Sundance ’15: Psihoyos ups spy game in “Racing Extinction”

The Cove filmmaker Louie Psihoyos tells realscreen about adopting a Hollywood blockbuster mindset to tell the much larger story of looming mass extinction for his follow-up, Racing Extinction (pictured).
January 23, 2015

The Cove filmmaker Louie Psihoyos tells realscreen about adopting a Hollywood blockbuster mindset to tell the much larger story of looming mass extinction for his follow-up, Racing Extinction (pictured).

Viewers of Louie Psihoyos‘s 2009 documentary The Cove were left with images of blood-soaked dolphins seared into their minds once the credits began to roll.

Styled like an Hollywood thriller, the film followed the former National Geographic photojournalist-turned-wildlife activist and filmmaker as he and his team from the Oceanic Preservation Society covertly filmed the slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. It went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and ultimately helped reduce the demand for dolphin meat in Japan by two thirds, according to the director.

His follow-up, Racing Extinction, premieres at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, having previously screened as a work-in-progress at the Tribeca Film Festival. It contains many of the same ingredients as The Cove, but is aiming for an even larger audience by swapping shocking violence for Hollywood-style razzle-dazzle, and a distribution plan that will allow producers to make the doc available for free in Asian markets, such as China and Indonesia, where much of the action takes place.

“That flexibility will have to be on the table with whatever deal we make. Certain markets we need to be able to control,” Psihoyos said in an interview with realscreen, adding that he is still in talks with distributors. “We don’t want it to be like what happened with The Cove. We basically let the rights go to distributors that backed down from political pressure.”

Whereas The Cove was primarily set in one location and focused on a single issue, Racing Extinction is about the broader issue of mass extinction and set in multiple locations. It begins with hidden-camera footage of a sting operation in a Los Angeles restaurant that served whale meat, and then moves to the high seas to examine the impact of environmental degradation on blue whales.

Psihoyos and his team also pose as shark fin oil buyers to infiltrate “the Wal-Mart of the endangered species trade” in China — where a variety of worm sells wholesale for US$44,800 per kilo — and travel to a tiny village in Eastern Indonesia to persuade the locals to abandon manta ray hunting in favor of a tourism-based economy.

To humanize the statistics and facts in support of Psihoyos’ thesis that, after five mass extinctions, “humanity has become the asteroid of now,” the director uses a succession of cutting-edge technologies to visualize the unseen impacts of climate change on the environment.

His James Bond-like arsenal of gadgetry includes a military-grade FLIR camera that can see carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, a Tesla model S electric sports car, satellite imagery of plankton, audio recordings of blue whale songs, and a series of elaborate projection mapping displays that conclude Racing Extinction.

That technology did not come cheap—especially the projections. Psihoyos raised more than $53,000 through a Kickstarter campaign in 2012 and was able to line-up the projections following the work-in-progress screening (under the working title of 6) during last year’s Tribeca, one of several test screenings he held throughout production.

“We’ve had some incredibly generous base of people that were supporters of The Cove that we brought on to help us with this film,” he says. “We probably have the longest list of co-executive producers of any film ever made.”

The Cove focused on one story whereas this film has multiple story threads and locations. How did you approach tackling such a big topic?
It’s going to sound like a conceit but I wanted to structure it like a Bond film. Above all, I want it to feel like an adventure film with an epic, narrative thread. At the same time, you can’t be too scattered that you’re diluting your effort. I wanted to make the most entertaining film I could possibly make given the subject — a film my kids wanted to go see. The Cove won a lot of awards and got a lot of attention but not a lot of people saw it. It had a stigma attached to it – it was ‘the dolphin slaughter film.’

So the subject matter of The Cove held it back?
Yeah. The people that saw the film are our greatest advocates. They came out of the film and said ‘It’s great.’ ‘What’s it about? It’s about dolphin slaughter?’ Some people really can’t get over the subject. I thought, mass extinction of the species sounds like something you might not see at the theater but I want it to feel epic. This is a big film that needs to be seen on the big screen. My approach was, if people are in the seat how can we blow their minds every couple of minutes to give them something fun and exciting that they haven’t seen before?

Racing Extinction director Louie Psihoyos

You use a lot of different cameras and technologies to add that epic feel. Did you brainstorm those ideas in advance or did they come up during production?
A mixture of both. Charles Hamilton, who is my director of covert operations, found this camera that could see carbon dioxide. At that point they had a low-definition version and I was like, could we do a high-def version? Turned out they had one coming down the pipe that could see all these other greenhouse gases, like methane. A lot of the technology was coming online as we were doing the story.

We thought OK, that’s great, but how can we take this technology on the road? Let’s put it in the Tesla [electric sports car] and make it a Bond car. How could we one-up a Bond car? An electron-luminescent paint job so it had this chameleon aspect of plankton or cuddle fish. The car becomes this character and I think kids will want to go see the movie just for the car.

Why preview the film at Tribeca and what impact did that screening have on the final film?
At that point we didn’t really have an ending. We wanted to do a large projection event and we wanted to do it on the Empire State Building. At that audience screening we found two people that said, hey if you do the Empire State Building we’ll pay for it. The timing didn’t work out but then [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-Moon was looking for a big event that would call attention to the UN Climate Summit in September. We volunteered to do that. Out of that screening came the ending of our film.

We had a standing ovation at Tribeca but the film is 10 times better now. We’ve tied up a lot of the loose ends. A lot of it comes to fruition and it seems to blossom in that final, epic projection event. I’m a big fan of letting the audience tell you, not what they want, but what they’re understanding. You’ve got to be open. A film is both art and communication so you’re trying to reach people who normally would not go see the message.

What were the undercover sequences like to shoot compared with the ones in The Cove?
The Cove was done undercover and it was all cloak-and-dagger stuff. Here, we were role playing and that’s a different thing. By pretending you’re a buyer of shark fin oil, you’re confronting your adversary directly. It’s more like spy work than middle-of-the-night kind of stuff. This is much scarier because any moment you could be found out.

A lot of these guys are really super bad. They’re making millions of dollars and they don’t want to be exposed. You’re in a foreign country. It’s different if you’re in your neighborhood. There are arrest warrants out for me in Japan. I’m told I could go to Japan but I couldn’t get back out.

What were some tense moments from this shoot?
It’s illegal to have button-hole cameras in China. We always said if any one of us gets caught everybody split and try and find your own way back to America. We were going through some airport in the middle of China and we had gone through their equivalent of checking your bags at the TSA security check. Then we went through the body checks. And here comes a couple of cops with my bag that has all the undercover cameras in it. My team splits. This cop comes up and says, “Is this yours?” What am I going to do? It has my name on it so I say, “Yeah. It’s mine.”

He opens it up and says, “You know this is illegal?” I played dumb. “No, I had no idea.” He says, “You’re not allowed to bring lithium batteries on the plane.” He had this pocket full of baggies and he helped me package all the batteries up. He totally didn’t understand that these were hidden cameras. So that was the scariest moment. Everybody thought they were going to get busted and that I was going to get busted, but it was just a battery issue.

What have you learned about activism through making movies?
A little bit of violence goes a long way. People love violent movies. They crave them. There are tent-pole franchises based on it but people don’t want to see real violence. We’re respectful of that. We have stuff that’s almost Cove-worthy but we kept it out of this film because we don’t want to alienate people. We want the exposition to be part of the story, not the exposition to be the story.

  • Racing Extinction is screening at Sundance on Saturday (January 24) at The Marc at 11.30 a.m. MST.
  • It will then screen in Park City on January 25, 26, 28, 29 and 31.
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