Cliff Etheredge in "Carbon Nation"

May 5, 2010

A Green Light

Local filmmaker Peter Byck releases ‘Carbon Nation’ after three years in the making

Peter Byck likes driving a car. He believes in cold beer, hot showers and argues there are ways to save the planet without denying anyone these basic, inalienable privileges. Three years ago, the Highlands resident set off to prove his point, and the result is “Carbon Nation,” a new film that will open at the Louisville Science Center on Thursday.

From the beginning, “Carbon Nation” was intended as a solutions-based response to 2006’s “An Inconvenient Truth.” By promoting fixes instead of blame, Byck sidesteps the preaching-to-the-choir trap that films from this genre are apt to fall into. Mixing one part Al Gore to two parts Thomas Friedman, this film’s pragmatic, often cost-saving approach to climate change is as likely to appeal to the corporate CEO as the guy with vegetable oil in his gas tank.

Byck invited LEO Weekly to ride along for the final weeks of post-production — and what was the end of a staggering journey. It’s one that began during Byck’s time in Los Angeles, saw the passing of his father, the birth of his first child, and his return home to Louisville. Byck lives here now with his wife, Chrisna van Zyl, a producer on the film, and their young son.

•••

Visitors to Byck’s West Main Street office are given a flashlight tour across a lengthy strip of vacant office space. “I don’t turn on the lights during the day,” says Byck, while traversing a pitch-black ghost town to what he affectionately refers to as his squat.

If you’re thinking this may be a show the environmentalist puts on for press, you’d likely conclude otherwise when arriving at his naturally lit edit suite, where pockets of shelves are packed with used lunch containers, newspapers and other recyclables Byck has generated during his months here. The stacks serve as a sort of calendar, marking the time Byck has spent cutting, and re-cutting, his project. He intends to remove the collection only after he completes his film or the space attracts a paying customer.

If your next question concerns the legality of his occupancy, be advised that Byck’s mother has a stake in the property and raises no objection to her son working out of it. The eco-focused documentarian references his parents often during our interviews and attributes his green tendencies to them. His mother, Marlene Grissom, has been known to pull her car over to collect roadside litter. Father, Dann Byck, a former producer who was instrumental in the creation of Actors Theatre, took Peter on many memorable jaunts into nature.

Asked to relay a moment from one of these trips that might have set him on this path, Byck recalls one hike through Kentucky’s Bernheim Forest.

“I had a sandwich baggie that I put under a rock. I was like 4, and it felt like a pretty good way to hide it. We got back to the car, and my dad said, ‘Where’s your baggie?’ I didn’t know, and he said to go find it.”

Unfortunately for Byck, the family had picnicked near a dry creak bed that was covered in rock. Unsure where he’d stashed the plastic, there was no telling how late into the day the boy’s search would go.

The hunt ended only when his father offered a reprieve, knowing his son had learned a lesson. One could argue, though, that Byck never really stopped searching for that baggie, considering his film “Garbage” — a humorous exploration of waste management and best doc winner at the 1996 South by Southwest Film Festival — and the three years he’s spent on his current feature. The picnic episode certainly lends poignancy to all the lunch containers around the office still waiting to be recycled. These will make for a boring wrap party perhaps, but a fitting testament to his parents’ conscientiousness.

Taped to the walls in Byck’s office are index cards that serve as chapter headings for the film: wind, coal, China, and so on. It’s “Carbon Nation” at its most skeletal, a form that has only recently been given voice with the selection of narrator Bill Kurtis, who is recognizable for his cable TV ubiquity. The former CBS newsman hosts “American Justice” and “Cold Case Files,” and voices several commercials, including a long-running AT&T campaign.

Byck’s search for a voice took close to a year. Casting a wide net, the producers first trolled for those big names they believed were sympathetic to the “Carbon Nation” mission: the George Clooney and Tom Hanks tier of celebrity. Despite some promising nibbles, Byck would discover that filling the role wouldn’t be as easy as floating the project to a known cause-advancer. Not surprisingly, the more in-demand the actor, the longer the line of agents and managers who need cajoling. More money certainly wouldn’t have hurt Byck’s nonprofit in its quest, which was at its most desperate when talks with actor Jack Black fell apart.

Listening to the director brainstorm about who to approach next felt at times like wild swings in the dark. At one point, “Juno” star Ellen Page’s name was thrown into the ring. Listed alongside candidates like Page, Bill Kurtis seems a natural fit. His sober, unexcitable delivery is at once authoritative and neutral. He evokes neither the left, nor right — pro-environment, nor pro-business. This may be because, in a way, Kurtis is both. As owner and chairman of Tallgrass Beef, a grass-fed beef company, the interests of this ecologically aware businessman fall somewhere in the center.

At a recent Chicago screening, the director and narrator shared an anecdote that left no question about Kurtis’ qualifications. Kurtis revealed that while recording the narration, he looked up at the monitor and saw footage he shot for his own 1980’s global warming film, a project that had since been repurposed.

“I shot that!” Kurtis exclaimed to Byck.

“You’re kidding,” replied Byck, who had no clue about the origin of this recycled footage, only that he had purchased it from Conservation International, the company Kurtis sold it to decades earlier. Asked if the encounter reinforced his decision to hire Kurtis, Byck replies, “A lot of people were pushing Bill, but I was sort of enamored with the Hollywood thing. But he happened. And I do think he’s perfect. I feel like I was being guided.”

Casting, editing and fundraising plodded on far longer than expected. Frequent changes in the technology and politics of this issue also made it difficult to end the story. But the producers are optimistic that the delays have pushed the release of the film to a more opportune moment in the climate-change debate.

“Right now, there’s a whole big push to get a climate bill in,” says Byck. “Is our film going to affect that? Is the timing right on the money? If the film came out a year ago when everybody thought the climate bill was going to happen and there was no fight, would they need our film? I don’t know, but here we are.”

Completion of the film coincided with the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C., and “Carbon Nation” would go on to premiere there. The doc closed the 13-day event with a standing ovation and was reviewed on the Huffington Post as the festival highlight.

Visiting Byck after the premiere, it looks as though a weight has been lifted from his shoulders. From his stoop, freshly showered and barefoot, Byck contentedly regards surrounding dogwood blossoms — many miles away from the guy who spent three years crossing the country and working seven days a week. During this rare moment of calm, the filmmaker reveals that things went better than expected in D.C. His film was seen by people who can affect legislation, as well as executives who have a say in the way business is done in this country.

Byck may have been right about the timing of the release. Within days of the screening, The New York Times Magazine dedicated 7,500 words on “Growing a Green Economy.” The Paul Krugman piece explores, among other things, the fear among conservatives that any attempt to limit carbon emissions would devastate the economy. Fortunately, this is precisely the audience “Carbon Nation” reached in D.C.

Byck mentions the response from one multinational corporation in particular. Sodexo, North America’s leading provider of food services on college and medical campuses, became eager to do business. After ordering 300 DVDs to screen at their facilities across the country, the company invited Byck to a sustainability conference occurring in the nation’s capital that weekend. He reports that at a Q&A for Sodexo, the most enthusiastic reaction for “Carbon Nation” came from an avowed FOX News-watching Republican.

“He had a really, really strong response,” Byck says. “He basically said, ‘Why don’t we show this on all of our campuses on Earth Day?’”

With Earth Day weeks away, there would be a race to get the order filled. But Byck leapt at the opportunity, considering the eyeballs Sodexo could deliver. The company, which has taken steps to integrate sustainability into its image, serves more than 9 million meals a day. This type of positive, corporate response is something the production had been aiming for. The producers wanted to avoid an insular, “bubble-headed” film that pushed an obvious agenda. Byck focused on making sensible pleas to both sides of the issue, by using fact over manipulation.

One way of doing this is by exposing disconnects in the corporate structure, then highlighting remedies that are both energy and cost efficient.

“Too often, the guy who’s buying the gear isn’t the guy who pays the electric bill,” says Byck. “But if you look at the life-cycle cost of the better piece of equipment, the more energy-efficient piece of equipment — that might cost more today. But, it will save you money and pay that difference in a year, two years.”

In other words, it matters little to Byck whether you reduce your carbon footprint to protect the planet or your bottom line — just that you reduce it.

•••

As a film, “Carbon Nation”’s greatest strength is the people who contribute their stories. Some are inspiring, many are fascinating, and almost all come from somewhere outside the expected cast of characters. The interviews range from truck drivers to former CIA directors to conservative CEOs, many of whom propose stunningly simple, clear-eyed fixes to the CO2 problem.

We meet Cliff Etheredge, a one-armed, Texas cotton farmer who succeeds in bringing wind turbines to his dusty hometown of Roscoe. Its Dairy Queen boarded up years ago, the place resembles something out of “The Last Picture Show.” Today, each turbine brings Etheredge and his neighbors a cash windfall, with minimal interference to the crops on the ground. The success of the wind farms is attracting Roscoe’s children back home.

Van Jones, who would go on to become an Obama environmental appointee, is another figure who brings the green economy home to a struggling community. Jones built a solar company that’s created much-needed careers in his Oakland, Calif. suburb. He also provides subsidized solar panels that not only save their low-income recipients money, but also bring in revenue by contributing stored energy to California’s stressed power grid.

As the doc rolls on, its experts and leaders redefine what being green is. Because so many of the film’s subjects are accidental environmentalists, watching them describe their transformations on climate change is perhaps the film’s biggest revelation. It’s hard to refute someone like Dan Nolan, a U.S. Department of Defense adviser and former global warming-denier, as he connects the dots for the military. The retired Army colonel (and extra in “The Punisher”) announces that a green approach is “no longer the purview of the Birkenstock-wearing tree-hugger.”

For Nolan and several other military personnel interviewed here, protecting our environment is protecting our country. An earlier theme is reiterated in this chapter that goes: “Deny the science if you must, but the economics, safety and general good sense that comes with a more efficient military — just as in business — cannot be rebuffed.” To bolster this idea, Byck interviews Thomas Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner, who explains the upshot of the military investing in this technology.

Just like the microchip, when Uncle Sam throws his money behind an industry, its products become better, cheaper and more available for all.

If “Carbon Nation” has a weakness, it’s the flurry of statistics and graphics that accumulate between interviews. Although Byck separates his film from the pack by avoiding many of the eco-doc clichés, he is unable to resist this one. The factoid has become crack for directors working in this genre and is often so heavily relied on that viewers may retain only one or two per program. By now, you know the formula and its tendency for the hypothetical: “If we limit our kids’ night-light usage to two days a week, we could save enough energy to launch a space shuttle!”

It may be true that, sometimes, nothing hits as hard as a stat or clever graphic. However, when being fed abstract equivalencies like how many Vermonts equal the world’s annual rain forest destruction (eight), or during the two-minute animated breakdown of the terawatt, viewers may find themselves hungry for the great human stories that populate this movie.

Byck is well aware that the numbers numb. He’s worked hard to remedy the oft-repeated “my brain hurts” complaint from early test screenings. It’s been a while since the director’s heard that critique, and he has succeeded in giving this film’s people room to breathe. His facts and figures may distract, but they no longer cause dizziness — and are certainly no reason to forgo the film.

•••

As “Carbon Nation” begins popping up in theaters around the country, the producers seem to be taking an on-the-fly approach to marketing and distribution. With no definitive strategy in place, part of Byck’s plan is to borrow from the Radiohead playbook — or what he refers to as the “drug dealer model.” By that, he means creating buzz for a product by first giving it away. A pay-what-you-wish price plan has been implemented for the Louisville premiere. The tax-deductible proceeds from the May 6 event will go to the Earth School Educational Foundation (the project’s nonprofit arm) and will help market the film.

The Internet figures also play a big part in distribution, with DVDs already available for purchase on the “Carbon Nation” website (for a $10 donation). There are plans to foster an online community via user-generated content, where “Carbon Nation” fans can submit their own eco-related clips and explore hours of unused footage.

In addition to its theatrical run and life on the web, the film will travel the campus route. But, the most substantial component of its release may be the corporate partnerships — like the Sodexo hook-up. Since the D.C. premiere, there’s been distribution interest from a major snack food company, a big-box store and one of the world’s largest financial services groups. Byck recently expressed surprise at how quickly opportunities like these were rolling in, exclaming, “We just finished the film!”

Part of his surprise may be the nature of those companies looking to do business. But, it was Byck himself who once said a key selling point of this film was the shock some viewers will feel when they discover who they agree with.

The Q&A at a Chicago screening yielded a great question from one audience member, who asked Byck about “Carbon Nation”’s own footprint and whether any offsets were planned. The director admitted without hesitation that the film’s emissions were huge. Byck racked up some serious frequent-flier miles while collecting more than 300 interviews from around the world. As for how to neutralize the film’s carbon, Byck says he finds many of the popular offset methods to be inexact. Forestation projects, for example, are based on the expected life span and size of those trees planted, so measurement of their carbon sequestration can only be projected.

When searching for a more precise offset, Byck found a Denver company called Renewable Choice Energy, which offers verified emissions reductions. Renewable Choice reclaims methane from Third World garbage dumps, measures that gas, and then converts it to clean energy for use in the village it was secured from. Byck believes this is the most appealing, gaugeable system available. His plan is to fund the film’s carbon neutrality through its marketing budget — another example of this production’s supple, almost improvisational approach to putting out a movie.

•••

A dreamlike epilogue is tacked on to the film, featuring Byck’s father amidst a dense fog in Sequoia National Park. The footage is ethereal and plays like a wistful memory. In it, Dann Byck attempts to explain his connection with nature to his camera-wielding son. The choice to include the short segment reveals a lot about Byck’s motivation for embarking on this project, a film he feels fortunate to have played for his approving father in March of ’09.

Byck was reluctant to leave the ailing man after the bedside screening, despite everything he still needed to do for the film. When he mentioned a fundraiser that was waiting for him in San Francisco, Byck’s father said simply, “Do good.” This was one of the last commands the man would issue his son, one Byck applied to more than just that trip out West. The order equated to a green light for Byck, a blessing from his father to finish his work and finish it strong.

What follows are some of the footprint-reducing tips that run during the end credits. They are included here with the filmmaker’s consent.

• Weatherize your home.

• Have your roof painted white.

• Unplug coffee makers, phone chargers — anything not in use.

• Raise your kids’ allowance if they help reduce energy bills.

• Meatless Mondays — eat meat one less day a week.

• Eat local food — efficiently delivered.

• Use a push lawnmower.

• Share this with your friends.

“Carbon Nation” opens with two screenings at the Louisville Science Center on May 6, then continues its run at Village 8 Theatres, beginning May 7. For more info, visit www.carbonnation.tv.

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