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Jon Shenk on An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Tue, Aug 1, 2017
Melissa Starker, Creative Content & PR Manager

This week, we're proud to share the first Columbus screening of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power with Columbus audiences. Co-directed by the husband-wife team of Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, the sequel to one of the most successful and influential documentaries ever made catches up with Al Gore as he continues his research on our changing climate, focusing on workable solutions to protect the planet. The couple has a personal history with the Wex, having visited the center with earlier works The Rape of Europa and The Island President. Their busy schedule in the days leading up to the release of An Inconvenient Sequel prevents them from attending our sneak preview ("The Wex stands for such incredible values of great art that shines truth on important issues, and we regret we can’t be there in person," Jon said), but Jon will be taking questions from the audience after the screening via Skype, and he took a few minutes last week to answer some questions from me for the blog. If you missed out on tickets to our sold-out screening, you can catch the film in wider release starting this Friday. Click here for more info including theaters and showtimes.

An Inconvenient Sequel co-director Jon Shenk

I was just reading an article in the LA Times about the making of the film, and how the process started with a long meeting between you, Bonni and Al Gore. How did you feel about getting involved with the project after that meeting?

Bonni and I, when we first met Al, we sat down for a 10-hour version of his slideshow. It was just an amazing experience. We learned about what he’s been up to in the last 10 years, since An Inconvenient Truth. He patiently gave us an update on the climate science and what’s been going on – the effects of climate change. In the film, you’ll see that there are so many incredible ways in which Mother Nature is screaming at us now about the climate crisis. Once-in-a-thousand years floods happening year after year. Droughts, wildfires, weather patterns shifting, sea level rise, ice melt in Greenland happening at a rate that’s shocking to scientists, and then water ending up on the streets of Miami Beach during high tide. Unfortunately, you don’t have to go far and wide to see these effects.

On the other hand, we were kind of blown away with how far we’ve come with what Al Gore refers to as the “sustainable energy revolution.” In the movie you’ll see this incredible thing that’s happened – the cost downturn of solar and wind. It’s happened so fast and furious that it’s now as cheap, if not cheaper, to get energy from renewables in many parts of the world as it is fossil fuels. So there’s incredible hope in the story, and at the end of that day that we met with Al, we were actually kind of heartened that there’s a way out of this problem, things that were once on the horizon that are actually here now as viable options.

It seems like this film would require a heck of a balancing act—you have some tough info you have to convey to get the gravity across before you talk about solutions. Maintaining that balance of reality and hope, was that something you struggled with throughout?

Another thing we leared that first day – we were kind of amazed at Al’s energy. You think about Al Gore, his life trajectory, the disappointment of losing the 2000 election and how, for so many people, that would’ve been the end of their public life. But one thing we were reminded of, and maybe this has become more vivid as he’s gotten older and become more of a post-political figure, is his capacity for optimism. His energy to educate and lead on this issue that he cares so much about was so palpable when we met him. We realized that this is a guy who gets up every day and, one way or another, he’s working on this issue. That kind of led to an approach for the film which is really quite different from the first one: He agreed to allow us to have this incredible amount of access to his working life. So we followed him for about a year-and-a-half as he goes to Greenland to meet with scientists and learn about the ice melt there, but also to areas of the world that have been devastated by hurricanes that are much more powerful in the past because of the energy they pick up on warmer oceans. And the climax of the film takes place in Paris, where he gets involved in negotiations for the G20 agreement. He wanted to let the world see through his eyes and be a passenger on his train for a while. And we were just thrilled with the access he gave us. In a funny way, I think [audiences will] feel like they're meeting the real Al Gore for the first time in this film.

Was there a particular moment or episode that really sticks out for you in the production, where you just knew this was going to be a great moment in the film? Or were there too many of them to single out one?

There are so many. I have to say, we had to pinch ourselves because of the opportunities we had. One of the first things we did was travel with Al to Greenland. Oh my God, it’s one of the most incredible wonders of the world, these incredible ice sheets that go on and on, and we were there in the summer so you have nearly 24 hours of daylight. It’s just an incredible thing of natural beauty on the planet. And yet, simultaneously you look at this and realize, oh my god, we’re destroying it, it’s literally drifting away. We pull up with these incredible shots with camera drones of rivers of water penetrating these ice sheets in such a powerful, destructive way. And then of course to be there with Al Gore who’s been trying to stop this very thing, and it’s very emotional for him. He says so; it’s hard for him to see this because he’s been working hard to prevent it. And again, for most people that would be devastating, but he takes that energy and pivots toward a solution.

One thing he said that really stuck with us is that the world is about to undergo a revolution in energy that’s kind of like the industrial revolution. It’ll be very far-reaching and it’ll change the way people get their energy, but the speed is going to happen more along the lines of the computer revolution because it involves state-of-the-art technology that gets better every year. So you start thinking, 20 years ago we did not have smartphones, and then you start thinking, wow, solar efficiency and price – the efficiency’s gone up every year and the price has gone down.

I know you’ve gotten the chance to see the film with an audience at least once. Any scenes that audiences are responding to particularly strongly?

We are just amazed at the audience response in general. One thing I think audiences are surprised by is how funny and human Al is. You find yourself 10 minutes into the sequel of An Inconvenient Truth laughing. When you get to Paris, you get involved in a political thriller, behind the scenes of bilateral negotiations between countries about how to solve the crisis.

Later on, one of the scenes we’re most excited about is when Al meets with a Republican conservative mayor in oil country in Texas. This mayor has transformed his city of 65,000 people to 100 percent renewable power. He did it originally for financial resons, (then the sherriff explained that) once they did it, they took a lot of pride in that they’re no longer polluting the air and they’re leaving a better planet for our children. Ironically, that's one of the most conservative values – be good stewards of the environment and leave the campsite better than we found it, like the Boy Scouts. To see Al Gore, who’s lived his life in partisan politics, shaking hands and chuckling with a Republican mayor of Texas in 2017, I think really gives audiences a lot of hope. So much of our time these days is all this tribal debate between conservatives and liberals and it’s so frustrating because nothing gets done. People back into their corners. Al has really stepped out of that. He just does whatever he can to move the needle on the climate crisis.

(Photo: Jon Shenk at the Wexner Center in May 2012)

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