Recently, I watched The 11th Hour, a simultaneously devastating and inspiring documentary narrated and co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. Broader in scope than Al Gore’s global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, this film is an urgent call-to-arms, adding toxic pollution, natural resource depletion, and mass species extinction to the list of environmental degradations threatening to irrevocably alter human existence.
Both men have been at the forefront of a fledgling celebrity environmental movement (it was DiCaprio and Gore, at the 2007 Academy awards, who announced that the Oscars had “officially gone green”) and they, along with many others, have been using their star power and wealth as tools to raise awareness about our impact on the planet’s ecosystem.
Predictably, accusations of hypocrisy abound. Rampant consumption largely defines the entertainment business, but my admitted skepticism stems more from the movie industry’s failure thus far to recognize that it is during the actual construction of the sets that most of the environmental destruction takes place.
As a scenic painter, I know firsthand the sheer amount of wood, steel, aluminum, plastic, etc. that fills the dumpsters daily, often for scenes that never make it into the final film. Houses, restaurants, even entire apartment buildings and shopping malls are built from rainforest luaun wood and formaldehyde-filled lumber, only to be shot for a few weeks (or days), and then thrown away. Gallons of toxic, petrochemical paint, solvents, and adhesives not only find their way into our waterways and landfills, but into the lungs and bloodstreams of the workers, even on huge, multi-million dollar union productions.
It is routine for designers to demand (and for production to pay for) large-scale, costly changes throughout the course of a build, but requests for less toxic, more sustainable building materials are deemed too expensive. In fact, it has been my experience that the larger the film’s budget, the more waste it generates, and the more safety and environmental regulations are ignored. While any positive changes, from recycled office paper to hybrid cars are welcome, no amount of carbon credits can “offset” the effects of chronic toxin exposure on worker health, or reduce the amount of plastic permanently deposited in our planet’s oceans and soil.
Unfortunately, most of this takes place long before the shoot crew arrives, so how much actors like DiCaprio really know about what takes place during the making of a film is an open question. I know that it gets either scant attention, or is entirely absent from the various industry eco-activist websites (like 11thhouraction.com). Access to actors/directors/producers is, of course, limited, so we have the unfortunate circumstance where the people who know the most about what needs to change have no direct way to communicate with the people most able to make that change happen. Perhaps that is an environmental blind spot in most large corporations. But the film business has not just profit, but art, entertainment, and even education as goals, and it is clearly not just the viewing public, but the filmmakers and actors themselves that need to become fully aware of the irresponsible recklessness endemic in their industry.
There are some signs of change. New York, California and New Mexico are developing (voluntary) green production guidelines for film, complete with vendor lists for everything from organic craft services to zero voc paints. The Environmental Media Association has created the Green Seal Awards to acknowledge productions that make environmentally conscious choices. Films like Syriana and The Day After Tomorrow invested in offsets, in an attempt to address their carbon footprint. The two Matrix sequels hired the nonprofit ReUse People to repurpose and recycle the sets and The Evan Almighty crew donated trees and shrubs, lumber, and money from recycled steel to Habitat for Humanity. Hopefully, films like these (and Future Weather!) will lead the way towards a more sustainable film future.