Chicago-born actor Fisher Stevens has had a long and varied career in show business. Having starred in films ranging from Short Circuit to Hail Caesar!, Stevens has more recently turned his hand to environmental documentary making, having garnered himself an Oscar win for his work on Louis Psihoyos’ The Cove. In his eye-opening new film, Before the Flood, Stevens teams up with Leonardo DiCaprio to make a stand against climate change and America’s ever-growing carbon footprint. We were lucky enough catch up with Stevens in the run up to the film’s premiere to discuss working with DiCaprio, as well as his meetings with the President and reciting Shakespeare on the set of Super Mario Bros….
As you say in the film, most people switch off when it comes to the topic of climate change. Why are people so apathetic about the subject, and what can you do as a filmmaker to try and engage them?
Well, first of all, I think it’s kind of hard to comprehend it unless you experience it firsthand. And it’s also really depressing, and something that unless it really touches you, it’s really difficult. It first touched me because I’m a scuba diver, and I started to see the destruction of the reefs. People are also really worried about paying their rent and raising their children and finding someone to spend the rest of their life with. I think those are the priorities. But for me, the more I know about it, the more concerned about it get. You need to get people to take notice, and that’s hopefully what we’re doing with this film.
You travelled all over the world making the film. What was the most devastating thing you saw?
One of the most eye-opening things was seeing the data from the satellite images at NASA and really clearly seeing firsthand how fast the climate is changing. That was pretty worrysome! And the burning of the forest in Indonesia for palm oil; the amount of carbon that goes into the air… Learning about the amount of methane that comes from cows, which is something I’d known about, but not to the full extent, is very alarming. And then when we were in Greenland, and there was this tube which had been buried five years ago and the ice had just melted down… We hear about the melting ice, but to go there and to see the water just rushing out… that was very alarming. Flying over Greenland and seeing it melting from the sky… I could go on and on…
How did Leo come to be involved in the project?
Well I had known him for quite some time. Then about six years ago we went on an expedition of about a hundred people to the Galapagos with Dr. Sylvia Earl, a marine biologist. So Leo was on that trip, and we ended up bonding; we went scuba diving together, and then we stayed in touch a little. I’d call him, or he’d call me. But then he saw the film called Mission Blue that I made, and he asked me to make this with him. I was in the middle of making Racing Extinction, another climate change film, so I said “No, I’m making one now”, but then he said “But I’ll be in this one.” So I figured if Leo was gonna be in it, we had to do it, because if anyone could bring more attention to this issue, it’s him! But we had to make a movie that wasn’t Leo speaking, it was Leo listening.
Of course having Leo as your spokesperson will hopefully garner even more attention for the film…
That was the idea. I mean, a lot of people saw Racing Extinction, and I was very proud of that film, but I’m hoping that this film hits a much larger audience. Leo and I wanted to make a film that was very accessible to young people, and also one that was very entertaining. That was our goal. Leo’s a great actor and a great person; he’s very charismatic, so it was a real pleasure to be able to make a film with him. It wasn’t always easy because of his schedule. He was making The Revenant for a year, and then he promoted that, so we were working a lot around his schedule obviously. At one point we tried to make the film so that he didn’t have to be in all of it. I went down to the Amazon in Ecuador, and we did some beautiful stuff, but when we tried to put it into the movie, it was really weird that Leo wasn’t there. So we realised that he had to be in the whole thing or it wouldn’t work!
How did it feel taking the case to the UN and having Leo speak there?
To be honest, we knew we would jump off the film at the UN, because when Leo called me to make the film, he told me that he was gonna be made the UN Messenger for Peace for climate change, so I said “Well let’s start the film with that! And then maybe we’ll end it in Paris at the climate talk”. So then we had this great idea; there was gonna be this million man march in Paris during the climate talks, and Leo was gonna make this big speech in front of all these people. But then the terrorist attacks happened and the march was cancelled, so we decided to end it at the signing instead. The thing is, it’s really up to us, as we say at the end of the movie, because we can’t rely on governments. We have to push the governments to change, and that’s really one of our main messages; that we have to push them. As that great professor at Harvard said, politicians will do what the people tell them to do, but you have to tell them to do it.
Speaking of politicians, it’s amazing to have got Obama on your side in the movie, do you think the movie will help open the eyes of his successor?
Well, if Trump is elected, things’ll change in a very bad way. In a dangerous way. He’s made it pretty clear he wants to dismantle the Paris accords, he wants to dismantle the restrictions Obama has put on and he wants to bring coal back into the picture. He’s a monster in that respect. He’s an environmental monster. Hillary certainly makes climate part of the conversation, and Bernie Sanders has pushed Hillary into a place where she’s made it more of a priority. Obama didn’t do much his first term, but has recently become a hero to the environmental movement, and he’s making it part of his legacy. I’m hoping that Hillary hires him to be the Minister for the Environment or something. That’d be amazing. So, I think she will keep it going and hopefully press it even further. We were really lucky to spend time with Obama in the movie, and we just screened it at the White House, and his whole message about hope sounds corny maybe, but it’s true, and that’s why I made the film, and that’s why I keep making these films with Louis (Psihoyos). You’ve gotta keep fighting, otherwise we’re in trouble!
I have to ask about Super Mario Bros…
What was so great about that film is Bob Hoskins, Fiona Shaw, John Leguizamo, Dennis Hopper, myself and Richard Edson, we would do Shakespeare readings every weekend at Fiona’s house. We got through about seven or eight of the plays, and that kept us sane and happy during the making of that movie. Those were some of the best actors I’ve ever worked with, and we had the best time together, but we knew it was chaotic and that the film was not quite what we had expected, but we had each other and we had a lot of fun making it.
Also, Hackers was totally ahead of its time. When you were making it, did you have any idea just how prophetic it would turn out to be?
No! You know what’s funny? We just had the twentieth anniversary screening of it in New York, and actually that movie – you see a lot of movies and you’re like “oh my god, that movie is so eighties or nineties” – that movie is so ahead of its time that it holds up beautifully. It’s actually better now, I think. I didn’t have a computer back then, and you look at it today and you think about Wikileaks and all that stuff, it’s so current! And the music; it was one of the first techno soundtracks in a film. Yeah, that film was way ahead of its time.
So what does the future hold? Are you going to be spending more time on documentaries, or will we be seeing a return to acting?
I don’t know right now. I’m taking a little break. I directed another documentary that’s gonna be out in England in March. I made it with my wife actually. It’s called Bright Lights and it stars Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. It’s the story of a mother and daughter who live in a compound in Beverley Hills, but it’s a story about family and show business and I’m very proud of it. It just played at the New York Film Festival this week actually. And I’ll be doing more acting… When I find some time!
Before the Flood premieres on Sunday 30th October at 9pm on National Geographic Channel.