It took a village for documentary

Times Staff Writer

By all the hype over “The 11th Hour” -- the latest Earth-in-crisis documentary that opened in Los Angeles and New York today, and nationwide Aug. 24 -- it would seem that Leonardo DiCaprio’s celluloid crusade is a one-man show.

The guy did co-produce, co-write and narrate. Although uncredited, he also spent long nights in the editing bay, pruning the 150 hours of interviews and days of stock footage down to 91 minutes.

He’s also the one locked in back-to-back media interviews in the days leading up to the opening. He has enjoyed support from A-list pals such as Tobey Maguire and Kate Bosworth, who both hit the movie’s green-carpeted premiere. And even DiCaprio concedes, in his characteristic yet genuinely reluctant manner, that his star power is likely behind Warner Independent Pictures’ decision to pick up the privately funded film for distribution.

But just as the documentary, which critics have either deemed too gloomy or too hopeful, underscores how everyone and everything is linked and concludes it will take a collective shift of individual determination to save the planet, the project proved a collaboration among a network of allies just as committed to the cause.


“When you get down to it, it was a homemade movie, really,” he says with a laugh, a spark after an eternal day of press that has left him slumped on this couch inside a suite at the Regent Beverly Wilshire. “Everyone involved was just really passionate about donating their time and money to make it happen.” Jean-Pascal Beintus composed his music at no charge, and much of the small camera crew, led by Andrew Rolands, whom DiCaprio knew from “The Departed” and “Gangs of New York,” also worked free, he noted.

It has been three years since DiCaprio connected with Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, who are credited as co-directors and co-writers but who were as instrumental to the project’s realization as their superstar partner. The sisters are founders of Tree Media Group, a production company that leverages new technologies to examine environmental and civil issues. DiCaprio caught a film they did with Woody Harrelson and reached out.

“Immediately, we realized the three of us have the same take on the environment and where we needed to focus this film,” recalled Nadia Conners. “The collapse of the environment is not the problem -- it’s a symptom. The real problem is industrial civilization and how we organize society.”

Thus, the premise became a matter of human rights.


“We recognized we needed to remind people that it’s not exclusive to one place or problem,” continued Conners Petersen. “It’s all connected. . . . the solution requires a huge shift in human consciousness.”

It all came down to the experts to convey the message, no fewer than 54 commentators crammed into a feature-length cut, including former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev, former CIA Director R. James Woolsey and Nobel laureate Wangari Maathai. Physicist Stephen Hawking’s singular voice is heard almost as much as DiCaprio’s, whose infrequent appearances on screen might bum out some fans more than all the traumatic images of destruction, which play out in a barrage of color-saturated montages like vintage “Nova.”

Another central player was Ken Ausubel, the co-founder of Bioneers, a solution-oriented collective of environmentally and socially minded scientists, economists, educators and many others from every field imaginable.

Seated next to DiCaprio in the hotel room, Ausubel highlights the commitment of his new eco-mate, whom he met in May, at the film’s world premiere at Cannes.

“Leo often gets the attack-the-messenger treatment. He downplays his own knowledge. But, in fact, he’s extremely diligent about doing his homework. You don’t get what you have on screen without tremendous discernment and real sophistication of these issues. I don’t think anyone can question his authenticity and long-term involvement in this.”

DiCaprio looks slightly embarrassed. The project is so personal to him that he strove for “no corporate ties, no studio involvement in the making of it. . . . We didn’t want to be told we couldn’t touch a subject. We wanted to let leaders on the forefront of these issues speak openly and freely, without having to defend something that’s actually happening, something they’ve spent their lives’ work studying.”

As producer, DiCaprio wasn’t the only one putting his money where his passions lie. Financing also came from such disparate donors as philanthropist Adam Lewis, godfather of modern poker Doyle Brunson and skateboard entrepreneur Pierre André Senizergues. All of them environmentalists, and all brought to the project by friends.

Like DiCaprio, Senizergues lives in an eco-house. His south Orange County headquarters, the $200-million home of Sole Technologies, whose brands include Etnies and Emerica, also boasts 616 solar panels, the conversion to water-based cement manufacturing, the first-ever environmental affairs manager in the action sports industry, corporate-wide recycling efforts and the launch of a sustainable footwear and apparel collection.


“When Leila and Nadia came to me about this film, I was excited because I have been trying to figure out how I can also educate and motivate my employees, my industry toward action,” said Senizergues, his French accent still thick despite his two decades here. (For the premiere last week, he wore a sharp custom suit made of recycled audio tapes that resembled the shimmer of a fine sharkskin woven.)

Senizergues added that he is continuing the chain by showing the film to his hundreds of employees from Southern California and to workers at his factories in China (where he has also been leading in a green path). He has also scheduled a screening of the film at the highly attended Action Sports Expo in San Diego next month, complete with a Q&A; with the Conners. And he has, in turn, committed to their tour of panels, even speaking to the United Nations recently on his own dime.

“I know whatever I’m investing in this movie and get back,” said DiCaprio, “I wouldn’t feel right about keeping.” The Oscar-nominated actor’s lifetime of environmental activism became official in 1998 with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which participates with and supports a slew of groups. “I’m donating those profits right back into environmental foundations.”

It doesn’t stop with the film either. Plans are underway for posting the extra hours of interviews on and providing curricula to schools.

“The plight of the environment, of this planet, is very much the issue of my generation, of generations to come,” he added. “We know the best way to reach younger people is virally, putting it on YouTube, creating an action site, providing curriculum to schools, having that outreach and getting them really involved, getting them connected.”