In 2009, Psihoyos won the Academy Award for his heartbreaking film, The Cove. It followed Psihoyos and a film crew into the tragic world of dolphin slaughtering in the island of Taiji, Japan. Six years later Psihoyos has been working hard at following this up with a even bolder vision entitled Racing Extinction. It’s a courageous film with a clear intention, to raise the awareness about the dangers many species face, as well as our own.
It’s hard not to be swept into the orbit of Louie Psihoyos’ personality. He exudes an assuredness that is contagious and a kamikaze-like conviction in his work.
His rolodex of celebrity friends and collaborators is impressive, and he intelligently taps into the viral power they possess. Business magnate Elon Musk and renowned conservationist Jane Goodall both appear in Racing Extinction to lend their support to the cause.
But it’s clear that for Psihoyos making these movies has come at a cost, sacrifices have been made in order to pursue this mission of affecting change.
We commend Psihoyos for carrying the camera into the darkness. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to see what’s going on.
With your first film, The Cove, came a huge amount of critical acclaim that helped to build a wave of support. Your next film, Racing Extinction is a serious meditation on the damaging effects humans are having on the earth. There’s a lot to digest but it’s incredibly powerful. What kind of impact do you hope this next film will have?
This one is a bigger film, it certainly deals with issues that impact on everybody and all species. The scope of it is pretty epic. What we’re trying to do is give people the sense of the fact that there’s a mass extinction event going on right now and we’re the cause of it. So I think unlike dolphin hunting, where people could say, “okay, I don’t go to dolphin shows, it doesn’t affect me,” this film should touch everybody. It’s potentially way more impactful.
The Cove is a confronting and shocking movie, much like the film Earthlings that came out a few years back. Do you think that’s part of the problem? That people are perhaps feeling fatigued and emotionally worn out by these kind of stories and images?
Shaun Monson who directed Earthlings is a good friend of mine. We made these two films, Earthlings and The Cove, that have a similar theme and both contain images that people don’t want to see. But we have different ways of illustrating them. The Cove is much more of a thriller. Once people start watching it, they usually stick around because of that aspect. And it’s the same with this film Racing Extinction, yeah there’s some stuff that’s difficult to watch but actually I deliberately didn’t make it as graphic as the Cove. It’s more Pulp Fiction than Reservoir Dogs. I was very conscious to not put too much blood or violence in there, even though we very easily could have done. We cut way back because we don’t want people to be turned away by the violence.
What really shook me in this film was the way in which the people you talk to lie through their teeth so blatantly. When they said for example that the sharks caught for their fins don’t suffer, watching you guys keep your composure is really impressive. What goes through your head when you’re entering a covert mission?
The first rule is to never ever blow your cover. Stick with your story no matter what, even if you get found out. Make sure you always present a doubt in the mind of the person who’s exposed you.
I’m surprised no one recognised you by your face, after the publicity you received for the first film.
Well we did get discovered in Korea. We nearly got arrested. And then the next time we went back to the country we actually used prosthetics so that we looked Asian. This was when we were busting a group selling Japanese whale meat to the Koreans.
Perhaps we can just step back a bit for a second. I’d like to know a bit about the life you lived before you started documentary filmmaking. You were seventeen when you got involved in your first environmental action and that was with the folk singer Pete Seeger.
Yeah, Pete Seeger was one of my heroes. I was interested in how art and music in particular could influence a culture. Back then we were coming off the sixties, where folk heroes like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were having a huge effect. But before that there was this whole other generation, Pete Seegar, Woody Guthrie, The Weavers, and these were people who were using music to start unions and motivate people for social action. I was very interested in that.
So I spent a season travelling around, protesting nuclear power plants with Pete Seeger. We went to the first ever Hudson River Revival, I guess it was like forty years ago now. Arlo Guthrie and Elizabeth Cotten were there too. Pete was saying some day he wanted to get to a point where the river was clean enough for people to swim and fish and sail in. And now that’s what everyone’s doing but back then I thought, what a crazy old kook. The young guys now are probably looking at me the same way. Or I hope they are anyway.
Change can happen and it can happen very quickly. It’s a different world now, with the internet and social media. We don’t need a printing press like the National Geographic to get the word out. Every kid with a laptop or camera can create a message that can go viral and has the potential change the world.
Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, got a huge amount of attention, but there’s kind of a fatigue in the consciousness of the public. Like you’ve addressed in your films, when you talk to people the first thing they say is, “It’s all too much. I don’t know how to deal with it.”
Yes but at the end of the film we do show the impact of a small action by each individual. If everybody gave up meat and eggs and dairy for one day out of a week it would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road. When people say that one person eating meat is not going to have a profound effect, just remember that the average person eats 10,400 animals in their lifetime. That’s a lot of animals. So every person has the chance to be a super hero by just deciding to eat more of a plant based diet.
"What we’re trying to do is give people the sense of the fact that there’s a mass extinction event going on right now and we’re the cause of it."
Do you ever have moments of doubt about yourself or the work that you do? Do you ever worry that you could be doing more?
I could always be doing more but having said that, it takes a lot to make a film. I wish we had more help, I wish we had more money, more time. But I’m running flat out.
I’ll tell you this story and hopefully it will give you some idea of what influences me. At about the same time I started working for National Geographic I visited one of the biggest flea markets in the world in Perkiomen, Pennsylvania. Tens of thousands of people were there, it was a blue-sky day and this guy in a pickup truck pulls around the corner right in front of me.
There’s a family walking hand-in-hand, a boy and a girl with their mother and father and I can see that the wing-mirror of this truck might hit the kids. People are talking and it’s really loud and I start to scream but the scream kind of gets caught in my chest because I don’t know, I’m not used to screaming out in public. Anyway I don’t react fast enough or loud enough and the mirror hits this kid. He gets dragged underneath the truck and he brings his sister with him and they both get crushed right in front of me. I’ve had to live with the knowledge that if I could have just acted a little faster . . . if I would have screamed. . . I might have prevented it.
The same thing is going on right now except it’s on a planetary scale and I feel like I need to do everything I can because I have all these tools at my disposal to tell the story with. I’ve done a lot of work that deals with mass extinction. I’m perfectly positioned to scream at the top of my lungs. I want to make sure that when my time’s up I don’t have any more could’a, would’a, should’a moments.
What’s your opinion of the media’s role in environmentalism? I don’t want to play the whole media blame game because I think it could well be false but do you feel as if you’re generally helped or hindered by the media?
Well when we lit up the Empire State Building, people told me that no one will pay attention to this story. Discovery was saying we don’t need it, we’re not going to pay for it, we don’t want to help you. My producers were saying it’s too expensive, don’t do it, save the money. But we went ahead and did it anyway and within the four days afterwards we had 939 million media hits. We were the top trending story on Facebook and Twitter for four days worldwide.
I think if you have a good clear message you can effectively use the media to alert the world. The media’s not the problem, you just have to tell the story in the right way so that people understand the message and how they’re a part of it. We could have blamed the Koch brothers, the oil industry, the government, but that would have been buying into the idea that the problem is beyond us. Our message is this; let’s fix us first, and then we can get the government’s attention. We want to give the politicians the constituency that they need to solve the problems on a government level.
Have you managed to talk to Obama about this?
We’re trying get the movie on his docket. But it’s not exactly flattering to the Obama administration.
Obama’s real practical and I know he’s up against a lot. I met him back before his first election and somebody asked him at that meeting, why doesn’t he raise the tax on gasoline? His response was that the last time the democrats did that it kept them out of the White House for eight years.
But I look at what he did by allowing Shell to drill up in the Arctic and I think, he could have prevented that with a swipe of his pen. And then he goes up that same week to Alaska and talks about the perils of climate change. He says Bush already approved the Arctic drilling and Shell had already paid a couple of billion dollars for the contract. I understand there’s a conflict. I know we only see some of the cards he’s holding, not the whole picture. Ironically he’s still probably the best president for the environment we’ve had since Nixon.
I read a recent article about you and the headline was, “Louie Psihoyos pulled off the stunt that cost him his marriage, 1.3 million dollars and four years of his life.” Does that headline irritate you at all?
No, that was probably pretty accurate. I shouldn’t talk about my ex-wife but I remember trying to explain to her what I wanted to do on the Empire State Building and she was just dismissive of it. She never understood me. She always thought my veganism was a fad.
I still love her. She’s one of my best friends but we had this difference. At some point in our lives we just went in separate directions. When you live with somebody you want to be able to share your dreams with them and I realised then that I didn’t have the support of my partner. I kind of regret talking about it to that journalist and I’ll probably regret talking about it to you. But when you’re trying to change the world you want to be surrounded by partners in crime.
"I’m perfectly positioned to scream at the top of my lungs."
Do you feel like you’re changing the world?
I think there’s about 15,000 dolphins a year that are not being killed. They don’t know what my name is, but because I’ve been in this world it’s a slightly better place for them. I think this film will hopefully create thousands if not millions of vegetarians and for every one of those people who gets converted there’s 10,000 animals who will not live a life of suffering. So I think because I’ve been bold enough to tell these stories the world will be a slightly better place for a lot of people, certainly a lot of species.
You’ve been associated with some incredibly well known and interesting figures over the years including Hunter S Thompson, Stephen Spielberg and Elon Musk. What have you learned from these people and how did your friendships with them come about?
After I worked at the National Geographic I went to work for Fortune magazine where I took photos of people who made too much money, so I met a lot of people in that way. One of them was Jim Clark. Jim built the first 3D graphics engine that became Silicon Graphics. It was the Apple computer of our day. The day he quit that he started Netscape, the first commercial internet browser and then he started Web MD. We eventually became best friends and dive buddies. He’d pick me up on his boat and we’d take underwater pictures all over the world. Jim said to me one day, “will you teach me how to be a good photographer?” and I said, “I’ll teach you how to be a great one if you teach me how to be a billionaire.”
It was Jim who really gave me the balls to dream big. Here was a guy I looked up to who was changing the world. He set me up with the Oceanic Preservation Society and a lot of other people came on board because of him.
I interviewed a guy very similar to you in the food world, Josh Tetrick.
Oh I love Josh.
How does Hunter S Thompson fit into the story?
We had the same editor at Random House. I was living in Colorado and I told Hunter if he ever needed an author’s photo then I’d do it and so we ended up becoming friends that way.
Fantastic. My last question is what’s next for you? Where will your next fight take you?
I’m doing a film called The Game Changers which is being executive produced by James Cameron. It deals with nutrition in top athletes, in particular with vegan athletes. We just started it.
Thanks for your time Louie.
Discovery Channel will be airing Racing Extinction worldwide on December 2nd at 9pm PST time.