Franny Armstrong - Determination amidst a rising sea of stupidity
As the Age of Stupid opens with a record-breaking simultaneous world premiere to a potential million viewers across 550 screens in over 60 countries over the next few days, a look back at James MacGregor's interview with Franny ahead of the UK release:
It was over three years ago that James MacGregor first reported here that Franny Armstrong, director of the acclaimed McLibel, was looking to sell shares in her new climate change film. It seemed a long shot at the time, yet, through selling shares to hundreds of people, Armstrong and producer Lizzie Gillett raised over £450,000 - by far the most successful use of crowdsourced funding in the film industry to date (Greenwald/Gilliams' Iraq for Sale raised $287,000).
From this beginning, through to a 'people's premiere' this Sunday across 64 cinemas in the UK - which makes it both potentially the world's largest ever film premiere (Guiness Book of Records on standby) and the first solar powered gala to grace Leicester Square - Armstrong and Gillett have redefined the boundaries of what is possible with a documentary that, in the words of Ken Livingstone "every single person in the country should be forcibly made to watch".
Where An Inconvenient Truth focussed on facts and figures to build an indisputable case about global warming, the Age of Stupid, takes us to the human stories around the world that illustrate the impact, denial, and inadequate responses to climate change right now. There are repentent oil workers and a defiant budget airline entrepreneur. There's the incredible hostility from the Brits to windfarms (80% of applications get rejected because of reactionary local groups) and the fatherly figure of Pete Postlethwaite watching from the future, asking why we never did more when we still could.
The format seems really well shaped for a YouTube era, lending itself easily to be broken into small segments under 10 mins; animations and mini-films which focus on different areas of the topic and hopefully after the film is released more fo these mini-films will be released online to spread the message further (and promote the full feature). They work well independently and together paint an ever stronger picture that the economic recovery must be used to restart business on a completely different footing: business as usual will lead to unimaginable suffering and death. Just this week, scientists in Copehagan have said that the worst case scenarios of two years ago were far too optimistic.
James MacGregor - who has been following Franny's career since before McLibel - has prepared an interview with her, which first ran at Shooting People who also include some of her earlier interviews with him.
Q. You met a lot of people during your filming travels including many developing economies - are they all really aware of the threat posed by climate change or is it seen as a western, more than a global problem?
Well we only went to India, Nigeria and Jordan. I would say that nobody we met had heard of climate change, certainly in Nigeria. It was complete non-issue. In India there was a higher level of awareness but still - we are talking about a very small sub-section of people here, we are not conducting any market research and also we were not really talking about it because we were very, very busy. But it is definitely high-profile. In fact I think UK have got the highest profile of anywhere in the world, but even here in the UK 50% of people still seem to think there is some doubt about whether climate change is going to happen. It is good that UK is taking the lead in this, but we are still desperately, desperately behind.
Q. You have MacLibel, Drowned Out and other campaigning films under your belt; where exactly did Stupid come from - what spurred you to make this film?
Well I have actually been obsessed with climate change my whole life ever since I first heard about it in the 80's at school when it was called "the greenhouse effect", so it has kind of been the monster in the room that I have been avoiding facing ever since then really. And then I finally got around to it in 2002.
Q. So what makes Stupid different from Inconvenient Truth, 11th Hour, Crude Awakening and all those other climate campaigning films?
We were really glad when An Inconvenient Truth came out, because it basically did the groundwork for us. It does the science of climate change very, very well and it meant, when that came out, that we didn't have to include all that stuff in ours. We thought when we were planning our film that we would have to do a quick grounding, so people knew what we were talking about, but ours is utterly different because ours is about the people, the human impact, whereas his is about the science, so they go hand in hand.
Q. So it dynamically changed a bit and evolved over the four years you took to make it then?
Oh, Yes, it certainly evolved. I mean it started off as pure documentary, six interweaving stories and by the end it turned into this drama/animation documentary hybrid, set in the future [laughs.]
Q. So it is certainly not the film you set out to make in the first place.
Certainly not. The first one was called Crude but as we went along we knew we had to change it.
Q. You must have been delighted to get John Battsek on board as producer, how did you persuade him to support the project?
Oh, Yes. He was very easy to persuade. He was the second person to be involved after me. I had just heard him speak at something or other and I was on the look out for a producer or an exec producer who was in the mainstream, because I did not want to make a film that just preached to the converted.
So, while I was on the lookout for a mainstream producer I heard him speak somewhere and I just loved his attitude. Everybody else was wearing suits, he was wearing jeans. He was going on about how the idea for a film is the only thing that counts; as long as you have the strength of the idea, then everything else falls into place. So I just emailed him and said I had just made McLibel and could I come and tell him my idea for a new film. And I did that and he said - and I quote - "Love it! Let's do it!" [smiles and giggles] And that was our agreement!
Q. Oh, that's fantastic! What a star!
Yes, that was within about five minutes. He said the other day that it has been at least twice as long as any other film he has made and he has got paid exactly nothing.
Q. Right.! [Both laugh]
For double the amount of work he has never done before! [chuckles]
Q. Pete Postlethwaite is very busy man and I gather, very environmentally friendly - so did that help you to secure his services?
Oh, my god yea, I mean it actually took the film into another league when he came on. For example Channel 4 news did an eight-minute piece about the drama shoot which was essentially 'some people are making a film.' --I mean this is not really news, not really national news, but that's the kind of effect Pete has, he's a kind of national treasure. I have always loved him. He has always been my favourite actor; genuinely, I am not just saying that, but I didn't realise he was such a national treasure.
Q. In the film he plays a future archivist I gather, looking back through his film archive at how we ignored the evidence and managed to destroy the earth, so is Stupid fiction or factual then?
It is science fact. er, science faction. [Chuckles]
Q. Right, can you define science faction then for us, tell us what that is please?
That was a joke. er .it is entirely factual. The science in the film is all based on the IPCC science the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change whose science is the basis for our predictions. In fact we didn't need to exadurate for dramatic effect, the situation really is that dire. In fact we did not want to exadurate our prediction - in fact we didn't need to - so we had a science adviser for the film for that reason. We actually had an idea at one point to have two parallel futures, one was good future and one was bad future. We wrote that version of the script but we decided against that in the end because it would have kind of given the impression that we were at a cross roads now and it could have gone either way, whereas we are actually on a one-way path at the moment. We have to turn the whole ship around, if you don't mind a mixed metaphor.
Q. I see, yes.
I would say it was giving the wrong impression, that's why we decided to dump the good future.
Q. You had 14 filming trips to 6 countries at one point, so what sort of budget did you need for the film?
We raised £450,000 complete budget, all from our crowd funding idea. Which is basically, when I got together with John, his issue with the films he has made in the past, even if you make an Oscar winning blockbuster film, all the money goes to middle men and you don't get any money yourself. And my issues were - because I had accidentally made McLibel independently - nobody would commission it because they had already come off it in the past; but that made me realise that owning the rights is the most important thing because then you own the distribution and you decide where it goes. In fact you can get it out that much further. In fact McLibel was seen by 25 million people around the world in the end, which is a mammoth number obviously. That was because we were controlling the rights and we were able to give it for free or for very cheap to these cable channels if we would be getting three million viewers in one hit as it were, which is our aim; to get the largest number of viewers. So it was absolutely key to control the rights, which is why we came up with this model of funding, which is basically loads of individual people all getting together and giving us bits of money.
Q. And how exactly does that work? Is there a bottom line that people have to give? Or can they donate just 50p for example?
Well, if you want tobe an investor you have to give between £500 - well at the beginning it was £500 but we had to put that up - so between £500 and £35,000 and they all own a percentage of the film and they will be getting a share of the profit.
Q. And that is all pro-rata according to the investment I presume?
Yes. and all the crew own a percentage as well because all the crew had to work at minimum wage or survival wages as we called them, but they were all the crew on percentage as well, according to how much work they did obviously. So that's how we managed. Even 450 grand is a big budget for a little budget documentary, but it is nothing if you consider the scale of the documentary when you see it. I mean it has quite few minutes of animation in it, and a Hollywood score and a Hollywood actor in it! [laughs]
Q. Well let's talk about distribution because you have arranged distribution through DogWoof, now they were very successful in getting Black Gold into cinemas I remember, but I think you employ them don't you, instead of them owning the rights to your film you still hold on to them, so why did you go down that road?
We are not paying an upfront fee but they get a share of the profits and we invest all the P&A money, which normally the distributor does. Normally a distributor gives you an advance and they pay the publicity costs. We are paying the publicity costs, we are not getting any advance, but we are keeping the rights in line with our central point, that we want the most number of people to see this, so to do that we have to keep control of the rights.
Q. Meanwhile, everybody, including the distributor is on a percentage really.
That's right, yeah. I mean DogWoof have been absolutely delighted. So far it has been a match made in heaven - it has all gone so brilliantly well.
Q. I mean, it is so simple, why has nobody thought of this before? [smiles]
[Giggles] It all sounds so simple! Ha! I mean we offered this to all distributors and most of them said, you know, "Don't be so silly we'll see you later." But there was more than DogWoof who were willing to try it out, the new model. Because we said we basically want a deal that is fair on the filmmakers, because with all those other deals, the bottom line is basically, they are not fair. And some distributors went yeah, we agree. DogWoof were our favourite, because of Black Gold really.
Q. Tony Juniper who used to head Friends of the Earth said of Stupid "This wonderful film is like a bucket of cold water. I hope it wakes people from their slumber and helps galvanise real pressure on politicians." Will it wake people up in time do you think - or is it already too late?
When anybody is going into any normal crisis situation you must have as much hope as you can and you need to keep going, clearly the future looks very bleak and it is an enormous uphill struggle, but having said that, the amount of energy there is now, building all around the world towards Copenhagen, towards making sure the politicians hear it. Personally, I mean I have been all around the world and the only time I have seen anything that is as inspiring as this, was at the height of McLibel, when everything we ever did was front page news. That's the kind of energy that there is now in the climate change movement. It is looking good.
Q. You actually reached an audience of 25 million people with McLibel, now you are targeting 250,000,000 - that's ten times as much - do you think you will achieve that?
Well we thought we would go for ten times as much because we have got one thousand times the resources backing us with The Age of Stupid and also because we are talking about the end of life on earth, so it is worth aiming high I think. I am not going to bet on whether we can achieve it or not, possibly not, but it was worth giving up all my money to say we were really trying.
Q. And how on earth will you do it? What are the mechanics of getting it out there to 250 million people? What's the plan?
Well we have set up this campaign. Basically, the whole of the time I was making the film I was deluding myself into thinking that this was my contribution to climate change and that after that I would be able to retire from filmmaking and get a life and grow vegetables in Cornwall and all that kind of thing and have a dog, but basically since then, since we have been talking to all the NGOs - the main people working on this issue - I have been persuaded that our responsibility starts now, because we do own the rights and we can do what we like with it and it is a great pull to inspire people to start acting on climate change. So, we set up this campaign called Not Stupid, supported by Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Stop Climate Chaos and all the main ones and basically we are all on a mission together to get 250 million people to see it and secondly, to inspire all those people to start taking action. It all focuses on Copenhagen where I am sure you know the successor to the Kyoto climate treaty will be finalised.
Q. And when is that?
Q. So you haven't got long then?
No. Well we have got ten months.
Q. Well my hard drive is full of emails from you [Franny laughs] so I am sure one or two other people must have run into capacity problems as well.
Sorry about that!
Q. No, that's OK. the next thing is I suppose the premiere of the film and I believe you have got some rather special plans for that haven't you?
God knows how, god knows what happened, but we just had this idea to make a documentary five years ago -seven years ago-I had the idea and now we seem to be organising the world's biggest film premiere! [laughs]
Q. Now how is it going to be the world's biggest film premiere? Come on, spill the beans.
[Getting serious again] There will be 16,000 tickets on sale as of this morning because it is going to be in a . well the green carpet with all the celebrities and all that sort of thing is going to be in a massive solar powered marquee in London, in the park in Leicester Square.
Q. And it holds 16,000?
No, no, hold on. There's a satellite link up with another 64 venues around the country, 64 other cinemas plus the Eden Project and they will all be seeing the green carpet and watching the features and everything via the satellite link which the UK Film Council is paying for. And then at the end of the film we are going to be launching the Not Stupid campaign, Pete is going to be launching it and then in each of those participating cinemas local speakers will come on and say how people can become involved in their community and they are all going to be given action packs so they can all get moving straight away basically.
Q. And are you doing a Q&A as well?
Q. And that's going around all the cinemas too?
Yep. And that's going down the satellite too.
Q. Well that sounds like excellent value for money whatever the ticket cost is.
Yes, that's the idea.
Q. How much are they?
Ten quid. And all the profits go to the Not Stupid campaign, not to us.
Q. I see, yes, that's excellent. So what is the date of this world premiere?
16th of March.
Q. And it is held at.
It is held at 64 places around the country and you will find all the details on the website, from Aberdeen to Plymouth!