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'The Cove' Director Louis Psihoyos on His Latest Action Eco-Thriller

By Michael Galinsky

Louie Psihoyos started his career as a photographer with an eye towards social change. He came to see that he could be even more effective as a filmmaker and made a major impact with his 2009 Academy Award-winning film, The Cove. He and his partners are back with a film designed to make people think deeply about the fact that our planet is racing towards a mass extinction. He was kind enough to take time out to thoughtfully answer our questions about craft and action. As the world’s leaders converge in Paris for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change, Racing Extinction hits the Discovery Channel on December 2.

Filmmaker Louie Psihoyos. Photo: Oceanic Preservation Society

You started out as a photographer for National Geographic. What were your goals as a photographer? How has that experience shaped your path towards making films?

I came from a school of photography called The Concerned Photographers, where we used photography to bring awareness and change to the social issues of our times. Eugene Smith, Robert Capa and nearly all the Life Magazine photographers shared the belief that photographs could change the world. I started out with an eclectic group of photographers, mainly war photographers and Annie Leibowitz. National Geographic hired me right out of college; I was the first new guy hired on contract in more than a decade. Those early stories set the tone for my filmmaking career. They were stories on the coal boom in ranch country in Powder River, Wyoming, and on garbage and recycling during a time when there was only one mandatory city recycling program in America. I could see that mass media had a strong influence on the popularizing of game-changing ideas.


What are some things that you can do with photography that you can’t do with film, and vice versa?

The photographic medium of stills is very powerful. Look at what the image of the drowned Syrian child on the beach did to open up Syrian refugees to Europe. Research shows that people don't change their behavior and change laws based on facts; they change their hearts first and use information to back up what they believe is true in their hearts. Great photographs pack an emotional charge. Obviously, so do great films. But you can usually go out alone and get the image. Still photographers work fast, hard and long in the field and filmmaking usually requires a pretty big crew. It’s hard to move that crew fast and get them all up early for great light. John Ford said that making a film is like painting a picture with an army; I have a really good army. A film is a powerful weapon for change; I call it a weapon of mass construction. And our team is invested in creating change with the films we make. It makes getting up early and working long, hard days a mission, not just another job.

The big difference for me is the time people will give a film. I would spend a year working on a still photography story for National Geographic and could see somebody on a plane flip through that body of work in 60 seconds. With a film, you’ll see them sitting down for 90 minutes and in that period they’ll be laughing, crying and cheering and then asking what they could do to help afterwards. There’s something powerful, too, about seeing a film with other people. We’re a social animal and when we feel other people around us being moved, we’re moved too. It’s harder to do that with stills; with film you can also use story and music to move people to places it was harder for me to get to taking stills.


With The Cove, you focused on a very specific story and structured it like a thriller. Talk about the path you took in putting together Racing Extinction and the challenges of dealing with a subject that was so much more expansive than The Cove.

Racing Extinction, like The Cove, is an eco-thriller, but with less violence. We learned from The Cove that people have a low threshold for violence—if it’s real. While The Cove covers a lot of big environmental issues within the context of this one little geographic area, Racing Extinction has a much more epic scope; it’s the biggest story in the world. A friend in paleontology told me that at the end of the century humans will look back at our impact on the planet, and World War II will be a footnote compared to us presiding over the largest loss of biodiversity since a meteor hit the planet 65 million years ago. For Racing Extinction we started out on a fact-finding mission, and we ended up making a film that probably feels more like The Avengers than a doc. Who wants to see a film about the end of life on the planet if you can’t do anything about it? I lived through the Cold War as a child, and we always thought a nuclear bomb could end life everywhere at any time. On the one hand it created an atmosphere where you lived for the moment because it could end at any second, but on the other hand, it warped a generation into thinking there was no reasonable expectation of building a future that could be vaporized at any moment by a few morons. For Racing Extinction I want people to feel like we can avert an impending planetary disaster and create a future with collective action. I want to do the most subversive thing I couldn’t do as a child: I want to take back the planet’s future.

From Louie Psihoyos' 'Racing Extinction.' Photo: Oceanic Preservation Society

As filmmakers, we often set out on a journey with, and an idea of, what we will end up with—and that idea often gets left behind. You spent several years working on this film. I’m interested in the evolution of the project from the initial impulse through both editorial and the funding challenges. In the end, is this the film you set out to make?

When asked by a potential film investor what he hoped to find on a trip, Jacques Cousteau said that if he knew, he wouldn’t go. We started out with the general exploration of a new epoch called the Anthropocene, The Age of Man. There is a large group of concerned scientists who project that we are heading into the Earth's 6th Mass Extinction Event. That idea never changed; what changed is that we wanted to do something about it. We tried to map out a script to put some potential investors at ease, but in the end we set a general course. We knew we didn’t want it to be a documentation of everything that was going wrong. We needed some exposition but we wanted it to be thrilling; the film needed to appeal to a large general public and at the end of the film we wanted people to feel like they could actually help avert this apocalyptic course we’re on. We needed to find solutions and plenty of hope by tracking game-changing heroes.

I mentioned that Racing Extinction was more like The Avengers than a doc; we have the real-life Iron Man in the film: Elon Musk. We took a Tesla and made it into a kind of a Bond car for the environment; we gave it an electroluminescent paint job for a reverse camouflage, like a cuttlefish. It was the first car in the world where you can change the color of the car with the click of a button. We added a 16,000-lumen projector that comes out of the hatch on a robotic arm, installed a thermal camera that emerges from the “frunk,” so you can actually see invisible greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane, and project those images in real time, on the side of a skyscraper. Of course it has disappearing license plates too. And the Tesla is insanely fast, so we have a badass getaway driver, Leilani Munter, who is an environmentalist but races Nascar tracks. Kirk Krack, who helped us set underwater cameras in The Cove, is an underwater freediver who trained Seal Team Six; he’s back with us. He and two other world-class freedivers swim along with a blue whale on underwater rocket sleds so you can get human-scale perspective of the largest animal to ever inhabit the Earth.

Making Racing Extinction was dangerous and risky but lots of fun. We teamed up with Travis Threlkel from Obscura Digital, an incredible group of talented artists and engineers, and we end up creating some projection events that were epic. We lit up the United Nations Headquarters right before the big New York Climate march, and later we lit up the Empire State Building with endangered species—the later projection exceeded a billion views and was the top trending story on Facebook and Twitter worldwide.

From Louie Psihoyos' 'Racing Extinction.' Photo: Oceanic Preservation Society

As a photographer you bring both an aesthetic and a social/editorial vision to your projects. These visions interact in terms of shaping the narrative. Talk about how you weave them together.

They say a good documentary tells—but a great one shows. I spent 35 years photographing subjects that some editors at magazines thought were impossible to visualize: garbage, the sense of smell, sleep and dreams. That training became invaluable in filmmaking. There are shots in Racing Extinction that are very cinematic—and they come at you so often we learned that we need to give the audience some time afterwards so they could comprehend what they just saw. Mark Monroe, our writer for The Cove and Racing Extinction, told me that our team has the opposite problem of most docs: We have an abundance of great visual material to illustrate conceptual ideas, and unfortunately it can’t all be used.


Big films have the ability to create big conversations. You’ve been screening the film to audiences. What you have learned about the film from the audiences through these conversations, and how that process has shaped your sense of the cultural narrative that you hope to spark with the film when it airs on Dec 2?

We test our films a lot. About seven times in the case of Racing Extinction. We did a work-in-progress screening at Tribecca before Sundance. We test, not to dumb the film down but to make sure the audience understands the content, which involves some science. We also hand out questionnaires and really listen to the responses. It’s a complicated subject with a lot of story lines that converge at the end in a very elegant way—we didn’t finish shooting the biggest scene that brought it all together until a month before we opened in theaters. It was a bit of a high-wire act, but when it came together it was like the whole film was elevated. The film made sense and it worked before it was getting great reviews and standing ovations, but when the final scene fit into place, it all came together like a large puzzle. The ending lived in my head for years and to finally stand in the back of the theater see the audience reaction was breathtaking. Our composer, J. Ralph, wrote two anthemic songs, one with Sia and the other with Anthony and the Johnsons, that gave it the lift-off we wanted for the end.

But we’re not just in the business of making films; we’re in the business of starting movements, so years before we completed the film, we teamed up with Paul Allen’s Vulcan Productions to create an impact campaign. They’re doing an amazing job —already they’ve managed to help ban the shipping of endangered species through some states. It’s easier and more effective to get laws enacted on a state level now so we’re going state by state to create change.


Lastly, with increasingly widespread access to image-making technology, we have seen an explosion of powerful films that that call us to action. At the same time, we have seen an increasing array of platforms for distributing these films. What are your thoughts on what we, as filmmakers, can do to connect with audiences through these various audiences and networks?

We made The Cove literally in my backyard, so I know you can create films that resonate in the world without a large studio backing, but when we created that film, it was a bad time to release a film; there was virtually no market. We had to self-distribute and my nonprofit, OPS, nearly went bust. We didn’t make that film to make money; we just hoped it would have an impact as well as keep the doors open. The doors are still open, barely, and the film keeps doing its work. They were killing 23,000 dolphins and porpoises a year in Japan and, working with other groups, we helped get that number down to less than 6,000. The film became one the most decorated docs in history, but it wasn’t a money-maker. If you’re in the doc business to make money, you have better odds going to Vegas. Statistically, few docs even break even; we all hope we have the next March of the Penguins, but those are outliers.

I would advise filmmakers to create films they feel passionately about; don’t worry about the distribution. Best to not have too many voices chiming in from the financial side giving creative advice. Do it cheaply as possible, authentically, and surround yourself with great people who also care about the work. That way you may not have a job, but you’ll have a mission, which is infinitely more satisfying. There are a lot of platforms now, there’s a real competitive market of buyers, and the appetite for docs is growing. But the real work is seeing a film’s effect on culture and policy. You measure success of a doc not by box office receipts and popcorn sold, but by the hearts you change.


Michael Galinsky is a musician, photographer, painter, writer and filmmaker.