Interview: Jeff Orlowski talks Chasing Coral, climate change and optimism in the face of Trump
Ivan Radford | On 14, Jul 2017
Five years ago, a film called Chasing Ice gave the world irrefutable evidence of climate change – heartbreaking images of glaciers crumbling and the natural world being destroyed, on a scale that made the average Hollywood disaster movie look like a Fisher Price toy set. In 2017, though, the USA has a President who does not believe in climate change. So why is director Jeff Orlowski feeling more upbeat than ever about the fight to save the world’s environment?
His new film, Chasing Coral, premieres worldwide on Netflix today (read our review here), capturing the decay and death of coral reefs around the world – again serving up jaw-dropping visual proof of climate change with a shocking urgency. How natural a step was it to go from one project to the other?
“Once I met Richard [Vevers, founder of non-profit group The Ocean Agency] and saw what was happening in the ocean and started to understand the science, it felt like a very natural and obvious project for us. We knew if there was a way to visualise it, we could figure it out. I think the challenge here, and the overlap between the two projects has been to produce the visual evidence of climate change, It’s something we learned from James [Balog, the timelapse photographer at the heart of Chasing Ice] and carried over into this endeavour.”
When Chasing Ice came out, I showed the film to my seven-year-old nephew, who had the same reaction as I did: he had never seen anything like it before. That gut reaction is a crucial part of Orlowski’s work.
“I think one of the challenges is that a lot of the visuals around climate change are things that happen on a regular basis. All of these natural disasters are increasing in frequency or severity, but climate sceptics, or those in the US, just think they’re part of the natural cycle and that scientists are exaggerating them. So for us, it was trying to produce images that would respond to that cynicism and demonstrate that these are beyond the natural cycle.”
The images still have the potency in 2017 as they did five years ago, still inspiring people to do something.
“There’s a lawsuit in the US where a youth group are suing the govenment for their failure to protect their futures and the future planet they wil be inheriting!” reveals Jeff. “And they’re using the images from both Chasing Ice and Chasing Coral in the lawsuit as evidence. It’s very exciting, we’re thriller.”
Capturing such powerful images, though, is no easy task – and the film doesn’t spare us the cruel conditions and practical obstacles facing the team, led by Richard, as they sought to film timelapse footage of coral reefs dying. Was it any easier to shoot underwater that it was on top of ice? Or was just a case of being more prepared for what they would face?
“I think that just as a second film I had a better physical and psychological preparation for what it was going to take,” says Jeff. “I think me and my team have got accustomed to physical challenges! It very much helps when you know it’s going to be difficult going into it, so we were emotionally prepared.”
Some of the team were first-timers, he adds. “They very quickly realised how deep in they were!”
“I had the faith we would find the right story and cature the right imagery, it was just a question of how long it would take to get there,” he continues.
“We need to teach audiences what a healthy reef looks like, so then, when you reveal the climax, they know what we’re seeing is so dead.”
It certainly took long enough, with the project running for year longer than expected. By that point, it becomes a question of morale as much as filmmaking. With all of that going on, the images on tape are even more impressive – is there any time out in the field to worry about cinematography? Or does composition become a question of luck and instinct?
“It’s an interesting question!” says Jeff. “One of the advantages when you’re shooting out in nature is that you have all these beautiful landscapes to work with and capturing the beauty of these landscapes is essential for us, because that’s the only way people fall in love or see the beauty of the magic of them. So it was a constant challenge to showcase the beauty, but also showcase the horror and the death and the mortality of reefs as well. So we often need to teach audiences what a healthy reef looks like, so then, when you reveal the climax, they know what we’re seeing is so dead. Hopefully, by the end of the film it’s intuitive and it’s second nature to them.”
The movie shot for more than three years around the world, with more than 500 hours spent underwater and footage submitted by volunteers in more than 30 countries. Editing that down to two hours must be a nightmare – after Chasing Ice, does it get any easier to only shoot what he knows he will need in the final cut?
“The way I look at it is we keep collecting all this footage and following every storyline we could that would unfold. When the bleaching happened in Australia, we knew that would be the climax of the film in some way. My approach, and I think a lot of filmmakers are the same, is when you what the climax is, you know what you need to lead up to that point in the film. So it then became clear that a lot of the footage had no relevance and wouldn’t factor in. So then it becomes developing moments that would lead to that climax. But it is a huge editing slog!”
Having Richard Vevers at the centre of the film, leading the team trying to secure the footage is the other thing that Chasing Coral has in common with Ice. He’s joined by coral enthusiast Zackery Rago, Director of Science and Education at Teens4Oceans. Is that a conscious decision on Orlowski’s part, to have a human protagonist to root for?
“People just seem to prefer following human stories,” he observes. “I think a lot of the way nature has been presented has always been through voiceover and narration and, in some cases, trying to anthropomorphise nature. Whether you’re looking at March of the Penguins or David Attenbotough, there’s a ‘voice of god’ explaining what you’re seeing. What we’re trying to do is take that another step and you’re following a protagonist on a quest. Even if we explained in the film how bad the bleaching was and the coral mortality, I think you feel it so much more through Zack and Richard. You feel Zack’s emotion and if you can understand his love and his pain, that’s far more effective than just explaining the facts and the numbers and what’s happening.”
“The most ironic thing is that Trump might be the thing that saves climate change!”
Trying to get that message across feels even more urgent in 2017, with Donald Trump in the White House. How much does give Jeff a drive to put Chasing Coral in front of audiences?
“You know, the most amazing thing and the most ironic thing is that Trump might be the thing that saves climate change, that gets us to the point of urgency!” laughs Orlowski. “I just saw a chart the other day that was Google searches for ‘climate change’ and it sky-rocketed after Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement. It’s never been that high. We’re now seeing cities throughout the United States and companies pledge to pick up the slack where Trump and the government is leaving off. And we probably, the United States, will keep to our own Paris agreement, despite Trump’s efforts, and this is only going to deepen the action at a local level towards it. So in this beautiful, twisted, ironic way, the general public is rising to the occasion. I’m extremely hopeful.”
Hopeful might seem like a strange word to hear from a director of a film about an alarming decline in the natural world, but that world has changed since Chasing Ice came out.
“The technology is there. The solutions are there. We’ve had a lack in ability to adopt it and scale and everybody has always looked to the government to do that, to implement and impose those next steps,” continues Jeff. “And it’s become so evident that it’s not going to happen that the only hope is local action, at a city, state and regional level. So I’m very optimistic.”
The end credits song is a concentrated dose of that upbeat outlook – compared to moving, melancholic Before My Time, which was sung by Scarlett Johansson over the end credits to Chasing Ice, Chasing Coral ends with Tell Me How Long, sung by Kristen Bell. Orlowski says the change in song and mood reflects the team’s thoughts and feelings.
“I just bought solar panels and an electric car,” he enthuses. “I’m powering my home and moving my car with free electricity. I couldn’t have afforded that when Chasing Ice was out! We’re seeing the changes in technology that are the hopeful replacements for where we’re at. I think one of the big issues with this subject has been for the longest time that it is portrayed that to do anything about climate change, it has to be a sacrifice. Everybody says ‘don’t drive, don’t fly, don’t do this’ and that’s not how you change society. To change culture, you have to throw a better party. And throwing a better party is driving an electric car that is faster and more fun to drive. And now we’re seeing technology is shifting, so that the solution is better products. We will at some point, it will take a couple of decades, we will be flying carbon free. We need to incentivise that. We need to encourage it. That’s the path we need to go down.”
“Everyone looks to Netflix for docs. It was a no-brainer.”
The rise of Millennials is also changing the way society thinks about projects: today, being green and ethical is cooler than ever.
“I think for a long time, people had brand loyalty, based on their sexiness or their cool factor,” says Jeff. “Now, we’re seeing a shift where people prefer brands that are ethical. There’s a shift in our consumer purchases based on the ethics of a brand. Brands that are more environmentally friendly are the ones people want to buy and purchase. That gives me great hope for the future.”
With the urgency, optimism and images on his side, Jeff’s message is a tough one to swallow, but an easy one to share. The decision to become a Netflix original, then, was a natural step. Indeed, the streaming service has helped fuel a resurgence in documentary filmmaking in recent years. Ask film fans and film directors alike and the place they are likely watching non-fiction is Netflix.
“For us, it was so clear that Netflix offered global outreach and we knew we could get the film out to an audience,” agrees Orlowski. “When we were looking at our options, Netflix seemed like a really perfect home for this film, because everyone does look to Netflix especially for docs. It was a no-brainer.”
Chasing Coral is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.