seen any. First of all, I think that film is a poor medium for getting information across, for making arguments. What film is so good at is giving people an experience, an emotional, gripping experience. If you want to really learn about global warming, and you really want to get into the science of it, there are lots of better ways – you can read voluminous books – but this is a way to really experience the full profound time with Gore. And I thought, if we get people that, we get them hooked, and they can take the rest of the journey on their own.

AS: In terms of actually putting the movie together, what were the steps involved. Obviously there was footage from a couple of the presentations, but what else did you have to do in order to pull this together as a visual document?

DG: The biggest challenge was time. We all thought that the issue was very urgent, that it was coming to a head, and that if we spent two years making it we would be letting ourselves down. So we gave ourselves the impossible task of making it in six months. With the last documentary I did it took two and a half years. The other hurdle was convincing Al to open up and tell us the personal story – he didn’t think it was relevant. And then, simply just getting all these graphs and charts and photographs and pulling them together and making them visual, making them dynamic.

The other thing is that everything was happening right away. We were supposed to shoot in New Orleans, on August 29th. Al was going to address a group of insurances commissioners about the threat of global warming and about – and take them to a location to show them the threat of sea level rise – and we got a phone call, “Don’t come! There’s a threat of a hurricane coming. And that was Hurricane Katrina.” And you just felt like “oh my gosh. This is history – right in front of us.”

AS: Living in the middle of it

DG: Living in the middle of history – it was – still is – intense. I mean, since, while we were making the movie, there were reports that parts of the Gulf Stream have been measured to have reduced by 30%. We did his beautiful animation of polar bears looking for places to hunt, and after the movie was shot, we heard that polar bears are now drowning in significant numbers. So we stopped and put that in the movie. You know, it just really feels like it’s all happening right now. And the movie is at the center of it.

AS: I wonder if I might ask you a bit of a speculative question, which is that one of the things that we talk about a lot on Worldchanging is that you can’t build what you can’t imagine, and that most of us can’t really imagine what a truly environmentally sustainable society would look like, because we’ve never seen it. And I noticed – we all remarked on – and the film really literally only gets to answers while the credits are rolling. Did you guys think about that – did you weigh whether it was important to talk more about what we could be doing?

DG: We spent a lot of time worrying about how much of the film should be giving practical solutions, and we realized that if you were to really get into that in depth it would be a whole ‘nother film. As you know, it’s very – you could spend 15 minutes on carbon capture and sequestration – on conservation – it’s such a huge topic. We felt that the biggest step – and the biggest service we could do was to give people an experience where they 1) understand that global warming is real. There’s a large amount of people who think it’s kinda real, they’re not sure, they’re heard about some controversy, but they don’t really get it. And then, if they get that its real, you really explain to them that it’s urgent. That we’re causing it and that it’s urgent – that we have to do something about it now. I imagine that a lot of people in your community already get that, but I think we need – we need to change the minds of most of Americans who don’t get it. Including people like myself – who are well read, I’m a Democrat –people who read and are reasonable people, but if they see the argument put in front of them their minds are changed. So that’s the first step. I’d love to do a movie about all the practical things you can do, but I just didn’t think it was time for it. And certainly there’s our website – it leads people to places. I don’t think we leave people dangling.

AS: Can I take you back for a second to something you just said – that you’d love to make a movie about solutions – I don’t know if that’s something that you’ve thought and noodled a bit about, but if you were going to make that movie, what would be in it, and how would you tell that story?

DG: It’s tough. You know, one of the things that struck me was the DVD of this movie. Because I think that the dvd is going to be a very powerful tool when it comes out – people are going to give it to their friends, they’re going have parties and watch it. In the way that a lot of other activist documentaries have been used. I think that you can put on the DVD of this movie, little vignettes, four or five vignettes of real people – doing – changing their lives and getting involved and changing this problem in their own individual ways. I’m a big believer that films are about people. It’s hard to make a documentary about a list of things you can do. And a websites great for that. What if there are little movies about people like me – about a dad with two kids – and he’s learning how to become carbon neutral. Or there’s another story about someone who’s figuring out a commute to work with a gas guzzling car, how to make those changes. Or someone’s who’s trying to reach their congressman. The idea that I’d love to have someone come up with the money for is to make four or five little vignettes – so that if you had the DVD you can hit a button and see what it’s like to convince my congressman, or I want to take the political route, or the carbon neutral route. Or I want … and then you can watch that person do that and watch that person transform. That would be pretty cool.

AS: Let me ask you something. You produced Deadwood, and that was a pretty interesting show – it show was that it took a lot of our mythology about what the West was, nodded at it, and then it changed it – it made it something that was very contemporary, while being totally appropriate to the period. There’s a mythos about what an environmentalist is and what protecting the environment is about, right? You know, some wool-wearing guy who goes hiking a lot and hates loggers. And I wonder if we don’t need some sort of similar retelling of that story.

DG: Well, you know, part of the making of this movie was trying to pull the issue, and Al Gore, away from these environmental clichés – the good ones and bad ones. What I hope that people are responding to in the movie is that it’s good, solid, logic, and that it’s a real person, and it's a story about all of us. I guess I hope that by stciking to that story, we'll help the people who see it to feel the same kind of transformation I felt.

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Alex, With your 'contacts' reach, if you can have Oprah Winfrey agree to the idea, you might get your numbers of a million pledges for the opening weekend. Throw in Bill Clinton for good measure and we should have the global critical mass. Thanks for your missionary zeal - I wish us all good luck.

Posted by: Subbarao Seethamsetty on 4 May 06

Guys - that Roger Ravelle link is broken.

Posted by: Adam Burke on 4 May 06

I love the idea of doing a global warming documentary and I think filmakers should consider doing other spin-off films at a state or regional level across the country to make it even more personal to Americans. A lot of times people think the problems associated with global warming will be too far away and won't really affect them, but if you show them how things will change in their backyard it usually motivates citizens to act - at least in my own experiences as an organizer. I also wanted to add that more theatres should show this film. I looked at the list and only saw one theatre in SC and one in GA.
Thanks for doing this!!!

Posted by: Erika on 24 May 06



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