‘Inconvenient Sequel’ directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk bring hope to the climate crisis
Al Gore kicked off his shoes and jumped onto his couch so he could reach the blinds. With the living room appropriately dark, he launched his ever-evolving slide show about climate change, which he began presenting more than a decade ago. Almost nine hours would pass before he concluded.
Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk listened attentively the entire time. The husband-and-wife filmmaking team had arrived at the former vice president’s Tennessee home to learn what Gore had been up to since the release of 2006’s “An Inconvenient Truth,” the documentary largely responsible for first informing the public on a major scale about the danger of global warming.
Before entering Gore’s 10,000-square-foot house — which is powered entirely by renewable energy — the filmmakers felt they knew a lot about how greenhouse gases are harming the environment. Just a few years prior, they’d made “The Island President,” a nonfiction film about how the leader of the Maldives was attempting to save his nation from rising sea levels.
But the stuff Gore was telling them? It was bad. Really bad. Bleak, even.
“I’m so familiar with the material that I probably should have warned them that hope was coming after lunch,” recalled Gore, who said he showed the pair about 500 of his 40,000 slides that day in 2015. “Before that, I think they were a little depressed.”
Shenk puts it more bluntly. “We were about ready to walk off a cliff,” he said with a laugh. “We were, like, ‘What do we tell our kids?’”
Fortunately, Gore did move onto a more uplifting portion of the presentation following lunch, when he began discussing some of the solutions now available to combat climate change. By the end of the day, the three had decided to move forward in making “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” which hits theaters on Friday.
Review: Al Gore continues his mission to save the planet in ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ »
Still, the Bay Area-based filmmakers were anxious about the difficulties of creating a sequel to a documentary with such a strong effect. “An Inconvenient Truth” won the Oscar for best documentary in 2007, the same year the Nobel Committee awarded Gore its Peace Prize, stating he was “probably the single individual who has done the most to create greater worldwide understanding of the [climate] measures that need to be adopted.” At the box office, the movie collected $50 million worldwide, a substantial amount for a documentary; the film is still the 11th top-grossing in the genre today, behind “Fahrenheit 9/11” and concert-heavy docs about Justin Bieber, One Direction and Katy Perry.
Davis Guggenheim, who directed the 2006 release, also was hesitant about the idea of filming a follow-up.
“I think Davis felt he’d given the first film everything he could, and obviously he gave his blessing to making a second one, but he just felt it wasn’t something he could take on at that point,” explained Diane Weyermann, who is in charge of the documentary film slate at Participant Media, which produced both “Inconvenient Truth” films. The executive also felt it was important to film the sequel during the 10th anniversary year of the original, and Guggenheim — who served as an executive producer on the sequel — could not meet those scheduling demands because he was working on “He Named Me Malala.”
“So then I had the very difficult task of trying to come up with a director who I thought would be able to step in, and honestly, Bonni and Jon were the first people who came to mind,” said Weyermann, who had collaborated with the duo before and knew they had a basic understanding of climate change. “But it was very important that Al was comfortable with them. Trust is key, obviously, if you’re the former vice president of the United States — or, frankly, any character being followed in a film — but particularly with someone of his stature who understands the media really well.”
We wanted to make a film that actually moves people emotionally — where they feel like they can’t keep the issue at arm’s length.
— Bonni Cohen
The pitch they came up with was this: Ten years after the release of the first film, climate change hasn’t improved. It’s only gotten worse. And yet we have solutions at hand that didn’t exist 10 years ago. By following Gore across the world on his mission to educate people about the issue, Shenk and Cohen would aim to make a film that served not only as a warning bell, but an instructive beacon of hope.
“When people learn about climate change, sometimes they respond by saying, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, but I’ll be dead,’” said Cohen. “We wanted to make a film that actually moves people emotionally — where they feel like they can’t keep the issue at arm’s length because they have to relate to a character and see themselves through his eyes.”
Cohen was sitting beside her husband last month, overlooking the Bay Bridge through a picture window at the Exploratorium, a science museum just a few miles from their office in San Francisco’s Presidio. Around them, schoolchildren and day campers ran amok, toying with exhibits about the bay’s bathymetry and wave patterns.
The couple met while studying documentary filmmaking in Stanford University’s graduate program and wed shortly afterward in 1997. They have two children together — ages 15 and 18 — and have collaborated on more than half a dozen films, most recently co-directing the sexual assault documentary “Audrie & Daisy.”
In the field, Shenk serves as the director of photography. He describes himself as information-minded — making sure a film conveys all the nuts and bolts. Cohen said she tends to work more from her gut, tuning into the subjects on an emotional level.
“They’re very close,” Gore said in a phone interview, “and what I’ve learned in the business world is that it’s not uncommon for the most innovative companies to have two people at the top to go back and forth with one another,” he explained, citing Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin as an example. “If two creative people make a movie work together seamlessly and well, they illuminate an old cliché — sometimes one and one equals more than two.”
Gore grew close to the pair as they trailed him across the globe, witnessing the effects of climate change up close. In Greenland, the team stood on a glacier, watching as water gushed into the ocean as a result of warmer temperatures. Later, they donned rubber boots and trudged through the streets of Miami, where seawater was flooding major roadways.
“I’m not proposing substance abuse in any way,” Shenk said,” but there were definitely days where we needed a drink.”
“Things did get very emotional,” Gore agreed with a chuckle, “and we would debrief and process those experiences together — sometimes over a beer at the end of the day.”
But the group really forged a bond during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, where Gore played an instrumental role in convincing India to sign the Paris climate agreement. As the documentary depicts, Gore met with India’s Minister of State Piyush Goyal prior to Paris, and he expressed the country’s reluctance to move away from coal-powered energy. Goyal’s argument, essentially, was this: America used coal for 150 years and polluted the environment. If you want us to help clean up that mess, you’re going to have to help us pay for it.
So in the midst of the environmental conference, Gore frantically began making calls, ultimately convincing Solar City to share its intellectual property with India so the country can build its own solar panels. He was also responsible for helping to persuade the World Bank to loan $1 billion to implement the new technology.
When “An Inconvenient Sequel” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the scenes in Paris played as triumphant — a sign of what we can accomplish with a little ingenuity. Now that President Trump has pulled out of the Paris accord, however, the climax of the film runs the risk of ringing false. In an effort to avoid that reaction, Cohen and Shenk decided to add a final title card to the movie: “If President Trump refuses to lead, the American people will,” it reads, urging viewers to convince their local representatives to convert to renewable energy. “Fight like your world depends on it — because your world depends on it.”
It was important to the filmmakers to leave moviegoers feeling optimistic — especially because that glass-half-full outlook is a cornerstone of Gore’s life philosophy. This is, after all, a man who lost the presidency to George Bush after one Supreme Court vote in 2000 but has gone on to find a new purpose outside of politics.
“I was looking out at this view earlier and thinking, we live in a city that is very, very vulnerable,” Cohen said, nodding toward the water. “We didn’t grow up with this being an issue, and now being adults having to contend with it, we see it through the eyes of our kids. And it really hits home. I think had we not had the privilege of making this film over the last two years, frankly, we would have been reeling around like everybody else wondering what the hell to do.”
“Bonni and I are both Jewish, so we both grew up learning about the Holocaust,” Shenk interjected. “We learned not only what happened to Jews and other minorities in Europe in the ’40s, but about the good people who stood up and saved them and did the right thing. That’s kind of where we are with the environment right now. I think Al is doing the right thing. We feel like we have this privilege of making this documentary about one of those good guys.”
Times film critic Kenneth Turan contributed to this story.
Follow me on Twitter @AmyKinLA
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