'The Hottest August': Documenting Climate Change in a World of Crises
Based on a scarier-than-true story.
Brett Story’s The Hottest August is a film that ambles along moment-by-moment, given a surface-layer lightness by its host of lively characters. They muse abstractly on the future and discuss their own concerns, and while those often address the everyday struggles of getting by, Story has assured through form that the point itself is never lost.
Percolating beneath these amiable drop-by conversations and offbeat characters is an impending sense of environmental tragedy. The film, which shot in New York nearly every day of August 2017, weaves among personal testimonies and interviews, voice-over set to the August 21 solar eclipse and more observational footage.
After its premiere at the True/False Film Fest in Columbia, Missouri, No Film School sat down with Story to discuss the film.
No Film School: There are some central questions that you ask people in the film, like “what do you worry about?” and “what are your plans for the future?” These are forward-looking questions. What were you thinking about before making this film, and what drew you to these questions as worth structuring a film around?
Brett Story: What I was thinking about was the way in which people register information all the time and then do different things with the kind of anxieties that information provokes. This film comes out of an interest in thinking about how people are coping with being part of a moment in time that increasingly feels not very good—feels like it’s full of news that makes us feel bad about the future. Not just in terms of ecological damage, but in terms of economic inequality and intensifying racism, student debt, all of these issues. And so, I was interested in thinking about how we live with that kind of barrage of bad news and what we do with it. How does that anxiety live out?
That’s why I didn’t want to ask people specifically “How are you feeling about climate change?” I was more interested in “What do you think about what preoccupies you?” and thinking about what people would say that might express subtextually bigger concerns—the constant relationship between the micro and macro.
"I think that desire and need to reassure ourselves that we have some semblance of control is itself an indication of the multiple crises we’re living with."
NFS: When I first heard of the film, it was framed as a “climate change movie,” but it’s obviously about so much more than that. Like you said, it seems more about a current collective anxiety. Is the film feeling that way a function of those questions being so open-ended?
Story: The film is not just an experiment in form, it’s an experiment in method: What happens if you pick a city and pick a month and try to learn something about the collective experience of living in this historical time? What would it mean to try to create an archive of the present that we can learn from? That we don’t have to wait 50 years to learn from?
To be honest, I expected to be collecting different versions of anxiety everywhere I went. People talking about anxiousness about their kids, or anxiousness about their finances—and there was some of that, but there was also a lot of people who would, in the same breath, say, “Yeah, this is what I’m dealing with right now, but also everything is going to be fine. I’ve got it together. Tomorrow’s a new day.”
I think that desire and need to reassure ourselves that we have some semblance of control is itself an indication of the multiple crises we’re living with. I became very interested in how when you feel bad in a society organized around individualism, you have to take that on as personal failure. People don’t want to feel like personal failures, so we all tell ourselves stories about how things are going to get better so we can deflect the sense that [we] as individuals have somehow failed at successfully controlling and bettering our lives, even while those things are really out of our control or bigger than us as individuals.
NFS: How much time did you spend with the various subjects? A lot of the interviews feel sort of impromptu, but in some ways that opens the film up to these serendipitous moments or off-the-cuff interactions, like when talking to those guys in the bar. What drew you to that sort of approach?
Story: I really wanted this to be a film in which I could investigate things without just orchestrating answers that I already had in my head. So, it was a hard film to plan production around because it required that we be so open that we actually genuinely meet strangers who could surprise us and be alive on film in all their complexities. This is when people are most interesting. People are always complicated: They’re always more generous than we think and less generous than we think. They’re always experts over their lives and also unreliable narrators in their own lives, but we have to allow them to be.
Part of what we did was pick locations or situations in which we thought we could meet people. So, we decided we just wanted to go to a bar in Staten Island. We didn’t know who we would meet there. Once we were there, I struck up conversations, and sometimes that meant spending a long time with people like those guys at the bar. I probably sat with them for two hours, built up a rapport, assured them I wasn’t there with a particular agenda and let that conversation deepen and develop.
The film opens with these two men that stick their heads out of a window in the Rockaways. We were at the end of a production day, and we were headed as a small crew to dinner and carrying a camera. This man leans out the window and says, “Hey! What are you doing with a camera?” I’d already directed my cinematographer, “If that happens, you turn the camera on, and I’ll start a conversation.” The conversation was only half an hour, but it contains multitudes, and we just tried to respond to it in a really organic way.
NFS: In the process of actually making the movie then, when you went into these spaces did you go in with the camera rolling or did you talk to people a little bit before? How much are you cueing them in on what you’re doing?
Story: A bit of a mix. I certainly don’t film people without their permission, but I don’t want to wait and do too much staging, because I think when people get too much of sense of something being really formal—like getting all the angles right, setting up a perfect shot—they have time to become self-conscious. So, I wanted these to feel less like interviews and more like encounters and conversations, and for that to happen we needed to be ready to roll with the situation, turn on the camera right away even while I’m also asking people permission to interview them.
"There’s a motif in the film in which the narrator comes in, and she’s from an unidentifiable source. There’s a sense she’s from some possible future, we don’t know when, looking back on this footage and commenting on it."
NFS: That’s part of what I meant when I said the impromptu nature of it allows for this sort of serendipity, or maybe more authenticity. Did you feel a sense of comfortability between yourself and the subjects?
Story: I’m actually at heart a really shy person, and part of the reason I don’t make traditional character docs where you follow a character for years and years is that I’d feel too personally uncomfortable with it. But making films is an incredible gift because it’s a reminder of how much I like people. And so, I want to create that experience for an audience as well, and that requires, again, not just deciding on preconceptions but genuinely being open to encounters.
I actually just think that strangers are the most interesting people. Our lives are full of intimate relationships—with our families, our friends, our partners—but they’re also full of encounters with strangers, if you really think about it: every time we go on the subway, go to the dentist. If we just take those encounters as an opportunity to actually ask questions that feel really personal and challenging, people [will] respond to other people being interested in them. There’s a kind of basic loneliness I think many of us carry, and so if someone is genuinely interested in what we have to say, or what we’re thinking about or what we’re going through, people really open up. That’s a really joyful part of the production process for me. I get to experience that and translate that to an audience.
NFS: I’m curious about the voiceover. What are those excerpts from and why did you pick those specifically?
Story: Early on in my conversations with my editor, Nels Bangerter, he suggested that we might want to have some narration as anchor points. This is like a tapestry, mosaic film with a lot of moving pieces. If a narrator came in, it would help orient how to read other material. I think the bar is really high for film writing, and I was nervous about writing an entire script. So, we decided I would write some parts and just use excerpts.
There’s a motif in the film in which the narrator comes in, and she’s from an unidentifiable source. There’s a sense she’s from some possible future, we don’t know when, looking back on this footage and commenting on it. When we thought about the footage itself as a kind of found archive, we also considered the literature of our time as part of that archive. So, we picked excerpts from things as if [the narrator is] finding these books, or these texts, and they become part of the evidence of this period in time.
There are three excerpts throughout the film. One is from a contemporary essay by Zadie Smith, one is from Capital, Volume 1 by Karl Marx, and one is an essay published in The New Yorker by Annie Dillard about a 1979 American eclipse, and they’re all significant for their own reasons.
NFS: You use the eclipse as a structural device as well. What drew you to that?
Story: This film is inspired in part by a film made in 1962 by Chris Marker called Le Joli Mai and he made that film at the same time he made a film he’s more famous for, La Jetèe, which is a time travel film and work of weird documentary science fiction. But he’s on record saying actually Le Joli Mai, which is a portrait of Paris over the month of May in 1962, is the real science fiction. And he’s sort of being cheeky, but I find that really interesting.
In early conversations with my producer and my editor, we thought a lot about how we could very gently introduce a slight tone of science fiction. Human beings are weird. Let’s look at ourselves the way animals must look at us, or how aliens might look at us, or how people in the future might look at us. Can we just see ourselves for a second in all of our beautiful strangeness? And then the eclipse happened over August, so it seemed like a useful sort of motif to introduce.
We were also thinking about the film Melancholia, and just these strange little weird beasts existing on a planet in the galaxy and destroying the planet. And those moments where we zoom into the moon, or the afronaut walking the neighborhood, are just sort of occasions to bring that element into the fabric of the film.
NFS: And there’s something both funny and sort of sweet when you think about just everybody walking outside and looking up at the sky.
Story: That’s the beautiful thing about the eclipse. The eclipse is already a powerful metaphor. We already project onto it the idea of apocalypse, and then there’s a way in which it’s a powerful metaphor in so far as we take it literally: It is light being eclipsed by darkness, but that darkness is something that we can’t see if we stare right at it. So we need to put these glasses on, we need to look through strange objects at the ground, we need to look everywhere but directly at it in order to see the effect of this darkness eclipsing this light. That’s a very powerful metaphor.
Athe same time, it was a really powerful collective moment. You have all these people working individually in their homes and in their offices descending out their front doors to stand and look in the same direction—even have a party. The film, in my mind, is very much about the relationship between individuals and society, about feeling alone vs. feeling like you’re in something together. The eclipse enabled a kind of dual move between those themes.
"Part of this film comes out of my own frustration with traditional climate change films, because so many of them are organized around demonstrating a set of facts."
NFS: I haven’t seen many films that grapple with the real existentialism of climate change. With First Reformed and now The Hottest August, both of these films, in very different ways, view oncoming environmental disaster as the result of institutional failings. Do you think that there needs to be an urgency for more art in the context of climate change?
Story: I do, but I also think that that art needs to diversify. Part of this film comes out of my own frustration with traditional climate change films, because so many of them are organized around demonstrating a set of facts. I think the facts are established, and we’re living with them—living differently as a result of them. We’re also living with other things, like Neo-Nazis. It’s worth reflecting on the relationship between these things that are part of our reality right now.
I think it’s really important for us to think about climate change as a social question, and not just a question of nature. For me, one of the questions is a political question: Why do we feel so little power in the face of this destruction? What will my art play in reactivating our sense of power to first envision, then activate the imagination, and also act upon the world differently?
NFS: Your film is very much framed with all of these questions and anxieties as onset through this late capitalist state.
Story: Weirdly, I’m an economic geographer by training. I think a lot about economic structures and capitalism and how it organizes us.
One of the things that had me reflecting on and interpreting [the film’s] interviews was a famous axiom by Margaret Thatcher, the British Prime Minister, and one of the politicians that heralded in what’s called the neo-liberal era of capitalism. She’s famous for saying, “There’s no such thing as society. There’s just individuals and their families.” I think that we are living with the consequences of feeling not just real economic inequality and strife, but we’re told to understand our lives and struggles in totally individualist terms. I just think that is really devastating. That’s sort of what I mean by this film being about loneliness, and about the individual vs. society.