Josh Fox is a man of many guises: playwright, musician, activist and filmmaker.
Yet in the superb documentary GasLand, Fox found himself in the unexpected role of environment detective, investigating and bringing to life the shameful and dangerous methods used by the natural gas industry in order to extract gas from America’s heartland, destroying not only the lives of hardworking American citizens but also the land, air, and water which they survive upon.
Fox has now brought GasLand to Australia, and his timing couldn’t be better, with natural gas extraction set to begin in several territories.
Fortunately for me, I was able to sit down with Fox and talk about the many wonderful facets which is GasLand.
When you first received that letter, what was running through your head?
What the hell was this? That was what I was thinking. Actually my Dad looked at it and said ‘What is this? Look at this and figure it out. I don’t have time!” (Laughs) I looked at it and was like, this is weird. Immediately it was followed by a whole bunch of other letters that said: ‘Don’t lease now. You can make more money if you all lease together’. And that is when I got concerned, because apparently the letter was not only for me. It was the whole neighbourhood, and then the whole state, and this and all that.
Then you look at the process, and the people at the gas industry were saying that it is all puppy dogs and rainbows, and everyone will make a lot of money. Then my neighbours who I really trust, and some of them who are very intelligent and have bio-engineering degrees from Columbia University, said that this process looks like a massive industrial project on our beloved home....whoa! There I was thinking, what is really happening? That is how the story unfolded...I didn’t know how deep it would go. Or how far it would take me, or any of that.
Did the filmmaker in you feel something was brewing here?
Well, I always have a lot of priorities. At the time I was working on a huge play. One of the biggest of my career called “Surrender”. It was a collaboration with an Iraq war veteran, it was eventually nominated for a Drama Desk Award...big, big deal, and I was really looking forward to it. And I was premiering my first film Memorial Day, so I was looking at (GasLand) and looking at my priorities....I made a little something, you know? Maybe 5 or 10 minutes... I do a lot of exploratory work on a lot of different projects, whether it be film or theatre...so I showed this footage to some friends of mine, and their jaws dropped. They were like ‘Dude. Why didn’t we know about this? You gotta focus on this. You have to focus on this.’ So I went to work a little bit more on it, and continued to come back to it.
Then for me the trip to Dimock (Pennsylvania) was just mind blowing, and hey...I love the American west. I love road trips. I’m a hobo, or whatever you want to call it....road warrior, at heart...Woody Guthrie, just going out there and retracing those steps. So I was like, if this is gonna take me out west, if this is gonna be an investigation, then I am the man to do this job.
We live in very environmentally conscious times. How can an issue as important as this fly underneath the radar for so long?
The Bush/Cheney era, is the era of aberration. The Iraq war, fighting a war for no reason. Torturing prisoners, all of a sudden American’s are torturers? They also reregulated the bank industry, which crashed the world. Next the housing market collapses. What didn’t they do that wasn’t completely fucked up? That was like, ‘How the hell did that just happened?’ They created a nightmare.
I don’t want to come across as this partisan kind of figure. Completely the opposite. (But) they had that agenda from walking in the room. Halliburton were one of the pioneers of hydraulic fracturing, Dick Cheney brought them with him under the powers of his Energy task force, they got an exemption all over America...bulldozed and railroaded whole towns....destroyed them, and got off scot free with the people’s money. And that’s it.
"I think I became very thirsty for what America wanted to say as a kind of poetry...I thought that would be exciting for people to watch. " - Josh Fox
The more you explored, the more widespread this catastrophe seemed, yet you were vigilant in your goal. What was it that inspired you and made you want to persevere?
(Silence) When you are in pursuit of the more evidence you get, the harder it is. I also needed to know as a storytelling person, as the writer/director, where am I at in my scenes, you know?
I never made a documentary before, so maybe I shot more than I needed.... I like to have ideas that are half baked. I don’t know where they’re going. I don’t know the answers to the questions. So as you’re going, you sort of feel...those guys took me out all Easter for target practice, which is so uniquely American west. So we’re in the American west, on Easter. You have Easter dinner, you have the egg hunt, and then you go out to shoot target practice against a Buick! And I was like, ‘wow!’ This is a portrait of America. Also, there is this thing that you are working on, right? A moment in time, capture it. Huge, huge issue, and then here is your life’s work.
My life’s work is about these very personal... seeing something and then taping it, and then doing that from far away, and then back into the first thing, and then back out, and doing that chemical scene with a musical symphonic structure...a symphony built out of this thing one minute, and then three different the next minute...it’s a fabric. So that is also harder to get into.
I think I became very thirsty for what America wanted to say as a kind of poetry. When you hear Louis Meekes there is a kind of thrill was his way of speaking. When you hear Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President...you got a cowboy and you have this New Yorker, and they both have this resident American poetry which I felt was thrilling. I thought that would be exciting for people to watch.
You present a lot of information in a way that is easy to digest. Was the wave of data overwhelming for you, and how did you let it all sink in?
There was a lot of scientific study, and we had advisors to help us with all of that. We’re making sure that all of our science was up to date. There were people researching this from the perspective of scientists finding out their problems as we were coming to their town. It wasn’t specific to the film, in that we didn’t hire this research team for the film. We pulled from the field of people who were working on the science and coming to them, or there were experts which we found.
And did you find the information overwhelming?
Always overwhelming, but that’s why we’re here, to show the film, talk to the audience, think about the organisations which are working on it, give them support, and have that human element.
Climate change has unfortunately become more of a political issue than an environmental one. Are you at all concerned that GasLand could be used as a political tool used from either side of the political field?
It is a concern, because I made this film so that it is non-partisan. People in this film are from the Republican party, people in this film are from the Democrat party....it’s a public health and safety issue.
I want to talk about these things from a very personal place first, because this is my personal life now. But at the same time there are geo-political forces at work here, big business and the innovations of technology that will carry the planet forward are being repressed by the fossil fuel industry....I think there is more work to be done on the big picture, and I will do it.
Are you still in contact with any of the people you interviewed for the film?
Oh yeah! A lot of people in the film have become...well, in the making of it I had impartiality to a degree. Some people just have a natural connection, and you just become friends with them. When the film was complete, we toured with it, and we brought to Dixon, we brought it to Colorado, and brought it to Louisiana, we brought to New York....that’s when those relationship went to the next level, and now those people are some of my best friends....there is a connection on this project, and we are working on this together.
Something I took from this film was that it is about community.
Another thing I took from it was a spiritual connection. You are all connected through these water streams. Is that a correct assumption?
The same water that Socrates drank is in that bottle (points to a water bottle situated on the table). When you watch the movie and you see the stream, you have a visceral – literally – reaction. And I think that when you are out there, there is that kind of kinship... that it is evident that we are in the same boat, and that is scary.
So I think there is a kind of ...you know, adversity brings out the best in people...but I am very concerned about what has happened to a lot of those people, because there health is getting worse.
"When you watch the movie and you see the stream, you have a visceral reaction. And I think that when you are out there,it is evident that we are in the same boat, and that is scary." - Josh Fox
The film has a distinct look and style in its photography and use of music. How did you approach your film in those regards?
Matt Sanchez, the editor, who I grew up with, brought out something in the way that I was shooting. We had a great collaboration. We understood each other to make a priority that you would not ever forget the camera... here I am with the camera, you know that I am shooting, but I am also the vehicle of the story. So that was the biggest objective.
In my projects the music is always a big part in all of the plays that I do....Matt chose all of those weird noises, and mine were all of the poppy stuff. So I think that we play off each other...
...And your Banjo
There was a lot of banjo stuff, because when we put it in we had a good response to it, more or less. So we’ll make more because it’s easy (laughs). It was cheap.
Our environment minister Tony Burke has stressed the precautions which the Government have undertaken to monitor the natural gas companies. Is there such a thing as a safe way to extract Natural Gas?
(Silence) I can’t see that given the little bit that I know, the evidence that I have seen, the pleas of the people ..I can’t agree with that. I don’t think you can have an industry that can self regulate...certainly not this industry.
I think you have to get into...do you want to industrialise the watershed area? Do you want to industrialise the areas your wildlife depend on? Do you want to industrialise...more! (Silence) Industrialisation process of this massive scale transforms and contaminates...one well, two wells, twenty wells, a thousand wells, two thousand wells...because that’s the way it works.
I’ve read that you have begun filming in Fort Worth, Texas for a sequel. Would the emerging gas boom in Australia also make its way into the film?
Well, I’ve been following up as I go around touring (GasLand), and some of that new material is astounding. I will also film here (Australia), but I’m not telling you where we are going (Laughs). We’re going...somewhere...
You’re visiting “places”....
....there is a great opportunity here to... I hope the screenings bring on a referendum here. That people all over the country will participate in discussions, in Q&A’s, in panels...you certainly can’t walk into the poll booth during one of the most massive industrialisation movements in the history of the continent, which the leader of your Green party has called “the number one environmental issue facing the continent”, without having a big discussion.
So hopefully the screenings for GasLand will be the one place where the discussion will continue, and that it comes into the mainstream, that it comes into the theatres, and that people will watch. It is also a really good film, that is really fun to watch even though it’s hard.
So I hope people realise that this is a film which is incredibly inspiring to make, and I think when people watch it they will be thrilled.
GasLand is currently playing in cinemas through Palace Films.