It was somehow appropriate that a bee stung me as I was walking to my interview with Fisher Stevens. He’s a veteran character actor whose credits include such beloved titles as “Short Circuit” and “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” though his major passion has become sounding the alarm on climate change. On the heels of last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “Racing Extinction,” which he produced, Stevens is now premiering his latest directorial effort, “Before the Flood,” in Toronto, and it is guaranteed to get your blood boiling. Leonardo DiCaprio serves as the film’s narrator and central figure as he explores the ravages of global warming on the planet, and the apocalyptic state we will be living in if action isn’t taken immediately. According to Stevens, the effect that rising temperatures have had on insects could be the subject of a film all its own, especially in light of the Zika virus outbreak.
Stevens spoke candidly with RogerEbert.com about collaborating with DiCaprio, the actions he believes must be taken to preserve our future and how Antonin Scalia’s death may have saved the planet.
Your film serves as an essential continuation of the conversation spurred a decade ago by Davis Guggenheim’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
That’s why we wanted to do it. As Leo says, Al Gore got him into this. That film marked a pivotal moment in Gore’s life, where he really brought this issue to the forefront, and in a sense, this film is about a moment in Leo’s life. He didn’t understand why we weren’t paying more attention to climate change, and he just couldn’t take it anymore. He has a great pulpit right now with his fame. He’s one of the few guys that can keep it going, but when you know him, you understand why because he’s got a magic to him. In terms of the filmmaking, the only similarity to “An Inconvenient Truth” is that we wanted to get personal with Leo, and I think our film is even more personal. He acknowledges his own faults in the movie, and he’s certainly willing to take some punches during his conversation with Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain.
Leo truly appeared caught off guard when she started talking to him about American hypocrisy.
Sunita is an incredible woman. She is an eco-warrior in her country, and runs an NGO that monitors consumption in different countries. During that interview, Leo just got it. When she’s discussing her views regarding America, he’s like, “You’re right,” and in the next scene, he talks about his own carbon footprint. We had to do that at some point in the movie, and I love how Leo dealt with it. We also wanted the film to be as emotional as possible. I had a lot of help from Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, Gustavo Santaolalla and Mogwai, whose score for the film really helped me capture the emotion I wanted.
Was it a challenge balancing Leo’s presence in the film with the issues you wanted to explore?
I shot in Ecuador for ten days in the rainforest without Leo, and we couldn’t figure out how to make it work in the movie without him. We tried using his narration, but we realized that the film had to be about his journey. He had to be us. It’s challenging because there are other places we could’ve gone, and we probably could’ve made a great two-part series, but we wanted to make a movie. We wanted a cinematic experience, and I think it is in the way it’s shot and scored, as well as the fact that it features a movie star.
“Titanic” strikes me a perfect metaphor for mankind drowning in its own hubris, with the poor people being the first to go underwater.
We used to have a little moment about that, but it seemed self-conscious. Leo is very brave and he takes a lot of s—t from the right wing, which you see in the movie. He doesn’t need to be doing this, and I really admire his tenacity in keeping going. He takes the heat from the other side, and we’re probably going to get a lot more. But he doesn’t care because all that concerns him is getting the message out.
How did you go about choosing effective calls to action that are linked for audiences at the film’s conclusion?
It was hard. If you want to change policy, you have to tell the leaders that you want policies changed. They’re not going to do s—t unless you tell them. You want to be a responsible citizen? Pay your own carbon tax. You can tax deduct it. You want change? Don’t eat so much meat, and don’t buy products like Doritos that are made with Palm Oil that erodes our ecosystem. Every action counts, but the most important thing is that we collectively have to say, “If we don’t do something now, we’re f—ked.” The original title of the movie was “Are We F—ked?”, but we eventually thought that wasn’t appropriate.
I noticed that the film was listed as “The Turning Point” in part of the Toronto program.
Johan Rockström says we’re at “the tipping point,” but Malcolm Gladwell had that title, so we decided to make our title, “The Turning Point.” Then two weeks ago, we were doing more voiceover, and we just started riffing on Hieronymus Bosch’s three-panel painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights.” Leo said, “You know, the second panel is called ‘Before the Flood,’” and that’s when we realized we had our title. It’s also the title of Bob Dylan and the Band’s great album from 1974.
When did you decide you wanted President Obama to be interviewed in the film?
We always wanted him. During his first four years in office, he didn’t do s—t about climate change, but after that, he became very active. Obama pushed that Paris Agreement through at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, and it was amazing to see how much more active he was getting while we were filming. It took about a year for us to set up that interview. I didn’t want to do a sit-down interview with him, I wanted a walk and talk. That scene is beautiful. We captured it with three cameras that would move according to where Leo and the President went during their walk.
I hate to say it, but Antonin Scalia’s death could save the planet. Obama is pushing laws through the EPA and there’s a liberal Harvard professor, Laurence Tribe, who’s on the payroll of the coal company, Peabody Energy, and is trying to squash the President’s EPA regulations, claiming that they are unconstitutional. This is a liberal who has basically whored himself out to a fossil fuel company to endanger my children’s lives. The death of Scalia could save us. Maybe Scalia’s death is a reflection of the planet saying, “Okay, we’re going to fix this.” I don’t mean to say anything positive about someone’s death, but if Scalia were still alive, he could’ve really hurt us. Now, of course, if Trump gets elected and puts another judge on the bench, the planet could fry quickly. We’re at this tipping point, which is why we sold the film to National Geographic, and they agreed to air it before the election. We need to get the people who don’t believe climate change is important out of the way.
The ’50s-era educational film illustrating the dangers of fossil fuels was especially enraging. It even contains the line, “This is bad,” which DiCaprio delivered in “Titanic,” albeit in a difference context.
I didn’t know that! That film was directed by Frank Capra, and my producer, Trevor Davidoski, found it while digging for archival footage that showed just how long we’ve known about this. We could’ve done a whole movie on that topic alone. There are writings from Exxon, back when it was known as Standard Oil, in which they state how they won’t be able to sustain their fossil fuel use if they continue with business as usual. This was written in 1947. We knew that smoking killed too, but we kept on doing it. We’re all addicted to fossil fuels. The good news is that alternatives are becoming more affordable. The United States is starting to use less fossil fuels, while turning toward wind and solar and hydro. It’s nowhere near where we should be, but it’s a step. We need more entrepreneurs like Elon Musk who not only are doing something good but they are getting rich from it. Everything is about money and you need to keep jobs going. I feel bad for coal miners. They’re great people, but they’ve got to stop. We can’t keep burning coal.
That was good for me to do because this movie was so tough. When Leo was off shooting “The Revenant,” I would go make this film, and ended up juggling both projects. I am an actor first and foremost, and I was so blown away by Debbie Reynolds’ work ethic. She was the old school star who learned how to sing, how to dance, worked on her voice, exercised, knew her lines and showed up on time. She was a consummate professional actress, and part of the studio system that no longer exists. Carrie, of course, was in the first f—king blockbuster, which catapulted her to stardom at the same age that Debbie was when she made “Singin’ in the Rain.” She had a drug-addicted father and a mother who was married to her work, loved her children, but had the worst taste in men. All three of her husbands were a disaster. Debbie and Carrie live on a compound together in Southern California, and their story is one that I’m hoping every person relates to, because it’s really a story about family. It’s very funny and touching.
Reynolds was hilarious as Albert Brooks’ mom in 1996’s “Mother.” Is she anything like the mother she played in that film?
There is a lot of her in that character. Carrie asked us to do it because she felt her mom was going to retire soon, and Debbie got more and more ill as we were shooting. She’s okay now, but she’s not anywhere near where she was when we started shooting. We often call her on the phone during festival Q&A’s, though she will come to the LA premiere.