Sisters Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners are the co-directors and co-writers of The 11th Hour, an important and inspiring documentary on the state of the world's environment. Leila, founder and president of Tree Media Group, is Editor-at-Large for New Perspectives Quarterly and Global Viewpoint, focusing on international politics and social issues. Nadia, founder and creative director of Tree Media worked with Leila on two shorts, Global Warming and Water Planet and also wrote a narrative feature called Oceano. She is working on another feature called Earthquake Weather. This interview about their collaboration on The 11th Hour was provided by Warner Independent Pictres.
Q: How did you become involved with this project? What was the catalyst that inspired you to take on this substantial project?
NADIA CONNERS: The three of us, Leonardo [diCaprio], Leila, and myself worked on two shorts about the environment before doing this documentary. We got used to working with each other and realized we had similar ideas on this subject. But long before the collaboration on this film I knew that no matter what I did with my life somehow I would be involved in the fight to protect our environment. I believe it is the most important issue of our generation. If I wasn’t a filmmaker I would be getting involved in other ways. So this project is a unification of all of our interests in the subject as well as in making films.
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: The film came out of a longer collaboration we have with Leonardo and his environmental work. We created two short films for distribution on his website, one on global warming (Global Warning, 2001) and one on fresh water (Water Planet, 2004). When there were requests to have the films play at film festivals, to be included in curriculum around the world, and when they started playing on television shows, we realized that there was a need for more information on the environment. So we set out to make a film that would be more comprehensive or definitive — something that we hoped would transcend what one would consider an environmental documentary to be; we wanted the film to contextualize the human experience on the planet and how humans interact with and impact the environment. We ourselves wanted to understand why humans were on a crash course with nature, and what we can do to change course.
Q: Describe the process of putting together a film like this? How did you work together as a team?
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: Leonardo, Nadia and I would have very long conversations about the state of the world, and how we could tell the story of the human experience with the natural world. It is a big topic, so, the way into the project took a long time to figure out. We had discussions for at least a year and then once we figured out the general structure, we set about identifying which voices would be the most credible in any given area, be it on the state of the oceans, the state of soil and trees, the state of the air and atmosphere. We interviewed about 71 people and from those interviews, we got over 150 hours of interview footage. We then selected the best statements from all those interviews and put them into a “script” that, when assembled and dubbed, ended up being 17 hours. From those 17 hours, we edited the film down to 91 minutes. The result is a single narrative that is told by 54 people. We integrated the shots of Leo with stock footage from around the world to create a mosaic of images that tells the story of life on earth and, specifically, the human experience on earth. Leo, Nadia and I spent many, many months, days and hours in the edit room with Luis, our editor. Leonardo’s on-camera segments, when he speaks to camera, were shot on 35 mm by mostly a volunteer crew headed by Andrew Rowlands. Leonardo’s shots in NYC and in LA were done on 16mm by Peter Youngblood Hills. Leonardo, Nadia and I wrote his narration together and we structured the film together in the edit room. Every shot ended up being discussed in depth by all of us. Music was composed for free by Jean-Pascal Beintus and composed by Kent Nagano. Eric Avery also scored and performed his music. Once the score was created, Leo, Nadia and I approved the music as well. So we all had a very hands-on commitment to the making of the film.
NADIA CONNERS: As sisters it is very interesting to work together. We are very close, and since we were kids we have always talked about global events and politics. We come from a family of curious and opinionated people — there have been a lot of lively political discussions in our home. One of the first things we did together as sisters, at 8 and 10 years old, was petition the city of Los Angeles to plant a tree in a cement square near our home in West LA. None of us are afraid of fighting for our ideas in the film. There were long hours of conversation about every aspect of this subject matter and how it would be portrayed.
Q: What were the criteria for choosing people to interview? Were there particular scientific and cultural sectors you sought to explore?
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: Before we set out to find the people in the film, we created an outline of the subjects we wanted to explore. The narrative followed a creation story-type arc (first there was the planet, then there was man, then we were thrown out of balance with nature, then we discovered oil, then civilization happened, then the population explosion, then the disintegration of the biosphere (the air, water, land) to now. Once we broke out the outline, then we reached out to the people we knew who could best carry the information for a particular topic. There were several people who could tell the whole story, and they do appear throughout the film. And then there are specific experts, on, say, the state of the land, etc. The criteria for the people when we chose them included: charisma, the ability to speak plainly about complex ideas but most important, to be the expert or among the experts in that particular topic. The basic topics included the sciences of ecosystems like air, water, land, soil, trees, atmosphere, climate, to biology, to renewable technologies, to anthropologists and psychologists who could tell us about human behavior.
NADIA CONNERS: We also chose people based on specificity and breadth. Sometimes it was important to get an expert on a specific area like over-fishing while other times we needed ocean experts that could connect their knowledge to broader more philosophical ideas. In addition to finding people that could cover all the areas of the ecosystem from oceans to air and climate we looked for big thinkers — people that could tie all of this stuff together to culture, politics, and economy. One of the great things about doing this project was being able to meet people that had inspired me or opened my mind through their work and writings. To be able to call upon them and then sit down with them for a discussion was a great honor and a huge learning experience.
Q: During this process what was there any bit of knowledge that just completely surprised you?
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: When we started the project, we wanted to take a "big picture" look at how humans have related to the earth, and take stock of the state of the planet. It seems so obvious now, but I was surprised to find out that humans are facing an extinction crisis along with all other life, that we are not excluded from the catastrophic events, that in fact, we are the most vulnerable even though we have technology. We learned that the earth is going to be fine. It’s us, humans beings, that are in big trouble. So, the environmental movement is not about saving the trees, it’s about saving ourselves.
NADIA CONNERS: Yes, many times. Almost every person we interviewed said something either totally new to me or had a kind of unique perspective or insight into a known fact that made me see the world differently. Realizing that the environmental problems we face are not just another political issue to be regulated; these problems demand a cultural shift and a groundswell from citizens like the civil rights movement — that was the biggest revelation to me in the film — that this fight to "save the world" is global, is the largest in human history and that approaching it, as an issue to be regulated here and there will never work. A total sea change in how we live and approach the world is necessary. We need a constitutional right to protect the environment in the Untied States and all over the world.
Another thing that really surprised me: Wes Jackson’s explanation of agriculture and soil. I never knew soil wasn’t just dirt but a mixture of nutrients and earth that has been evolving for billions of years. That modern agriculture and all of our petrol-based fertilizers and pesticides and monoculture farming is actually not only destroying the soil but degrading it so much that we are producing food that is not only toxic but is losing its nutritional value.
Q: What are some simple things people can do every day to improve their lifestyle and be more eco-aware?
NADIA CONNERS: Ask where stuff in your life comes from. We have become disconnected, and we no longer know where things come from, how they were made or even who made them. That disconnection has kept us removed from a lot of the damage our everyday behaviors inflict upon the world. Start asking questions about the things in your life and follow the story of an object back to its source. Once you start connecting the detergent under you sink to a dead zone you start seeing the world as a whole and your relationship with this planet and life on it will deepen. Drive less, walk more, eat organic, use less, buy smart, live on a smaller scale, more is not more, bring a bag to the market. . . . Little things really do add up. Reuse something — share.
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: The most basic thing to do is to learn everything about where you live. Where does the water come from that you drink? Where does your food come from? What is the state of the air that you breathe? Once you find out, you will find out that these things are in trouble and need help. And once you clean up the place that you live, then you have done your part. (if you live in a big city, ask for measures to decrease pollution, for example). The next step would to be to learn everything you can about the things that you buy. Does the car you drive pollute the atmosphere and guzzle oil? Does the furniture that you purchase come from rainforest wood? Does the food you buy have chemicals in it? Are the clothes that you wear made in a sweatshop? Once you find those things out, you choose to buy things that are sustainable, organically, efficiently and humanely. These two actions would really go a long way to protecting the environment.
Q: How do you think people can go about helping to affect the kind of sweeping industry-wide changes that need to be made to allow the human race to live cleaner?
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: Ray Anderson said in an outtake of our film that "without customers, there is no corporation." So, people can change industry by simply not purchasing products that are harmful to the environment and to people in their construction and creation. Once industry finds out that people, for example, prefer non-polluting cars, then they will change. In addition, for the energy industry that is so polluting, in particular, people need to build coalitions to put pressure on government and elected officials so that they can regulate them. CEOs themselves have asked for regulation because they all have to step down together and government should help them do that. And the only way government will do that is if the people speak loudly about it.
NADIA CONNERS: I believe this will be the next huge social movement — like the civil rights movement 40 years ago. We have to come together and show our leaders we want change while also showing each other that we are unified in saving the life support systems that we all depend on.
Q: There is a point in the film about ownership of resources — such as rainforests and oil-rich regions. Is it possible for these privately owned yet critical regions to be regulated?
NADIA CONNERS: We tried to go for a basic idea in this film and that is the earth is only so big — there are limited resources here and our population keeps growing and putting demands on the planet that can not be fulfilled. It’s as if we are on this collision course so we looked at what is driving this use of resources. No one is saying human beings shouldn’t use the resources available to us but what we are saying is that wasteful consumption needs to be replaced by smart production. It is in the best interests of all people and cultures to be more careful with the resources we have. Progress could be redefined as what is good for the market and the planet and human society — without including the well being of all three of those you aren’t getting real progress.
Somehow we have to strike a balance between private ownership and public good — it would be great if that could happen through a consciousness shift within the free market rather than through regulation as regulation seems to have loopholes and that is about forcing people to do something against their will.
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: There should be the notion of the commons even with land that is owned privately. For example, if a corporation owns millions of acres of rainforest, they need to take into account the services that the land is providing for the planet as a whole, in this instance, oxygen and biodiversity that leads to the health of life overall as well as medicines. The commons should be recognized at an international level through UN agencies or international agreements. The value of these lands could be traded in credits for oxygen for example. Before such advanced systems are put into place, there should be regulation of whole industries while also putting into place money for research and development into new technologies so that corporations won't feel the need to go into rainforests for dollars. For example, talking rainforests again, with good forest management, not a single tree would need to be cut down from virgin forest, we could do it all with tree farms.
Q: People may compare this film to An Inconvenient Truth. How is it different?
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: An Inconvenient Truth is a brilliant movie that helped to raise awareness and activism on a global scale, but it was specifically about global warming. In our film, we spend about 7 minutes on global warming. The 11th Hour is a story about how humans face an extinction crisis if we continue on the path of business as usual.
NADIA CONNERS: An Inconvenient Truth was a fantastic and powerful treatise proving to the world that not only is this happening right now under our watch, but that humans are causing the problem. The film opened audiences up to ask important questions and helped to make projects like ours even possible. It was a very fact-based film while The 11th Hour is more of an emotional experience about our place in the world, about our hand in the collapse of the planet’s ecosystems, and our potential role in reversing this damage. Our film contextualizes global warming as being part of a larger problem.
We are grateful to be able to build off of the foundation of An Inconvenient Truth and the fact that the film really got the environmental issue out to a much larger audience. We hope to take this effort further, to more people and with a deeper message that encourages a shift in the way we relate to the planet and each other.
Q: After doing all the research, meeting with economists, scientists, architects and designers, are you optimistic?
NADIA CONNERS: I went into the process of making this film already very pessimistic about the state of the world but after each interview I would become more and more optimistic. Sometimes it wasn’t what was being said — in fact, an interview could be with someone describing the collapse of our ecosystems but I was truly inspired by the passion and depth of these people we spoke to. They have been out there on the front lines fighting for years and they are filled with hope and belief. Their hope along with their bravery and strength is contagious. I came out of this process grateful to have been born into this time — that in fact as an individual I can be a part of something truly epic — nothing short of changing the world.
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: I like Paul Hawken’s statement from our interview with him in which he says, when asked the same question, "when you look at the data, you get depressed; but if you look at the human heart, you have hope." I am very much of the same mind as Paul on this; the data is very scary, things are getting worse faster than expected and human civilization has not yet shown any sign of slowing our consumption of the earth’s resources, so the outcome looks pretty dire. However, I do believe that since we do know how to address the challenges that we face, that it’s a matter of passing a tipping point of awareness. Once people understand the dire state that the biosphere is in, and what they need to do to live sustainably; and once they know all of life is at stake, I do believe there will be a shift. And a fast one at that. The only question in my mind is when are we going to pass that tipping point? I hope our film will be part of that, that it will help fuel the cultural shift that we so desperately need on a global level. So I am optimistic, for now.
Q: If there was one point that you'd want people to take home with them after seeing the film, what would it be?
LEILA CONNERS PETERSEN: We can solve the climate change problem, the pollution problem, the problem of deforestation and overfishing, we can solve the problem of the collapse of ecosystems; we can solve all our problems with what we know today. All that is at issue is that it is a matter of will, of priorities, and changing our behavior.
NADIA CONNERS: Everything and everyone is connected, and that this is an exciting time to live in.