He was, like the rest of us who count ourselves among the environmental community, still emotionally hung over on the 10th day of November in the year 2016.
“Fuck,” said Fisher Stevens, succinctly articulating the distress shared by the majority of Americans two days after Hillary Clinton won the popular vote battle but lost the convoluted Electoral College war. “Just fuck. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck!”
The self-described “skinny white Jewish kid from Chicago” quickly picked himself up, however, just as he’s done ever since he convinced his mom to move to New York at age 13 so he could try to make it as an actor. Rejected—even as an extra in a Crest commercial—more times than he can count, he then managed to string together a bona fide four-decade career in front of, and now behind, the camera.
“It’s really scary right now,” said the Academy Award-winning producer of 2010’s The Cove and director of last fall’s hit documentary Before the Flood. “It’s a real, real fright. But instead of lying down and saying, ‘We’re fucked,’ we’re going to try to make them understand.”
He’s acted in everything from soap operas to Broadway plays, from sit-coms like Frasier to first-rate films, including The Grand Budapest Hotel. It was the producing Oscar, though, that gave him the legitimate indie street cred to follow up The Cove with 2014’s doc Mission Blue, about legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle, as well as 2015’s acclaimed Racing Extinction—a second environmental doomsday collaboration with The Cove director Louis Psihoyos.
Suddenly his phone started ringing for far more than supporting roles.
“Literally, out of the blue, I get a call from Leo. I’m thinking, ‘Leo? DiCaprio? Really?’ And he wants me to make a movie with him,” said Stevens. The two had met in a pickup basketball game 20 years ago, but bonded on a deep-sea dive in the Galapagos Islands with Earle in 2010. DiCaprio had already co-produced and narrated 2007’s 11th hour about climate demise, but this time the actor had a much bigger role in mind for himself.
For three years Stevens’ cameras trailed DiCaprio around the globe in his capacity as Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s hand-picked United Nation’s Messenger of Peace. In an effort to bring the science of global warming to the level of the everyman, Stevens and Leo visited catastrophe after catastrophe in more than 20 nations—with the wide-eyed, albeit pessimistic, leading man as the on-camera calling card of all calling cards.
You want Angela Merkel, President Obama and Pope Francis in your documentary? It’s relatively easy when you’ve got Leo as your co-producer and star. If you want millions upon millions of millennials to watch the film when you’re done and, oh, by the way, have the National Geographic channel buy it and distribute it for free? That’s doable, too. Just have Leo make the call.
“It’s true,” said Stevens. “Everyone says, ‘Yes,’ to Leo.”
When it comes to really making a difference in the fight against global warming, however, that jury is still out. Stevens and DiCaprio worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the edit room as the 2016 election approached. With less than a month to go until polls closed, they pulled Before the Flood out of the cutting room on a Wednesday and screened it to a Toronto International Film Festival audience on a Friday. Barely a week out from election day, National Geographic took the extraordinary step of releasing their film for free on the Internet, thereby setting documentary records for downloads, eyeballs and minutes viewed.
The polls, as we all know, showed so much promise. And then… “Fuck!”
“We were never really naïve enough to think we could impact an election, but you can dare to dream,” said Stevens, about 36 hours after the election had been conceded by the winner of the popular vote. “We did push like crazy to get the movie out before the election, but then Rubio even won again in Florida, too, so clearly it wasn’t enough.”
A few weeks later, as this issue of MovieMaker headed to press, the national news only got worse—as climate change-deniers, one after the other, were proposed as Cabinet members. When November turned to December, however, Stevens’ calling card was still trying to play one last ace.
“DiCaprio Meets with Trump on Jobs to Boost Green Economy” boomed the headline in The Washington Post on December 8. The actor had secured a 90-minute Trump Tower meeting with the President-elect and his daughter, and reportedly slipped a DVD copy of Before the Flood into Ivanka’s hands. The Denier-in-Chief even promised to watch it and invited Leo to the Oval Office in January—presumably to do more than ogle the latest Miss America contestants.
“The thing that Leo and I are going through now is just being very scared that a lot of this great work that Obama has done will be turned back,” said Stevens. “It’s been getting stranger and stranger week by week; it’s really surreal. But we’ll keep pushing Ivanka to push her dad. All we can do is keep trying, and hope.”
Only time will tell, ultimately, what moves all the new President’s rich men will really make in the face of incontrovertible scientific evidence. In the meantime, MovieMaker talked further with Stevens about the process and outcome of making 2016’s most watched documentary.
Paul Tukey, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): It strikes me that you made an incredibly broad, far-reaching film. It seemed like you could have made 20 or so individual films about all the places you visited.
Fisher Stevens (FS): It’s definitely a really tough decision: what to keep and what to cut out. We shot the impact on Indian tribes from the oil companies in the Amazon, for example, and that didn’t even make the movie. I caught malaria during the film, but we left that out. Ultimately we decided it was a story about Leo and his quest to understand this from a global perspective.
MM: People will criticize that decision, too. Why are they supposed to care about an actor talking about global warming?
FS: Of course. You’re probably not going to convince the naysayers with 90 minutes of a movie, no matter what you do. We braced for the fact that people were going to come after us, and they did. You saw that on the Fox News scenes that we left in the film. But we actually thought it would be a lot worse than it was. What we know we have done is introduce the concept of global warming to a bunch of young people who hadn’t known much about it previously—and those people can be convinced to try to do something about it.
MM: Talk about making this film compared to making The Cove. I personally thought that The Cove was the most powerful, gripping documentary film I’d ever watched… like a dramatic crime drama imbedded into the documentary format.
FS: Well, I can tell you that I had a much easier time getting people to be in this film! Much easier, again because of Leo. The Cove was an Oceans Eleven-style thriller. That’s true. And it’s hard to do that with the subject of climate change. We did experience some of that drama—after we were in Indonesia shooting Before the Flood and Leo tweeted pictures about what he had seen, the government was pissed. They tried to find us and didn’t want us to leave; we were lucky to get out.
Ultimately, I was hoping to make something entertaining about a subject, climate change, that people don’t want to talk about. So one of the things we did do was to go find the best music possible to drive the story. We got Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross and felt really, really lucky to have their music set the mood. We also focused on making it a cinematic experience, as beautiful and visually compelling as possible under the circumstances, and we tried to keep the graphics very clean.
MM: Was there any downside economically to the decision to go with National Geographic? Having them give away the movie for free to 30 million people must take away the back-end financial potential for you.
FS: Well, National Geographic did pay us for the film and they took the hit and were willing to suffer as a part of their own commitment to the environmental cause. That decision was made up front as part of my new financial model. I have had a company for a few years, Insurgent Media, and raised money to fund docs without a distribution deal in advance. We made one on Ginger Baker, Beware of Mr. Maker, and one on Woody Allen. We definitely did not make money. So since then I have decided to make films that were already funded. And it’s been profitable, more sustainable, for me.
MM: Are you comfortable with your evolution into one of the go-to environmental filmmakers?
FS: I love docs. It started when I was involved with Once in a Lifetime about Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia. Making that movie got me excited. Then, when Bush was running in 2004 for the second time, I couldn’t sit still; I decided to take three months off and try to get John Kerry elected. That’s how I learned how activism works and how I could make a difference. Kerry lost, of course, but it parlayed my way into activism as a filmmaker.
MM: Do you reflect back on the 40-year journey?
FS: I definitely still love acting; I wish I had more time to do it. I hope that, on some level, I can continue to do it all—although I haven’t had much success as a narrative feature director. But one thing I would share with younger people starting out: I find that when I do things that I’m passionate about, I do my best work. When I go commercial and try to make a ton of money, it’s never worked out well for me. Whenever I’ve said, “Oh, this will be a hit,” I bomb.
I’ve got two young children and I do this for them, really. One is 3 years old and one is 6 months old, and what kind of world are we leaving them? If our new President keeps heading the way he’s heading, and we have to take to the street to make our voices heard in order to protect our children, then hopefully our film has given people that motivation. MM
Before the Flood is available on Video on Demand, courtesy of National Geographic.
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Winter 2017 issue.