Environmental short-film collaborations with Leonardo DiCaprio led Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners to co-write and co-direct a feature-length examination of Earth's environmental crisis: The 11th Hour. During their press stop at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, the filmmakers told me about their approach to overwhelming material.
Groucho: First of all, maybe you could give an overview of your organizing principle for the film—it's such a big topic and the film takes a holistic approach. So how did you sort of decide what would make the cut, essentially?
Leila Conners Petersen: Well, we knew that--basically, we wanted to contextualize the state of the world in the sense that the earth is our only home. If the earth is our only home, why are we treating it the way we are—considering if we blow it, then we can't live here? And so, the through-put of that to us meant "Well, you have to talk about human psychology—you have to talk about who we are—as beings—as species." So that was part one, you know? Then we had to say, "Okay, what is the species doing to its home?" Part two. Then "How do we—why are we doing this? And, how do we fix it?" So, it was pretty straight-forward. But in that very simple outline lies the entire history of humanity--
LCP: The evolution of the world, of life. And so, yes, it's a very raw topic. But we really kept to that simple outline which was who are we, why do we behave the way we do, what have we done to our home, how do we fix it? And that's how all the interviews were structured. Everyone that we asked questions of went through the same questions--but then, obviously, got specific questions for their expertise. But even if you're an oceanographer, or a specialist on trees, or Wes Jackson on soil, we still asked the big questions of everybody—so that everyone had weighed in on who we were—even though we asked it of anthropologists and biologists, who probably had a real scientific explanation of who people are, we still would ask it of the oceanographer or the psychologist or whatever.
G: The effect is that it is as much philosophical treatise as documentary, it seems to me. Did you meet any resistance with structuring a film that way?
Nadia Conners: Resistance from--?
G: I guess, in terms of just getting it made, or getting it out to the audience.
NC: No, actually, not at all, because I think that what it is, it's like, you know, somebody said to us it's like an intellect—no, what was the word? Koyaanisqatsi? How do you say that? [To Leila:] How do you say that film? Anyway, scrap that. The name of that movie, Koyaanisqatsi.
G: Yeah. Koyaanisqatsi.
NC: That it was like a speaking—it was like a conversational Koyaanisqatsi. And that's exactly what we were trying to do. We were trying to create this, like, powerful vision of the world through multiple interviews and counterbalance that with images that are not only supporting what people are saying, but taking you in different directions than what you think that they are saying—so that you are creating this rapid-fire association of words and visuals that ultimately become a—it's an emotional experience—this film. It's certainly not like a movie where you go and you pick up a few facts and you leave. And, of course, there are multiple facts in here for you to pick up if you want, and lots of solutions. But really it's about the journey of going through this film.
G: Getting the hearts and minds of the audience.
NC: It really is. And then it captures you like right in the beginning with the opening montage and then you're in.
G: Going back to the shape of the film, and the impact of it, Nadia mentioned earlier the opening montage, and, I have to confess, when I saw the film, at first I laughed at the montage. I thought, "Oh, this is very dramatic." And the juxtaposition of certain images seemed you know kind of like "Oh, they're pressing certain buttons." But, by the end of the film, looking back in hindsight, I felt that that had been entirely earned. And I'm just kind of curious again what you went through in terms of the editing. You had two editors, or more, probably?
LCP: Mmm. Hmm. Two. And then one at the end that came on to help finish.
G: What sort of contributions did they make? Pietro Scalia is the one we're most familiar with in the film, overall. I'm curious particularly what he added to the project as well.
LCP: Well, back to the opening montage—about it being dramatic and maybe funny because "Oh my God, how dramatic." You know, that's actually mild compared to reality. And I think what's interesting about us as people is that if we knew exactly how everything was made, and the consequences of everything that's in this room, or in our lives, we'd be completely horrified. I mean—and so, we pulled back on that opening montage, you know? That's mild compared to what we could have put there. And so, anyway, I'm happy to hear you think it was earned later because, yeah, it is that bad. (Laughs.). So...so...but anyway, so—the editors—Pietro—the reason why we asked Pietro on this project was because of his work with JFK and all of those other films, where he really understands juxtaposition of idea and the idea of two different ideas next to each other and the rapidity of the film. And Luis Alvarez y Alvarez—who was the cutter in the room pretty much with us most of the time—understood the concepts really well and understood what Pietro's approach to filmmaking is, which was showing images that trigger ideas and then another idea will be next to that that may not seem like it should be next to each other, yet, after you see the whole film, it's all making sense and it's triggering ideas that—we're not telling you to think these things, but you're sort of making—drawing conclusions on your own. Which is really what we want to do. I mean it's—we're just presenting what the world is like. These are pictures of the world. We didn't—none of this was staged or set up. I mean, these are pictures from our world. And, again, like I said, we had to dial back. I mean there's pictures that you just probably—just one of them—you'd go home. I mean, you couldn't handle it, you know? And that's just everyday life that's hidden, you know? So...
NC: And actually, on the editing process, I think, you know, when you approach this subject matter purely filmically, you know, there were beats we could have taken that would have been more along the lines of some classic film structure. But I think it would have left you so devastated. You don't need those kinds of twists at the end of a movie like this. Like, we experimented with a version of the cut that had bad news, good news, and then bad again. You know what I mean? And then, guess what, you're all going to die! You know what I mean? And that, you know—as the way a film goes, that might work really well for a thriller, you know—a fiction thriller. But when you're dealing with reality, you've got to be "Okay, we do need to leave you with some hope." You know, I think we worked with this other editor named Nicholas Wright who was—when he first watched the film—I love this that this happened. His daughter, who's very young walked in and he didn't realize that she was watching the movie behind him. And she just said to him, "Daddy, what planet is this happening on?" And that is it, in a nutshell, you know? And it's our planet. And we just don't usually see it. So, filmically, we did have to sacrifice maybe some structural things in order to--.
G: You can save the doom-saying cut for the Nostradamus DVD specially-marketed edition.
NC: Right. (Laughs.)
G: How does one get Mikhail Gorbachev to sit down for a documentary interview? That seems like a tall order.
NC: Yeah. And, Stephen Hawking, for that matter.
G: And Stephen Hawking.
NC: And a lot of the people in this film. I mean, it does—these are busy people. I think that the time is right for this film and I think everyone who participated felt that. We had Jerry Mander in the film—first time in twenty years that he's sat for an interview for a film, because he doesn't appreciate the visual media. Gorbachev, particularly, we know Gorbachev because my husband runs the international Green Cross here in the United States—it's called Global Green U.S.A. So we actually knew him and he was still—he happened to be in L.A. at the right time so there was a lot of synchronicity. We wouldn't have had a budget to go to Moscow, so, luckily, he was in the states and he agreed. But a lot of the people really made an effort to appear in the film and, you know, go where we needed them to go, and stuff like that. It was really nice to have those people make themselves available but they also—I think they really felt like we had the ability to get these ideas out to people. And so they made the time for it.
G: We're sort of getting a wrap up from out there, but I have one more question. Have there been efforts to turn this into sort of an industrial film—by which I mean putting it in front of, um, titans of industry to watch it, and, also, politicians on both sides of the aisle?
NC: Yeah. It's happening right now, actually. We're having high-level screenings all over the country. People are taking this film to their constituents. We will be showing it to the Representa—I think we're going to get a DVD to all the Representatives in Congress, and stuff like that. So. We're going to do everything we can to make this accessible.
G: Have you had any kind of receptivity from big business, though?
NC: Actually, yeah. Even here in the San Francisco screening, a lot of the funds were in the room from Silicon Valley and things like that. And they were really receptive to the message. And you know there's banks now that are going green and the resource bank. And there's just, I think, business—you know, it's survival of the fittest. So you're going to have to adapt to changing times. And it only will benefit them. The sooner they adapt, the better.
G: Okay, we have to wrap it up, I'm afraid. Thank you very much.
LCP & NC: Thank you.