Al Gore’s “Inconvenient Sequel”: My interview with director Jon Shenk

Here is the transcript to my interview on January 4, 2018 with Jon Shenk, co-director of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. You can read my blog about An Inconvenient Sequel and see a version of this interview in my newsletter, The Exciting Environmental.

Sierra: What inspired to create and direct this film?
Jon: Bonnie [Cohen, my co-director] and I were actually hired to make this film by a company called Participant Media, which is this really cool company in Hollywood run by a man named Jeff Skoll who actually originally made a lot of money when he invented and sold a company called eBay–somewhere where you selling stuff from person to person. It’s a long story but Participant Media makes all kinds of really interesting socially conscious films like the first Inconvenient Truth. But they’ve also done new films like Spotlight and Lincoln and other documentaries like Food Inc. and Merchants of Doubt that relate to climate change in some way.

They had been talking to Al Gore for the last few years about doing a follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth because it was such a successful film–not just at the box office, but it helped give Americans and people around the world the language to talk about climate change, to talk about the climate crisis. And they decided that because so much has been happening the past 10 years since the first film came out, mostly with sustainable energy and solar energy and wind energy, it has become really viable now to go solar and wind, and actually even save money and certainly not spend more money than you would if you burned coal or fossil fuels to get electricity. And so they felt like there was a new story to tell. And the reason why they came to us was that Bonnie and I made a film a few years ago called The Island President about the president of the Maldives who was this incredible climate change hero, who’s fighting for the survival of his country. The Maldives are these islands in the Indian Ocean that are about this high off the sea level. What do you think is going to happen to them?

Sierra: If climate change kept on going, the entire island would just be flooded.

Jon: Exactly. This is the first country in the world that could–if we don’t change–go under water altogether. They don’t have hills. And so these islands are threatened. Anyways, we made this film and the head of Documentary at Participant had seen it and we had also worked with her on some other stuff and she thought that we would be a good team to do the follow-up to An Inconvenient Truth. And of course we were totally thrilled and honored to get the call to work on this film.

Sierra: What difficulties did you face when directing this film?

Jon: Well, gosh that’s a great question. The first thing we had to do was figure out how could this film be different from the first film? How could we give new information and tell a new story with many of the same ingredients? You know, we had the same main character (Al Gore is the main character) and really the same general subject matter, which is the climate crisis and what are we going to do about it.

But the first thing we did was Bonnie and I went to Nashville and sat down with Al in his living and he showed us a 10-hour version of his famous slide show. And we literally knocked on his door at 8am in the morning and sat down with coffee and we started and the first part of the slideshow is all about the disasters that have happened–the Arctic ice melt, the Antarctic ice sheets melting, the hurricanes that are stronger than ever because of the warming oceans, the flooding, the wildfires, the droughts, the refugee crisis, all the stuff. And by lunch time we were so depressed that we thought we should walk out the front door and walk off the nearest cliff because it just seemed so bad.

But we went and had lunch. Al is a vegan now, so we had a delicious vegan lunch. And after lunch, he started telling us about the solutions: the cost of solar energy and how cheap it’s gotten, the wind industry and how many jobs are being created all over the world making wind turbines to generate electricity. And he started telling us all these stories and it became really cool and we became really excited.  And we thought, what if we could tell a story about this kind of fight going on between the old way of doing things–making electricity and energy by burning coal and fossil fuels–versus this new way of doing things that could potentially solve this problem. There’s kind of a natural drama there. And we saw how excited Al was. With every ounce of his energy, you could see he’s putting towards solving all of this, the climate crisis. And he’s really emotional about it. He talks about it in a really, kind of intense, very human way. And we thought, (what) if we could really follow him around for a year and see what he sees and meet the scientists he’s met, and meet the politicians and the people working on the solutions, and the trainees. He does these massive trainings where he trains 1,000 students at a time on how to be a climate activist, which you, I know, want to do one day. So we thought, if we could just show that, and show his humanity, we could really have a new type of film, if people saw an Al Gore they did not expect and saw a story they hadn’t seen before.

Sierra: What was the main highlight of making this film?

Jon: There were so many amazing moments. But going to Paris with Al and being there when the Paris climate treaty was getting negotiated; watching Al help negotiate with the Indian government and try to get them to sign on to the accord. We really felt like that was really amazing because it’s very rare do you see kind of a high level leader like Al Gore going through something he didn’t necessarily know the answer was going to be. You know, most politicians, most leaders, they want to get on TV and tell you what the answers are and be very authoritative about it. But he didn’t know what was going to happen. And so to be there with the camera and watch him try to figure out help to help this process was really an amazing opportunity. And also in filmmaking you want to show your character trying to do things and sometimes failing, not always having success. To see Al in that vulnerable moment where he didn’t necessarily know that he was going to succeed was really great for the filmmaking process.

Sierra: You already mentioned you traveled to Paris. Did you get to travel anywhere else? Perhaps somewhere very cold?

Jon: (laughter) Well, we had an amazing trip where Bonnie and I flew with Al and the rest of the filmmaking team to Greenland, which as you probably know, is one of the places on the planet where you can really see the facts of climate change happening right before your eyes. You just walk up to these glaciers and you see that they are melting, the ice is falling off the face of them, and when you talk to the scientists there as Al did–you see that in the film–you hear that it’s happening at a rate that is way faster than it used to happen. And so the amount of volume–of liquid–falling off, the solid ice falling off the iceberg into the liquid ocean, they are raising the level of the seas. You see it before your very eyes. We went from there to Miami where you can see that ice melt, you know, now washing up on the beaches when the tide is high.

Sierra: Interesting. Were there any big scenes that you cut out?

Jon: That is a great question. There’s a couple of things that I’ll mention. One is, I mentioned earlier that Al is a vegan. And the reason he is a vegan–you know what a vegan is?

Sierra: Yeah.

Jon: So, vegans don’t eat any animal products, right? They get their diet 100% from plants. The reason that he does that is for his health. I think he’s trying to be healthier for his body. But also a lot of people think one of the answers to climate change is to rely on animals less because they take up so many resources. And so he inherited a farm in Tennessee that his parents used to run. And when he was a boy, the farm raised cattle and grew tobacco. And he wanted to take that farm and transform it into an organic, sustainable, agricultural organization that would provide food for the community. So he runs something called a CSA. Have you ever heard that? Community supported agriculture. So you can actually subscribe and be a member of a farm. And every week or every two weeks, they will bring to your door or you could pick up a box of whatever is in season. Right now it’s the winter time, so potatoes and beets and onions and those kinds of things. Kale would be in season. In the summertime, you could get tomatoes and squash.

And so he’s doing that as a way to teach farmers in Tennessee a way to farm the old-fashioned way, when people used to rely on the land without modifying it, without relying too much on animals. And it’s just beautiful. He’s planted trees all over the property. It has fruit and nuts. And he has some animals. He has some sheep and cows that use the fruit and shade of the trees to help them. And he uses their milk and stuff to create all kinds of really great food. And we shot a lot of it. But at the end of the day when Paris became such a dramatic part of the film, we didn’t have enough room in the film to tell the story of Al’s farm. So we hope one day we can take that footage and do something with it.

The other thing that we shot that was really kind of cool–I don’t know if you’ll think it is but I think it is–is we actually shot a scene with Al talking to a guy called Jerry Taylor. And Jerry Taylor used to run the climate division of a really conservative think tank in Washington, DC. A think tank is an organization that if funded by people to do research to give information to politicians that they can talk to their voters about. This think tank called the Cato Institute was dedicated, at least in part, to fossil fuel companies. So fossil fuel companies would pay this company to find information that would help politicians talk about how great the fossil fuels were.

And one day after many years working with this organization, he woke up one day and he thought, this is just wrong. He’s reading the science and he’s in charge of giving politicians these talking points and he disagreed with what he was doing. And so he changed his mind, he quit his job, and he went to work trying to solve the climate crisis. And Al sat down with this guy. This guy told stories about the conservative movement–mostly the Republican party in this country. It’s very difficult to disagree with Republicans about climate change because you’ll become like an outcast in your own family. And it was just interesting to see that, to hear that there’s a lot of people in the conservative movement in our country that would like to say the right thing about climate but are afraid because they’re afraid they’ll lose money from their supporters, especially in the oil industry. And to hear that kind of first hand was really fascinating. Unfortunately again, you know, because it was kind of a side story from what we were talking about,but it was really interesting thing to learn and to witness

Sierra: So when did you first start environmental kind of stuff?

Jon: That’s a great question. When I was a kid, I was like you. I really cared about the earth. I was a cub scout and I did a lot of camping. I spent my summers with my family at national parks,  going to places like Yosemite or Zion national parks or national parks in Canada. We spent a lot of time outdoors and I remember learning kind of this basic thing early on. The park rangers would tell you is you always leave your campsite cleaner than you found it. Have you guys ever been camping?

Sierra: Yeah.

Jon: So you know the next day when you pack up all your stuff, you put it back in the car, and you go, I’m sure you help your parents with this, you go through the campsite. You make sure you don’t leave anything like no plastic wrappers, and no garbage. And I always remembered that and I thought isn’t that same thing true about the planet? Like, shouldn’t we leave the planet in a better condition than when we found it, than when we got here? And so that always stuck with me, and I’ve always been interested in doing the right thing, using less resources, and consuming less and when possible recycling and all that kind of stuff. And it wasn’t until I read about president Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives that I thought we could tell a story in our documentaries about people who do this kind of work at really a high level that we started making documentaries about it. But that’s kind of where I started.

Sierra: Interesting.

Jon: Yeah.

Sierra: So I thought I’d give you a little time, because I’m not really sure if any of our readers would know a lot about your films, so could you just briefly describe your films this time?

Jon: Sure, yeah. So I met Bonnie, my wife and my film making partner. We met at Stanford at a really cool graduate program called the Stanford Documentary Program in the mid 90’s and we’ve been making documentaries for twenty years now, the first major documentary I worked on was actually a–are you guys Star Wars fans at all?

Sierra: Yeah.

Jon: So did you ever see The Phantom Menace? Star Wars, Episode 1?

Sierra: Well, I saw all the Star Wars movies once, but that was a few years ago.

Jon: Do you remember Jar Jar Binks, the orange guy with the funny duck head? Anyways, it’s one of the Star Wars movies. In the 1970’s there was a set of Star Wars films and then in the late 90’s there was another set and now there’s another. And I was hired to work for Lucasfilm at Skywalker Ranch and I followed the whole process of making that film. And we made a film called The Beginning about the making of Star Wars, and that was one of the first things that I did right out of film school. But then I did a film called Lost Boys of Sudan, about fifteen years ago, about refugees from the civil war that’s going on in Africa in the country called Sudan. Our company made a film called the Rape of Europa about what happened to all the fine art in Europe during World War II, Do you know who Adolf Hitler was?

Sierra: Yeah.

Jon: He was a leader of Germany who tried to take over Europe during World War II. And he had this idea, one of his many evil plans, and that was to steal all the art of Europe and put it in one big museum. And so he ended up directing his soldiers to steal art from Jewish families and other institutions that had all the great art of Europe. And we made a film about what happened to all the art during the war and after the war. Most recently, we made a film called Audrey and Daisy, which is–you’re probably a little to young for it but maybe a few years from now it’ll be an important film for you guys to watch–it’s about girls that get abused by their friends, who get hurt by their friends, and then they get bullied online, on social media. It’s a really difficult film to watch, but when you get a little older you’ll be able to handle it. And that was really an amazing film to be involved with and then after that we made–oh, and somewhere in there we made The Island President, which I told you about–and we’ve made all kinds of short films along the way as well, and commercials and other kinds of video projects.

Sierra: Cool.

Jon: Yeah.

Sierra: Is there anything else you want to add?

Jon: Well, I have to say Sierra, I’m  so excited to talk to you. I really think you’re an amazing young student and I think one of the most exciting things that happened during the last few years was when we were making this film and we went all around the world and we met a lot of people who are working on the solutions to the climate crisis, politicians, owners of companies who were making electric cars, or solar panels or whatever, people who make films, people who make books, who are journalists and things like that, and many of them saw An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 and they actually decided that they would change their life because of it, they would go into the alternative energy business, or that they would run for office or that they would become a teacher. And a lot of those people started when they were in high school or college and now they’re in their twenties and thirties and they’re working on it.

And I think that you are among the people that are going to see this new film and do the same thing, because you saw the film, you think it’s a really important issue, and you’re talking to me about it. I’m sure you’re going to tell other people about it, and who knows, maybe someday you’ll have a career where you’re working on the solution to the climate crisis in your own way. And that’s really exciting to us. That’s the most exciting and most important thing–for students to see this and for them to somehow realize that this is going to impact their lives, and why not be on the right side of it and try to do something positive?


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