Catching up with... Ondi Timoner, director of Cool It!
Talking to Sundance-award-winning documentarian Ondi Timoner is a little like talking to a whirlwind. It’s not just that she’s so accomplished (in documentaries about subjects as far-ranging as rock music, the Internet, cult-like churches and now global warming) and intelligent (she’s a cum laude Yale grad who references Renoir and Mapplethorpe in her first answer). It’s that she jumps to and riffs on topic after topic like a jazz musician, with great little nuggets of insight at every stop along the way. To fully appreciate the interview, look for the audio version coming soon to Paste Culture Club. In the meantime, we did our best to extract a few of the choice morsels for you from our conversation about her new film Cool It!
On her films often showcasing lone iconoclastic figures:
I think it’s just my lot in life. I guess I’m just suited personality-wise for that because I’m not judgmental. Even the name Interloper Films, which has been my company’s name from the get go, signifies someone who’s not really part of any group, but sort of in every group and taking notes. I think I’m someone who’s always blazed my own trail, not just for the sake of it, but because I can’t help it. And that’s something I’ve related to in all of my male characters. They can’t help but do what they do, either. Right now I’m writing the story of Robert Mapplethorpe, and it’s the same thing. A lot of people find it hard to like him, and it’s the same with Anton (Dig!), the same with Josh (We Live in Public), the same with Bjorn (Cool It!). They bring on a lot of aggression because people don’t like the fact that they have this singular vision outside the norm, pushing against the grain.
It’s not like I go seeking these men out, though—they all come to me, in some strange way. I think it was Renoir who said that every director makes the same film again and again. Mine are always about very different topics: Dig! is about the music industry, Join Us is about mind-control and cults, We Live in Public is about the Internet, Cool It! is about global warming, and Mapplethorpe is about photography. But they all have this idea of individual vs. group, or individual vs. system.
On mind-control and silencing opposition:
All my films have to do with mind-control, in different ways. With global warming, we want to believe everything’s going to be okay, and we all got very overwhelmed by An Inconvenient Truth. But we didn’t know what to do, so we changed all our light bulbs and crossed it off our list and didn’t want to think about it anymore. Meanwhile, there’s this whole battle (of ideas) being waged, and Bjorn is someone whose reputation was completely maligned. And that’s the quickest way to silence someone—you don’t have to kill them, you just have to destroy their reputation. And there’s an active industry, with a lot of money to be made on fear, and on the crisis continuing without a solution. I’m not saying that’s the reason it happened, but that’s the reality of the situation. We the public don’t know why we’ve had climate conferences for 18 years and nothing’s been done.
On including debate in the film:
I wanted as many people that were against Bjorn’s message in the film as were for it. But most of them wouldn’t talk to me, which is another part of the problem. “Oh really? You’re going to make a film about Bjorn Lomborg? Well, forget it.” About four or five people I interviewed for the film got completely shut down or fired from their jobs.
On political polarization:
I was hoping with this film to push through the split between Republicans and Democrats. I’m a Democrat, but I think Republicans will flock to this movie, and I hope Democrats will too. It’s been called the anti-Inconvenient Truth, but that’s never been my goal. I really want to push through this logjam of polarization between the political parties and actually look towards what solutions can be done right now.
On Al Gore’s message:
We owe a great deal to Al Gore for bringing this issue to light and making it possible for us to even be talking about this. But he did use a lot of worst case scenarios, and he did call it the greatest moral issue of our time. What that does is it shuts down any other voices. But when the sky doesn’t fall the next day, or the next year, or there’s not a torrential flood, or there’s actually a cool day in the summertime, people say, “Oh, I guess it’s not happening.” And yes, generally we know it’s getting warmer, but the greatest moral issue? When there are people starving to death? And dying of malaria, which is a disease of poverty? It’s definitely an issue and it needs to be addressed, but so do these other issues. And to put $250 billon of our GDP every year towards reducing the temperature by half a degree by the end of the century, that doesn’t sound right.
On switching from fossil fuels:
We need to look at how much money we can put towards R&D right now, because we won’t switch until alternative energy is less expensive than fossil fuels. We just won’t. That’s why it’s not happening yet; it’s pure economics.
On finding the money to implement Lomborg’s proposals:
I said to Bjorn, create a budget for all of us, so that by the end of the film we’ll know how you’d propose to spend that money. And I also want to know how we can raise the money. And he said we should do a carbon tax of seven dollars per metric ton, which is basically, for instance, six cents a gallon at the gas pump. But that would raise $273 billion dollars to be able to spend on that budget he outlines. I want people to walk out of this film knowing what they can do. And you can say to your elected representatives, I don’t mind paying a carbon tax, in fact I demand it. Bjorn always says that we’re the wind and politicians are the weathervanes, and it’s up to us to make them turn in a certain direction.
On what steps viewers can take next:
The website for the film is coolit-themovie.com. There’s even a section on the site about the carbon tax. People have become really impassioned after seeing the film, and organized locally. I think there’s a lot of organizing amongst ourselves that we’re going to have to do.