Years of Living Dangerously is hardly the only show hawking celebrity hosts to get viewers interested in climate change. Leonardo DiCaprio’s second climate change documentary, Before the Flood, premiered just last week; HBO’s Vice sees Shane Smith investigating sea-level rise and melting ice sheets around the globe; let’s not even go into all the of the celebrities who have narrated science documentaries.
All those recent examples aside, however, it’s pretty safe to say Years is original in one regard: It is perhaps the only documentary title to intersperse footage of David Letterman blow-drying his new beard and buying a kurta with shots of him chatting with India’s minister of state about energy policy. See it for yourself on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, when the show’s second season premieres.
It’s an anecdote, but a telling one. Years of Living Dangerously endeavors equally to bring climate change science to the masses and to entertain. The series’ first season cast Harrison Ford as a correspondent investigating the palm-oil industry in Indonesia; the second season sees Saturday Night Live cast member Cecily Strong getting to the bottom of the corporate interests dampening solar-energy growth in Nevada and Florida. Some members of the second season’s cast list are obvious choices—Sigourney Weaver has long supported environmental causes, and Arnold Schwarzengger backed climate change legislation as the Republican governor of California. But The Vampire Diaries’ Ian Somerhalder? Gisele Bündchen? Jack Black?
Integral to putting together this celebrity ensemble is creator and executive producer Joel Bach, a 60 Minutes veteran and a longtime supporter of the celebrities-as-expert-hosts concept. Before Years, Bach floated the thought of getting Tom Hanks to host an episode of 60 Minutes (“They didn’t like that idea,” he says with a laugh.) These days, he’s looking for stars with genuine interest in climate change awareness for his program. Having noticed that Letterman occasionally featured scientists like Dr. James Hansen on Late Night, Bach reached out. “He got back to us immediately; he jumped at the chance,” Bach says.
Pacific Standard chatted with Bach about what celebrities can do to get more people interested in climate change and make environmental exposés more human—and what the show is doing to complicate Hollywood’s reputation for liberalism.
You and co-creator David Gelber started off as producers for 60 Minutes. Tell me a little bit about how you came to get involved in a climate change series hosted by celebrities.
David and I worked at 60 Minutes for many years as a producing team—and at one point we went to our bosses and said, “We really want to focus on climate change, this is the beat we want to have.” But the problem is at 60 Minutes you don’t get a beat; one week you do a story on climate change, and the next week you do a story on a knuckleball pitcher. They said, “We’re going to keep covering the story but we’re not going to do it necessarily as much as you guys want to do it.” So we left.
We decided that there really ought to be a follow-up to Al Gore’s film [An Inconvenient Truth]. And we decided over the course of time that having a big ensemble celebrity cast could actually really help get the issue out because so many Americans saw, or even still see, climate change as something that only Gore cares about. We thought that we could, in a sense, de-Gorify the issue: As much as he’s a hero, there are so many people around the world, that care about climate change, and theirs were stories that needed to be told.
What’s your process for selecting celebrity hosts? Do you specifically look for people who support climate change legislation or action?
We reach out to people who are interested in the issue but don’t know a whole lot about [climate change] so that when they go out into the field to film, they basically are a stand-in for the viewer, and they learn just as much as the viewer learns along the way. We’ve also worked really hard to have people who let their guard down and expose themselves to a story and not preach or talk down to the audience. These are not public-service announcements where somebody’s telling you to save the whales or the polar bears are in trouble, and therefore you have to change the entire way that you live.
What are some of the particular production challenges that you encounter when you’re working with celebrity hosts who aren’t experts?
What’s tough is that interviewing subjects isn’t something most of these celebrities have done before; when I was doing stories with journalists like Leslie Stahl or Steve Croft at 60 Minutes, I’d give them a binder, they knew their questions to ask, and they had the wealth of their own reporting experience to draw from because that’s just what they do. And we’re asking these celebrities to basically be journalists, which is an entirely new experience for them.
What’s great, though, is that, with a lot of these celebrities, you discuss with them what the conversation’s going to be and you don’t even necessarily need to write questions. Or you can, and they can look at them, but then they just go and have a regular conversation with the person they’re talking to. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a much more natural way to convey information and to learn what’s going on in the world. And some of them even have a photographic memory—you can put 20 questions in front of them and they just know them, they’re not looking down at a piece of paper the entire time. It doesn’t have the formal stiffness that I think you see in news magazines.
Conversely, what are some of the opportunities that come along with having celebrities host the show? In the first episode of the second season, you feature an interview with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Does the fact that he’s going to be interviewed by David Letterman improve the odds of getting him on camera?
It helps enormously to have these celebs. Modi does very few interviews, but he was intrigued at the opportunity of speaking to Letterman. He was also familiar with the program, and he knew that we were taking the issues seriously and that we weren’t some kind of fly-by-night operation.
And I just think they do a great job. Would I prefer to have our character talk to Jack Black, or talk to someone they’ve never heard, or no one’s ever heard of? No, I’d rather have them talk to Black because Black is great television. He’s incredibly interesting—super funny, thoughtful, cared a lot about the story he was doing. When you watch it, and you’re like, “I can’t believe that I’m watching Black do this,” it blows your mind. You get a lot of bang for your buck with these people.
There’s a prevalent stereotype that Hollywood stars are largely liberal. Is that a reputation that you wrestle with as you attempt to bring these stories to a larger audience?
We’ve really tried hard to cast a diverse group of individuals—we tried to get country stars and various musicians involved, and we haven’t been able to get those voices to be a part of this. But Arnold Schwarzenegger is the former Republican governor of California, and I know from reading the responses on his Facebook page when he posts about the show that a lot of people had no idea that he was even concerned about the environment, but they watch the show because they’re a Schwarzenegger fan and then they come away having learned something.
We’ve also worked very hard to have our characters be unexpected characters. For example, we did a story last season about Hurricane Sandy and featured New York’s Michael Grimm, a Republican Tea Party congressman who found himself in the middle of having to deal with Sandy and the aftermath because he was from Staten Island. Instead of having Michael talk to members of environmental non-governmental organizations, he talked to other Republican congressmen—people who come from his own cloth—who had actually come around on the issue of climate change, and that helped him to come around the issue of climate change.
You’re not the only show using celebrities to spread awareness of news issues—Leonardo DiCaprio’s climate change documentaries and particular episodes of Vice shows do the same. What sets your approach apart?
What I think we’ve worked really hard to do is have our characters tell stories. Our celebrities go out into the field and see what’s going on, meet people, and film over the course of an entire year—it’s not a quick hit and then you’re out of there, nor is it just like a bunch of dry interviews in a conference room. It’s storytelling, and wherever possible we have characters who you get invested in, and you have storylines that you care about with uncertain outcomes, so you’re watching because you want to know what’s going to happen.
Leo has clearly cared about climate change for a really long time, which is just wonderful. His first film about it [The 11th Hour], though, was a series of mainly talking-head interviews intercut with B-roll, with Leo occasionally addressing the camera. To his credit, Leo’s second film, Before the Flood, is similar to Years in that it’s now he takes you on a two-year journey as he learns what’s happening to the planet. Vice does some of that too.
What do you hope your audience gets out of the second season as opposed to the first season?
In season two, we continue to show the impacts of climate change, and show them in some really intense and horrific ways; but we also show some incredible solutions that are underway, much more than we did in season one. It’s really half and half; it’s half good news and half bad news. The solutions are real, it’s just whether we’re going to get our act together as a country, as a people, and as a planet, to adopt them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.