EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Oscar-winning documentarian Louie Psihoyos talks ‘Racing Extinction’
Back in 2009, the future of the documentary was changed by The Cove; a strikingly powerful feature length film exposing the gruesome capture and slaughter of dolphins in Taiji, Japan. Described by its director Louie Psihoyos as an ‘eco-thriller’, The Cove was unlike any environmental documentary before it, employing the pace and tone of an epic Hollywood blockbuster as a team of activists and filmmakers embarked on a covert mission to shine light on a dark and deadly secret.
Today, the team behind The Cove unveils its latest masterpiece. Directed by Louie Psihoyos and broadcasting via Discovery to 220 countries and territories around the world, Racing Extinction sets out to be a global documentary event that makes an actual change.
This deeply informative and inspiring production brings our attention to both the clandestine and everyday activities putting thousands of endangered species at risk of extinction today, combining revelatory field material with the research of environmental experts, along with appearances from such famous names as Elon Musk and Jane Goodall.
I caught up with director Louie Psihoyos on his recent visit to London to discuss Racing Extinction, and how we can each make a positive difference to the world we live in.
TVDaily: What first made you fall in love with the ocean, and nature in general?
Louie Psihoyos: “I was brought up in Iowa, in the midwest of the United States, surrounded by the woods. So that’s where we took refuge when I was a kid, on the Mississippi River, swimming, fishing… Just hanging out in nature. And watching Jacques Cousteau specials when I was a kid. Television has been a big motivator for me in wanting to see the wild.”
Just as seeing your film allows we viewers at home to see places we would never get to see, or creatures that we may never get to see now.
“Exactly. This is on my brain right now because I saw the new Bond film last night, but I always wanted the film to feel big and epic, like when you went to a new place, you were there to witness something really beautiful and cool and interesting, and there was a reason that you’re there. Like when you go to Mexico to see the blue whale, or the species being decimated in China. I want it to feel like an adventure. It’s a thriller. It doesn’t feel like a normal documentary.”
And a clue to that is given to us in the title ‘Racing Extinction’, which captures the urgency of this cause. Do you feel that this is a fight that can be won in time, before it’s too late?
“It’s the race we have to win. Not just for ourselves, but for our legacy. I think we’re doing something very, very foolish. Elon Musk says in the film that we’re doing something really dumb in that we’re playing this experiment with the climate and seeing how much CO2 the oceans can hold, and we know what’s going to happen. We can figure out where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going, and we can see that we’re headed for a catastrophe. We’re one step away from greatness, or the greatest disaster in the last 65 million years. But it’s our choice! The five previous extinctions have happened because of some external force, but we know that carbon dioxide was the smoking gun in each one.
“Right now it’s the anthropogenic, human-caused CO2 that’s the problem. And there’s a reason why we’re coming out with this film on December 2nd. That’s because all the world leaders are gonna be at COP21 in Paris talking about climate change. We feel that with 220 countries and territories seeing this film on a single day, we can make those leaders out there feel like there’s a constituency. Once you have people informed, you can start taking action, and leaders can start leading, instead of following the corporations around to where the money is.”
I was going to ask you the impossible question of what the biggest obstacle is, but obviously the political and economic are so intertwined…
“The biggest obstacle up until now was just getting people on the same page. This is why this film is so important; with television, you can create a global event! You couldn’t do that in history before, but now we’re all connected. With social media, and the Discovery Channel, and a great action campaign, it’s possible to change the world very very quickly. It took us almost 35 years to get smoking off of planes after we knew it was detrimental to health. We had ‘smoking sections’, even though we were all breathing the same air. Nowadays that can’t happen. Corporations can use a media campaign to try to slow things down, but with people being connected with the truth so quickly, it’s really hard to hide.”
So have you seen the power of social media having a positive effect? Things like people getting shamed for taking lion-hunting selfies, and those pictures going viral.
“For sure. For instance, you have a company like UPS, who probably get a hundred hate letters a week. Working with other organisations, we generated 185,000 signatures, and they changed the way that they were shipping shark fins around the world in just a few months, because we shamed them online. Every company is worried about having a slide in the public perception. Look at what happened with the Volkswagen. Maybe a few decades ago that could’ve been a bad news item, but now that everybody’s connected, you can keep the story going, and it’s the same thing that’s happening with hunting for animal parts. France just banned the import of trophy hunting parts from Africa, the UK just banned energy by coal a week or two ago… Things are going in the right direction and speeding up. Once one country does one thing, it’s much easier for this domino effect to happen, and to create that tipping point that you need. Then everybody else follows.”
It seems from Racing Extinction that in terms of countries, China might be the biggest problem. Would you agree?
“Well it is a big issue, but it’s not the biggest issue; America’s still the biggest polluter per capita. And they’re manufacturing most of our crap! That’s why it’s so polluted over there in China! They don’t have the controls on it, but we’re probably the biggest problem, because we consume more than anywhere else. It’s poor countries that don’t have that big of a carbon footprint, so they’re not the problem. The problem is when they start wanting to have a lifestyle like we’ve evolved in the western world, and everybody wants to start eating meat and have refrigerators and big cars. That’s when there’s going to be a big problem. We have to be leading now. Showing the world how we’ve done it in the past isn’t going to work. We can’t all be living the lifestyle that we did. That’s not to say that we all have to live an impoverished lifestyle, as all the solutions are actually upgrades. The way to solve the issue is by getting our transportation onto an electric grid that’s powered by smart energy, solar, wind, geothermal, etc. There’s a lot of different solutions out there that are scalable.”
And the campaign for the launch of Racing Extinction uses the hashtag #StartWith1Thing. Can you tell us more about that?
“Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions started working on it about two years ago with Discovery. We knew that we weren’t just making a movie, but we were starting a movement, so we wanted people to watch the movie and go straight to RacingExtinction.com, and find their ‘one thing’, whether that’s reducing their meat consumption, or going electric. People always say ‘what else can I do’, so they can go onto the site to find out, and do a carbon cleanse, figure out what their carbon footprint is and how they can reduce it. The solutions are all upgrades.”
Going back to this topic of the illegal wildlife trade, I found that element of the film particularly fascinating, as I didn’t know anything about that before. If people just see the images of all those shark fins spread out for miles and miles around, I think they’d be immediately rallying for change. And you say in the film that this industry is second only to the drug trade. Why is it so lucrative?
“Unfortunately, the more scarce a creature becomes, the more it’s worth. Part of that perceived value, at least in China, is this idea of the medicinal qualities that they attach to it; that it’s going to make men more virile, that it’s going to cure cancer… And people that are desperate want to believe anything. Even a worm becomes something like $48,000 a kilo wholesale price. That’s crazy stuff. In the case of shark fins, that used to be something that royalty did. That kind of made sense from a sociological point of view, because they were hard to get. Nowadays we’re using military grade equipment to harvest fish! Nothing in the world can escape from the biggest predator in the world, which is humans. Shark fins are nutritionless and they’re tasteless, so there’s no value in it. If you can show people that, and also show emotionally how a lot of them are harvested, it changes the perception. WildAid, coupled with what Shawn Heinrichs has done with that footage, helped reduce the market for shark fins in Hong Kong by over 75%. That’s huge, when you see what one little organisation like WildAid can do with a video!”
Along with getting celebrities involved, like Yao Ming.
“Absolutely. We’re working with Yao Ming again, with a manta ray campaign that we’re going to be doing, so we’ll try to multiply that effect by using his celebrity again.
“Unfortunately in this day and age, you need celebrities to come and endorse your cause. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. We did a campaign called ‘My Friend Is’, and we had a couple dozen celebrities help out on that, and got millions and millions of hits on that. It really helps. Of course, there’s a lot of ways to drive traffic to your site; there’s celebrities, campaigns, the awards circuit… To me, though, the real reward is seeing the change. That’s where it gets exciting, when people come out of the film and start thinking about ways that they can change.
“Everybody feels disempowered, but everybody can become a superhero by helping to save the planet”
“Like I said, I just saw the Bond film last night, and I love that series, but I come out of it, and I’m no better for it, and the world’s no better for it! I still love it, but what if you can make a film that feels like a thriller, but you feel like you’re involved, or at least want to get involved. That’s the point. I think everybody feels disempowered – they feel that they can’t make a big change at work, or with their family, or at school – but you realise that everybody can become a superhero by helping to save the planet, by adopting more of a plant-based lifestyle, and saving the 10,400 animals they eat in a lifetime… That’s a lot of animals! Reduce that amount of pain and suffering, for yourself, and the animals, and the enviroment, and it has this compound effect that doesn’t just affect this generation, but will effect thousands of generations going forward.”
We see this multi-generational reach at the end of your film, in the closing scene of New Yorkers gathered to watch projections across the biggest buildings in the city. Young children, adults, and much older people, are all gathered to participate in this spectacle. And if they all ‘started with one thing’, they could make a huge difference.
“You know, we were done with the movie before we did that. That scene we put on because I’d been trying for four years to light up the Empire State building. There were a lot of reasons for that, too. It wasn’t just because it’s the biggest iconic building in the world, but I wanted to highlight what Tony Malkin had done to that building. I wanted to call attention to the fact that if you take over this big building, you can talk about the magnifying effect it has, and our producers said “Louie, the film’s done, we’ve already got paid for it… Don’t worry about it”, and “nobody’s going to be in New York in August, they’ll all be in Europe, or the Hamptons, and the media won’t show up on a Saturday night because nobody can afford to keep the media working on a weekend anymore”, yet we were the top trending story on Twitter and Facebook for four days running. We had 939 million media impressions.
“To me, when somebody says ‘it can’t be done’, it’s catnip. And changing the world right now is my catnip. I see this path that we’re on, and I see it’s really damaging and destructive. I think that the biggest legacy that I can have, that Discovery can have, and that the television audience can have, is to see the film and change the world. I can’t wait til December 3rd, to see the effect that it has.”
Racing Extinction airs on Discovery Channel UK at 9pm tonight,
Wednesday 2nd December.
Listen to our interview with Louie Psihoyos on the latest episode of our podcast.