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.’ ”