Four years ago, Lawrence Bender's film An Inconvenient Truth impressed critics and led audience members to make changes to stem the tide of climate change. Now the producer is trying trying to inspire a similar call to action over the issue of nuclear disarmament with his new film, Countdown to Zero, which was released in theaters last month. Here, he discusses why he started making documentary films, how to make people care about nuclear weapons, and more.
Most of your early movies, from Pulp Fiction to Good Will Hunting, don't have explicit political causes—their goal is to entertain, rather than inspire people to act. What made you decide to switch to documentary film with An Inconvenient Truth and now Countdown to Zero?
It's a two-part answer. My parents took me during the Vietnam War to all those big marches, so it kind of was in my genetics. And even in my earlier films, like Good Will Hunting, or this little movie called Fresh, they have some sort of social relevance.
But in 1998, I was screening Good Will Hunting at Camp David. And I was saying, "Nice to meet you, Mr. President. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Clinton." Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Senator Daschle. It was an extraordinary day.
Even though I was starting to become successful in the movie business, I was starting to think there was something missing in my life, and spending a day with those kind of people, it can't help but change something. A light bulb went off in my head, and I thought, "What these guys are doing, I need to find a way to do what they do—in my own way, obviously. I could never be president."
I said, "That's what's missing in my life. They're making a difference. I want to find a way to make a difference."
Ok, so what came next?
So I went back, and I have this big beautiful house in Hollywood, and I started throwing all these events—either fundraisers or salons. It became a place where people from outside Hollywood came through, whether they were building schools in Cambodia, or clearing land mines, or raising money for candidates. I started doing that.
The apex of all that came together when I saw Al Gore do his slide show about global warming, and you came out of there thinking, "What can I do?" Because it was so inspiring. And I said, "We gotta make a movie out of this." It was a crazy idea, but we did it.
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How do you compare the reception to An Inconvenient Truth with the response you've seen so far to Countdown to Zero?
Honestly, when I had the idea to make An Inconvenient Truth, and I was going out and raising the money, and I said, "I want to make a movie about Al Gore's slide show, will you give me a million dollars?" People thought I was insane, looked at my cross-eyed. No one thought that movie was going to be a hit. Everybody we screened this for in Hollywood, except for one company, didn't think this was a theatrical release—they thought it should have been a TV movie. And the company that released it, giving it credit, they saw it and said, we'll take this on.
You never know, it's so hard to predict, and certainly no one was predicting that movie was going to be a success. Having said that, I think this movie is harder. Because there are just more environmental groups out there that are willing to support the green movement. However, you have to remember that all these environmental organizations didn't necessarily want to work together—they all had an agenda. And Al Gore kind of brought everyone together and said, "this movie is going to help float all boats, and we should work together for a common cause here."
So, I think this is a little harder, and we need more help. But we've been getting extraordinary traction. We've been screening for Google, MySpace, eBay, Yahoo, YouTube. We had religious organizations, student organizations. We do have 50-some-odd NGOs that have gotten involved with it. It makes it works because it's really timely. It's happening right now with the START treaty.
An Inconvenient Truth might pull a bigger box office, but this movie could actually help push legislation, like, imminently.
With climate change, it's very clear what little things people can do to help, whether it be walking more or bringing reusable bags to the grocery store or changing which kind of lightbulbs they use. But with the nuclear issue, it seems less clear what the average person can do.
What can people do? Yes, the average ordinary citizen can do a lot of different things when it comes to the climate crisis. But what we've figured out is as important as it is for people to take steps in their lives, the real climate crisis will not really be affected in the way we want it to be effective unless the heads of all these countries really take big steps individually and collectively on a global basis. So while the individual is always important, it's not enough. It needs to be mandated from the top down in a big, big way, as in cap and trade and costs on carbon to substantially change the way we do business with carbon.
So of course now on the nuclear issue, well, first of all there are a couple things we're asking people to do. First of all we have this global zero declaration, and if you go to globalzero.org, you can sign this declaration—it's a short, beautiful declaration about going to zero—and we have almost 400,000 people who've signed it, and we're hoping to have millions of people from all over the world sign it: Pakistanis, Chinese, Brits, Parisians, Americans, and what we want to do is deliver it to the presidents of the world and say, "The citizens of the world are demanding we go to zero." And I think that's a powerful thing, and it's something we want to do.
The other thing we have on our website is for people to sign on to encourage their senators to ratify the START treaty. We want people to make this a kitchen table conversation.
I don't consider myself a documentary filmmaker. I'm making documentaries to push an agenda. But I feel like we really presented the facts. This movie really is a wake-up call. There are very few people who think about this issue—I mean, why would you, right? If you're going to college today, you were born after the Berlin wall came down. So it's not anywhere in your consciousness. They're dumbfounded. They have no idea what they've inherited.