An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim’s Oscar-winning 2006 documentary, thrust former United States Vice President Al Gore back into the media spotlight. In the movie he made a succinct, persuasive case for the exponentially growing threats to our planet caused by greenhouse gas effects from carbon emissions. A decade later, Gore returns to the big screen in An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, who shadowed Gore closely across several continents to record how man-made climate change—or global warming, as it used to be called—has drastically worsened. In the film audiences see glacier melt accelerating in Greenland; watch fish swim in Miami Beach streets flooded by ever bigger tropical storms and rising sea levels; learn how the worst Middle Eastern drought in 900 years led to the displacement of 1.5 million Syrian refugees, a harbinger of that country’s current crisis; and observe Gore in a sensitive meeting with high-ranking Indian government officials who insist that their nation’s economic growth requires cheap, coal-burning energy plants.
But there’s also a lot of optimism expressed onscreen, as the movie shows what steps are being taken to avert further environmental catastrophes. There’s Dale Ross, the irrepressible Republican mayor of Georgetown, Texas, who’s justifiably proud that his city is the first in the state to use 100 percent renewable electricity. Top executives at the alternative energy firm SolarCity in California explain their latest advances in solar-panel technology; these men will later be called on by Gore to intervene in a stalemate with India’s leaders at the 2015 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. And UN climate chief Christiana Figueres, a graduate of one of Gore’s first Climate Reality Leadership Corps training courses, presides over that convention.
Filmmakers Cohen and Shenk, who are also married to each other, sat down with me to talk about their working methods and the production challenges they faced.
Andrea Gronvall: When did you commence filming and when did you end?
Bonni Cohen: We first met Al Gore in July of 2015, and we finished the edit, the first time, in time for Sundance, this past January. So we finished production in November of 2016.
So that meant you had a close-to-final edit of the film, but then had to go back and open it up, to include new material following Donald Trump’s presidential-election win. How did that affect the structure of the earlier parts of the film, and what did you have to cut to make everything fit for size?
Cohen: We had a lot of conversations about how to respond to what was happening with the Trump administration. When he was elected, you probably remember, he was making noise about appointing all these climate deniers to the cabinet. But because the film is going to live on, we didn’t want just to be in the world of erratic notions. So we waited to see if the appointments were confirmed, which they were; and if he was going to start to dismantle the EPA, which he did; and if he was going to pull out of [the Paris Agreement], which he also did. We wanted to acknowledge all of that because of course so much of our film takes place at the dramatic Paris Climate Conference, where all of the nations of the world come together to organize around this complicated accord. But when we looked holistically at the film, we realized that the Trump administration’s actions at this point in history really needed to serve as a coda. We felt the narrative remained intact, and that what we wanted to communicate at the end of the film was, yes, it’s devastating that he pulled us out of the Paris agreement, but at the same time, in the United States of America we are going to lead on this—there are so many wonderful things that cities and states are already lining up to do to meet the commitments that the U.S. made in Paris.
Your approach to documentary filmmaking is direct cinema, often referred to as cinema verite. Could you explain how you become so unobtrusive that your subjects almost forget that you’re there with the camera? It strikes me that that’s not only an art, but also a skill, and there has to be a learning curve.
Cohen: It’s also about a relationship. It’s all about trust and personalities, like anything in life, right? [Gore] took a huge leap of faith with us. We posed this idea of following him around, and spending all these hours with him—we’re going to be there in the morning, and we’re going to be there at night, and we’re going to be there in the meetings—and he sort of intellectually thought, “fine,” but I’m not sure he could grasp how many hours we were really talking about. We spent a lot of time off camera in conversation with him. We really got to know each other, so that we felt very familiar when we were in the room with him.
We were in terribly boring meetings, where Al would be talking to a business guy, or a solar-energy guy, and [we shot] hours and hours of the climate-leader trainings. But the truth is that all of those more mundane hours of time together position you to be able to say, in a crucial moment, “Hey, Al, do you mind if we come in and shoot that meeting that you’re going to have with John Kerry?” Or, “Do you mind if we’re in there with the Indian minister?”
Jon shot this whole movie, and because Jon is a cinematographer and a director, he’s constantly thinking—we’re thinking together, in those moments as directors, as if we’re already in the edit room—about what we need to make the scenes. And he’s incredibly good at hanging back in a room for a long time, to sort of let things start to play out, and then move in a little bit more, and know where the camera needs to be so it gets what it needs, but not to invade the space of the people that are in the room.
Jon Shenk: Verite filmmaking, for people who catch the bug, becomes like an addiction, because it requires so much emotional and intellectual focus that it becomes a meditative kind of art form, where you’re almost not thinking anymore—you’re in the moment, with the people that you’re with, trying to capture material. All the while your mind is half in the film, trying to figure out how it’s going to piece together.
It sounds to me like “flow.”
Cohen: Yeah, a lot like flow. You mean like yoga “flow?”
Like Csikszentmihalyi flow [Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience].
Shenk: It is a lot like that.
Cohen: In the choreography of it, too.
Shenk: Yes, in the sense that meditation has to do with clearing the mind, and when you’re shooting verite, you’re so focused that everything else kind of falls away, except the scene, in the moment.
Cohen: And part of how we work together is that Jon will be very focused on what he’s shooting, and I will be kind of looking around and making sure that we’re where we should be, and we’re not missing anything, or that maybe we need to be redirected.
Since you were editing in between filming, as you went along you could sense an emerging narrative. You had a vision, maybe, of where this was all going to wind up. But when you shoot verite, breaking events are primarily what shape the material, aren’t they?
Cohen: An example is when we came back from Paris, where, first, the terrorist attacks [of November 13, 2015] happened, and then two weeks later the two weeks of the climate conference unfolded. When we got on the plane to follow [Gore] to Europe, we could never have predicted the series of events that happened there. When we got back home, we were in a situation where we could connect the dots between real-world events, these terrorist attacks and the climate conference, and then the role that [Gore] ended up playing, that we didn’t know he was going to play. It had a huge effect on the overall structure of the film.
Your film is essentially about two things: That climate change has become even more urgent than it was a decade ago, and that reversing it won’t occur unless people exert the political will to make that happen. But there’s also a subtext, as I see it, about the difference between politicians and statesmen. These days we have God knows how many politicians who make empty promises, or really don’t know what they’re doing. But here in your film we have Al Gore, a retired politician but undeniably a statesman, who shows, rather than merely says, how to get things done. Have you ever encountered anyone else like that in your professional experience?
Shenk: We made a film about five years ago, called The Island President.
About the Maldives and rising sea levels.
Shenk: And [the islands’ then-President] Mohamed Nasheed was another leader who transcended what you would think of as a normal politician. I think that today when people think of a politician it’s of someone who compromises their own humanity, their own beliefs . . .
Cohen: To make money, or . . .
Shenk: In order to rise through the ranks and get elected. I think Nasheed in that film, and certainly Gore in this film, are both people who are transcending politics. They’re not so concerned about the next election. In Al’s case he’s not ever running for anything again, so that’s freed him up to work with no boundaries on the thing that he most cares about in life, and he’s doing it in a way that has humanity. He has a sense of humor, he’s got warmth, he meets people at whatever level and doesn’t talk down to them, and he assumes that people are going to do the right thing, to make the right decision. And for Bonni and me it was really important, because we’re married and we have two children, and we ourselves care about the planet. And Al has helped us and, I think, a lot of the world to understand that climate change is the giant social issue of our time.
Intentionally or not, you’ve delivered a very important civics lesson in your film.
Shenk: You know, an interesting thing is that after Gore met that Texas mayor, the mayor says, “And doesn’t it just make sense not to pollute the atmosphere?” And it occurred to us, that’s just a basic, conservative American value. The conservatives have become the party of denial, but really, Teddy Roosevelt established the national parks, and there’s always been this idea in the Boy Scouts that you leave your campsite better than you found it. We’re trying to figure out a way to leave the world a better place than we found it.