Leonardo DiCaprio talks about his very green environmental documentary

Taking a cue from Al Gore's environmental awareness documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Leonardo DiCaprio has just finished his own documentary entitled The 11th Hour. He acts as a producer, co-writer, and narrator on the project. Preserving the environment is very important to the young actor, and his latest film explains why we must all come together to do our part.

The 11th Hour is the last moment when change is possible. The film, directed by Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, explores how we've arrived at this particular moment in time. How we live, how we impact the earth's ecosystems, and what we can do to change our course.

The film features ongoing dialogues of experts from all over the world, including former Soviet Prime Minister Mikhail Gorbachev, renowned scientist Stephen Hawking, former head of the CIA R. James Woolsey and sustainable design experts William McDonough and Bruce Mau in addition to over 50 leading scientists, thinkers and leaders who discuss the most important issues that face our planet and people.

Leo met with us for a small press conference at The Beverly Wilshire last Wednesday. Also in attendance were the film's directors Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners, as well as the founder of the Bioneers movement Kenny Ausubel.

Here is that conversation:

What made you want to make this film? Why was it so important to you?

Leonardo DiCaprio: We'd (Leila Conners Petersen and Nadia Conners ) previously worked together on two short films. It really was a homemade movie in a lot of ways. It came from a lot of discussions that we had about the environment and media, and the want and need to hear some of the great experts and visionaries in the environmental field of our time, be able to speak in an open forum without being interrupted about a subject matter that they've devoted their life to. That was really the basis of wanting to make this movie. Wanting to hear some great thinkers really give us some insight as investigators on this issue. And we got to go to places like the Bioneers Conference that Kenny, here, runs, and pick the brains of dozens of different people. It became, I suppose, a year and a half editing process. We condensed down some of their profound thoughts and ideas into an hour and a half format, which was very challenging at times to say the least.

How did you go about picking your experts?

Leila Conners Petersen: A lot of the people that are in the film we knew, or we had read for many, many years. Then, we had some of our heroes participate. We reached out to people like Kenny Ausubel and David Orr. They were our mentors. We asked them if they would do it. We also showed them an outline, and got their opinions about other people we wanted to include in the film. We asked them what they thought, and what they knew. We basically collected this long list. We interviewed about seventy people. All of them were so interesting, so charismatic. Each one of them did about a two-hour interview. So, we have hundreds of hours of footage. As Leo said, it is very hard to cut into an hour and a half film. Hopefully, all of that will end up on Youtube. You'll be able to see the whole breathe of the work. It is quite interesting.

Leo, what sort of benefits do you get from participating in a film like this?

Leonardo DiCaprio: Do you mean, do I reap any financial benefit from being an environmentalist? It's hard for me to answer that, because I don't really look at it that way. In the sense that I became an actor at a very young age. But I also had a very deep respect for nature, and I think I was sort of a little biologist when I was younger. I watched documentaries on green forest depletion and the loss of species and habitats for animals around the world. It affected me in a very hardcore emotional way when I was younger. Later in life I wanted to continue that path more and investigate and learn more about ecological issues. That sent me into a room with Al Gore about ten years ago. He explained to me what climate change was, and global warming, and the science behind that and the decades of research that he'd done on the subject matter. It really propelled me to want to be more vocal about the issue, because it seemed to me, and the media and the change of weather that we'd been having, the weather patterns, the flooding, the hurricanes, all these things, there wasn't enough of a connection being made in mainstream media. So it made me want to become more vocal about it, and it led me to work with organizations like Global Green and NRDC, and made me more pro-active in the environmental movement. It seems now, more so than ever, we're at a real tipping point, and certainly in the public's eye, global warming is at the forefront of a lot of people's minds, and it's been talked about more so than ever. So it's just an exciting movement to be a part of. I think it is the movement of my generation and the next generation, I think it's galvanized the younger generation more than any other movement in years because it's so universal, and it's just exciting to be a part of it all.

Is there one thing we can all do to help out just a little? What is the most important thing for us to remember?

Nadia Conners: This is something that we've talked about a lot. I'll answer your question directly. But I think this is a moment in history where we really have to prepare ourselves and inspire people to take action in ways we can't even begin to anticipate. I love that shot of the dance floor, and the energy from the dancers is powering the lights on the dance floor. There is a tremendous amount of innovation that is in the wings, just waiting to happen. Once you have this shift in consciousness, and you see that the world is not an unlimited resource, but a finite resource, and you understand how our civilization is impacting it, you can come up with very interesting ways, far beyond the ten things you already know you need to do. Like changing your light bulbs. Being more consciences about certain things. I will tell you the one most important thing. And that is food. Food has a tremendous impact on the planet. The way that it is processed and the way that it is shipped. It takes an enormous amount of fossil fuels, and it depletes the soil. I'm talking about industrialized agriculture. If you can start looking for organic food, local food, or Framer's Market food, you will really impact the industry. There will be a ripple effect. It's something that we do multiple times a day.

Leonardo DiCaprio: What would Kenny say? If you had to get two specific messages out there, what would you say?

Kenny Ausubel: One is, I would underscore what she was saying about consciousness. There is a level of education and fairness that is really critical. I think something really turned last year, in 2006. David Orr calls it a global ecological enlightenment. I believe that might well be under way. The film gives a glimmer of what innovations might be out there. At the end of the day, it's not really a technological problem. We already know what to do for the most part. This is a political problem at this point. This movement needs to become very explicitly political. The big rhinoceros in the room is corporate power. That is were the cutting edge of the work is going to go. There is a new meta-trend going on right now called "The New Localism". Three hundred million people are ungovernable. And the corruption of the governing apparatus is so extreme. Most action has taken place at the local and regional level. In fact, communities are getting together horizontally. In the next few years, I'd predict that that is going to continue at a much harder pace. It is becoming global. That is a very strong leadership model. We are not looking for a messiah or a leader. It is a much more centralized embodiment of leadership. And a much more personalized idea of leadership. I think that is where we are heading for this.

Leonardo DiCaprio: Wow, good answer.

Nadia Conners: In a nutshell.

Leonardo DiCaprio: The whole world's problems in a nutshell.

What can the young people do to make a difference?

Leila Conners Petersen: What I think is really exciting about leadership, and where we are at, what Kenny is saying, and how Leo is putting himself out there...I don't think people derive a lot of happiness from consumption. The idea that we are telling our children that they will be happy by consuming is a lie. The idea that being a good citizen, being a good friend, and being a good member of the community...That is were happiness is derived from. Yes, consumption is okay. Of course. We identify with objects, and we support that. What we are saying is that consumption has gotten completely out of whack. I think, if you have this movement, which has a lot of heroes...There are a lot of people doing some really good work...And the children see this...These eighteen and nineteen year old kids see this, and their eyes become completely open. They ask, "What can I do to help? This is so exciting to me. I am going to tell all of my friends, because this is giving us a purpose." What we all need to be happy is a purpose, and I think this is a huge purpose. Preserving the biosphere. That is the leadership all of us should provide the young people. That is what Leo has done. That's his role. It is very positive. We're not saying that you can't buy cool stuff. Sure, go ahead. But lets do it in balance.

Leonardo DiCaprio: It's a very difficult problem, because in reality how are we going to actually make people stop consuming? That's not the point of the movie, the point is essence. Wouldn't it be great to live in a world where we wouldn't have to think about these kinds of things? Where the powers that be, the corporations that manufacture these items, our government, were powered by solar and wind and we had alternate energy resources, and this was just integrated into our every day lives. And in that sense, when we talk about voting with your dollar, yes, every time you do buy something you're advocating the way that company does business. And by buying a hybrid car or buying something organic, you're essentially making them create more for the marketplace out there. That will eventually grow, and I think that's the point of the whole situation. We'd all love to live in a world where we wouldn't have to think about these things, that the powers that be thought of that for us.

Nadia Conners: This is not a blame thing. The consequences of what it takes to make certain products has been shielded from us in some aspects. We don't really see what kind of ecological damage went into the creation of something. We don't see what happens when it is thrown away. If we take a step back for a broader look, that's when its going to impact you. Maybe then, we can stop looking at the world as a disposable place. If its not a disposable place, we can't really have disposable consumption. Which is really what a lot of that level of consumption is geared towards.

There's this old movie cliche that the planet is in peril. Whether it's aliens or a virus. At the eleventh hour there has to be a hero who saves us. Who are the attackers and who is the hero that is going to save the planet?

Leonardo DiCaprio: I think there's got to be millions of heroes, that's my answer to that. Kenny, you have a great answer for this.

Kenny Ausubel: On Pogo, they used to say, "I have met the enemy. And the enemy is us." You know? If you are looking for a villain...There is a fundamental error system that we have made. At the dissolution of our world, we start to think that we are separate from nature. We are nature. Nature invented us. Not the other way around. And it's her playing field. So, that's really the game here. We need to learn the ground rules and play by them. I think all of us would agree that this is a huge movement all over the world. It hasn't really been on the radar screen. It certainly is not represented in the media. It is represented inaccurately when it is. Part of the game is to get connected. The surest way to heal an ecosystem is to connect it to more of itself. Building social capital is half the game. That's what is interesting about young people. The young people are really into social networking. That has tremendous value and purpose. You have to shift the purpose. I think a movie like this can really shift the purpose. There is a tremendous connection out there that moves with lightening speed. You know, they flipped the election a year and a half ago through text messaging. So, technology was good in that case.

If an alien species was doing what we are doing to our own planet, wouldn't we be outraged? What would our reactions be if our vital systems were under attack? Would we be outraged?

Leonardo DiCaprio: Would we be outraged? I'm sure we would. It's a strange world we live in, and I think that's what we're all sort of realizing more and more. I don't think it takes an expert, and I'm not an expert on this issue by any means, to realize that our weather patterns are changing, serious things are happening around our planet that just don't seem normal. To me, the whole purpose of making this movie, like I said, was to make those connections and ask people, the overwhelming majority of the impartial, scientific community, what's going on? To really get some answers. And, of course, obviously human beings have had a devastating impact on our planet and this modern globalized world we live in that has so many different possibilities. It's just a real shame that we haven't implemented a lot of the technologies that are out there. Like Kenny and everyone talks about, we could reduce our footprint on this planet by 90% with technologies that are already there and available. We don't have to invent anything new, even at this point.

With the amount of footage that you have, was there ever any thought to do a miniseries, or a program on the Discovery channel that many more people would have gotten a chance to see?

Leonardo DiCaprio: You want me to answer?

Nadia Conners: Yeah.

Leonardo DiCaprio: Okay. We don't know yet as far as that's concerned. But this was the biggest challenge in creatively making this movie with the two ladies here. This is a quote that I keep saying, because it was my first experience making a documentary and actually sitting for many, many hours in an editing room with them was that, 'When you make a film with a narrative the director is God, when you make a documentary God is the director,' and that's really what happened. The experts in this movie and what they said really dictated the shape of this movie and the emotional content and the structure of this entire film. They really gave us the tools. It was the stark realities of what's going on in the world we live in. And for us, I think it was very much about realizing that ,with all these profound ideas and scientific statements that we were given, we had to make something emotional for an audience to engage in. We wanted the audience to leave feeling slightly transformed, or slightly motivated to actually do something about it. That was the biggest difficulty. How do you take these profound ideas and thoughts and condense them into this hour and a half format. And hopefully inspire people? So, that was the filmmaking side of it all. But we were basically given the plot by these people.

Nadia Conners: The intention is, we are talking about a book and a DVD. The DVD will have a mini-film about pollutions. The deadline is three weeks. All of a sudden, people are asking about the DVD and what is on it. Hopefully, all of the powers permitting, we get the most of this out there that we can. There is so much that isn't in the film, but the film is the message we wanted to make. After all is said, it is the message held within these interviews that we want to get across. We are so lucky because we have seen it all, and we have a much deeper understanding of these things. Hopefully, in the future, everyone else can share in that as well. That is the great thing about this film experience for me right now. People might say, "Who is that guy with the mushrooms?" Or, "What is the tree?" Everyone latches onto a different point, and what we hope to provide is the rest of the interview. So that you can dig deeper, and find your level of interest.

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would be a nice little DVD extra, wouldn't it?

Leila Conners Petersen:That's what we are going to do.

Are some of these interviews going to be available on-line?

Leila Conners Petersen: As the film goes out, we will be putting some of this stuff on our website. What we'll do is put a lot of the "good news" stuff on the DVD. On the website we will try to narrow a lot of that stuff down.

Nadia Conners: Eleven Hour Action is a website we are trying to get up as fast as we can, but it's a little difficult as we are trying to get the movie out. There is so much momentum when you come out of the film. You are asking yourself, "What can I do?" This action site is being used to build that horizontal connection between communities. What we are really encouraging is for local communities to sign on and create a group. A profile, like these networking sites. This site will connect people to the resource. It will let them know how to go about putting solar paneling on the roof of a school. This action group site is taking all of these ideas, and teaching people how to become active. It will horizontally connect everything.

What do each of you do to live green?

Nadia Conners: I'll go first. What is funny about personal action is, we were able to get a Prius. My family actually has two of them. I walk to work now. We buy only organic, there are no chemicals in our house. We don't have our lights on. We recycle paper, we compost. We are growing our own food in the backyard. But again, how do you take it to the next level? No one is perfect. We live in a society that certainly is not green. So, yeah, you have to use gas sometimes. Whatever. At Sundance, we gave away these bottles that said, "Americans throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles an hour." An hour! I just thought, "I can't drink my water anymore." This made me feel really bummed out. From then on, it's been filtered water for me.

Leonardo DiCaprio: I still like Fiji.

Leila Conners Petersen: Yah, Fiji!

Leonardo DiCaprio: I've been driving a hybrid car for five, six years now. My house is built green. I have solar panels on my house. I do most of the stuff that she does except walk to work. Except that I don't have a compost pile on my house, no, I don't have that. But I try to live by example as well. At the end of the day, I keep urging this. This is the new thing that I'm trying to get across. I don't think the environmentalists, or the environmental movement, is about telling people how to live. No matter what financial background you come from, because not everyone can put solar panels on their house. It's just not a reality. But it is about just being aware of these global forces that are out there. And being aware in the next election. Asking the right questions about what the next candidate's environmental policy is, and voting with your dollar, and being aware of these issues. I think that's the main thing. And, of course, personal action is very important, it's important to lead by example, but until the powers that be truly infuse this into our daily way of living, I don't think anything is really going to change on a massive level.

Leila Conners Petersen: I don't have a Prius, and I don't have solar panels. I would like to have them. And that will come. But what we have been talking about is, a change of heart is free. A change of consciousness is free. There are an untold number of changes and personal inventions that can come from that. Personally, for me, my biggest contribution has been making this film. What I have learned going through this process has changed me, and the people I deal with everyday. There is a lot to be said about being educated. And figuring out what the reality of the world is. You can't really act until you know.

Kenny Ausubel: I do most of the things the people here are saying. I don't have a Prius because I can't afford one. I live in a place where you can't really drive a four-wheel drive, and I simply don't have the money to buy a hybrid four-wheel drive. Which is an important point. Class really plays a huge role in this. Financial access. The point is, we really need to change the society. I've seen Leo get bashed for flying on a private jet. He doesn't, for the most part. He takes commercial jets. We don't all have a choice. I have to get on an airplane. I don't have a choice about that. Technology is legislation, and we don't get to vote on it. We have to change society at that level. We also need to make this financially available to middle class families. To people at large. You know, food stamps can be used at Farmer's Markets now. There's a whole host of pragmatic things we can do to create a new green deal. We have what is called green collar justice now. We don't have to travel far to see horrific extremes of inequity now. Witness Katrina and everything else. I think there is a larger political agenda at that level. The other thing I would like to put emphasis on, the thing I've done recently that I feel really good about is, I found this project near where I live in New Mexico called Dreaming New Mexico, which tries to bring our efforts to bear in our own community. Because, we've been talking about local issues. We don't just have our main conferences. We have satellite conferences throughout the country with other communities. The main thing is helping out your own community. If you think Politics are local, all ecology is local too. Taking responsible for our own place is important. Taking care of this stuff on a global scale is important, but when you drill down to the local, you find that it is more doable.

When you talk about the powers that be, people don't change the way they do business because of money. Did you encounter any opposition or negativity, like at the Cannes Film Festival?

Leonardo DiCaprio: I'm sure it's bound to happen, and if this movie is a success by any standard it will happen to more of an extreme. It seems to systematically happen, and it's a way of twisting the argument, and it's a way of deflecting the argument from the bigger picture. And that's what has traditionally happened. Like we say in the film, you look at movements that have happened. It takes many, many years for transformation. The civil rights movements, the peace movements, these things have taken a long time. Unfortunately with this movement we have to start right now, according to the experts out there. We need to start implementing these technologies today. So as far as what we can do, everything has to come from the will of the people.

Nadia Conners: I'm really glad you brought up the movement issue. I think people have treated this like a problem that just needs a few tweaks here or there, for a long time. And that is how you are going to solve it. This is the next civil rights movement. We have to, our whole society has to, change. It's going to be top down, bottom up. It's going to be horizontal. It's going to be everybody. This is kind of an exciting time. This is when we see all of us changing, and all of us particpating in that way.

Kenny Ausubel: I think the terms of engagement shifted last year. After many years of denial, now there is some acknowledgement that, yes, we are going to have a problem. We have to watch for the substance of change, not the PR. Corporations are going to come out with a lot of green washing. We really have to look at the core problem versus the spin.

Do you think Hollywood will ever go green?

Leonardo DiCaprio: That would be great. I'd certainly be an advocate for it. I know that the Hollywood system itself produces a tremendous amount of waste in making these movies. This is all a part of the movement we're talking about, from Hollywood down to the way everything is produced in this country. That's what one of the great quotes in this movie is, "We have to reinvent the way we do everything." And you can look at that as an exciting thing or something that makes you depressed. But yeah, absolutely I'd be the first one on board and I've urged it in the past, and it's difficult to make some of these things happen, it really is. When corporations and companies are set in their ways, it's difficult to make a lot of this stuff happen, but I'm certainly on board for that.

The movie gives a pretty harsh critique of our society. When making this film did you ever step back and question your own world?

Leonardo DiCaprio: You know, I think that if I weren't an actor, I don't think a film like this would be possible in the same sense. I'm very committed to being an environmentalist and I've devoted a lot of time to doing that and getting the message out there. But one hand sort of feeds the other here. I know that, hopefully, with the amount of people that have seen past works of mine, and the younger generation, will possibly go to see this movie because I'm in it, and that's the role that I've played in this film. This has been a multi-year process, and one that we put a tremendous amount of thought into. I think ultimately I'm going to continue to be an actor and hopefully do more work like this, and do more projects like this that will garner a bigger audience. The interesting thing about that word "environmentalists", there was a certain stigma with what an environmentalist was years ago. This tree hugging, granola-eating hippie that goes around and flashes the peace sign all the time, and that's a negative connotation I think in some ways. Because not all of us can live that lifestyle. This is a gigantic, worldwide movement that crosses cultural boundaries, religious boundaries, it needs to be far reaching and it needs to unify all of us. And I think even with skeptics out there, even with people that don't even believe in issues like global warming, it is such a unifying issue in the sense that, certainly for the United States, how can you argue with not wanting oil from foreign countries? How can you argue with not wanting to be energy independent? How can you argue with wanting cleaner air, cleaner water? These are fundamental human rights issues at the end of the day, and that's why it is such a universal issue and a movement that we all should be a part of at the end of the day.

The 11th Hour opens in theaters on August 17th.

B. Alan Orange