Thursday, September 10, 2009

Will the Gabbert/Schein/Beavan/Conlin NO IMPACT MAN make an impact? Let’s hope.

Ironies run fast and friskily through NO IMPACT MAN, the documentary based upon the now- famous year spent (often) in the dark with no electricity; on foot or bicycle rather than car, subway or bus; sans toilet-
paper and a whole lot more (actually, less) by husband/
wife writers Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin and their daughter, and captured in no (or at least low) impact by filmmakers Laura Gabbert (below, right) and Justin Schein (below, left). The movie is a hoot -- funny, surprising, full of life -- that consistently brings you up short by implicitly asking, Could you do this? Followed by: Will we all soon
be forced into doing this?

Troubled big-time by the knowledge of how a certain percentage of the world’s population -- we here in the USA are the leaders -- have used up the earth’s resources at an alarming rate, Mr. Beavan decided to try making as little negative impact on the world as possible for one year. He also managed to get his wife and daughter to join his unusual enterprise. All this has been covered in the media from newspapers to TV, and so you may have already some knowledge of what happened. Trust me, you don’t know the half of it – which is why the movie is so much fun. And so upsetting.

Mr. Beavan (shown, near left) is stalwart and intelligent, his wife (far left) is utterly charming and off-the-cuff (another irony: She works for Business Week magazine), and their daughter (center) is adorable. Their story alternates between weird and alarming, funny and icky, sensible and nuts. A kind of experiment to learn what can and cannot be accomplished regarding impact, the year and its challenges make for a generally riveting time. The bonus is that certain other things -- the war between men and women, male prerogative and female need – rear their heads and vie for equal time, and so it sometimes appears that personality and character may trump agenda.

Mr. Beavan has taken a lot of flack from many quarters for his little exercise. This seems to me rather unwarranted: a kind of kill-the-messenger response to a continuing (but perhaps -- unless we are lucky -- not for too much longer) global crisis. He has an interesting and, I think, rather generous response to his critics, which you’ll find in the interview below. No Impact Man begins its limited, nationwide rollout this Friday, September 11 (an intentional debut date, no doubt) in New York City at the Angelika Film Center and in Los Angeles at Laemmle’s Royal; further release dates, theaters and cities can be found here. Should you consider seeing this film, do remember to walk or bike, not drive, to the theater; bring your own container for popcorn; and when you use the rest room.... Whoops. Better leave that part unsaid.


Present at the one-on-one interview that slowly turned into a roundtable threesome (with interviewers Jennifer, Jim and Marie), were co–director Justin Schein (his counterpart, Laura Gabbert, is based in Los Angeles and could not be present); author, blogger and now screen star Colin Beavan; and his wife and co-star in the film Michelle Conlin. The Roundtable's question are in bold; interviewees' answers are in plain text....

Roundtable: Justin, how did you get involved with this film?

Justin: Laura and Michelle were best friends from high school, so I met Colin and Michelle through Laura about a week before their “year” was going to start. My wife -- who is also producer of the film -- and I had dinner with Laura, Michelle and Colin. During that evening the light bulb -- the CFL -- went off, so to speak, and it was clear that this had the making of a great film, so then we just had to convince Colin to let us do it.

I notice that Laura and you share both directing and writing credit on the film, so I am wondering what “writing” this actually was?

I don’t think there’s any writing credit on the film…. Laura and I were both directors, and Laura and Eden (Wurmfeld) were both producers. I did the lion’s share of the shooting but I don’t think there is a writing credit…

Yes, it says so right here on the emailed release we got from the PR agency (we show him).

Hmmm…. If there is, I’ll have to take that up with my agent!

Yeah – you should get more money, right?

Even if it says so here, I know it does not say this in the film itself.

How did you manage to get funding for the film?

We started out a week before the year was to start, we jumped right in, and Colin challenged us to make our film as “sustainably” as possible. So we decided to just use the gear we already had – which was basically just me with a camera.

We got a few grants in the beginning and shot away, and then toward the end of the filming, we got Impact Partners -- a group of investors -- involved. They provided most of the funding for the edit.

So you, as filmmakers, were trying to be as "no impact" in the filming as you two –Colin and Michelle – were in your own way?

To a degree. Colin asked us to make those considerations in the filming, so we decided not to use any light -- except natural -- or any cars in the making of the film.

Michelle:: Tell them about your biking. Justin learned a lot about riding a bike during the filming!

Yes, if filmmaking doesn't work out, I could probably be in the circus. I held the camera and filmed that way all the time. It was fun – but bumpy. I am sure the editor noticed this….

Colin: You started as someone who bumped up against a problem and wanted to investigate and see what could be done about it. And then you became a kind of media persona. How does this impact the No Impact man? Justin said you were a bit reluctant to get into the film part of the project. Did this impact your ability to live the kind of no impact life you were reaching for -- or was it counter-productive?

Colin: Have you had the chance to read the book yet?


I think the book addresses that question. The Impact project was to do two things: decreasing our negative impact and increasing the positive. Decreasing impact as an individual person is limited, but the amount of positive impact you can do as a person is infinite. I’d like to think what we’re doing in the film by spreading the message has enough positive impact to overwhelm the negative impact. That’s all I think anybody can hope to do with their life: Doing more good than harm. So that is what I hope for this whole thing.

That makes the movie's title very ironic in a way.

Yes, people talk about the impact of “No Impact.”

I recall reading something somewhere in the media about your meeting with your agent at some swanky restaurant to discuss your idea about giving up the consumerist life style in order stuff to save the environment. The implication of this struck me as somewhat snarky on the part of the writer – particularly after seeing the film. Have you felt a kind of backlash over what you did – and if so, where does this come from? Maybe from the fear that all of us face about what is going to happen if we continue to despoil the environment? So that the anger and snark expressed become a way to diffuse this fear?

I think that so many of us are working so hard to make ends meet and to do our best for ourselves, our family and friends. At the same time there is kind of failure of the American Dream going on -- mortgage failure, unemployment etc. Then some guy like me comes along and says, I am trying to make no environmental impact. Even though in my approach, I don't go around and say. "You should be behaving differently!", people still make an inference from what I’m saying. They say, "Oh, he’s having less impact, so I should too. But I am working my rear end off, my life is not as happy as it should be, and still you’re telling me that my life is wrecking the planet? Leave me alone!"

But the other side of the coin is that I really believe that we are in a very bad crisis. The top climate scientists are telling us that we must stop burning coal to generate power within eight years or we will irrevocably disrupt the planet’s ability to sustain us.

At the same time we also have a quality-of-life crisis: We are not living as well or as happily as we might. My argument is that we have a tremendous opportunity to solve both problems at the same time. At the individual level, we found that when we turned off the TV and consumed less, we pulled together as a family spent more time with our little girl. There were joys to be had by consuming less. On a cultural level, if we were to create a renewable energy industry and then switch over from fossil fuels to this, we would no longer be blowing off the tops of mountains and trashing people's drinking water. We would then be creating a new industry with new jobs and new technology that we could sell around the world!

I totally can understand why people feel challenged, but it’s important that people are challenged because we are in an emergency. The other side of the coin is that we could end up with something better -- and going somewhere better than we are now.

I understand what you are trying to do. I am not entirely sure that the film is that provocative. You’re making a very provocative statement. But the film just shows you. You know what I mean? Is the statement something that comes through in the film or in a follow up to the film? Is it a flat statement inherent in the film?

Colin: Here’s the filmmaker. Anything to do with the content of the film goes to him.

(To Colin) You had nothing to do with the editing?

I didn’t make the film. I love the film. I think it’s a really important entry point to environmentalism. What I will say is this: No Impact Man is three things. It’s a book and a blog and a film. What you're saying about the film right now, if you read the book, this will totally satisfy you about what you’re concerned with at the moment. Because it works at a whole different level. It’s not to say that the book is better than the film. It’s just that the film is accessible to some people and you can only do a certain job in 90 minutes. And the filmmaker made what I consider to be quite a savvy decision, which was to point out the narrative in order to attract the most eyeballs. It’s what we need at the moment, we need eyeballs. So my personal hope is that once we get those eyeballs people will say “You know? I want to hear more about this!” and the film's viewers might move on to the book where the issues are addressed much more directly.

Do we need to get government more involved in this?

Personally, I think that right now I’m not sure how or where you are with the politics of climate change right now. Basically in the House of Representatives we just passed a climate bill. It was significantly weakened by the coal industry. It’s better than nothing but it is weaker. Now it’s about to go traversing through the Senate and we are not sure what will happen to it. With any luck it will get strengthened again. But what we really need right now is for the President to come out and start talking more about these issues. With me, no one backed me on this, really. It's about individual action. That’s how people think of me, that I’m an individual-action guy. I believe that there are two things that we need. One is to change our systems to make them more sustainable. Largely, the systems that we need to change are how we produce energy and how we transport ourselves and how we produce our food. But we can’t get to the levels we need to get to without changing our lifestyles too. It’s a two-pronged approach. We need to change individuals and we need to change our systems -- and to change systems, this requires politicians to get involved.

I have a question for Michelle. There is such a wonderful feminist slant to the movie that skewers the male prerogative. How much of that was built-in and how much did you push into it?

The male prerogative, meaning sort of like is that like the male telling me the direction of the household?

Well, yes, except that you’re constantly re-setting him in the film but there was still, at least for me -- and perhaps this is my own male guilt coming out or something -- that was one of the things that really kept impressing me was the pull and tug. Not that you weren’t on the same page, working for the same goal…

Yeah, it seemed as if he were setting policy. People have said that they think that I’m trying to figure out how to be a good woman and I’m just fumbling a lot. So I’m just…ah…it was interesting for me. I said yes (to the project) initially because I was so excited about Colin, my husband, having something he was excited about. That’s why I said yes, right? And during the experience I really saw all of these amazing dividends. But initially I went into it because I thought I wanted to be a supportive wife.

Colin: Yeah, but then -- and I can’t remember whether I wrote about it in the book -- when the film came along I wanted nothing to do with it. This is not to say that Justin and Laura have not done a wonderful job with the film, but to me it’s very stressful to be up there on the screen. I knew that I was going to feel that way. I had conversations with Laura and Justin, and Laura and Justin had conversations with us, and they were able to convince us. Actually, what happened was back in the house, Michelle said: "I am willing to do this provided you are. I want to do the movie. And so I said “Oh, OK.” So it was like, OK, I’ll do the movie. So sometimes when we are doing Q&A’s after the movie people ask whose idea it was to do the movie, sometimes I feel that I was the one who got driven to do it.

Well, in the final analysis, that’s considered a wash.

You’re absolutely right!!

Michelle: This is a very particular culture [environmentalism], and not a culture I think your colleagues would necessarily fall into, this eco-business. I’m wondering what kind of impact, this 'no impact' has had with your relationship to your colleagues at your work?

You know, I have to say, it’s funny, this weekend Business Week on line put the new carbon tab as the front page story all weekend. They ran a huge special report and they asked me to write a story for the magazine in the magazine this week. The Editor-in-Chief of Business Week, Steve Adler, he was just enormously supportive of this.

Do you think the movie made a change in his thinking, or was he there already?

At the end of the day I believe that most of the people at Business Week believe in storytelling, using storytelling, and that’s what it [the movie] was.

And I know that Steve's son is a environmentalist… very dedicated. His son is only 10 and he’s really an environmentalist prodigy.

Colin: He’s the future.

If there is one.

(Special thanks to Davida Weber for her
transcription abilities on this one.)

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