James Redford pursued a story about climate change and clean energy in America, and discovered the best (and worst) ways to lead a first-person doc.
When a first-person story fails, the filmmaker can come off as insincere, narcissistic, or inexplicably cringe-worthy. But when it works, it can bring a truly unique vision to a topic that might otherwise be a little dry. “Looking at a solar panel, I think watching paint dry may actually be more fun," said filmmaker James Redford to No Film School. "At least it changes color as it dries.” If you've inherited some of that Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid charm (yes, Robert Redford is James' father) you might have what it takes to make an illuminating first-person film about something as dense as clean energy technology.
Redford set out to do just that in a humorous road-trip documentary that paints a picture of average Americans and energy, titled Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution, premiering this week on HBO. Sitting down with No Film School, Redford talks about making a film that deals with the existential threat of climate change through optimistic solutions, being honest in front of the camera, and surrounding yourself with people willing to tell you when you're not being funny.
No Film School: In Happening, the audience is going along with you on this first-person journey. When filmmakers try to do this kind of thing, we're often awkward and weird, and we only achieve varying degrees of success before that audience ‘cringe’ factor sets in. Since your film works so well, what’s your secret?
James Redford: The first thing I will say is: there are no good angles. There can be no vanity! The first 30 seconds of this film, there's a camera following my bald spot. The minute you start to become self-conscious, you're going to get in your own way. The most important thing is to try and stay close to who you are and not overthink it. Just let it all hang out. For better or worse! This isn't to say that there aren't painful moments in all of that, but if you stay with the curiosity and the sincerity of your attempt, it's better for the story.
NFS: Did your crew know that they were looking for certain things to happen on camera?
Redford: The crew had no notion of anything other than "what's the story?"
"If I just go through and document my experience, that's as honest as I can be."
NFS: For example, in the first scene, there’s a funny setup where you’re waiting to see if anyone shows up for a climate march and you instead stumble on a huge line of people waiting for the new iPhone.
Redford: That was all spontaneous. I just got out of the car on Madison and 59th and we started walking over to Central Park and I was riffing. As I said in the movie, I did find it ironic. I saw this massive line at the Apple store. At that point in time, I saw no evidence of the climate change parade. We just waited to see what happened. Just as I was skeptical with the front end, three hours later I was pretty impressed because there ended up being thousands of people. For me, if I just go through and document my experience, that's as honest as I can be.
NFS: While there are moments where you're by yourself and shooting on a camera phone, what was your crew like?
Redford: I used a ton of local crew because I was traveling all around the country. I felt that using local crews and trying to get a sense from them about the community was a good way to go. It was also, of course, more affordable.
I made the film within the non-profit model, right down to the aesthetics of it. This movie was made as a non-profit film by The Redford Center and The Redford Center is a non-profit entity. We look at problems while also wrestling with solutions so that people can get a sense of what can be done. I had to go out and fundraise for years to get this movie done. I never made a dime on this film—in fact, it cost me a lot of money! Small crews, a lot of handheld footage, and I shot a few things myself. In the end, I felt like it was better for the story anyway.
NFS: A big part of the story is you going across the country to talk to people involved in the clean energy movement. Those off-the-cuff conversations are very different than a typical interview. What was your strategy?
Redford: I wanted to deal with people who were really on the front lines of everything, not necessarily CEOs or policy makers or scientists, but Americans that are actually in it in real time. In each case, I would carefully prepare questions and review them. Then on shoot day, I would just throw it all out because I wanted it to be more of a conversation than an interview.
Of course once you get to the editing room, you cut to what you need and it feels more like an interview. But I tried to keep the feeling that it was coming from the field as much as I could. When you're dealing with something like clean technology, it's pretty dry. The people that are using, making, and selling it are more interesting than the stuff itself.
"When you're in it, it's painful. It's painful. You're sitting there looking at your assemblies and rough cuts going, 'Oh my god, this doesn't work. Get rid of it!'"
NFS: What was the biggest challenge making this film?
Redford: I think editing was the hardest, because, as I said, I was trying to make it more interesting. We tried a lot of things that didn't make it in the final cut. I had funny animation. I had some other weird things that I tried that were sort of surreal. Instead of a voiceover at one point, I had myself narrating from a shrink's couch in the middle of a field. I tried a lot of things.
NFS: And those were all thrown out?
Redford: A lot of things that I tried just didn't work. When you're in it, it's painful. It's painful. You're sitting there looking at your assemblies and rough cuts going, “Oh my god, this doesn't work. Get rid of it!” I really needed help dwindling it down from a two-and-a-half hour assembly to 71 minutes. [While watching myself during the editing process], there were times where I thought I was being a total jackass, and people said "no." Other times, I thought I was being kind of funny, and people were like "no, you're being irritating." It's hard to edit yourself. You better surround yourself with people that will be honest with you. That's what I have to say.
NFS: What would be your advice be for other filmmakers, especially those in documentary, who want to reach new ground on a particular topic?
Redford: One of the most beneficial things in making Happening was holding a few summits at the Redford Center. I invited stakeholders to come in and have a conversation. I wanted to open it up to a broad spectrum of creative people in marketing, advertising, and TV. We had some scientists there. We had some musicians and artists there. I wanted to collect a bunch of people together and say, “Let’s get real about this. Let’s get honest.”
You need to try to take the temperature culturally, of what might be a good way to go, and check in. What I'm describing is almost market-based research, right? That sounds so uninspiring. But if you really try and open yourself up to what people are yearning for, what’s missing, and what you’re inherently up against with your topic, then you’ll have a better idea of how to make the right film. Test the concept of the film with people from all walks of life. See what you come up with. You'll be surprised.