“I’m not an environmental activist who has made a film, I’m a filmmaker who has made a film about environmental activism,” says Oscar-nominated documentary director Robert Stone (Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst, Oswald’s Ghost), who spent the last two years crafting Earth Days, his second environmental effort. Inspired by the first Earth Day in 1970, his first was Pollution, which he made at age 12. He’s been passionate about the subject ever since, he tells MNN.

MNN: Where did you get the idea for the film?

Stone: I’ve had a long-standing interest in the environment, since I was a kid. I started the film right around when An Inconvenient Truth came out, when there was a renewed interest in the environment, largely focused on climate change and people looking forward to the end of the Bush era and renewed activism on the part of the government to do something about our problems. It struck me that young people, who knew nothing about how we’d arrived at this point, seemed very confused about where to go from here. There was a general misunderstanding about the root causes of the problem. Climate change is a symptom of the problem. It isn’t the problem itself. It made me think back to my own childhood, when there was this huge interest in the environment and we were starting to address some of the root causes of our problems. It seemed to be a history that was largely forgotten and I think there are two reasons for that. The environmental movement by its very nature tends to be a very forward-looking enterprise. Secondly, the environmental movement didn’t have a history until very recently. Now it does. In order to understand where we go from here, I thought it was important to understand how we got here, so I set about making a movie about that. It looks at the big picture, how we arrived at this point.

How did you decide on the format and what specific environmental benchmarks to include?

If it was going to work as a movie, had to be grounded in personal stories of people whose lives mirrored the journey of the film, people who had actually lived it and made it all happen. It was kind of an organic process. First of all I wanted to explain the psychology of this generation that went forth into the 1960s with this strong desire to remake the world that they lived in. What was it that motivated them? Rachel Carson and her book Silent Spring was a key ingredient in the mix. My mom read me that book when I was eight years old and it had a profound effect on me. So did Earth Day and seeing images of Earth from space. In so many ways, this film is the story of my life.

How hard was it to get all the archival footage? How much did you have to sift through?
Thousands of hours. It was finding a needle in a haystack and what you see on screen are all the needles. When I make a film I see absolutely everything related to the subject. I watch it all at high speed on videotape and when I see something I like I pick it out. You have to go through so much crap to get those few little gems, but if you find enough gems you have the basis for a movie.

With documentaries you’re often preaching to the choir. How do you reach beyond an already interested audience? Also, how do you attract people who, in this economy, are just looking for escapist comedies and action adventures?

That’s a problem with every documentary, getting people through the door. Hopefully people will go see it and tell their friends it’s worth seeing. It’s not a doom and gloom or gross-out story. It’s not a gross-out story. It’s different from a lot of environmental movies that are out. It’s very much a movie that I hope is visually engaging and stimulating and enjoyable but also has an important message to it that hopefully can help people put the stuff they’re hearing every day into a broader context. But it will have a long life beyond theatrical release — people will see it in some other form.

What do you think are the most pressing environmental issues today?

Many of the challenges we face are the same ones we faced 30 years ago, before we turned our back on the environment. First and foremost is getting a handle on our production and use of energy. If there’s one thing we can get a handle on quickly with our technological know-how it’s that, but we have to create a market for it. There’s a lot of shortsightedness that happened. GM built an electric Corvair in 1967 that was in many ways better than the Chevy Volt. The technology has been there for decades and was developed by some of these large corporations. They just never brought it to market because it was not a free market.

Are you hopeful about the environmental movement?

I have to be, because there’s no real alternative to being hopeful. This is the only planet we have and this is the future for my kids and grandkids. The scientific community is extremely pessimistic about climate change. But we are very clever people and I think that we can solve a lot of our problems. When the environmental movement had its greatest success was when the public saw those images from space and understood that we’re all in the same boat together and we all need to care for this planet and we can’t go on raping and pillaging it. A real change took place. And it was not a politically divisive issue. Richard Nixon signed the greatest string of pro-environmental legislation in the nation’s history. He was no friend to the environment but he was responding to political pressure. Pete McCloskey, a Republican congressman from California, was a co-chair of the original Earth Day and wrote the Endangered Species Act. This was a bipartisan effort until it got caught up in the culture wars and incited a backlash with the rise of the conservative movement and Ronald Reagan. The public at large tuned out, thinking the EPA is taking care of it; they can write their checks to the Sierra Club every once in a while and go on with their lives. That’s when it all fell apart. And despite this renewed concern about the environment, the climate bill passed in Congress by two votes. That’s extraordinary considering everything we know.

What message do you hope audiences will take away from the film?

People who are environmental activists and deeply concerned about the environment will hopefully take away a message that amazing change can happen when people set their mind to it and put pressure on their leaders. It has happened in the past and it can happen very quickly. But we can encounter terrible setbacks if it’s not a grassroots, bottom-up movement.

What’s your personal carbon footprint reduction strategy?

We have high efficiency light bulbs, we compost, we recycle, try to buy local food, all the basic things. I have an old house that we spend quite a bit of money insulating, getting a high efficiency furnace. I live in New York State where it gets pretty cold in the winter so that’s a big issue. Ultimately, these are political problems. But a person who will take time and trouble to buy a more efficient car, insulate their home, and make a few sacrifices is the kind of person who will vote for somebody who’s promoting a carbon tax or gas tax. All of these things we do individually matter, but what we really need are large systemic changes that are going to come about through the political process.

Earth Days opened in Southern California Aug. 21 and will be released nationally in the coming weeks.

Related on MNN: Our blogger reviews the film.

'Earth Days' movie opens to acclaim
Director Robert Stone chronicles the history of the environmental movement in his new documentary, "Earth Days."