Inglorious Bastards. Good Will Hunting. Pulp Fiction. Kill Bill. An Inconvenient Truth. With a roster of iconic films and a whole shelf of gold statues, Lawrence Bender is one of America's most acclaimed producers. Since the release of Al Gore's slideshow turned Oscar winning documentary, the ripple effect of An Inconvenient Truth has been hard to fathom. Thousands of people have been trained to give their own version of the presentation, it's become a book (in both paper and interactive app versions), and there have even been attempts to turn it into an opera. Bender tells us how the film came to be and about its ongoing legacy. He also illuminates his newest documentary, Countdown to Zero, about nuclear disarmament, and gives advice on the art of delivering a message.
Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: You wrote a piece recently in the Huffington Post saying that Congress is still ignoring the climate issue. What does Washington look like to you right now?
Lawrence Bender: On this issue, it's terrible. And it's not something that is even being talked about. They can't even get this budget ceiling thing passed. So, quite frankly, it's been pretty disappointing when it comes to climate change legislation. That's why I wrote that piece, because it was an opportunity say: hey, it's election time. Everyone is going around raising money now, obviously. Let's remind our elected officials that this is an important issue to us and we expect them to address it in the next session.
TH: What does real climate leadership look like to you? If Washington was really taking this seriously, what would that look like?
Bender: Well, there are tough choices that have to be made in each state. You have states that are coal states, and you have Democrats and Republicans in these different states. It's hard for them to take leadership when you have a state that's a big coal producing state. But on the other hand, as we all know, anyone who's listening to this podcast is aware of these issues and knows that, ultimately, climate change is affecting all of us.
So real leadership means sticking your neck out, saying this is important to me as an elected official, and making it a priority. These are things that need to happen. Nancy Pelosi has got something done in Congress. We were close in the Senate, and then it all fell apart. We need to put it back together again.
TH: In your piece you talk about the influence of the energy lobby. What does the energy lobby in the U.S. look like right now?
Bender: There's a $1 billion campaign to promote their self interests against the interests of all of us that are just regular people. And so they do a lot of things to confuse the public.
When An Inconvenient Truth came out, it became very clear to everybody that the science was real, that the climate crisis is happening and that we, mankind, are greatly exacerbating it.
At one point we held a private screening of An Inconvenient Truth for the Republican congressional science staffers and had a meeting with some of them. They had found nothing wrong with the movie. If anyone was going to find something wrong with the movie, you'd think it would be the "opposing side". And they found nothing factually incorrect. But yet, here we have massive disinformation coming around.
Someone sent me an email just yesterday and it was just complete misinformation about how a volcano eruption, forcing up through the atmosphere more, emits more carbon dioxide than all the human beings on earth in a year. And so I was like, wow, that doesn't sound right.
I sent the email to someone on Al Gore's staff and he sent me a geological survey from an important study that was just recently done. I sent it back to the people who sent me the original email that turned out to be grossly incorrect. The last time a volcano erupted that was that kind of powerful was about 74,000 years ago.
And in fact, volcanoes emit just a very, very small amount. Something equivalent to maybe a couple of days' worth of what we emit on earth. So these kind of seemingly correct scientific things that come out are obviously sponsored by people like the energy companies and so forth that are looking to keep the money in their pockets.
TH: An Inconvenient Truth won the Academy Award for best documentary back in 2007. Could you tell the story of how this film came to be and how you got involved?
Bender: Well, I went to see Al Gore do his slideshow on global warming. There were several hundred people in the room, here in Hollywood. And it was just one of those life-changing moments. Like everybody in that room, I was completely taken aback. I'm an avid reader but I had no idea, until I saw Al Gore's slideshow, the extent and the urgency of the problem. And of course like everybody the first thing I said was, "what can I do?"
As a filmmaker I thought to myself, this could be made into a movie. So we put a team together. We all went up to meet with Al Gore, the director, and the other producers. We asked Al if he would allow us to make this into a movie, and of course he said yes. And away we went.
Now you have to imagine, we were looking to raise the money to make a movie out of Al Gore's slideshow. And by the way, we need a million dollars.
But Jeff Skoll, the amazing, incredible Jeff Skoll, we asked him to come see Al do the slideshow.
Skoll and Pierre Omidyar created eBay, and then they sold it of course. Now he has many companies. One of them is called Participant Media, and they make movies about socially relevant things; that's their model. Jeff Skoll saw Al Gore do the slideshow and immediately said, I'll write a check. We were in pre-production before we had our deals. It was just an immediate thing. It happened very quickly. And it needed to happen quickly because of the urgency of the issue.
Another great thing that happened on the movie was when Al Gore had the idea to call Melissa Etheridge and ask, "would you come down and watch us shoot? Maybe you'd like to write a song for the movie."
And so later on I was having this conversation with her before the Academy Awards (she actually also won an Academy Award for the song that she wrote for the movie). I was sitting there in here house, this was, I guess, 2006 or 2007.
She was telling me about her bout with cancer and what an amazing life lesson that was. And how at the end of her struggle she went to bed thinking she needed to write a song. She needed to do something that was going to help change the world.
She'd been working with this life changing event that she had gone through and she wanted to do things to really make a difference. She woke up the next morning and received this phone call from Al Gore.
It was one of these amazing moments that makes the hair go up on the back of your neck. And of course she wrote this beautiful song and won the Academy Award. And that song helped to make a big difference.