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“Being Overwhelmed Doesn’t Have to Lead to Cynicism”: Rachel Lears on Her Climate Change Sundance Doc, To The End

A woman, Sunrise Movement activist Varshini Prakash, at a site destroyed by fireTo the End

Cynicism is the dramatic foil in To the End, Rachel Lears’s Sundance Documentary Competition follow-up to her 2020 Sundance picture Knock Down the House. In that film she followed four women — political newcomers hailing from diverse walks of life, all motivated to action by the Trump presidency — as they mounted underdog campaigns to win House seats. That one of the women was New York candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gave the film a rousingly satisfying ending, even as other women’s losses made clear the forces opposing progressive generational change.

Employing a similar structure, To the End follows three young activists and one elected official (again, Ocasio-Cortez) trying to effect change on a single issue within the United States Congress. That issue is climate change, the existential issue of our time, which adds both enormous stakes as well as storytelling challenges to the film. With carbon emissions poised to hit a new record in 2022 as nations and industries rebound from the pandemic’s first year, any U.S. legislative response is just one action that will need to occur for its signers to come anywhere close to meeting the Paris Accord’s 2050 goal. And with the film’s electoral official subject being again Ocasio-Cortez, whose signature focus on the Green New Deal becomes, by the film’s third act, stuck in the dispiriting sausage-making of the now seemingly scuttled Build Back Better bill, a more tempered ending than Knock Down the House‘s uplift is necessitated. But, as Lears points out, with climate change as the overarching issue, that was always to be the case for To the End. “Even if the bill had passed,” she says in our conversation below, “our [final] title card would’ve been different — we would’ve criticized that it didn’t go far enough.” (Note: after this interview was conducted, President Biden suggested that elements of Build Back Better’s provisions addressing climate could be included in a subsequent pared-down bill.)

Fortunately, just as efforts to combat climate change go far beyond a single bill, so does To the End, its actual subject being not the fight for a single piece of legislation but the fight to maintain a sense of optimism and belief that society-level responses to climate change can still be mustered. With Ocasio-Cortez now the film’s putative elder statesman — she says at one point, “My job is to get my hands dirty so community leaders and activists don’t have to” — that optimism is embodied by three young activists who organize, raise awareness, and articulate the ways in which the climate issue intersects with other vital challenges. It’s the depiction of these passionate subjects — Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement; Rhiana Gunn-Wright, climate policy director at the Roosevelt Institute; and Alexandra Rojas, executive director, Justice Democrats — as they balance idealism and realism, providing public inspiration while, behind closed doors, grappling with adversaries ranging from oil executives to climate-denying representatives to pure planetary nihilism, that provides the film’s enduring sense of inspiration.

I spoke to Lears just a few days before her Sundance premiere about following Ocasio-Cortez after Knock Down the House, the challenges posed by the film’s Build Back Better-focused third act and the Sundance deadline, and making a documentary during the pandemic that’s just not a bunch of Zoom boxes.

Filmmaker: So, obviously AOC was the breakout documentary star of your last film, Knock Down the House. You were very early in identifying her. Going from Knock Down the House to To the End, were you continuing to follow her as a subject and then embracing as a subject her key policy concern, or were you interested in dealing with climate previously and it was a happy confluence that she was focusing on it as well?

Lears: It was actually both. I was interested in looking at climate and that really sort of galvanized when the IPCC report came out in 2018, which is sort of what we start the film with. That’s the report that basically said that we need rapid, far-reaching unprecedented changes before 2030, and that these changes are technically and feasibly possible. It’s a question of political will, right? So when a group of apolitical scientists is framing this as a question of political will, political courage, I sort of had a light bulb go off — “Hey, I made films about that, about how impossible things become possible.” And I was already talking with [Ocasio-Cortez] and her team about what they were planning to do next, so we started talking about this project, and it grew to include the other three amazing women that are featured as well. At the very beginning, these were the organizations and individuals that were really pushing the Green New Deal as a concept. And, you know, the Green New Deal is not a piece of legislation, it’s a framework for understanding this transition and how we could actually do what the scientists are saying we need to do. 

Filmmaker: By focusing on the Green New Deal, the film becomes very much a kind of “how the sausage is made” look at public policy, everything from grassroots activism, the public’s exposure to these ideas and then the challenges on the legislative level. You start with the IPCC report, but you don’t have scientist talking heads explaining the science.

Lears: Right. I make character-based films. I always knew that’s what I wanted to make with this. Part of the casting process was how these stories were going to intertwine to become one narrative and to also show the different lanes involved in movement-driven policy change. And then, beyond that, and even before the pandemic happened, we were interested in playing with tropes of dystopian science fiction and the imagining of alternative futures that these people all have to do as part their job. And, so there really were a lot of sort of creative concepts that came about in those first early days.

Filmmaker: Did you ever think about going deeper into the specifics of policy, like what’s actually in the bill? I mean, you present it in a shorthand kind of way, and I realize it’s very complicated and difficult to lay out fully….

Lears: I definitely thought about it, but at an early stage we realized that it made sense for us to focus on the idea of big policy change. It’s such a cultural thing that action in terms of the environment or climate change is defined in terms of consumer choice. That’s fine, you can do that, it’s not bad, but we’re not going to get where we need to that way. We’re not even going to get there through protesting. You need an actual strategy, not just a tactic. So, that very early on became our focus and influenced the decision of who to follow and how to frame the whole film. To go into the real nitty gritty details of the policy, which was always changing… I mean, the Build Back Better text that passed the House was thousands of pages long! Maybe we’ll have an FAQ on our web site with some links.

Filmmaker: What would you identify in the film as an example of that interest in dystopian science fiction?

Lears: Well, one is the color correction. It’s subtle — it’s still documentary — but we gave everything a kind of cool tint, which tends to be often what happens in sci-fi or dystopian future scenarios. Also, in the score, there’s a lot eerie music that would provoke a sense of terror under some of the archival montages, or in the beginning with the fires and later on with the floods, and also with the onset of the pandemic. We’re also thinking about dystopia in three dimensions. One is the climate crisis itself. Of course it is almost a cliche at this point to talk about it in terms of dystopia or apocalypse. We’re not there yet. We’re not at an apocalypse. There’s still so much we can do, but those [apocalyptic] visions are out there. Another dimension is the media, this media space that our characters pass in and out of — it’s kind of both an adversary and a battleground where the story takes place. And, finally of course, there is the Kafkaesque world of Washington DC politics, which, they, particularly AOC, encounter.

Filmmaker: There’s that quote you have where AOC says, “My job is to get my hands dirty so community leaders and activists don’t have to.”

Lears: That’s such a crucial point. We juxtapose that scene with her meeting with the Native American leaders, and then the youth climate strike is the next scene. So, when AOC lays that out, that really dovetails with what our protagonist Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise movement says about how she sees so many activists who don’t want to engage with politics because it’s too icky. I’ve been involved in movements for a long time, so I know what she’s talking about. And, people who are not activists feel that way too: “Ugh, politics is so awful. Why engage? What is the point? Nothing ever changes.” But, if we care about the the climate crisis issue, there’s really no path forward that doesn’t go through politics, and certainly politics in, in this country.

Filmmaker: You started the film before the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests, both of which intersect with the themes of your movie. What were the choices you made during production regarding keeping a tight focus on climate and including these other subjects and areas that were impinging on this subject?

Lears: Well, about the pandemic, it was astonishing that just in a matter of weeks I had the sense that things that had been difficult to explain to people at the beginning of this project became intuitively obvious, especially the ways that crises play out along the lines of economic and racial inequality. Our film was always about those intersections, and the Green New Deal is about that too. It became clear that we needed to highlight [those intersections], and the pandemic sequence would be a great place to do that.

And of course there were a lot of production challenges [posed by the pandemic], the biggest of which is that the work our characters were doing moved completely online. They were always doing Zooms, and it became so, so tricky. We got the visuals we could, and we had to be creative about using exterior spaces. There are a lot more exteriors in the film than there would have been otherwise, which I love. [After the start of the pandemic] we did remote interviews [with our subjects]. I sent them audio equipment and then did interviews over Zoom. We didn’t use the visuals but we were able to match the audio.

Filmmaker: That’s interesting, because I didn’t really notice the absence of Zooms, but obviously, now that you mention it, it is logically where your characters would have moved to.

Lears: We decided not to [show] that. It didn’t feel quite right. It would have been jarring. I  mean, we do go in and out of media space, so there are enough Zooms in the film already. 

Filmmaker: I presume you also had to change your production model as the pandemic began.

Lears: Right. I mean, I’m accustomed to working as a one-person crew, and I did go back to that. It was a bummer. I really loved working with the larger crew, but there was also a possibility of intimacy because it was possible for me to safely go inside people’s homes, or have these single-person scenes that we would film in order to portray the isolation of everybody in their own little bubbles. And then in 2021 when everything opened up again with the vaccines, we went back [to a larger crew].

This was a very “high touch” film. It required a lot of continual access negotiations, a lot of communications to figure out what was going to happen, what could we potentially get access to. There were so many stories. I’ve never made a film that had so much stuff that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Filmmaker: How did the success of Knock Down the House help this film get financed, and why did you decide to make this with private equity and not go with a streamer or other distribution partner?

Lears: Well, I’m sure [the success] helped. We partnered fairly early on with Story Syndicate and EPs Dan Cogan and Liz Garbus were able to bring on Impact Partners at the development stage. And then Impact was really great in helping us finance the film and bringing on Lost Gang Films West, our other set of investors. Both these sets of investors were willing to really support filmmaker independence. There were various [other] scenarios where we might have gone out to distributors earlier, but we were fortunately able to finish it with the independent financing.

Filmmaker: The film’s last act focuses heavily on the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better plan, which is in a dire state right now. I’m sure there were other possible ending points for the film, some earlier chronologically and some much later, but obviously you had your Sundance premiere imposing a stop date. Tell me about the decision to end the film where you ended it, both from a creative point of view but also in terms of the real-world issue of needing to finish it in time for Sundance?

Lears: We had all these lists, like “seven possible endings,” [laughs], and after the 2020 election that list got narrowed down: will they or won’t they pass something? We knew it wasn’t going to be anything too closely resembling our characters’ goals, or the total vision of the Green New Deal, but Biden’s climate plan was already heavily influenced by those ideas, he said it would be a priority, and we were hopeful. And all the people we talked to to get a read on how it would play out, everybody thought it was going to pass. I mean, now everyone will say, “I told you so,” and everybody knew there were corporate lobbyists trying to kill the bill. But there was a strong sense in Washington that something would pass and it would probably pass by the end of the year. So we made the decision to apply to Sundance, and we just edited as much as we could in September before the deadline. And, then we had to decide at the last minute, are we ready to submit? Are we just going to do it and see what happens [with Build Back Better]? Then when we got the acceptance, we had to contend that that ending still wasn’t there. We re-edited when the bill passed the house in November, and then we had to edit again in December because of [Senator] Joe Manchin’s revelation [that he wouldn’t support the bill]. But over the summer I had done those interviews with Rhiana and AOC that make up the last two scenes, and when we were putting our rough cut together, there was just this feeling of, “Oh, I’m hearing the end of the film play out. These are the moments, the sentiments, that we need to end the film.” So we always knew it was going to be an incomplete ending.

Filmmaker: Which, at least at this moment in history, would always be the case for a film about climate change.

Lears: Exactly. Even if the bill had passed, our title card would’ve been different — we would’ve criticized that it didn’t go far enough. But I think those last two scenes — AOC and her partner in the woods and meeting Rihanna’s baby and hearing her thoughts on connecting her life to the future — offer a spectrum of possibility. I want this film to give people a chance to emotionally process the existential anxiety of this historical moment. Climate change and the interlocking crises that are visible everyday — the pandemic, inequality — all really provoke a sense of staring into the abyss, and it’s worse when we’re so isolated. What I hope people will take away from the film is that that sense of being overwhelmed doesn’t have to lead to cynicism. There are ways for individuals to be part of historic change. It’s not easy, the road is long, but you can be part of it.

Filmmaker: What activities are planned around the film in terms of impact and outreach?

Lears: We’re putting together an impact campaign. Sabrina Gordon, the producer, is going to be working on that as well. We had a wonderful group called Peace is Loud run our Knock Down the House impact campaign, and they’re gonna be working on this as well. There’s a lot to build from in terms of civic engagement, particularly among communities that are underrepresented in the halls of power — young people, BIPOC communities, women. Right now we’re pretty focused on just getting through Sundance.

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