You can’t fault Franny Armstrong for ambition. After spending 10 years on McLibel, and getting an audience of 25 million despite most broadcasters being too terrified to touch it, her new film, The Age of Stupid, will be unveiled on Sunday March 15 with the biggest premiere in history. Coming from a solar powered cinema tent in Leicester Square and being beamed to another 64 UK cinemas simultaneously, it’s also being billed as the world’s most eco-friendly premiere – marking the launch of the Not Stupid campaign, which will count down to the all-important Copenhagen Climate Change Summit in December. We spoke to her following a special preview at Birds Eye View.
LWLies: So, how did the idea for the film come about?
Armstrong: I thought of it in 2002, when a friend of mine said she wanted to make a film about oil, and I said, ‘Yeah, of course oil is interesting, but how on earth would you do it? How on earth would you approach it?’ And then, later that night, the word ‘traffic’ just popped into my head, and eventually I worked out: Traffic, the Steven Soderbergh film, and that that is the brilliant way of getting into a really complex international issue, where there’s no right and wrong, there’s no black and white. And so I thought, ‘Yeah, the structure of Traffic, that’d be the way to tackle oil and climate change: six interweaving human stories, except documentary’. That was back in 2002…
LWLies: How did you go about finding contributors?
Armstrong: Well, we just got a huge team of researchers, and we split it into six main themes, and got them all working on different themes, like war, for example – find all the wars that are currently going on about oil, or even recent ones – like Kuwait – because it didn’t have to be a current story. And then they would write their reports and come back to me, and I’d go, ‘Okay – yes, no, no, yes, yes…’ We just kind of narrowed it down and narrowed it down… The first one we actually found was the Indian airlines guy, and that was somebody who was looking under the heading ‘Consumerism – ever-expanding consumerism’, and they’d done this report with all sorts of things – another contender was banana distribution, just because it uses so much energy and stuff like that – but then when I saw that Indian airlines had just started expanding (because of some little change in the Indian airlines law), I immediately thought, ‘Okay, that’s perfect’. So, India – because I’ve made a film in India before [Drowned Out], I knew it was possible. We wanted either India or China, but in India they speak English.
LWLies: You say you’re not labelling people wrong or right, but, of all the characters in the film, you definitely send up the guy from the Indian airline to a ridiculous degree, by the editing and the music you use… Were you open-minded to start with, or did you just think, ‘Yes! I’ve got a great character here!’?
Armstrong: The reason I liked him is because he has this extra level of story, compared to the other possibilities, because there were lots of airlines starting up in India at that time. But he was doing it, he started his airline, because he comes from a very, very rich family, feels bad about it, wants to help eradicate poverty in India and thinks that giving poor people the option of flying was going to help, so… it was fantastic! There couldn’t have been a better story.
LWLies: So, I read that you came back with 300 hours of footage, and it took a year to edit. At what point in that mammoth process did it hit you that it wasn’t going to work as a straight doc?
Armstrong: I think it took about three years to make the doc, and then when I watched it, I just didn’t think it was good enough, basically. So then I had a bit of a crisis for a couple of months, and just met with my editor – he was working on another job but we used to meet every morning or evening and just brainstorm about how we were going to save our film! And eventually we came up with this idea about setting it in the future.
LWLies: Wasn’t it quite late that the Pete Postlethwaite character was brought in?
Armstrong: Well, we’d taken all these people’s money, and decided it just wasn’t good enough. After we’d had a rethink and decided to introduce this drama element, the first idea was it should be the next generation – what are they going to think about us? So we actually did this mock-up, which was one of the most humiliating experiences of my life, because we wrote the script starring these two teenagers in the future. Then we filmed just a mock-up, but I was playing the girl and our assistant was playing the boy, and then we screened it to all our crew and investors. Foolishly, I had not thought through that it was going to be me on the big screen at a cinema, and everybody hated it! Basically because all these two teenagers in the future could say was, ‘You bastards, you took all the resources, you’re so selfish, we hate you!’, and you were basically getting lectured by teenagers in the future… I mean, it was like the worst film of all time. I suppose it was quite funny though, because everybody at that stage was telling us it would never work, you know, ‘This film is over. It will never work – maybe if you’re lucky you can sell some of the footage...’ – you know, to make a few hundred pounds back.
Then, we had a few nightmare days but we eventually realised that it wasn’t the idea of it being in the future that was bad, it was the kids. And actually, what we needed was my generation in the future and why didn’t we do anything about climate change? We had all the knowledge, we had all the technology, and we just thought ‘we won’t bother’. So then it was going to be a film about regret and sorrow and guilt and all that kind of thing, which was much better. We rewrote it, then we needed an older actor, googled Pete Postlethwaite…
LWLies: Easy as that?
Armstrong: We just googled him on the off chance he was into climate change, and the first article that came up was the local paper saying that he was trying to get a wind turbine on his house, and there was this great quote from him saying, ‘It’s everybody’s responsibility to do everything they can about climate change’. And I just thought, ‘He’s gonna say yes, he’s gonna say yes…’
LWLies: The film was crowd-funded. Was that a lengthy process?
Armstrong: Well the funding didn’t take long at all to be honest – the reason I didn’t start in 2002, when I first had the idea, is because I was finishing my other film, Drowned Out. So, one of the good things about crowd-funding is that there isn’t a huge wait – if you’re trying to get funding in a normal way, it normally takes you a year to get it, whereas this way it only took us about two months, or say a month, and then we had some money, and then we could get going straight away. So there wasn’t that horrible gap, which is great, actually. And then we just got the rest of the money as we went along, over the years – we didn’t get all the money and then start. I think we got £17k at the beginning. People were even offering me money tonight, after the screening – wanting to buy shares. It’s still going on.
LWLies: And what stake do they get in the film?
Armstrong: Well it’s all different, according to when you invest, and how much you invest, and all that. Because, obviously, if you invested before there was a film, that’s a much more risky investment than if you invest now.
LWLies: What do you say to those who will still consider climate change as a middle class concern, one that not everyone can afford to think about? One scientist comments in the film that human beings are good at dealing with immediate threats but struggle to rationalise far off ones, which seems pretty apt.
Armstrong: Well, climate change is very soon going to be everybody’s daily concern. In the coming decades, it’s going to be what we all think about all the time, in terms of, ‘Is my family going to survive?’ So, the sooner people realise that, the better it is for them, you know, from a selfish perspective, the sooner they start thinking about it, the better it’s going to be. But also, it’s not a middle class concern, in the terms that 150,000 people are dying right now, every year, because of climate change, and those are not middle class people – those are poor people.
LWLies: You’ve made a film which links arguably the most important global issues of the day – climate change, consumerism, the gap between the rich and poor – combines all your past subjects, and also explores the nature of humanity. It’s hard to see where you go from here?
Armstrong: Yeah, I’m done now. I’m done!