Almost famous

Can a star-studded documentary series make people care about climate change?

Real enough? This scene from the film shows what Hurricane Sandy did in Union Beach, NJ. (Lucian Read / The Years Project)

Last September CJR’s Alexis Sobel Fitts trailed a documentary crew through Seattle as they filmed, Years of Living Dangerously, an ambitious climate change documentary, profiled in our January / February issue. The finished product premieres this Sunday, April 13 at 10 p.m. on Showtime; the first two episodes will stream free on Showtime’s website.

Olivia Munn slinked into the airy lounge of Seattle’s Columbia Center as if she were trespassing on someone else’s film set. In truth, the actress had agreed to the shoot—part of an ambitious new documentary about climate change—out of benevolence, and was running late. The crew had already installed lights around a corner window, selected for its view of the Space Needle, and settled into a shuffleboard game with Jigar Shah, the green-energy expert Munn was scheduled to interview. On The Newsroom, Munn oozes gravitas—her character, an economics reporter, is known for her curt summaries of statistics. But in over-the-knee boots and a plaid sweater-coat, she appeared airbrushed, more starlet than newshound. “I apologize to everyone for the delay,” she said. “I didn’t get to sleep until 3am.”

Joel Bach, one of the film’s creators and executive producers, gave a nervous laugh. For months his production team had been briefing Munn on the story she was now expected to narrate. It would involve, of all things, coal. Specifically, a series of terminals slated to be built near Bellingham, WA, just over a hundred miles north of Seattle. It’s a complicated, wonky story, and Munn is no coal expert. She had given the crew 36 hours of her time, during which she’d film while being brought up to speed on the coal debate, a process that began immediately with a summary of cap and trade.

Munn reacted to the concept with surprise. “It’s like, I have to give you $10,000, but I get to decide where it goes?”

Bach nodded.

“That’s bullshit, Joel,” she said. “Are you kidding me? I could say it goes to my charity, Olivia Munn, Incorporated. I call bullshit on that.”

Invigorated by the exchange, Munn plopped herself across from Shah for a conversation about the economics of renewable energy. But unlike a normal interview, the revelations came mostly from the interrogator, offered in one-liners:

“Either way China’s our dad, right? Cause we either sell them our coal or we sell them our jobs.”

“Solar energy equals more jobs equals awesome.”

Munn ended the interview by quipping that she and Shah should run for governor, suggesting a team name: Jigamunn. “Oh my gosh, this is a win,” she cooed.

The sound guy looked flustered, but Bach seemed relieved. “She doesn’t sound like a journalist at all,” he said to no one in particular. “She’s great.”

Three years ago, when Bach and David Gelber, the film’s other co-creator and executive producer, left their jobs as producers at 60 Minutes to launch a television documentary series dedicated to climate change, colleagues told them they were crazy. The last mainstream documentary anyone had made on the subject was 2007’s An Inconvenient Truth. Al Gore’s film launched global warming into the public sphere but spawned few imitators—even as reports on the consequences of climate change grew more pronounced. The films that did make it to market in the wake of Gore’s effort failed to attract eyeballs outside of special-interest circles. And worse, most were boring.

But Bach and Gelber’s idea was that celebrity charisma could make a topic like coal leap off the screen and demand attention on a national scale. Their project tackles the story of global warming by sending a roster of famous people sashaying around the globe, filming segments about climate refugees in Bangladesh and the political battle over deforestation in Indonesia. Shortly after they quit their day jobs, Bach and Gelber had recruited an arsenal of A-list celebrities—names like Matt Damon, America Ferrera, Harrison Ford, and Jessica Alba—and convinced Jerry Weintraub and James Cameron to join as executive producers. The series, the first season of which airs on Showtime in April, even has an appropriately larger-than-life name: Years of Living Dangerously.

By dropping celebrities into the middle of real stories about climate change, Bach and Gelber think they can make a notoriously abstract topic emotional and exciting—a technique they extended to the aesthetics of filming. Traditionally, 60 Minutes conducts interviews in hotel suites and offices, using b-roll of their subjects walking and talking to liven up the segments. Years thrusts its correspondents into the action—placing Michael C. Hall in a boat to survey floods and allowing Harrison Ford to pilot a helicopter through ransacked forests—and fills out scenes with point-of-view shots of them traveling between interviews, a feature-film technique that makes the stories appear less staged. And celebrities, unlike journalists, conduct interviews without the pretense of expertise that Bach thinks might turn off viewers. Before reporting a story on the West Texas drought, House of Lies star Don Cheadle warned producers that “he wasn’t an expert.” “We told him, ‘We don’t want you to be an expert. We just want you to be curious,’ ” Bach recalls.

Unlike the bare-bones budgets of most documentary films, Years has what amounts to a best-case scenario for creating compelling journalism about climate change. Bach sees their strategy as a kind of bait-and-switch for viewers: “Hopefully they’ll turn on the TV and see Matt Damon talking to some guy and they’ll be like, ‘What is this movie?’ And then they’ll realize it’s not a movie pretty quickly but they’ll stick around and watch.”

Making their stories visually compelling is “important,” he added. “Especially when you’re dealing with a topic like this that’s depressing as shit.”

Indy! Harrison Ford on the climate-change case.

Years was conceived over a series of lunches at a Greek diner in Hell’s Kitchen, around the corner from the 60 Minutes offices. Though Gelber had been at 60 Minutes nearly two decades by the time Bach arrived in 2004, establishing a solid reputation as Ed Bradley’s producer, the two enjoyed working together. Bach and Gelber, who calls Bach “his other wife,” were so often seen as a duo that colleagues developed a nickname for the pair: Gelbach. At 72, Gelber, whose face is all angles with a perpetually furrowed brow, is an odd fit with the 44-year-old Bach’s playful, boyish vibe. It is as if an Aaron Sorkin character picked up a surfer sidekick.

Shortly after starting at 60 Minutes, Bach became interested in covering stories about climate change. He grew up in Colorado, where he had watched the snow dwindle each year on the mountains by his childhood home. “I didn’t think about it then, but you could see the climate warming,” he said. Bach began producing as many climate segments as the newsmagazine would approve. Gelber finally understood the urgency of Bach’s obsession when they produced their first climate-change segment together, on wildfires. “I grew up as a Jew in the shadow of the Holocaust,” said Gelber. “I’m always thinking about what journalists knew and didn’t cover.”

The timing was in their favor. After 25 years at 60 Minutes, Gelber was looking for a big second act; Bach wanted to focus on telling the story of global warming. Initially they planned to fictionalize a segment they’d produced on Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers into a feature film. (“We saw it as man torn between fiduciary responsibilities and ethics,” said Gelber.) Bach “took a whack” at a screenplay during their summer leave, but floundered. The idea blossomed into a theatrical documentary, “a follow-up to Gore’s film,” said Bach. But getting attention for a documentary would be difficult without help from Hollywood. Both men understood that it was the involvement of Lawrence Bender, the producer of most of Quentin Tarantino’s movies, that got An Inconvenient Truth made.

Bach called Jerry Weintraub’s niece, a college friend, who maneuvered their pitch onto her uncle’s desk. Two weeks later the phone rang; it was Weintraub asking for a meeting. Bach and Gelber flew to his home in Palm Springs and spent a weekend drinking martinis and talking mostly about things other than their documentary project. Just before their plane back to New York took off, Weintraub signed on as an executive producer, with a single piece of advice. “He told us, ‘What are you guys, idiots?’” recalls Bach. “ ’No one watches theatrical documentary. You want eyeballs, you do television.’  ”

With Weintraub’s name, raising money proved easier than Gelber or Bach had anticipated. They set a fundraising goal of $15 million. Their first million came quickly, from the commercial realtor Rena Shulsky David and the investor Jeremy Grantham. Another lucky break landed them a meeting with James Cameron, who as it happened had been looking to put his weight behind a piece of climate-change journalism. Over breakfast in Malibu, Cameron agreed to be an executive producer under the condition that the project increase the size of its Web and social-media campaign. In other words, it couldn’t just be a piece of journalism; it had to aim to influence national policy.

Bach returned from Los Angeles elated. “I said to my wife: ‘We have Jerry Weintraub, James Cameron, and a million bucks—can I quit my job now?’ ” They left 60 Minutes in April 2011.

Though the eventual effects of climate change are dramatic—nothing less than the fate of the world and all its inhabitants—it does not translate easily to storytelling. Narrative is elusive because most causes of climate change, in the form of carbon emissions, are invisible, as are the slowly accumulating consequences. Understanding the severity of global warming requires peeking into the future, through scientific studies and predictive modeling. But the science of climate change is a complicated, interdisciplinary mix not often credited with tugging on heartstrings. “It’s fundamentally a problem that has been described in a foreign language,” explained Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication. “I mean, radiative forcings, what is that?”

It also works contrary to how humans experience fear, which kicks in most viscerally for immediate threats. Climate change, with consequences that are distant, lacks the clear villain that stories about, say, terrorism hinge on. “You almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology,” said Leiserowitz. Traditionally, journalists have grounded the climate beat by reporting on its effects—melting icebergs and extreme weather events, like heat waves—though they are only tangentially connected to climate change. Probability modeling shows that climate change makes extreme weather events increasingly likely, but it doesn’t allow scientists to link any individual event to global warming—and what compelling nut graf has ever relied on probability?

According to tracking from the University of Colorado’s Center for Science and Technology Policy Research, news coverage of climate change has dropped steadily since 2009, and that coverage is largely limited to special-interest reporting: the science-and-environment ghetto.

Gelber told me he often wonders how to get the public to take action, “not just polar bear-ize” the issue. But massive change doesn’t come without a movement, which, so far, climate change has failed to inspire. “If only I could get the media to care half as much about global warming as twerking,” he told me, his voice trailing off.

Gelber likes to tell an anecdote about the first time he used a celebrity to draw interest to a subject, on a 60 Minutes segment in 1988. The Natural Resources Defense Council had pitched Gelber a complicated story about a chemical used to grow apples. He didn’t think the network would go for a dry story, until the NRDC offered Meryl Streep as a spokeswoman. He filmed the segment with Streep, who was “stunning—you just have to look at this woman,” Gelber said. He screened the piece for Don Hewitt, who loved it, with a caveat. “He just said, ‘What the fuck is she doing in the story?’ ” said Gelber. “I had the great honor of being the only producer in history to leave Meryl Streep on the cutting-room floor.” When I point out the irony of the similarity between his current project and this failed project, Gelber notes a difference: “Meryl wasn’t the correspondent, she was the expert.”

Years uses celebrities differently, as proxies for the viewer—they’re educated about climate change along with the audience. Shows like Vice, which airs on HBO, have built a brand out of choosing correspondents with public appeal rather than subject-matter expertise. As have other climate-change documentaries, like the Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated film, The 11th Hour, which, despite its splashy headliner, received critical acclaim but a middling audience. Unlike DiCaprio, who acted as a climate-change expert in the film—at one point professing, literally, from a mountaintop—Olivia Munn’s growing knowledge on the subject in theory makes her more relatable, a hidden journalist for a generation wary of reporters. But inserting celebrities into Years also fundamentally changes the mechanism of storytelling. When Ian Somerhalder, the actor from The Vampire Diaries, shot a scene at a North Carolina coal rally, half the picketers were young girls who’d shown up to see the tween star. Indonesia’s forestry minister told the press that Harrison Ford should be deported, after a particularly challenging interview where the actor went at him “tougher than any journalist would’ve had the nerve to,” said Solly Granatstein, the co-executive producer who filmed the shoot.

The hope is that the celebrities on Years will make the subject of climate change more interesting by their interest in it, so the producers have made a habit of courting celebrities whose fan bases might not otherwise watch a film on global warming. (“Do you know who Ian Somerhalder is?” Gelber asked me over lunch. “He’s very popular with young people.” When I shook my head no, he looked crushed.) Gelber believes that applying the 60 Minutes model of storytelling—compelling characters with uncertain outcomes—is enough to make the subject take root. He also believes covering it is an ethical imperative, comparing the situation to Peter Jennings’ insistence on covering Bosnia at CBS ABC, though the story placed low on viewer surveys. “If there’s a genocide happening in the world, how can you not cover it?” Gelber said. “It’s a self-fulfilling assumption; if you don’t tell the story, you signal that it’s unimportant. I’ve always felt that climate change is where the civil rights movement was in 1957. We’re really just starting to pick up steam.”

But there are limits to the reach of any one film. By the fall of 2008, when the film had been released on DVD, 17 percent of the American public had seen An Inconvenient Truth, mostly high-income liberals, which Yale’s Anthony Leiserowitz called “stunning for a documentary.” Still, that means 83 percent of the population didn’t see the movie. Leiserowitz said the most influential movie about climate change is the 2004 doomsday thriller, The Day After Tomorrow. “The movie took some artistic license with the science, but the public reaction was gigantic compared to An Inconvenient Truth,” he said. According to surveys after the film, “the 30 million people who saw it were overwhelmingly influenced; they were convinced that climate change was happening and that humans were causing it.”

When I asked Leiserowitz if he thought Years could influence public perception of climate change, he was skeptical. “It will play an important role in that if it’s told well and told accurately it will reach the people it reaches,” he said. “But that’s certainly not going to be the majority of the American public. It’s gotta be the right movie, told really well, at the right moment when the culture is ready to hear it. An Inconvenient Truth just got really lucky.”

In late September, 100 people gathered at Thalassa, a lavish Indian restaurant in Manhattan, where Gelber was scheduled to screen a rough cut from the documentary during a dinner hosted by the Environmental Defense Fund, whose board had provided some of the documentary’s funders. The night before, Gelber had been up late tinkering with the segment he was scheduled to screen, but mingling over baklava and bite-sized brownies he was avuncular and pleasantly self-deprecating. “I haven’t worn a tie since my bar mitzvah,” he joked to a group of Climate Corps fellows who were profiled in the segment, “I think it’s the same one.” He told the joke four more times throughout the evening.

While attendees puttered around dessert, Gelber screened his trailer. There was a round of applause, punctuated by whispers of approval. “Why isn’t this on HBO?” muttered Nick Nicholas, the former chairman of HBO.

When Gelber asked for questions, Nicholas had one. “David, on Showtime, you get maybe 15 million households—so 90 percent of the households in the US do not have access to Showtime. You’re a CBS veteran; they have access to all of the households. Do you have the right to take this national?”

Gelber launched into his elevator pitch: Showtime had agreed to stream the first two episodes of the series to nonsubscribers, and regardless, having names like Matt Damon, Jessica Alba, and Harrison Ford tweeting about the project would broaden its reach. Vanity Fair, Gelber said, would be profiling the film. “More people will know this is being taken seriously than will see the series,” he said.

Gelber moved on to other questions, but when I asked Nicholas what he thought of the response, he shrugged. “He didn’t answer my question,” he said.

“Showtime has 15 million subscribers,* but they’re not going to get all 15 million,” Nicholas continued. “If they get 5 to 10 percent of that, that’s amazing, and that’s two million. That’s the nature of the issue: It’s hard. People watch Showtime for movies and to be entertained. They’re not looking to be educated. Vanity Fair is great, but it’s something that’s read east of the Mississippi by about four people. I read it and I love it, but I’m the choir. We have this huge problem where a huge percentage of the population doesn’t even believe climate change is happening: It’s too overwhelming, it’s too big, and people don’t know what to do.” He paused for a moment. “We’ll see if it works,” he said. “I hope it does. Something has to.”

* Clarification: Showtime has 23 million subscribers, not 15 million as referenced in this quote.

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.