Louie Psihoyos is pretty serious about the environment. His house is solar powered, he drives an electric car—the license reads VUS for “Vehicle Uses Sun,” it’s also the reverse of SUV—and yeah, he’s making a movie that may change the way we treat our planet.
Psihoyos isn’t the first (or the last) to make a film that highlights how we’re killing the planet and guilting us to change our habits, but the Oscar-winning filmmaker of The Cove has more in store with his next film, 6, than exposing our sins.
Screened as a work-in-progress at the Tribeca Film Festival, 6 (which producer Fisher Stevens said at the screening may not be the film’s final title) stands for our current state with the planet, as we’re on the verge of our sixth extinction (the last was that of the dinosaurs). From endangered sea life being sold on the black market for food and remedies in China, to the amount of carbon in the air, 6 is a fascinating work that at times is harder and more chilling to watch than anything exposed in The Cove. And like his previous film, Psihoyos exposes the atrocities going on in the world (like the hunting of giant manta rays for their gills) by using customized cameras and undercover methods. But unlike The Cove, 6 is a giant story that Psihoyos hopes to end with the filming of an unprecedented project where his team will project images of endangered species on the New York City skyline, in essence driving home their message on a larger scale than any film can.
A day after the screening we caught up with Psihoyos to talk about the dangers of what he and his team do and why his films are more than just activism.
Movies.com: It was interesting to hear your philosophy about making movies is not really making a good film but starting a movement.
Louie Psihoyos: Well it’s not that I don’t care to make a good film, it’s just that the priority is starting a movement as opposed to making a movie. It’s a different mindset. Some of the filmmakers on the scene were like, “Let’s make it a great movie,” and I’m like, “I don’t give a damn if it’s a great movie.” A movie is $10 and a box of popcorn, a movement is something that changes minds and hearts. It’s a different goal and a higher objective. I really do want to get a billion people activated on this movement so we can create that tipping point to create change. It’s a big issue, so to me a movie is the most powerful weapon in the world, I call it the weapon of mass destruction. You drop a bomb you kill people; you make a film you create allies that creates more allies.
Movies.com: And a good example of that is the executive producer of Blackfish was motivated to make that movie after seeing The Cove.
Psihoyos: Well, I don’t want to take credit for Blackfish, but it was fascinating to find that out.
Movies.com: Was this film on your mind before making The Cove?
Psihoyos: Yes, I wanted to do something on species extinction and then went and made The Cove. Then I was literally at Sundance and I took two books with me. One was Terra by Michael Novacek, he runs dinosaur digs all over the world. And he was talking about the sixth mass extinction. And I thought that was kind of depressing so I picked up the other book which was A Reef in Time, it’s by John Veron, who is in the movie, and he says that previous to every mass extinction on the planet there’s always this carbon spike. It’s almost always a precondition to mass extinction. And I thought, this is the biggest story in the world and nobody’s paying attention to it. So I thought this is a sign here to pay attention to, that I should attempt to do the story. And people said it’s just too big of a story, don’t attempt it. So I thought how can you tell this big story in a way that gets people emotional and creates an activist philosophy?
Movies.com: In a world with such short attention spans, is the biggest challenge how to craft this story so people stay with it through all its layers?
Psihoyos: I think we think that people only have a propensity to think in 140 characters, but I think if people get swept up in this story it can be like Game of Thrones or any other episodic show you’re addicted to. I think we’ve dumbed down with movies and books our expectations of what the public wants more than with TV shows. I think people are ravenous for in-depth information and clever story. The trick here is to weave in all these stories we want to tell in a way that it doesn’t feel fractured, that it feels fluid. And have it not feel like a Nova piece. What we did with The Cove is we took this unconventional path of using a team of activists with special skills, an Ocean’s 11 team if you will, to break into the cove and create this awareness. And it was enormously successful in terms of the awareness it created and the change it caused and I thought let’s do an Ocean’s 12.
Movies.com: You would think that you’d be a marked man in the black-market fish trade, but you are front and center doing the undercover busts in this film.
Psihoyos: Actually, in Korea we put prosthetics on to make us look Korean. We really had Hollywood makeup people come and make us up, and it was so uncomfortable, if you ever had to wear a mask for two days and I’m not talking about a rubber mask but it’s glued on. It’s really uncomfortable and it’s really dangerous because it’s hard to keep it held together, especially when people are close up to you. So we took that out of the movie because we felt it was too much. But it was all real. That bust that happened from that trip helped stop endangered species being sold in Korea.
Movies.com: But when you guys brought down the Hump in L.A., you personally could never have gone in there.
Psihoyos: That’s why we used two of our operatives. At that point we were signing autographs in China and Korea. The reason we went to Korea wearing prosthetics was because the first time we went there we were signing autographs on the street. So it’s become more and more difficult to do that work. Luckily I’m aging quicker now with these movies so I don’t look like how I did in the beginning of them. What’s interesting is people come up to me about doing other films and they all involve undercover work. Fortunately we have a whole bunch of people who want to help us with that and there’s a lot of things you can do to change how you look. I mean, I was sitting next to Leo DiCaprio last night.
Psihoyos: We snuck him in and he’s watching the movie with me and he’s got his hat way down and just slid down in his seat. You would never know.
Movies.com: Is there a rush to do these undercover jobs and pull them off?
Psihoyos: It’s more fear than a rush. It’s out of that category of this is fun. Because when you go into these places and you get caught it’s not good. We busted that guy Mr. Li who was selling whale meat and he’s protected by the government. Six other whale-meat operations shut down after we did that bust, he’s bulletproof. He’s the biggest. So if we got caught over there the people would be on his side.
Button-hole cameras are illegal in China, and this isn’t in the movie because we weren’t recording, but at the airport we went through their equivalent of TSA and these two uniform security guys come running after me with the bags that I checked. The rest of the team scattered because we’re in the airport and we said if anyone gets caught everyone scatter so we all don’t go down. And they come at me and ask if this is mine, and of course it had my name on it, and they pulled out the button-hole cameras, they ask if these are mine, I said, “Yes,” and they go, “They’re illegal.” And I’m like, “Oh, really?” But he was talking about the lithium batteries were illegal to put on the plane. So he had a bunch of plastic bags and helped me put them in. He didn’t know what the cameras were. But there I thought I was done.
Movies.com: Talk a bit about the New York City projection you’re creating.
Psihoyos: There have been five major extinctions in the history of the planet, we’re going through a sixth one right now. I bet 99 percent in New York City didn’t know that. So what we want to do is create a massive projection, the biggest in the world and basically give endangered species a voice. So you have animals that are almost 10 feet tall that are about to go extinct on iconic buildings so it’s put in people’s minds what’s going on in New York City. And if that happens in New York City it’s going to happen all over the world. In one fail swoop on a three-day weekend event you’ll have every person in the world with access to media aware of what’s going on.
It won’t be like 20 years from now people saying, “I didn’t know.” This is the biggest story in the world and it’s not being told. My planetology friends tell me that World War II will be a footnote compared to what’s going on right now. It’s the most important story because it’s not just about losing species, it’s about losing the biologic engine of the planet that supports all life.
Movies.com: This is such a huge and important story, as you say. Once you’re done with it and it’s given the exposure that’s needed, what stories are left for you to tell?
Psihoyos: They say when you're done with a documentary you're only halfway there. We're still working on The Cove issues. It's five years after the movie came out and we still have a team that works full time on exposing issues related to that. I'm sure we're going to have another team, including myself, working on this. The mission expanded but the work goes on.
That's the difference between making a Hollywood film. Two months later they're on to the next movie. They are probably on to the next movie as they're in post. We're going to be working on this issue for many years. We may have another film lined up but we never give up. “We sold enough Coca-Colas time to go onto the next one.” This is our life. Hollywood just thinks of audiences as butts in seats, I think of audiences as a mind and heart in the seats, a potential person out there who can change the world. I know this sounds grandiose, but it's the mission of this film. And it was great last night but we're not done yet. It's a good start to something potentially great. But we're not there yet.
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