The first film I saw at Sundance back in January was AN INCONVENIENT SEQUEL: TRUTH TO POWER, a follow-up to the nearly 10-year-old AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, which was a more fleshed out version of former-Vice President Al Gore’s presentation on the alarming state of the global environment. SEQUEL is less about Gore’s updated, always-evolving version of the “slideshow” and more an illustration of the efforts he’s been making around the world to rally the troops, education them, and spread the message not just about the pending climate change crisis but immediately available ways people and governments can begin to help alleviate the problem. The technology that seemed so far off when the first film was released is now very real and even more available and affordable.
Filmmakers and documentary veterans Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk (AUDRIE & DAISEY, THE RAPE OF EUROPA) had unprecedented access to Gore as he not only teaches but negotiates with world leaders, particularly his efforts during the Paris Climate Agreement, signed in 2016, which our current president has said the nation will not be a part of any longer. I sat down with the filmmakers recently in Chicago to talk about being called in to possibly direct this film and their approach versus the original film. Please enjoy my talk with Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk…
Jon Shenk: Hi, Steve. Nice to meet you.
Bonni Cohen: How are you?
Capone: This was the first I saw at Sundance this year.
BC: Oh, cool.
Capone: I always like beginning with something that just punches you in the face and gets you ready for the week. I did see it again last night. Other than the change that you made at the end with updating the postscript, were there other differences in the film since Sundance?
JS: Very little. I don’t know if you remember the scene where Al is sitting in his apartment after the election, and he’s watching the computer, clicking on links. We have some additional material in there that shows what has come to fruition in the early days of the Trump administration, vis-a-vis appointments of fossil fuel lobbyists to cabinet positions. Scott Pruitt [current Administrator of the EPA]; Rex Tillerson, who was the CEO of Exxon has become our Secretary of State; and Rick Perry, who has long ties to fossil fuel companies in Texas, obviously, became our Secretary of the Energy Department. So we did that, then we changed the epilogue, what we call the epilogue, which is that montage at the end where we just deliver some cold, hard facts about where we stand.
Capone: The most recent update takes us to June of this year [when Donald Trump announced the U.S. would be pulling out of the Paris Agreement]. That’s what I remember about watching the film—it was just a couple of days before the inauguration, before the women’s march that happened there. Even then, when you get to the election night scene, it was all still pretty fresh wounds for those of us watching it.
BC: What’s really interesting is, we had this experience after Trump was elected of going back and watching the film, and it looked like a different film. It looked like much more had changed editorially than had, simply because now there was this reality we were living that was going to affect so many of the things that we go through in the film, and the experiences that we have now that we have a president who is basically appointing climate deniers to his cabinet and wants to dismantle the EPA and eventually pulls out of the Paris Agreement. It affected the content of the film just simply by being. We almost didn’t have to do anything.
Capone: When he said he was pulling out of Paris, my first thought was this movie. I was like, “They have to change the movie again. They have to do something.” And you did.
JS: We actually had this little joke. It’s a dark joke, but we had a joke that’s like we thought, “Well, gosh. There’s probably not any other movies coming out this summer whose climax is going to be the Paris Climate Accord.” So we felt some responsibility to deliver that, because it seemed crazy not to. How can you have our film literally show the ins and outs of this deal that Trump made so much news about. Conversely, we were actually totally surprised in a good way at what’s happened since then. The amount of news and media attention about the climate crisis. Now governors, mayors, CEOs, and everyday citizens that have stood up and re-committed themselves to the deal, so that’s been really nspiring.
Capone: Gore was on “The Daily Show” last night, and he said, “We’re still going to meet the goal [set forth in Paris] with just all this individual support, even without the federal government backing it.”
BC: There’s a lot that can happen at the local and state level.
Capone: So that’s encouraging. Not very many documentaries get sequels. When you were approached to do this, was there any hesitancy about getting involved with something you weren’t a part of 11 years ago, and it certainly doesn’t take on the form of that film which was a souped-up glorified PowerPoint presentation. Was there any hesitancy, or did they promise that you could do it your way and not have to ape what was done before.
BC: There’s always hesitancy when something great proceeds the work that you’re being asked to do, but Jon and I made another climate film in 2012, THE ISLAND PRESIDENT, so we knew quite a bit about the climate crisis through the lens of that film, and President Mohamed Nasheed and the Maldives, this low-lying nation that was so vulnerable. The idea that there are so few leaders in the climate movement that are recognizable, that can move the needle, that have the potential to command real change, is tough. Once we were asked, we felt the responsibility to come on board, because here we had Al Gore, a leading man, we had so much to report about how climate-related weather had gotten so much worse, how the planet was warming up, how the oceans were warming up, but also we were at a new moment in time with the new alternative energy revolution.
We thought, there’s actually some narrative drama here, coupled with the leading man, and we can get our arms around that, and while it’s daunting and we stand on the shoulders of this incredible film that was made 10 years ago—perhaps the most influential documentary ever—we became convinced by Participant Media, and also by Al Gore, that there was really a rich moment to dive into here in terms of the environmental movement having become a much more emotional movement for people, but also we had some really hopeful news to deliver.
So Jon and I thought if we can convince Al to let us into his life a little, if we can open him up and get him to let us into the stories that he is making every day with the people that he’s meeting with, with the scientists that he’s plucking facts from, the trainees that he’s training, the politicians that he’s helping to influence. We thought, if we can expose all of that to an audience it’s going to be really emotional and the stuff of real film.
Capone: So that was the plan, then of course life intercedes and like any good documentary filmmakers, you let it happen without forcing it in a particular direction. You had these things happening in Paris that you obviously could not have predicted, both before the convention, and then also with all those negotiations. The access that you were getting was extraordinary. That’s the funny thing about the first film. The first one was about presentation. This is about access.
BC: Right. That’s a very good way of talking about it.
Capone: It’s funny, my takeaway from it before I saw it again yesterday is that it had less of the presentation than it ends up actually having. You pay attention to that, but I was more impressed by the behind-the-scenes material. That negotiation with India was amazing. Was that something you insisted on: “Let’s make this more personal”?
JS: Yeah, thank you, by the way, for getting it. We really appreciate that. Bonni and I, we’ve always been passionate about finding characters, people, that are doing really compelling things with their lives, and telling non-fiction stories, ideally about important issues, but really central of importance is the characters themselves. Al Gore, his passion is amazing. He gets up every day and he’s fighting this fight. In a way, we knew we couldn’t go wrong, because he’s constantly up against it every day of his life.
Of course, we felt completely fortunate that we were with him and had the access to his life and his day-to-day business as he went into the Paris Conference. Even he didn’t know frankly what was going to happen in Paris. Partly there was this amazing constellation of stars aligning in Paris that led to success there, including the fact that the French were just so brilliant about the way they set up the agreement. The Paris terrorist attacks galvanizing world leaders and getting sympathy from leaders, and in a way, that energy was parlayed into the energy to get an agreement done. Of course, to get the developing world to understand that there’s the technology and financing for solar and wind has really come so far, and that played a major role in our character. You see in the film, it’s almost like a political thriller in our minds, of Al trying to get the right players on board in India to sign onto the agreement.
When we make films, we go out with a plan, of course we do, but we’re always open to life interceding and we hope it does. We felt very lucky to be with Al during those very dramatic days in Paris.
Capone: What do you remember about that first time you met him? Were you’re thinking, “Forget this,” or did you start to see the possibilities?
BC: [laughs] It’s so funny that you say that. We've been talking about that at Q&As a little, because it was traumatic. First we get this call to make this film, do we want to come on as directors? And then within a couple of days, we were on a flight to Nashville to meet Al, and we showed up at his door, and he’s a consummate Southern gentleman. The guy is so warm and inviting, and he brought us in, and he was so excited to show us the slideshow—the latest and greatest version of the slideshow. Jon always talks about how he hopped up on the couch and was adjusting the blinds just right, and wanted us to have the perfect viewing experience.
Here we were at Al Gore’s house, we’re surrounded with pictures of him and Bill Clinton and the Kennedy’s. It was a moment for us, a life moment, and then he proceeded to show us the 10-hour version of the slideshow, which had all the bells and whistles of just how far we’ve gone with the climate crisis, and by lunchtime, Jon and I were ready to walk off a cliff [laughs]. We just thought, “Alright, forget it. It’s been nice. Thank you, Mr. Gore. It’s been great meeting you, but this is just too much. We’re out.”
But after a lovely vegan lunch—he’s a vegan now—he started to talk about the solutions and what’s possible and where the technology is and how many countries have started to take it on and how the needle has started to move and turn this huge behemoth ship around. And we though, “This is actually getting more exciting, and this could be the stuff of real drama.” And here’s Al Gore. He’s still so passionate about this. Who knew, 10 years later, he’s still doing this, 24 hours a day? So we started to get excited. We had the full range of emotions that day when we first met him.
JS: It’s funny, though, like what you were saying that after Sundance, your memory of the film is the more emotional, behind-the-scenes stuff. Even though we saw 10 hours of slide show that day, really the thing that stuck with us now when we think back on it is his passion and the emotional piece of it, and how at age 68, which he was at the time, he didn’t seem like he had lost any energy. In fact, he felt more energetic and more passion, and that’s I think what dawned on us. We were like, “We’ve got to figure out a way to get that in the film. That personal energy into the film.”
Capone: Somebody after the movie yesterday said, if that had been the guy who was running for president he probably would have won more definitively. I want to ask about the presentation. I like that you showed that it’s a living, breathing thing that’s constantly being updated. I certainly didn’t get a sense of that with the first film. Here we see he’s always updating it and finding the most dramatic examples of the crisis in action.
JS: Yeah, it’s not a monolithic, set-in-stone thing. That’s another thing that we remember from the first day is that, during those 10 hours he would say, “Okay, this is what I do in China, and this is what I did last week in Florida.” He knows he has to address local audiences. Al has learned that this has become an emotional issue for people. If people can connect it to what’s happening in their own environment, it’s more likely that people will get it and take action on it.
BC: And connect the dots.
JS: That’s true, and connect the dots of strange weather, weird stuff that’s happening to a bigger systemic shift in the climate system. Yeah, absolutely. Bonni and I, we’re married, we met in film school too long ago to even talk about. Drilled into us from a very early time in our education was process, process, process. How does somebody go from point A to point B? We notice that that’s really what his life is all about. It’s one ongoing process to try to, as Bonni said, move the needle on this subject, and he does that in all these ways, including the slideshow, which is fascinating to us. So we wanted to capture that.
BC: The other part of his slideshow now that did not exist 10 years ago—that we really took advantage of because it’s visual—are all the user-generated videos coming from every walk of life on the planet now. Everybody’s got a cellphone, and if shit’s going down in your community, they are capturing it. Talk about a living, breathing document, the slideshow now has representation of populations all over the world, whether it’s a wildfire in California or survivors in Tacloban or the Maldives islands where we were, and where Al has video now of towns getting washed away. He has a team that is scouring literally every day for that user-generated material and the facts that go along with it. The experience of it is very up to the minute. In a way, it’s more interesting than watching 24-hour news, because it’s very specific, it’s fact based.
Capone: You could have made at least a short film on that mayor in Texas. That guy has his own story that I feel like you only scraped the surface of here. Were you looking for things like that, especially because this has become such a politicized subject matter, to find the one guy who shouldn’t, in theory, be into this, but has completely embraced it.
BC: He’s representative of a tide that’s shifting. He’s no longer the one guy. He’s one of a number of guys. We like to call them the flippers, the Republican flippers. What we love about that scene so much is that, in a very concise period of time, you get so many things. One, you can be on opposite ends of a political spectrum and still agree that it makes sense to switch over to alternative energy. Fancy that. You don’t really have access to that in the news.
Capone: He used the words “common sense.” I don’t hear that phrase very often these days.
BC: [laughs] Yeah, so that was a gem for us because it was able to illustrate so many of the things that Al is about in his post-political life as a climate activist, and it is not insignificant that a city of 65,000 people in the heart of Texas has gone 100 percent renewable. If that doesn’t cause Republican leaders in this country to take notice, I don’t know what will.
JS: The other interesting thing is that, aside from the fact that he’s a great on-screen personality and the electricity between Al and Dale is just so good. They’re so funny. The thing that Bonni and I noticed is “Wait a minute. What happened to this age-old, American, conservative ideal of preserving nature and respecting the planet?” When Trump talked to the Boy Scouts the other day, I thought, “When I was a Cub Scout, the first thing I learned”—this was in the suburbs of of Cincinnati, a very conservative place—“is you leave your campsite cleaner than you found it, you respect Mother Nature, you help other people, you respect your peers.” These are basic, conservative ideals. And the interesting thing Dale Ross says is, “Isn’t it just common sense not to pollute?”
That’s a conservative notion that, especially the religious communities in this country, can identify with. We totally agree that Dale deserves his own feature film, and there’s others like him that Bonni met. We thought he best represented that group. Obviously, we put him in the film. We’re glad you were taken with him too.
Capone: You mentioned the religious angle on climate change, I had always had it explained to me that the religious argument against this is that God is the only thing that can change the weather, and that the idea that man can somehow influence the weather goes against religious teaching.
JS: One interesting thing about the Judeo-Christian biblical text is, there’s a lot of examples in the bible of asking people essentially, telling stories that ask people to take care of the planet and take care of people. Look at Jesus. The example of Jesus himself, just how amazing these stories are of him taking care of people and taking care of the environment. So yeah, we think that obviously the fossil fuel companies have distorted this story and distorted the conservative political ideology away from what is a natural conservative ideal which is that you treat the planet well.
Capone: Jon, it was great to meet you. Bonni, thank you so much.
JS: Thank you. Thanks for watching the film twice.