Documenting the skeptical environmentalist

Acclaimed documentarian Ondi Timoner's latest feature, Cool It, features charismatic and controversial Danish environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg. Realscreen chatted with both on the occasion of the film's premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.
September 13, 2010

The documentary world is gearing up for another debate on climate change. Four years after Davis Guggenheim’s An Inconvenient Truth featuring former U.S. vice president Al Gore became a global sensation, grossing nearly $50 million worldwide and winning the best documentary feature Oscar, director Ondi Timoner (pictured) and 1019 Entertainment are hoping to spark a dialogue around how public money is spent to combat climate change with Cool It, a film based on a book by the charismatic – and controversial – Danish environmentalist Bjørn Lomborg.

The film had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival Sunday night and is slated for a North American theatrical release on Nov. 12 through Roadside Attractions in the United States and Maple Pictures in Canada.

Briskly paced and brimming with facts and figures, Cool It makes a persuasive argument that climate change initiatives, such as the Kyoto Protocol and the cap and trade policies promoted by Gore, are failing. Moreover, Lomborg says, their intended result is miniscule compared with the enormity of the threat as presented in films such as An Inconvenient Truth, which he lambastes throughout Cool It for what he regards as propaganda tactics designed to spread fear and misinformation in order to support misguided political aims.

In 2008, Lomborg was looking to turn his book into a documentary when he met 1019 Entertainment founders Terry Botwick and Ralph Winter following a lecture. His take on the problem has earned him the reputation as a contrarian and polarizing figure among environmentalists, but the producers liked Lomborg’s blunt, solution-oriented economic analysis and decided to produce a film.

To direct, they recruited Ondi Timoner, best known for her documentaries Dig!, about a rock n’ roll rivalry between The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols, and We Live in Public, about Internet pioneer Josh Harris.

‘Ondi was appealing because she was a multiple award winner who had demonstrated an ability to translate controversial figures into compelling narrative,’ says Botwick. ‘She was interested but wanted to also meet Bjørn. As you might imagine, she had many questions, having been subject to the same things everyone else has heard in the media on the topic.’

Before committing to the job, Timoner met with Lomborg at Galaxy Diner, one of his favorite New York haunts, where the academic sketched out his main arguments on napkins for the director as she grilled him for nearly six hours. During the conversation, both parties realized she was the director best suited to give his book cinematic life.

‘My sense was that we had an instant bond,’ says Lomborg. ‘You just feel like, ‘Yeah this is gonna work.’ She’s smart. She’s not out to make a political bias one way or the other.’

‘I remember sitting across from Bjørn at the diner and thinking, ‘This is really a ‘solutionist’ I’m sitting across from now,’ says Timoner. ‘I thought I could make a film that may motivate some action and give us all something to rally behind.’

Timoner’s documentaries are typically epic productions. Her longest, We Live in Public, was 10 years in the making. Cool It took a year to produce and marks the first time Timoner has worked as ‘work for hire’.

As a result of the collaborative process, the director had to get used to compromise. Planned trips to China and India were dropped from the budget and at first, she experienced ‘full-on’ resistance to her idea to open the film with Lomborg’s life and then segue into his big picture ideas, as producers preferred the idea of weaving the biography throughout.

‘I think that some people involved in the film wanted it to feel more like one of his lectures and I wanted it to be a cinematic experience,’ she says. ‘Imagine if the movie started out with Bjørn taking down An Inconvenient Truth and you had no idea who this guy was, or maybe you’d read one controversial blog about him? You’ve got to know this guy on some level. You need to spend 10-15 minutes with him before he’s going to attack the one thing that you actually know about climate change.’

Initially, Lomborg was hesitant to open up, but eventually trusted the director’s instincts. Cool It begins with a short bio, delving into the media controversy surrounding his first book The Skeptical Environmentalist, his trial before a Danish panel on scientific dishonesty and his eventual exoneration, as well as a few personal tidbits, such as his relationship with his mother who suffers for Alzheimers.

‘I have very poor taste,’ says Lomborg. ‘I can see if I like stuff but I’m not able to put on clothes and see if they look well or buy a sofa and see whether it’ll fit into my apartment. I happily leave that to other people – people that I trust. So in that sense, I [thought], ‘Yeah, OK, if Ondi and everybody else is saying we need to hear about [me], we need to hear about me.’

Timoner also insisted Lomborg create a budget to show how the €250 billion the European Union spends on combating climate change could be better spent on initiatives for healthcare and geo-engineering projects that he believes will lead to greater reductions in carbon emissions in the long run. Ultimately, Cool It‘s willingness to get specific with the numbers sets it apart from other docs designed to spark similar social movements.

Another aspect of Cool It likely to generate headlines is its critique of Al Gore. The day before Cool It‘s premiere, Timoner handed Guggenheim, also in Toronto promoting his doc Waiting For Superman, a DVD copy of the film.

‘I don’t want him to be ambushed or attacked. I think he did a fantastic job with An Inconvenient Truth,’ she says. ‘I think it makes perfectly logical sense to scare the pants off people when nobody’s paying attention to such subject matter. It’s absolutely the way anything and everything is marketed effectively, which is part of the problem in this world.’

Timoner admits she probably would’ve used a similar approach if she had helmed An Inconvenient Truth, but says that now it’s time for the public attention to move on from that film and on to more realistic solutions. ‘We’re like the follow-up more than the anti-Inconvenient Truth,’ she says. ‘It’s time for the next step.’

‘This is not about the idea of the world being doomed; we can actually fix global warming,’ says Lomborg. ‘Global warming is a real problem but we can fix it and that’s the main difference, if you will, between the Gore version of global warming and what we’re trying to present with Cool It.’

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