The Cinematic History of the Environmental Movement with A Fierce Green Fire’s Mark Kitchell

December 11, 2013

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we’re so excited to have with us today Mark Kitchell. He’s a director, producer and writer. Welcome to Green is Good, Mark Kitchell. MARK KITCHELL: Always a pleasure to be here. Thanks. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, listen. It’s always great to have another NYU alumni on the phone with me here, doing a little chat today. I also went to NYU, but not the film school, I’ll say. Mark, talk a little bit about your journey. How did you get to be so creative? You’ve created this great movie, AFierceGreenFire.com. People can go look at it. How did you begin your journey/ How’d you get to where you are today? MARK KITCHELL: Well, I grew up in San Francisco in the ’60s, which was a good place to get creative, and I was trying to keep up with my older brother, who’s a painter, and so I took up the ultimate art form of my time and NYU was a great place to go to film school. It was very much in the streets in the ’70s. I did a film about the godfather who we saw on my blog and then I went off to Hollywood. It was Rome of my business and spent my time in the salt mines and got dissatisfied and took back to documentary and made Berkeley in the ’60s, which is a classic in defining films. It’s about the student movements and things like the counterculture in the theaters and then I tried going to work for a living because it was just too damn hard to be such an independent and so I went into Hollywood and everything I did was turned into pap and gosh, I was sort of forced into this and it was my wife’s idea. She said, ‘I know, you ought to do the history of the environmental movement,’ and once again, I had that I can’t believe nobody’s done this moment and that was something like 11 years ago and I was on and off again, been on it pretty much full time since 2008. The way it was framed by those two elections of Obama. It’s been a great journey putting together the history of the environmental movement. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s great, and it culminates in this wonderful movie, A Fierce Green Fire. MARK KITCHELL: Yeah, yeah, there was a fateful conversation where I went to our advisor, Edward O. Wilson, the famous biologist, and he said, ‘Mark, you’re never going to get it made and if you do, nobody will watch it. It’s too long.’ I was planning a six-part series trying to get everything in, so right there among his ant collection, we sort of dreamed of up these five main stories to put in the film which is; the ’60s conservation movement, which is The Sierra Club, and the second story is from the seventies and the new environmental movement and that’s Love Canal and Lois Gibbs fighting 20,000 tons of toxic pollution and the third story was my choice. It was Greenpeace and the whales. There’s much more to that but the fourth story was and Chico Mendes and the rubber tappers saving the Amazon. That’s just a heroic story and one of them is going to involve climate change and there, you sort of have a plot. It was up to me to sort of build it out from there and we did lots of experiments with structure and plot and what’s in and out and whether it would all hang together and form an arc and whether there really is one environmental movement? JOHN SHEGERIAN: How many years did it take for you to put it together and when did you wrap the film? When was it complete and edited the way you wanted it? MARK KITCHELL: Well, I worked on it for a few years early in the last decade from ’01 through ’03 or ’04, then went away from it and came back and we got into Sundance and that was 2012 and that was a big push to the finish. I started and stopped finishing work three times in 2011 and the last time was getting to Sundance and it was a real miracle getting there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You mentioned your wife. You’re an artist, really, and you’re very creative, obviously, and you’ve had a long history of success. Why did you do the environmental movement? Why focus on that when there’s so many other important topics and relevant topics that you could employ your creative craft on and enjoy doing also? What happened? What was your tipping point? MARK KITCHELL: Well, in a way, it’s the opposite of a tipping point. It was the only movement that hadn’t been done to death. You know, we look around as film makers and say, ‘What can I do?’ and I felt like nothing else had been done but of course, you can also say it’s the biggest and most important movement the world has ever witnessed and see it sort of deserves a big picture film that really puts it all together so that people can see what it’s about. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners out there, I’m on your beautiful website right now. It’s unbelievable. There’s a trailer on it. For our listeners out there who want to see the movie and want to start understanding more about this great and important topic that Mark covered, it’s AFierceGreenFire.com. Mark, you talked about the five acts and the five different parts of the film. What didn’t you put in there? What could you have put in but what did you leave out? Sometimes that’s more telling and more important than what you put in. MARK KITCHELL: Sure. We did find that big important issues like population didn’t fit in the movie because there wasn’t a popular movement around it and so some issues lent themselves better to this approach and others- A dear friend and colleague looked at me and said, ‘Mark, you’ve got to have the anti-nuclear movement in there,’ and I did an oops and went back to the drawing board and started putting in all the alternative ecology movements of the early ’70s that sort of grew out of the whole earth chem laws and Bucky Fuller and people like that and started doing a whole additional piece of the film that I put in front of Greenpeace and tried to make that act more about alternatives but the anti-nuke movement fell out again so there’s a lot of things. I could go through a long list. I find it interesting that our structure, which is movement centric, activism centered, rather than focusing on issues, we tend to focus on movements and activism, what people are doing to take up these issues and fight them, that brought different choices to us. Up until this point, nobody had told Love Canal’s story but that is such a classic, such a strong story of activism. This is angry housewives and sick children who end up taking EPA officials hostage, force the president to get them out of there. That sort of story flows from our structure so it was that kind of thing. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mark, given your unique position and that you probably had access to all the legacy and state of the art thought leaders, let’s say, for the environmental movements, that were ongoing and had been ongoing for quite some time, where are you now? If I was to sit and have lunch with you today, what’s big now? Where are we headed? What’s the future and is Mike Kitchell and your wife pessimistic, optimistic, hopefully, despondent? What’s going on? MARK KITCHELL: Well, we used to have a part six of the film that was going to be about the present and the future and one name for it was, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,’ and it’s a real mix and this the is kind of issues that are getting almost too big, too fundamental, for us to deal with. We talk about climate change as an impossible issues, impossible to deal with and yet impossible to ignore. I think we’re in a mix, more optimistic than pessimistic. I’m trying to get to the big lesson of the piece and what I came to was that it’s about civilizational transformation. It’s about changing our industrial society over to a basis where it’s in some sort of sustainable balance with the natural world. We’re just going to have to reinvent the way we make and do almost everything and some of it will change the way we structure our society. I think we’ll come out of this with some modified version of capitalism but I think there’s a lot of things. It touches on everything and I think we’re going through a change as big as the industrial revolution. It took about 200 years to play out so I think we’re 50 years into a really big civilizational change. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Isn’t it shocking, Mark, though when you listen to some people who are ideologically based on continuing to deny climate change? Do you just continue to just scratch your head and say, ‘What? What’s going on?’ MARK KITCHELL: Sure, sure. That’s a big problem and I think there’s probably 12 steps just like AA. I think some of those designs would work on them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well said, well said, well said. I like that. I want to know how are you distributing this film? Obviously, your world of filmmaking and distribution has flattened and become somewhat more democratized with the leveraging of technology and all that kind of stuff. How are you distributing this film and getting the word out? Because it’s one thing creating a wonderful work of art, which I know you’ve done here and I can’t wait to watch myself. I’m on your website. Again, for our listeners out there, it’s AFireceGreenFire.com. Look at the trailer. Look at all the cities he’s coming to. How did you interrelate with the environmental groups and find distribution and making sure you get the word out now that you’ve created this piece of art? MARK KITCHELL: I know that coming back to distribution after maybe 20 years that the money’s gone out of it. In a digital era, there’s more possibilities than ever but there seems to be less money driving it but I did a kind of classic distribution plan, where I brought on two distributors, one to do theatrical and video and the other to do education and non theatrical and I’ve got a couple sales agents working on festivals and international stuff and we’re all pushing it in some of the classic ways and we’re getting some of those classic deals for broadcast and things like that but you know, we went through 40 cities doing theatrical releases in the spring and at the end of it, I said, ‘We didn’t even begin to scratch the surface,’ and so I on my own decided to do a second round and I just started calling libraries and churches and schools and environmental groups large and small and the smaller ones were responding more than the big ones and we’ve, over the course of a couple months, built 100 events for the fall and counting and I figure we’re just going to throw ourselves at this and do grassroots work with environmental groups and there quite literally is no end to environmental groups. At the end of the film, Paul Holken talks about 2 million groups (that’s his estimate) working on these issues and I started to do a resource guide for the DVD and 15 pages in, I was only scratching the surface so it’s wonderful to be working with all those people. It’s amazing to find how many there are and it’s just- JOHN SHEGERIAN: You have to get inspired with all the people you’re going to meet and touch along your journey, huh? MARK KITCHELL: Yeah, I mean all my ambition was always that this film would be something that would reach out to a lot of people and be able to made useful in a lot of ways and that just it would be a film way that way for the environmental movement. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I’m sure it is but we have a minute left. Talk about is Lois Gibbs still around and what happened after Love Canal? MARK KITCHELL: It’s a great story, so we’re going to make a movie about it. They tried doing a TV movie. JOHN SHEGERIAN: You’re the guy! MARK KITCHELL: She took her share of the Love Canal settlement money and she took her kids and moved to Washington and started a group to help all the other Lois’s and their motto was, ‘Plug up all the toilets,’ and when they had quite literally stopped all new toxic waste dumps in the United States, they then moved on to all other sorts of other issues, including a lot of front of the pipeline issues and she’s been at it for 35 years. She’s one of the great leaders. JOHN SHEGERIAN: We need that and we need more people like Mark Kitchell. For our listeners out there, it’s AFierceGreenFire.com. Watch the movie, get inspired, get involved, and help the movement move forward. Mark Kitchell, you are a creative inspirational sustainability leader and truly living proof that green is good.