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Never Too Late to Go Green: Saving the Planet at 'The 11th Hour'

By Tom White

Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Petersen, co-directors of The 11th Hour, which will be released this summer through Warner Independent Pictures. Photo: Chuck Castleberry.


On the heels of the global Live Earth extravaganza, Warner Independent Pictures is releasing The 11th Hour August 17. The film, directed and written by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, and produced, written and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio (Petersen, Brian Gerber and Chuck Castleberry are also producers), addresses not only the perils of global warming, but also the circumstances and conditions that led up to this crisis. Documentary caught up with Petersen and Connors via e-mail.


You made The 11th Hour under the auspices of your company, Tree Media. What is the mission of Tree Media, and how does it relate to documentary filmmaking?

Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners: We founded Tree Media ten years ago, in the early days of the Web. We saw this new technology as a way to tell stories that weren’t being told in the mainstream media. It was an exciting time to think in such a new way about communicating ideas. Our mission was always to foster civil society, and in bolder moments we would say we wanted to change the world through media. Today, that has become a more accepted and applauded mission statement, but back then we were frequently laughed at as being “do-gooders.” We remained in business after the “dot-bomb” because we were not only about the bottom line. We were trying to build a culture both in the way we did business and in the kinds of projects we took on. Our bottom line has been that through self-education and the transference of this idea to the world—either through pure information, websites and online dialogue or through documentaries or fiction features—you can participate in a global dialogue that may in fact change the world.


What inspired you to make The 11th Hour?

We felt that we needed to make this film because of what was going on in the world: the life-threatening collapse of all of our ecosystems alongside the shocking lack of a significant response by our government. There didn’t seem to be a societal reaction on the scale required to reverse our suicidal behavior, so we thought a film that revealed the dire situation we were in might provide the start of a broader discussion on what we could be doing as a civilization and as individuals. We knew that there were many visionaries out there on the frontlines, so we wanted to make a film that encapsulated the entire journey of this issue. We had been inspired by so many of the people we had the great fortune to end up bringing into this project. We wanted to give these experts, scientists and visionaries a moment to communicate their truth.

Also, it was the conversations we had with Leonardo DiCaprio––and the three of us working on the shorts Global Warning and Water Planet––that led to the decision to make this feature-length documentary.


Talk about the pre-production process—how you chose the experts, how you shaped the respective interviews and what the guiding narrative was in seeking out these experts.

We wanted this film to contextualize our environmental problems as a symptom of something bigger. We were really interested in the psychology of human civilization, and why we have created the problems that we confront today. So beyond picking specialists on climate or forests or oceans, we looked for big thinkers, people who could speak about the human story as it integrates into the ecological story. Many of the interviewees were asked a series of the same questions, regardless of their area of expertise. These questions helped unify the 70 different interviews into what would ultimately be the narrative of the film. Beyond that, we tailored the questions to their area of expertise so they could provide insight and data for those sections of the film.


In the post-production process, what were the main challenges and obstacles in winnowing down those interviews into a 90-minute story?

By far the biggest challenge was that we had too much good material. Our first “paper cut” of the film was 17 hours! But while this was a brutal exercise, it forced us to boil this story of human impact down to its essence. Our main editor, Luis Alvarez y Alvarez, helped create the pacing and flow.


Throughout the film, you weave in archival footage to illustrate and underscore the points the experts make, as well as footage of DiCaprio on location, introducing various sections of the film. Did you film DiCaprio before interviewing the experts, or were these segments shot after reviewing the interviews?

We went in knowing that we were going to use as much archival footage as possible. This is not about our vision of the world, but of one shared and experienced and captured by thousands. Our associate producer, Stephan T. McGuire, did a tremendous job ferreting out extremely hard-to-get images and, along with our assistant editor Heidi Zimmerman, had the giant task of managing over 700 separate stock shots.

For our original photography, we needed to shoot Leonardo DiCaprio for his narration and develop an emotive visual style for the moments where we needed to be free from visual exposition and allowed to meditate on the ideas.

We actually shot DiCaprio when we were only two-thirds of the way through interviewing. Since we knew the thrust of the film, we approached his on-cameras as anchors to edit around, but it was still a challenge to write from a perspective of being done when the process was far from over.

We used Los Angeles as the backdrop for two reasons:­ Los Angeles in many ways represents both dystopic and utopic visions of the future. But it is also a city of great Californian forward-thinking. If we can green this city, we can be a shining example for success almost anywhere.

For the 35mm shoots, we worked with director of photography Andrew Rowlands. For the 16mm footage, we worked with Peter Youngblood Hills. He brought a poetry to the film with his blown-out, under-cranked images of nature and civilization.


What are the multi-platform strategies for The 11th Hour?

Both Warner Independent Pictures (WIP) and Tree Media are putting together online sites; WIP’s is and Tree Media’s is WIP has action letters and expert information, and Tree Media is creating The 11th Hour Action Campaign, which will encourage people to meet in small groups that will commit to change. The action site will be structured like a social networking site, where people can meet and collaborate on change; we will ask that people state their goals and update the site on their progress.


A number of films have addressed environmental issues—especially those produced since the first Earth Day in 1970. What in these films have inspired you?

The Day After (Nicholas Meyer, dir.) was hugely impactful when we were growing up. It made the point viscerally clear that nuclear weapons needed to be eliminated. Koyaanisqatsi and  Powaqqatsi (Godfrey Riggio, dir.) were also inspiring in the way they use image to show the polarities that exist in the world. Also, the work of Sir David Attenborough—his enthusiasm for nature—was something that Leo thought was to be emulated, but we didn’t go for that in this film. But we admire the work very much, and a lot of Attenborough’s footage is in our film.


Thomas White is editor of Documentary and the IDA E-Zine.