Global warming may not make the evening news, but it certainly gets its share of time in epic documentaries. See Jeff Orlowski’s Chasing Ice; Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth; Nadia Conners’ The 11th Hour; Years of Living Dangerously, revamped this year by National Geographic; and Planet Earth, to name a few. Leonardo DiCaprio, a long-time conservationist whose environmentally focused foundation has been around since 1998, knows this as well as anyone. So when you see that he's signed on to be the star in a new documentary, you can bet some thought has gone into the role. Before The Flood, a globetrotting investigation of climate change, doesn't disappoint. This documentary, directed by Fisher Stevens (The Cove), is likely to go down as a pivotal record of our planet in crisis.
Stevens and DiCaprio bonded during their younger days in Hollywood, playing pick-up basketball games, but the friendship solidified on an expedition to the Galapagos led by Sylvia Earle. Stevens turned the footage from their trip into a documentary called Mission Blue, which is also the name of Earle's current non-profit. DiCaprio has cited the time as a pivotal influence for his future environmental projects.
DiCaprio’s role as a Hollywood elite gave them unprecedented access, sitting down with no less than the Pope, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, President of Kiribati Anote Tong, Elon Musk, and President Barack Obama. When it comes time to talk facts, DiCaprio thankfully steps aside, giving the podium to his impressive roster of experts. The result is an important piece of journalism; deserving of the historically wide release National Geographic is giving it this weekend (The doc will appear on NatGeoTV.com, iTunes, Hulu, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, Sony PlayStation, GooglePlay, and more.) The timing, airing just weeks before Election Day, is likewise well-calculated. We sat down to talk with Stevens about how this film came together, why there are scenes from The Revenant in it, and their toughest days on set.
During the pre-production of this film, what was your general outlook, and what did you want to get across?
Between the two of us, Leo went in there with a much darker attitude than I did off the bat. I am happy that he came out of it with a bit of light. It was a great experience to watch his personal outlook change. This is not a scripted Leo at all. He isn’t reading lines, but he is taking the world through his own journey and learning process. I feel incredibly grateful that he trusted me with this task. The collaboration wasn’t always easy, and there were times that I think he felt almost too vulnerable. He isn’t used to being filmed in this way, but as the process went on, he started to understand that that was the way that people would connect with these lessons.
There is footage from behind the scenes of The Revenant in the documentary. How did you come upon the decision to weave that in?
We were in the middle of planning on making this movie, and Leo called me to tell me that he was doing The Revenant. I was immediately worried about the scheduling, but he just told me that we would figure it out. It took a bit of juggling with the filming, but in the end it almost helped the doc, because all of the snow in Alberta melted, forcing the production to go to Argentina to finish. So we sent cameras down with them and put that into the narrative.
I can imagine that having Leo as the host helped open a few doors.
Usually a filmmaker is not given the sort of access that Leo was able to get, which was remarkable and beneficial to helping us bring something new to the table. Most of the doors opened. The only “nos” that we really got were from the Koch brothers and James Inhofe. We did want to talk to them, because they are such big players on the other side, but they didn’t want to talk to Leo.
Speaking of the Koch brothers, I noticed that there aren’t really any interviews with people who don’t believe in climate change.
Inhofe and the Kochs were the only ones we were interested in chatting with because of how big a role they play in the grand scheme. Otherwise we didn’t really want to give climate deniers a voice, because in our opinion all of the empirical evidence is out there and there is really no argument to have on whether it exists.
There are some meetings that are just incredible. How did the meeting with Pope Francis come to be?
You know he may have done more to raise awareness about climate change than anyone. So that was an interview to get, and an honor. That happened through a friend of Leo’s, and I am not quite sure that he even knew who Leo was. There was a bit of a security measure at the end that we weren’t aware of, and I wasn’t allowed to go into the Vatican with the cameras at the last minute, but we got the footage, so that’s all I cared about.
President Obama is featured in your documentary, and you recently screened on the White House lawn. How does he feel on the subject, and the film?
For us it was a great full-circle moment because when we were making the film, he was kind enough to give us about 25 minutes to chat with Leo. After the interview for the documentary was done, he pulled us aside and said that this movie also had to have “hope.” He said it couldn’t be all “doom and gloom.” He wanted us to help show people there is a way to turn it around. I was thrilled that after he saw the finished film he thought that we accomplished just that.
What were the toughest days for you and Leo?
I think going to India and having Sunita Narain really lay into us about American consumption and hypocrisy was difficult to be faced with. She drove us four hours outside of New Dehli without telling us exactly where we were going. There she showed us how the fields of farmers had been flooded, leaving those people with no crops and no way to really survive. It’s hard to know how to respond that that.
What exactly in the process gave you hope?
I would have to say it was people like Piers Sellers. The President was really moved by him as well. Here is this NASA scientist who has been diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and he has made it his life’s mission to help share what he knows about climate change. This is what he has chosen to do with the remaining years of his life.
I’m sure you get asked a lot what people can do to help the situation. What do you tell them?
We have a clear call to action at the end of the film. We need to make real commitments, and need to get the right leaders in office. There are some great new initiatives happening now, with a voluntary carbon tax. You can pay it by going to carbotax.org, and pay a tax-deductible amount that goes to reforestation. You can alter your diet, eating meat is probably one of the worst things you can do for the environment.
You’ve been embedded in this narrative longer than you expected.
I have a little more hope, thanks to Obama’s efforts on the subject. I’m not sure what inspired him to become more involved in his second term, but he has really stepped up to the plate. The prices of solar and wind is going down. It is getting better, but we need more. I just pray that this will help.