Hollywood’s eco leaders are grappling with ways to save the planet amid a global health crisis that has effectively brought business in America to a halt.
The deadly coronavirus pandemic has scrambled plans for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22, and while some view the health crisis as a further call to environmental action, others caution that Hollywood pronouncements on the subject can prove divisive in our polarized political climate. Storytelling revolving around these issues can also be tricky — and take a while to execute.
“You know, the next few years are the critical years, and it takes years to make a movie from the inception to the finished product, so time is of the essence,” says Jane Fonda, an outspoken climate-change activist who was arrested five times last year for her Fire Drill Friday protests in Washington, D.C. Now back in Los Angeles and staying close to home like the rest of us, she has switched from physical rallies to virtual Fire Drill Fridays.
“What we’re experiencing now is not going to be the last, and the things we have to do to prepare for the climate crisis are the same that we have to do to prepare for these pandemics,” says the two-time Oscar winner and current star of Netflix’s “Grace and Frankie.”
National Geographic has scaled back the scope of its Earth Day programming in the wake of the pandemic, tossing out planned live segments for “Born Wild: The Next Generation,” a primetime special produced in association with ABC News and hosted by “GMA” co-anchor Robin Roberts. With those live spots from around the globe removed, it will feature NatGeo scientists, conservationists and educators in taped segments. Also on deck: a two-hour program devoted to the work of Jane Goodall, the British primatologist and conservationist who has become a media figure in her own right over the decades, called “Jane Goodall: The Hope.”
“The situation all of us are facing around the globe is a reminder of just how fragile and interconnected our planet is,” says Courteney Monroe, president, National Geographic Global Television Networks. “So, while our corporate-wide Earth Day plans were originally more extensive, we believe the 50th anniversary of Earth Day remains a relevant opportunity to instill hope and wonder and inspire people to care about the planet we all call home.”
And, she adds, to remind them of the role we all play in its preservation.
A raft of other Earth day events have also been cancelled including a Los Angeles event hosted by the Music Center and Grand Park that was expected to be the largest Earth Day event ever in the city; while the Smithsonian’s Earth Optimism Summit, originally planned to convene in Washington, D.C., has been shifted online.
Far from taking it easy during the pandemic, Goodall, 86, “is busier than I’ve ever been,” fielding inquiries and raising awareness about the links between the current health crisis and climate change.
“It is or should be a wakeup call because a pandemic like this has been predicted for many, many years, and the conditions for a pandemic like this are getting worse,” Goodall says.
As wild animals come into closer contact with humans, viruses such as COVID-19 are crossing species to humans, often through an intermediary, she points out.
“So it should be a wakeup call to say we better show more respect to nature, more respect to the animals with whom we share the planet.”
Early on, Goodall learned the value of media: In 1960, the former secretary to paleontologist Louis Leakey began to research chimpanzees, in Africa, something that had never been done in the wild. But her findings were dismissed until National Geographic sent wildlife filmmaker Hugo van Lawick to chronicle her research.
“It was Hugo’s films that really changed the attitudes of scientists toward chimps and me,” says Goodall, who married and later divorced van Lawick, earning a doctorate from Cambridge along the way. “They couldn’t disbelieve when they saw with their own eyes what the chimpanzees were doing.”
For all her concern about conservation and the climate, Goodall is optimistic that we can collectively save the planet.
“I’m lucky in that as I travel around the world I meet amazing people,” says Goodall. “I’ve seen a place that looks so lush and beautiful and then pictures of how it was, say 20 years ago, when it was absolutely devastated by us and was a bleak desert. I’ve seen examples of that, quite a few actually.
“I’ve met animals and seen them in the field who were virtually extinct and were given a second chance,” she continues. “So there’s a lot of hope — it shows we can do it.”
“With global warming, if we have to wait until there are a dozen Category 5 hurricanes hitting the coast at the same time or every continent is burning simultaneously, it’s too late.”
Actor and longtime environmental activist Ed Begley Jr. has watched as Hollywood has gotten more conscious about sustainability and Earth-friendly activities. “Now, as climate change and other pressing environmental matters come into focus, we need to evolve and improve if we are to be taken seriously,” says the former “St. Elsewhere” star, who has a recurring role on “Better Call Saul” and was once joked about for riding his bicycle everywhere.
There are numerous things Hollywood can do to improve sustainability further, Begley says, citing energy-efficient lighting, using green transportation when available, plant-based meals for those that want it and bio-diesel generators. He says Hollywood should also continue to embed environmental messaging based on current and sound science in TV programs and movies.
That latter part is arguably the trickiest. Although there is a long history of movies and TV shows that have shaped our views of the environment, from “Soylent Green” to “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau,” “Silkwood” and “Our Planet,” environmental themes can be a tough sell in today’s hyper-partisan climate. Longtime producer Marshall Herskovitz has been trying to sell a climate-change project for several years, first pitching it as a movie before turning it into a TV project, but has had difficulty gaining network traction.
“One of the consequences of polarization in America is that the very people we need to reach hate Hollywood: they love to watch our movies and our shows, but they hate the people that work here,” says Herskovitz, who was two days away from beginning production on a pilot for “thirtysomething(else)” when it was shut down due to the pandemic. Celebrities are “certainly entitled to their opinions and to express them, but if you’re talking about being effective, I don’t think they’re effective, so that’s a reality we have to contend with.”
The Climate Mobilization adviser hasn’t given up on the project, but after 20 years combating global warming, he believes that true change won’t come until revenue and job-creating opportunities with green businesses are stressed over progressive social initiatives.
“A huge percentage of fighting climate change in the U.S. can be utterly capitalistic and work,” Herskovitz says.
“Chernobyl” writer-producer Craig Mazin concurs with Herskovitz about the pitfalls of showbiz activism.
“Hollywood is a bit of a double-edged sword when it comes to raising awareness about any social issue,” says Mazin, who in September won two Emmys for HBO’s limited series about the 1986 nuclear accident and Soviet government cover-up. “If I could wave a magic wand, here’s what I’d do: pair every celebrity who feels strongly about an issue with a non-celebrity expert in that field. Let’s use our visibility to increase the visibility of scientists, medical doctors, researchers and activists who aren’t famous … but who know so much more than we do.”
Fonda’s a big believer in this strategy: She regularly pairs experts with celebrities at Fire Drill Fridays, and the rallies themselves are patterned on the efforts of climate change activists such as Greta Thunberg in Europe.
“I work with people who are way, way smarter than me who are professional organizers, and the combination of celebrity with seasoned organizers is a really good one, because they know what to do strategically, and I can be the megaphone to get the word out,” Fonda says. Decades ago she starred in the prescient nuclear cautionary tale “The China Syndrome,” released 12 days before the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island facility.
She considers it poppycock that celebrities can’t be effective advocates for causes.
“The reason they attack us is because we’re effective,” Fonda says. “Because everybody knows that a famous person at a rally will bring out people that might not have come otherwise. Now, there’s no point in that if what’s being revealed at the rally or protest or whatever isn’t important, but for famous people to allow the experts to have their voices heard is crucially important — and the other side knows it well, and they’re going to do everything they can to put us down.”
Her driving focus right now: getting government officials willing to act on climate change elected at all levels.
Max Brooks, who wrote the novel adapted into the pandemic movie “World War Z,” believes storytellers can deftly insert an environmentally friendly message in just one line.
“The only way to educate anyone about anything is to tell a good story,” says Brooks, who recently appeared in a social distancing PSA with his father, Mel. “Educate through entertainment.”
Moving forward, “not every story has to be about saving the planet,” says Brooks, who won an Emmy for his past work as an “SNL” writer. “Sometimes the best lessons come in one line. A remark here, a hint there. Ever see ‘Bloodline’? They wove rising sea levels seamlessly into the plot. And if you’re doing a comedy, there’s nothing more powerful than a well-educated joke.”
However, writer-director Adam McKay says partisan resistance to the notion that climate change exists makes it especially challenging to tell a story focused on that.
“Recent movies like ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ ‘Dark Waters’ and the miniseries ‘Chernobyl’ have told the story of how man can destroy his own environment really well,” says McKay, Oscar-winner for his “The Big Short” screenplay and like Herskovitz an adviser to the Climate Mobilization org. He salutes environmentally themed “Silent Running,” “The Day After Tomorrow” and “The China Syndrome” as successful or well done, but notes that they were made before our society had become so polarized.
“With global warming, if we have to wait until there are a dozen Category 5 hurricanes hitting the coast at the same time or every continent is burning simultaneously, it’s too late,” says McKay. “So this will be a much, much harder story to tell.”
Director Ron Howard believes Hollywood has a key role to play in amplifying stories about the environment.
“At a certain point, we can’t ignore what science is telling us,” says Howard, who recently directed “Rebuilding Paradise” for NatGeo. “We can’t leave it to others to engage.”
Working on the doc about the Northern California town nearly wiped out by a deadly wildfire in 2018, “it was hard not to start recognizing or becoming more aware of the global environmental challenges out there,” he says.
Engrossing and entertaining storytelling about these issues “will hopefully encourage people to pay attention and to act,” he says.
“Rebuilding Paradise,” which debuted at Sundance in January, was supposed to screen at Tribeca this month before that festival fell victim to the COVID-19 shutdown.
Actor Christine Baranski, a fundraiser and honorary chair for environmental org Housatonic Valley Assn., says: “I don’t see how you cannot first and foremost be an environmentalist. If we don’t save our Earth, we don’t have anything.”
The star of “The Good Fight” on CBS All Access predicts a silver lining to the pandemic: “There’s going to be a lot that comes out of this that humanizes us and makes us more conservative in the best way — in the way of conservation — and I hope that is a very positive outcome amid all of the horror that we’re experiencing.”
Quips Begley: “I feel like we’ve all been sent to our room to think about what we’ve done.”