I tend to prefer reviewing documentary features to fiction, not because of any affinity for reality over fantasy, but because a bad doc just tends to be less painful to sit through than a mediocre fiction film. But when it comes to the nonfiction genre itself I have one very big pet peeve – activist docs done by lazy directors, who forget to explain why we should even care in the first place, thinking that simply putting forth rational arguments negates the need for pulling emotional heartstrings. After all, Al Gore’s stale lecturing in An Inconvenient Truth didn’t move moviegoers to take action. For those that did, it’s the polar bears, stupid.
The Oscar-nominated Gasland could serve as a crash course in rallying the troops. Not only has director Josh Fox put a face to his film by touring the country with Gasland – a road trip exposé itself sparked when Fox and his neighbors were offered $100,000 each from a natural gas mining company to drill on their Pennsylvania properties – but he’s crafted a doc bursting with sweet goofiness and serene cinematography that counterbalances all the scientific mumbo jumbo required to get this serious story told about the dangerous environmental effects of natural-gas production process “fracking“. In other words, he’s winning crucial hearts even if he loses a few minds. Unlike his archenemy Dick Cheney (himself living proof of the powerlessness of rational argument) Fox has made debating dirty procedures like fracking fun. I spoke with the director by phone before the Academy Awards were handed out.
Lauren Wissot: So how’s life changed since you’ve gotten the nomination?
Josh Fox: It’s just become much more intense in terms of how often we get to talk about the issue. It’s pretty much been 24 hours a day talking about the problem – which is great. I spent two days in Washington, D.C. meeting with congressmen and senators. We were at the White House. We’re gonna fight for not only our own homes but for huge sections of the United States. I’ve been on tour with this film basically for more than a year, talking about this all over the country. It’s just a huge number of people who are affected. What I try to do is tour to as many places on the map – in addition to the HBO release, theaters, DVDs. I’ve been on the road and it’s just been an unbelievable experience. It’s exhausting but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
LW: I guess putting a face to the issue is also important. Making it personal.
JF: It’s really personal. But it’s also beyond my little corner of the world. The documentary took me all over America and those people are now part of my community, are my friends. It’s not just my home that’s on the line. When I really think about what the proposals to drill for natural gas for the next 30 to 50 years in all of those places means, it means control over our country. That’s the bottom line.
LW: Could you talk a little about the different audiences and their different responses?
JF: What’s great about this is that no matter what kind of audience or what kind of place they’re living in – in NYC or Pittsburgh or in a rural area – the movie always works. People like it. (laughs) It’s clear they’ve had a great movie experience because it is a detective story and there are actually a lot of laughs in it – a lot of these human things come through. And this activates people, gets people involved. And that seems to be across the board, whether we’re showing the film in the U.K. or Australia or Texas or New York. That’s a great feeling – that the film is reliable. When you talk about films translating in different cultures I’ve been very surprised with the same kinds of questions, the same kinds of outrage, the same kind of will towards a better solution. We’re in a big fight against natural gas, against hydraulic fracturing. But what this has done is led us into a very positive movement towards renewable energy. And you’re seeing a huge conversion happening, among people whose backs are literally against the wall, who stand to lose everything because of the onshore drilling.
LW: This is interesting. So do you think the film is tapping into some massive unrest that’s already there?
JF: Well, it’s brought it all home. You can be in a very idealistic sense for renewable energy, but when you’re talking about fossil fuel development invading your home it becomes a much more urgent thing. What’s happened is that as a consequence of this you’ve got this huge political force right now that is very motivated.
LW: Are you feeling any backlash from the natural gas companies?
JF: Of course! (laughs) Well, they’ve been out there slandering the movie. They have a very aggressive misinformation campaign. But the facts are on our side so it’s not very difficult to dispel their very specious arguments. None of this comes as a surprise. This is an aggressive industry that gets its way through bullying. I think they couldn’t help themselves when it came to attacking the film.
LW: Do you want to name names? (laughs) Who’s the worst?
JF: It works like this. There are these PR fronts that claim to be acting on behalf of Americans – and it’s all natural gas producers acting like they’re some kind of mom-and-pop PR firm. And it came out recently across the news, on blogs, that they’re actually funded by Halliburton, BP, Chesapeake, Exxon Mobil, Shell, Chevron – all these majors come together to create essentially this PR firm that’s really an attack dog. And that firm attacks everybody who is talking about natural gas. And that’s from us, to the Pulitzer Prize-winning news service ProPublica, to individual families who are coming forward and complaining and talking about what’s happening to them. Their MO is to deny, deny, deny and spend lots of money on PR. It’s like a stone wall. And it’s amazing to me that they’re employing that strategy because there are so many horror stories out there, so many around the globe.
LW: I think that’s the modus operandi for most of these huge organizations. Just look at Proposition 8 – funded by the Mormon Church using front groups. I think that happens everywhere, so it’s a shame but not much of a surprise.
JF: I think it’s particularly well funded when you’re talking about the natural gas industry.
LW: But let’s talk a little bit about the entertainment factor as well. Gasland is quite fun to watch for a film that’s so dense with a lot of chemistry jargon and things that would normally make my eyes glaze over. (laughs) And the humor works. You seem to have all the filmmaking pieces of the puzzle there, too. Could you discuss the aesthetic and the structure of the film from a filmmaker’s perspective?
JF: Well, both myself and Matthew Sanchez, my editor and co-creator, we come from a narrative filmmaking background – and I come from a theater background – so walking into a documentary we’re looking to really make a great movie, not just tell the facts. We’re influenced by the greats, from John Cassavetes to documentarians such as the Maysles brothers. There’s the will there that’s as driven by aesthetics and storytelling as by a reporting angle. Those things go hand in hand. The other thing about it is because it is so personal – it’s a story that’s happening to me so I’m able to tell it in the way that I’m experiencing it. It was like relating a story because people in my area needed to know what was going on and I needed to witness it.
LW: One of my pet peeves is when documentarians ignore the artistry for activism. I feel like filmmakers often do their subject a disservice when they preach at an audience rather than entertain. It just causes viewers to shut down and not take in whatever message the filmmaker is trying to get out.
JF: The interesting thing about Gasland is how many people keep talking about it as an activist film and yet we never tell people what to think in the entire movie. We ask questions. Some of the answers to the questions are obvious. It’s not our place to preach to people and we don’t in the film. We’ve made a very, very conscious effort not to do that. We leave it in the hands of the viewer to make up their own minds – we avoid condescension. We have wry humor. We have explosions. We had a car chase but we cut that out. And a love story – but we also cut that. Well, there is the love story. It’s a love story with America. (laughs) I’m joking, of course – but only half.
LW: Yeah, I guess when you’ve got an image of someone setting their faucet on fire then a picture is worth a thousand words. (laughs)
JF: That’s an example of the world turning completely upside down. Here we are going backwards – into more fossil fuel development, into more dirty practices, into more undemocratically screwing people out of their land. There’s no more potent example of the world going completely in the wrong direction than people setting their water on fire!
LW: Absolutely, it’s a world issue. I actually saw Crude, Joe Berlinger’s documentary before I saw your documentary –
JF: Oh, that’s a double feature right there.
LW: Sure. And it was interesting to me because you can definitely see the parallels, with Crude addressing the Amazon dwellers of Ecuador’s fight against Chevron. But did that hit you as you were going through the country filming – these Third World parallels?
JF: Well, there are these transnational corporations that are operating in the guise of America’s best interests, but it’s really about the best interests of profits and the bottom line. They talk a lot about American independence. But there’s really no energy independence that’s not renewable energy, because that would just mean more dependence on fossil fuel companies. They would like us to be addicted to their products for the next century because they were able to control the last century. That’s what we’re fighting against and why we’re fighting so hard.
LW: So did you know as you were going along shooting that there was a bigger global issue at hand?
JF: I don’t know. I’m not sure how much I was processing that particular thought. Unfortunately, we’re in an era where huge corporations can bring people around to their side without a lot of consequences. People get used to that. And rather than addressing the problems they have they’d rather sue and deny. That’s a big problem within a lot of sectors in our world. Here’s a good parallel. We saw the complete deregulation of the banking system and we saw that system collapse. And then it kind of got refilled with money and it was like, “Oh, well, we’ll just do it over.” You see the complete deregulation of onshore drilling – and what’s going to happen is they’re going to completely contaminate the water in the United States. Including the water in many major cities affecting millions of people. You can’t just go, “Oops. Well, let’s do it over and fill the ground back up with clean water.” Once it’s contaminated it’s going to stay that way and it’s going to stay that way forever. So it’s a very different problem – but what’s being offered is the same kind of medicine that you see with all these big businesses. Deregulate them, let them do whatever they want, and then when they completely collapse the system kind of go “oops,” reset it and let them do it all over again. The difference is that in this case if you collapse the system it will be impossible to recover.
LW: It almost sounds to me, as you’re talking, that you fell down a rabbit hole, and that you kept gathering more and more information, making connections on an increasingly global level. Was it difficult to edit all this material? Do you have enough for another feature?
JF: It was very difficult to choose what to use. We could have made a six-hour movie. Forty-five minutes of bonus material is available on the DVD. We are actually going to make another movie – not with the old stuff, but with new stuff. We continued to shoot as we toured and showed the film.
LW: Will it focus more on the deregulation angle – be an Inside Job for the gas industry?
JF: Well, I think of it as another Gasland for the gas industry.
LW: (laughs) Oops.
JF: We’re actually working on two documentaries right now that are along the lines of – I guess it is part of a trilogy – that will move us towards how to solve the energy problem with renewable energy. There’s a continuing story here for sure.