TIFF ’16: Fisher Stevens’ rallying cry in “Before the Flood”

The Academy-awarded filmmaker behind the environmental doc Before the Flood talks to realscreen about the U.S. election, carbon footprints and working around Leonardo DiCaprio's busy filming schedule.
September 16, 2016

Call it a catch 22. How does a filmmaker capture first-hand the devastating effects of climate change across the Earth without generating a substantial carbon footprint of his or her own?

That was the struggle Academy Award-winning filmmaker Fisher Stevens and Oscar-winning actor, environmental activist and U.N. Messenger of Peace Leonardo DiCaprio faced in the making of National Geographic Channel’s environmentally focused documentary Beyond the Flood. The film, which held its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) on Sept. 9, provides insight into the worsening environmental crisis inflicting irreversible damage across the globe.

Financed by the documentary division of Brett Ratner and James Packer’s RatPac Documentary Films, Stevens and DiCaprio would embark on a two-year production process that touched upon all seven continents, from the tar sands in Alberta, Canada to the rising sea levels affecting the Central Pacific island republic of Kiribati and the charred forests of Sumatra.

Fisher Stevens

Fisher Stevens

The extensive traveling by the filmmakers, who journeyed to all seven continents, generated a considerable amount of greenhouse gas emissions. The filmmakers attempted to offset the production’s carbon footprint by paying a self-imposed carbon tax that directs donations toward reforestation of Sumatra’s Leuser Ecosystem and other rainforests in the Congo and Mexico.

But Stevens admits the move wasn’t enough to completely erase his personal sense of culpability in relation to pollutants associated with the creation of the project, which is exec produced by Martin Scorsese, Adam Bardach, Mark Monroe and Zara Duffy.

“Of course,” he told realscreen on his lingering feelings of guilt.

But, he adds, “You can’t stop your life. We paid a tax and that, right now, is what we can do until they invent solar airplanes.”

That debate aside, Stevens prefers to focus on a more pressing question right now. With the 2016 U.S. presidential elections less than two months away, he and DiCaprio are bent on ensuring the issues of climate change are front and center before Americans heads to the polls on Nov. 8 — with Beyond the Flood serving as a clarion call for eligible voters.

“The election was coming up and Leo and I wanted to get it out before the election to the most eyeballs, and there was no better partner than Nat Geo,” says Stevens. “I’m not saying that we’re going to change the outcome of any election, but I want people to know when they’re voting that this has got to be a voting issue.”

Before the Flood

National Geographic’s Enric Sala and Leonardo DiCaprio in Before the Flood

The film features interviews with such global dignitaries as U.S. President Barack Obama, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Pope Francis, United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, entrepreneur and inventor Elon Musk, meteorologist and astronaut Piers Sellers, and environmental activist Sunita Narain.

Over the tenure of his career, Stevens has helmed several logistically challenging environmental docs, from co-directing Netflix’s Mission Blue, alongside Robert Nixon, to playing producer on Louie PsihoyosRacing Extinction and The Cove, the latter of which he shared an Academy Award with Psihoyos. But with Beyond the Flood Stevens frequently faced organizational challenges brought on by DiCaprio’s rigorous shooting schedule for Alejandro Iñárritu’s acclaimed The Revenant.

“This was logistically the most difficult film,” Stevens admits. “We had to find spots where he wasn’t working, and sometimes we’d have to find the kindness of his production company to get him places.”

But the decision was made early on by Stevens to use DiCaprio as the voice of climate change in a film that tackles environmental issues as a whole – from choking smog and deforestation to coral reef destruction and strip mining – rather than zero in on one specific subject.

“If you have Leo, you want to appeal to a broad audience, so you have to touch everything and try to make it emotional and get to people’s emotions,” he says. “That was the goal.”

Viewers who are inspired by the film’s message and interested in offsetting their own carbon emissions will soon be able to do so using the Carbotax app, Stevens notes. The program, designed by Daniel Nadler and Karl Burkhart, asks a series of questions about the user’s travel, commuting, eating and other habits to calculate an appropriate annual contribution.

“It will be live on Oct. 20 so that you can do it, but it’s kind of like filling out your tax form,” he says. “That tax will then go to reforestation and you’ll be able to pick a certain area that you can reforest. That tax will be tax deductible because you’re giving to a 503C1 charity.”

Before the Flood enjoys a short theatrical run beginning in New York and Los Angeles on Oct. 21, before airing globally across in 171 countries and 45 languages on the National Geographic Channel on Oct. 30.

About The Author
Managing editor with realscreen publication, an international print and online magazine that covers the non-fiction film and television industries. Darah is an award-winning journalist who has spent over two decades covering a wide range of issues from real estate and urban development to immigration, politics and human rights, primarily with The Vancouver Sun. Prior to joining realscreen, she was editor of Stream Daily, realscreen's sister publication covering the dynamic global digital video industry. She also served a stint as a war reporter in Afghanistan for television and print, and was a national business blogger with Yahoo Canada.