Carbon Nation director Peter Byck on carbon and his, er, nation

Written by Matthew Burrows | Georgia Straight on .

Here is a partial transcription of the interview the Georgia Straight conducted with American director and producer Peter Byck (on the line from Louisville, Kentucky), who discussed his documentary Carbon Nation, ahead of its premiere at the Projecting Change Film Festival.

Matthew Burrows: Can I ask you some questions about Carbon Nation?

Peter Byck: Sure. I appreciate you asking. You spend three years making a movie and sitting in an edit bay by yourself. It's nice to start talking about these things.

MB: Oh good. So have you had many people asking you about it?

PB: You're not the first one. You're the first Canadian. We had our world premiere in Washington, D.C. about two weeks ago. So I've had a handful of interviews so far.

MB: How did that go?

PB: Sold out and standing ovation. It was pretty cool. It doesn't get better than that.


MB: Was Arnold Schwarzenegger there?

PB: No, he wasn't. When we do our California push we will reach out to him. It's clear from the footage that I didn't get the one-on-one footage I was hoping to get with him, but I think after he sees this film—we are going to continue making these sorts of films—but we will get the turnaround time faster. So hopefully I'll be able to spend a day with him on this subject. I think he is doing some good stuff.

MB: I also watched the [Fifth Avenue screening of] The 11th Hour in 2007. It feels different to this movie, sort of the same kind of idea but different to that. Would you comment?

PB: We started making our film in the spring of '07. So early summer he was on the cover of Vanity Fair, on their green issue, talking about the film coming out. Obviously we were concerned, because if [Leonardo] DiCaprio was going to make a film like ours, that would have shut us down two and a half years ago. In his interviews, he said that he wanted to scare people. And we knew that we had a different product, because that was the last thing that we wanted to do. We found An Inconvenient Truth did the scare perfectly—it couldn't have done it better. And it got my attention. We just wanted to focus on solutions, and we just wanted to find out, 'Can you solve this thing?' That was our whole goal. Or one of our whole goals. The other one of our goals was to make a film that wasn't blaming and shaming, because we found that, just in our lives as people, that didn't really inspire us to do the right thing. Being afraid didn't inspire us to do anything. And what I am afraid of just sitting there and shaking in the corner, useless. So we wanted to make a film that was forward-looking, find out who was doing good things and, even if they were people who hadn't done good things in the past, we wanted to celebrate what they were doing right to help motivate. This thing is a big deal.

MB: It is a big deal. I am amazed you did it in 92 minutes. How did you do that? That is not easy. How did you do that?

PB: It's not easy. It is literally a year's worth of editing on my clock this last year. And another editor, a very talented editor called Derek Driskell, did 15 months—he spent 15 months editing this whole thing. That's 24 months of editing. And that's two skilled editors who are fast. So it was an enormous amount of work.

MB: Smooth. I never got the impression that you were hacking it ruthlessly or that there massive gaping holes of things that should have been in?

PB: I appreciate that. That took...you hear filmmakers complaining about test screenings, you know? You hear this, 'Oh, it was horrible. They made me test my film, and then they made me change it.' The problem with test screenings for filmmakers is that the filmmakers aren't in charge of the test screening. So, I am an independent filmmaker, and so there are no studios breathing down my neck and nor did they pay for it, so I get to conduct test screenings. And we did a whole bunch of them. Over 1,000 people saw this film in various shapes and sizes over the last year. And so in the screenings I got to see what would make sense. We screened it for people who weren't concerned about this stuff, and we screened it for people who had been working on this stuff for 40 years. So we made sure we got the science right. We did incredible in-depth research, like with our script. Every single fact in our narration is backed up by at least three sources. Besides the fact of the people we interviewed teaching us and the research I was doing to get ready to do the film. We did cut stuff we loved. There's no question about that. Those will be DVD extras. But we got it down to what seemed to be the right length. What was really interesting was, the earlier cuts were shorter with a lot more information, and we sort of pulled stuff out and let it breathe some more. My sister was perfect. She said her head hurt from a cut a year ago, and she's smart. And so if her head is hurting, I've got to reduce and pull back. So I had to learn the whole "less is more" again the hard way. But I always put too much in at first. I always do that and then I pull back. I think it's easier to go that direction.

MB: It is a film for the United States right?

PB: Carbon Nation is definitely the U.S. We say that really clearly in the film. So many told me from all over the world...we were in South Africa doing a few things and we were in London for a few things and we were in Switzerland and we were in Madagascar. A lot of that stuff got compressed. The Switzerland thing was Richard Branson. So many people who weren't Americans said, absolutely sincerely, that if America gets on board, it will change the conversation. And so, we focused on the U.S. for two reasons. One, because we live here and it's our country. So we just feel that, if the United States gets on board—besides the fact it's such a great business opportunity—it will be a catalyst for other countries to get on board too. We can be leaders in the best sense.

MB: What a very interesting idea.

PB: I learned that from people. I didn't come up with it. I thought yeah, let's be the leader in clean energy. Like [lawyer and Green for All founder] Van Jones says, 'We can be the world leader in solutions, rather than the world leader in pollution.'

MB: Mountain Pine Beetle was terrifying, because we have to deal with those things too. We've had a terrible epidemic here at the same time. You may know that anyway.

PB: Actually some of the more stark photographs were from Vancouver Island. One of the things we worked really hard on in this film is, if I am saying this is Montana, then that photograph is Montana. There is very little in the film that's not exactly what we say in the photographic [credit]. You know there is no board that grants documentaries their truth label. Documentaries throw that around all the time.

MB: Were you aware of our own MPB epidemic?

PB: Yep. That's what I was saying, that the photographs that we got from British Columbia were actually more stark, but because we were talking about Helena, Montana, we stayed around there.

MB: People will be shocked when they see those scenes when the film premieres at the Projecting Change Film Festival.

PB: It's horrible. We made this film over a three-year period. The first trip I took to the Rockies was in August of '07, and I saw these dead trees, and I said, 'What is that?' You know? When I went to Helena, Montana in '08, I still didn't know what it was. It wasn't until October of '09, when I was researching like where is it happening right now—so it needed context—I found that story.

MB: Would you be willing to give just one example of where people can make change?

PB: Yeah. It sounds redundant, but just change out all your light bulbs for CFLs [compact fluorescent lightbulbs]. It is an enormous cost saving. The lightbulbs will last seven to 10 times as long as the other ones. They are more expensive, but you will pay them off easily within the first year of buying them. And the mercury that is inside them, it is not great if you break one of those bulbs for sure—they are making them tougher so they are plastic coated. But the mercury that is inside the bulb, I did a study on this, but we didn't put it in the narration. You would have to break something like three billion CFLs a year to equal the mercury that is emitted from the coalburning that you are saving by using the CFLs. Even though there is mercury in the earth, you are saving an enormous amount of mercury from getting in the atmosphere. Even if you broke three billion CFLs a year, there would still be less mercury in the air than what is actually going up there from the burning of coal for electricity to light your lightbulb.

MB: Has [President] Obama instilled an optimism that maybe wasn't there for Americans on the environment under George Bush?

PB: I think there is an enormous amount of optimism that has been instilled by people like [environmentalist and physicist] Amory Lovins and Art Rosenfeld, and both are in the film, from Ralph Cavanagh from NRDC [Natural Resources Defense Council]. A fellow that makes it in a lot of shoots is a guy named Gene Rodriguez. And Van Jones. Those are the people who gave me optimism when I was making this film, because, I tell you, when you delve into this stuff and you start studying the truth of what is happening with the climate and energy, just even looking at what energy is about, it is really depressing. So these people kept me grounded. They spent decades learning this stuff, so it's a slower burn for them. For us, it's like, I jumped right in, and it was brutal. Those are the people with inspiration. Obama is a bit more pragmatic than a lot of environmentalists would like, but I understand his game. He's pushing nuclear and he's pushing offshore oil, and that's bumming out some people. I look at it like, listen, if you are going to be drilling in the ocean, why not put it in our waters so we can regulate this stuff? I would just want him to be incredibly vigilant on regulation, so that it's the safest way to do it. Because when you get offshore oil from countries that we can't regulate, it's a more dangerous thing for the planet. So personally, hey, I am flying to Vancouver. I am burning oil to get to you guys, so I am not innocent. I live in Kentucky, and 93 percent of my power in my office, as I am dubbing this file from that drive, comes from coal. So I am in no way shape or form innocent in this issue. I just know we can do it better. I've met the people who are doing it better. And they inspire me. And they can save everyone money. That's the biggest thing I learned about this. Originally I did this movie because I was scared about climate change. I saw Al Gore's movie and I said, 'OK, what can I do?' I made this documentary on garbage in the '90s, and so I am predisposed to this stuff, and I quickly learned that, even if you're only in it for the money, you will still do the same thing. If you are in it for national security or energy security or religious beliefs as being stewards of the earth, if you care about people's health and the health of the land and the health of cities and poverty, human rights. You can do all of these things and you'll still end up in the same spot. That, to me, was the biggest eye-opener. That was the biggest.

MB: Any particular incidents that happened to you in your three years?

PB: Meeting Van Jones was very inspiring. I knew he was star material when I did my first 10-minute interview with him. He thought he was done with me. He was like, 'Alright, next filmmaker, right?' And then I called him, and said, 'Hey, I want to film more with you.' Because you can't just have an interview. If he is actually doing stuff, then let's go and film him doing stuff. That's when he said he was going to go and visit with his parents who were ill. I said, 'Let me come down there.' He was surprised that I wanted to go down there. My point was: I know what you're doing. Let's find out why you're doing it.

MB: Very touching. It seemed to slow down.

PB: His dad inspired me quite a bit.

MB: You flew from California to Tennessee to see him, right? Quite a jump...

PB: What was really interesting about that was, it gave me the chance to come through Louisville to visit wit my dad and my family. We film Van in the summer of '07 with his pops, and then we filmed him again in June of '08, which is when his dad had passed away. Then, in August of '08, after observing this father and son thing, I started filming other people with their dads. I interviewed Richard Branson's 89-year-old dad, and I interviewed Amory Lovins's 96-year-old dad. All of a sudden in August of '08, my dad gets cancer. My dad is my best friend. Through all this film, and with all the emails and the ups and the downs, he was with me the whole way.

MB: What is his name?

PB: Dann Byck Jr. He was gone by March of '09. So that's why I've got that dedication piece at the end of the movie. So watching Van's story and seeing that as a filmmaker, all of a sudden it kicked me in my ass. I went through the exact same thing.

MB: Van's dad was inspiring, doing things [as educator] five times faster than they said they couldn't be done.

PB: That's the point. Who are these people that dedicate their lives to the betterment of others? I really didn't learn this concept of being of service until much later in life than obviously a lot of these people learned it. I was out there just trying to get my own in L.A., and trying to get a film career going and get out of my way. And, it was a rough life [in L.A.] Very oppressive and very tough stuff.

MB: Former chief environmental officer at Chicago, Sadhu Johnstone, is in Vancouver City Hall now. Did you know he is now deputy city manager?

PB: I was kind of envious when he got that job....I have a lot of respect for Sadhu and for what he was doing or trying to do in Chicago. It's a big beast trying to move Chicago one way or the other. He will be at the premiere actually.

MB: We don't have a green roof yet on City Hall, but we're waiting for that day. We have a community garden on the lawns.

PB: The green roof is great. The white roof is even better. I bet you he will get that going.

MB: Finally, why call the documentary Carbon Nation?

PB: Because it's funny and because it speaks to our country. Carbon is the issue and we wanted to be very focused on carbon.

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