This interview was originally published on April 5, 2012. It is being re-posted today because Surviving Progress has been released on DVD.
What is progress? And is it always a good thing for the human race? Find out in Surviving Progress, a new documentary presented by Martin Scorsese, produced by the makers of The Corporation and co-directed by Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks. Based on Ronald Wright’s nonfiction book A Short History of Progress, the film features interviews with Wright, Margaret Atwood, Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawkingand other prominent thinkers of today.
This week I chatted with Roy about this stunning new compilation work, which I’d first seen last fall at the Toronto Film Festival and found very depressingly focused on the doom of our civilization. That tone is one of the things we talked about, along with adapting nonfiction and still being relevant, the collaborative process of being a for-hire documentarian in Canada and how it benefits you to have Scorsese as a personal friend and mentor.
Here is our conversation:
Where did the idea come from to turn Ronald Wright’s book into a documentary, and how did you become involved?
This came as an offer from Daniel Louis, who is a producer here in Montreal with a company called Cinémaginaire [makers of Denys Arcand films, among many others]. I got a phone call from him through another filmmaker called François Girard [The Red Violin] for whom I had worked as a researcher and assistant. Daniel was interested in meeting me to perhaps direct this project he had, which was to adapt Wright’s book into a film.
He’d been coming back from his cottage and was listening to the CBC, the national radio here, and he heard Ronald Wright reading his book. It was originally a set of five lectures. So he was reading every part. Daniel heard it and thought it was fascinating and bought the rights immediately after. Then I was approached, and to me it was a gift. I was very excited. I was very young back then. I mean I was 26, but I was a young director and eager to take on something that was overwhelming.
I definitely did not realize how overwhelming it would be. This took seven years, from day one, from meeting Daniel, the first adaptation synopsis we came up with and then many years of financing, many years of research, many years of shooting. And then many years of editing later, here we are with this film that feels contemporary and made to come out at this time. It’s the longest project I’ve ever worked on.
You bring up something I was curious about. The book was originally published in 2004 and you say you’ve been working on it since then, and yet a lot of the film seems to be a response to what has happened in only the last three or four years with the financial crisis. How did it end up so relevant as opposed to a straight adaptation of the book as published?
The co-director, Harold Crooks, and I always felt we had the freedom — more than freedom, it was kind of agreed — that we wouldn’t be adapting the book as it was. The book was not conceived as one narrative with one storyline. It’s much more deconstructed, and so there’s no clear narrative to it. I struggled for many years to try and create one. Then I worked with Harold Crooks on a more open documentary approach, going back to more classical interviews and following characters and trying to build pieces of our own. We felt the pieces would evolve and create a film that is not exactly the book.
That being said, I think the essence of the book is definitely still in the film, and Ronald Wright is very much part of the film. So being given that liberty, of course the film went in different directions. And when Ronald Wright saw the final result at our premiere in Toronto, he was very happy. He thought the book had reached a natural evolution into the film.
Weirdly, it was touching on so many issues that are now in everyday news, such as overpopulation. When the film came out, I think it was the week that the world reached seven billion people. We were in the midst and are still in the midst of a very serious debt crisis, and the bankers are still, even now, playing around with crazy derivative systems that create ridiculous profits. All these questions are part of the world we live in, and I guess that’s thanks to Ronald Wright but also thanks to what happened in 2008 and to the pressure that our world is going through right now.
So would Wright come to you with new issues to tackle or did you come to him? He is still probably the most prominent and consistent voice in the film, as if he’s like an onscreen host or narrator.
We gave him this special presence in which he’s not the narrator but he is the interviewee who comes back throughout on a regular basis to dictate the pace and the subject matter that we touch upon. We interviewed him later when the film was underway and we already had a structure. So we guided him in different directions to fit with the subject matter. And the fact that we interviewed so many other great thinkers really helped us to shape the edit and not go too far from the scope of his book, which is pretty wide in itself anyway.
You interview Margaret Atwood, and now there’s also a new documentary specifically based on her book Payback, so I wonder how that will relate to this film. The connection actually makes me want to see that one more now.
I haven’t seen the film, but that’s partly why we wanted to interview Margaret Atwood. We were shooting in Brazil and we found this Macleans magazine that had an interview with her about her latest essay. We thought it would be fascinating to interview a writer on debt to get this different approach. So I’m very curious to see Payback.
You also have an interview with Jane Goodall, who recently was the focus of her own documentary as well. Having seen that film [Jane’s Journey], I was also interested in seeing her again here.
Goodall was one of the last persons we interviewed, as an exercise in trying to infuse hope and optimism into the film. Her foundations are focused on kids and how kids can change the world. She has this kind of moral authority that is very optimistic. [Her film] is distributed by our U.S. distributor, First Run Features, so I’m going to try and get a copy when I’m in New York for the launch of our film there.
Because you bring up the optimism, I want to talk about the tone. The first time I saw the film I focused on the opposite, finding it to be a seriously doom and gloom affair and come away kind of depressed. The second time I did pay more attention to the bits of hopefulness at the end, but there’s no doubt a dark quality to your film.
That’s definitely something that comes up a lot. Many people — I wouldn’t say most people, but some — come up to me and say, “Why is your film so pessimistic?” And I answer that it’s the world we live in that’s depressing, not the film. The more you work on understanding these patterns and mechanisms of civilization and these massive economic frauds, and the more you read about these things and talk about them and understand the world, the more depressed you get. And the more outraged you get.
As a filmmaker I don’t want to cheat the reality so that it’s not too depressing. I’d rather trigger that outrage that pushes us to do something about it afterwards. When I saw Inside Job and The Corporation, they definitely triggered outrage and this weird empowering feeling that I understand and want to do something to change it. I would say that’s our approach.
But that being said, we’re very aware of that perception. So that’s why in the end we do talk about these more optimistic ideas of the planetary brain and the fact that organically the planet is more linked and we can tackle more problems quicker with more minds. With these real problems, I think it’s more honest to show them as I understand them, and yes sometimes that’s depressing, but it’s true.
There’s a quote in the film by Daniel Povinelli where he says something about how the epithet on humanity’s grave is going to just ask, “Why?” And in a way, the film provides the answers to that question. Did you think of this at all while putting it together?
Well, we do tackle some existential problems, but one can not expect a 90-minute film to answer all existential questions. We just depose these questions. And I think we were very prepped with Daniel Povinelli’s way of framing the issue, that as a species what separates us from a chimp is our ingenuity, the fact that we do ask ourselves questions about the physical world that surrounds us, and we do go deeper into what we can not serve.
At the same time it creates the human culture. It creates art, science, technology and wonderful accomplishments, but at the same time it creates weapons that can destroy ourselves. And it’s because of our ingenuity, the sentimental paradox of human nature and this connection between our more animal-like side and our cultured, more-civilized side. Povinelli raises the issue and I think the whole film plays around this existential question. But I don’t think we have a definite answer on this.
The film opens with footage of chimpanzees and then cuts to a shot of astronauts working in space. Was this an intentional reference to Kubrick’s 2001?
It wasn’t in the beginning. We had the shots of the chimps and we were already juggling with the space footage for an intro, so it became obvious when we did it. And yes, it’s a very conscious tribute. The challenge behind this cut, which is the opening cut of the film, is how could we define progress in one cut. I think it does the job pretty well while also paying tribute to one of the giants of cinema.
There are a lot of shots in the film. Much that is archival, and much that is shot on location while you’re following the different stories. You mention that you did most of the interviews later. So how do you plan out the visual structure of a compilation film like this? Do you list things that you want to show and then find stuff to illustrate them, and if you can’t find that footage elsewhere do you shoot the desired visuals yourself? How does that all work?
It’s a mix, and it depends on where I’m at in the process. During the shoot when we follow our Chinese character and our Brazilian character we try to get as much footage as possible, and not just related to these stories but to grander subjects. And we have these choreographed shots that we tried to do in different cities. We tried to gather as much footage [on site], but then as the pieces evolve and as we conduct more interviews, we don’t necessarily have the time or budget to go out and shoot to visually illustrate everything. So we have to fall back and use some archival material that’s close to what we would have shot.
And as the director, are you there for the whole process, all the travel and then also the editing and everything?
Yeah, we were in the helicopter over Sao Paulo, over the favelas. We were in China. I was on the forefront. And Harold Crooks was also with us during the shoot, but he and I had a more collaborative approach to content. While I was in charge of directing the film and the visuals and leading every interview, we found we were splitting the research on some of our interviewees. In some case he would start an interview and I would finish it, and in some cases it was the other way around. It gave us a very nice live perspective on interviews. It’s always a plus to have two interviewers because one can start while the other can write down notes, and when the person really hasn’t answered the question you can immediately come back. We had this interesting gymnastic between the two of us for every interview.
Of course the task of preparing and researching for all these people was gigantic. Harold and I made a really great team with our researchers. It’s definitely a collaborative effort, with so many people involved and a lot of conversation at every screening during the three years of editing. There were a lot of conversations between the six or seven producers. I would say it was an organic and interactive process making this film.
I’m intrigued by the idea of a filmmaker being hired on to direct a documentary as opposed to coming up with the project him or herself. Unlike a narrative Hollywood production where a for-hire director can be relatively detached and just walk away from the movie after shooting it, with a documentary, in the end, it seems like this is your film and your message that’s coming across with it.
Yeah, well this is Canada. It’s not exactly the same as it is in Hollywood or in the U.S. for documentary filmmaking. It’s a lot less heavy in terms of the industry. It’s much more from the artisan perspective. Even though our producers are pretty big here. They make $10 million fiction films. There’s a good industry here in Quebec, but documentaries are smaller projects and even though I just said it was a collaborative effort, we were relatively few, and I was at the forefront of every conversation.
I edited the film in my place for a year while my assistant editor was doing night shifts while I sleep. And when you split a million-and-a-half-dollar budget over six and a half years, it comes down to not a lot per year. Considering everything we were able to achieve, I think it was a pretty low profile production effort. Very well managed production, but there weren’t any excesses in any stages.
Since this is a documentary blog, I like to ask people for recommendations of other great nonfiction films, whether they are influences or simply favorites. And did you watch any particular docs in preparation for this project?
I adore documentaries, but of course I became more aware of them while making this one. For instance, when I was a political science student fifteen years ago, I saw Manufacturing Consent, about Noam Chomsky, by Mark Achbar, who is one of our executive producers and also did The Corporation afterward. This film kind of changed my world and really, really challenged me. I was then a journalist and come from a journalist family and was already interested in the socioeconomic issues.
Later, when I fell in love with cinema and started watching films and going to film school in New York, I was more interested in fiction and Fellini and all that, but slowly I came back to documentaries, like The Corporation and the Michael Moore films. Then, of course, I love Scorsese’s documentaries on cinema and Herzog’s amazing documentaries, such as Lessons of Darkness and Fata Morgana. Once in awhile I develop an obsession with a filmmaker and watch all of his documentaries. Errol Morris, of course.
And in Canada we have great documentaries. While working in Toronto and Vancouver, I tried to watch as many as I could that were loosely related to our subject matters, and we realized most of the documentaries had a connection to our film. I think it’s a trend of our time, of our era, to tackle these global, giant, interconnected problems.
I don’t say it enough, but thank god that Canada produces so many documentaries and has always been a great source for these films.
Yeah, and we’ve still got to defend that in the budget, which the federal government just passed a couple of days ago. All the major cultural institutions were cut by ten percent. Even though we don’t need to do these kind of bullshit austerity measures here in Canada right now — employment is not half as bad as in the States and not as bad as in Europe — there’s still this conservative neo-liberal ideology that is also operating here in Canada, where for a long time we had a liberal federal government that was really putting money in culture and making sure we were harvesting these precious institutions. It’s always a fight. We still have to fight today to maintain these politics. But I realize how lucky we are to live in such a country where, for instance, documentaries are subsidized.
Yeah. There is less interest in them here, but I do think Scorsese’s name attached to your film will help its awareness in the U.S..
Absolutely, and I’m very proud to tell you that he’s going to be there Friday in New York for our theatrical launch, and I’m going to introduce the film with him. It’s a privilege and an honor that he agreed to put his name on this project.
Was he involved from the beginning or did he see it and then want to present it?
It was pretty early on. I had worked with him on The Aviator and we remained in a relationship and I worked with his World Cinema Foundation. He’s kind of a mentor for me and I’ve known him for ten years. So when I went and visited him in 2005 on the set of The Departed I gave him the book and he immediately read the first ten or fifteen pages and said, “That’s fascinating. I definitely want to help you.” He’s very generous in that way, and he does that for many projects, many foreign films most of the time that he wants to help distribute in the U.S. It’s fantastic that his name is on this film as well.
Surviving Progress opens this Friday, April 6, 2012, in New York City. The film will expand to other U.S. cities through June.