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Charles Ferguson on making his climate change doc 'Time to Choose'

The filmmaker ("No End in Sight," "Inside Job") talks about making a positive film on a serious subject, and his desire to make a thriller.
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    Charles Ferguson's "Time to Choose" not only includes solutions to climate change |Abramorama

So far the filmmaker Charles Ferguson has made three films, all documentaries about major, serious issues. With 2007’s “No End in Sight” he tackled the Iraq War, back when it looked like it would never officially wind down. In “Inside Job” he broke down the 2008 economic crisis. His latest, “Time to Choose,” is about global warming. But it’s not another mere grim reminder of our imminent doom. It spends much of its length pointing to the solutions that won’t only stop climate change but improve our lives. Ferguson talks to us about being positive and maybe moving away from non-fiction.
It’s scary to think that 10 years has elapsed since “An Inconvenient Truth,” and yet there’s still a strong pushback. It’s as though not much has changed. And yet this is very much a positive film.
The main reason I made this film is that, in at least one very important regard, a great deal has changed. That is: In contrast to when “An Inconvenient Truth” was made, we now know how to solve this problem. “An Inconvenient Truth” was the first big statement of the gravity of this problem for the wider world. But at the same time it seemed like a very despondent story, because it didn’t seem plausible to solve it in a way that would leave us with a great standard of living and the possibility of economic growth in poor nations, etc. And now that has changed dramatically.
At the same time there’s some experts who constantly say we’re nearing the point of no return. From your research did you get an idea of where that point may be?
There’s a lot of debate about that. We don’t know with any precision. But it certainly seems to be in the first half of the century. Some people argue if it’s too late; some people think we have another 30 or 50 years. It’s very hard to know. And of course, our own human behavior keeps changing it in various ways. We’re getting dangerously close, that’s very clear.
There’s still a great deal of ambivalence on the subject, as well as great hostility. What kind of insight into the psychology of those camps did you get while making this?
Some of it is a matter of rationalizing their own financial self-interest. I spoke with a number of executives at oil and coal companies, none of whom would go on the record. A number of them did speak to me off the record, in some cases at great length. In other cases it’s religious. In some cases it was a general anti-intellectualism and an anger and resentment of specialized knowledge and academic achievement. Some of that overlaps, to some degree, with the same motivations to support Trump right now.

A lot of docs on serious issues tend to be filled with talking heads. But the images in this are mostly very formal shots of nature and cities. How early on did you think of this in terms of visuals, not just content?
I thought quite early on that the film had to be visual. It had to show the beauty of what’s at stake. There’s natural beauty, but I also find cities beautiful, and buildings and architecture.

You had an army of cinematographers shooting all over the world. Was it a case where you sent people off and then compiled the footage or were you often on the ground with them?
In most cases [he was there]. There were a couple times when schedule or a timing conflict made it impossible to be in two places at once. For example we were shooting in Nigeria at the same time we were shooting in Indonesia. There were a couple of things I couldn’t be present for, because we were filming covertly and my presence as a Caucasian would have just stuck out. We had Chinese people do the covert filming.

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How difficult was it shooting covertly, especially given how confident and clean the images are?
There were cases where we had to pay people off. There were cases where we couldn’t get caught at all. There were also several circumstances where we felt to be under some degree of physical threat. I wasn’t in Nigeria, but people who were there — people who have a lot of experience shooting in rough places, including in combat — they said they found the filming there to be some of the most difficult and dangerous they’d ever done. When we were filming in Appalachia in West Virginia, we were followed and physically threatened. But luckily nobody was hurt.

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You almost made a narrative film about Hillary Clinton, which was unable to happen due to a number of circumstances. (You can read about that here.) Is fiction still something you’d like to segue into?
Yes. In fact, I’ve written a screenplay, a thriller that I’ve been working on, with a producer. We might be getting close. If so I’d end up directing a thriller. I’d love that. I love thrillers. I’ve spent a good fraction of my life reading and watching them.

Is there some kind of connection between thrillers and these issue docs you’ve made?
Certainly between investigative journalism and thrillers, you’re dealing with people who have something to hide and they don’t want me to find out what’s going on. That’s something I find very enjoyable, in a sometimes quite childish way, even when working on serious subjects. And synthesizing or constructing something out of lots of disparate pieces — that’s an activity I find enjoyable.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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