Documentaries are one of my favourite genres and so I jumped at the chance to speak with Josh Fox about his excellent new doco called GasLand. It looks at the gas companies in the United States and some of the dirty secrets they’re trying to keep hidden from the general public.
If you'd prefer the audio version, you can download an abbreviated version of the interview in a special 8-minute podcast. Just click here to go to my separate podcast page.
Here’s what Josh had to say. A shame they cut the scene with the talking dog. :)
Matt: How did you get started with this subject matter? Was there a moment in particular where you thought I’ve got to do something about this and tell the story?
Josh: This came into my life in a very strange way but it’s the same it came into a lot of people’s lives. The gas industry asked to lease my family’s land for drilling. I live in the Upper Delaware River Basin around the border of New York and Pennsylvania. It’s a pristine area – a very beautiful part of the Delaware River and you see a lot of that in the film.
We got a letter in the mail that said we’d like to lease your land for natural gas drilling. I thought this is crazy, what is this? I then discovered that we were on top of a formation called the Marcellus Shale that stretched over 65% of Pennsylvania, 50% of New York State and 50% of Ohio – a massive, massive area. Looking at it further, we were in the middle of the largest on-shore natural gas drilling campaign in the history of the United States.
The gas industry came in and they said this is going to be good for you. You’re going to make a lot of money. There are no environmental effects. When we’re done, you’ll just have a fire hydrant in the middle of a field and you won’t even know we’re here.
Neighbours of mine had looked into it and they were freaking out. They were saying there were 600 different toxic chemicals that they inject into the ground. They use millions of gallons of water which becomes infused with these chemicals and it’s been getting into people’s water wells. So I went out to try to figure out what was the truth.
I thought initially I was going to make a 5 to 10 minute thing for Youtube to bring people up to speed about the process because the gas industry story and the environmental story were so conflicted but I found I couldn’t do that. The things that I found were really astounding so I decided that was worthy of making a movie.
Matt: Did you have any background as a filmmaker before this?
Josh: Yes. I’ve made one previous feature film. But I’m mostly a theatre director. I make huge international collaborate theatre pieces that have premiered in New York, Japan, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and Germany. I’m used to making stuff on big topics and involving the interview process. This was my first full length feature documentary but it’s a technique that I’ve used before.
Matt: So did you have any kind of crew at all? Or was it just you out there doing it on your own?
Josh: In the beginning it was just me. At lot of the film was shot by me just driving and travelling across America. Then I met Matthew Sanchez at the CineVegas Film Festival – another director and his strength was in editing and cinematography. He became the editor of the project and we worked on the film together. He really brought the visual style to the film and also the pacing. One or two friends early on helped as producers and researchers. We then met Trish Adlesic who was our producer who has been amazing.
Matt: The key scene for me is the scene where you turn the faucet on and the water catches on fire. It’s an amazing scene. It’s the part of the documentary people go “wow, that really is serious”. Did you realise the power of that footage when you had it?
Josh: Yeah. What had happened was that there were reports of people who could set their water on fire in Pennsylvania in this one town that I went to. The gas companies came in though and disconnected everyone’s water supply and started replacing their water. Even though they were no accepting any responsibility, they were coming in as “good neighbours” and replacing people’s water.
So we initially couldn’t get the footage. But then there were reports of it in Colorado, in Wyoming, in Texas, in Louisiana, in Canada. Finally, we caught up with it in Colorado and a whole neighbourhood of people who could light their water on fire. One of those cases was on television. A family had recently moved into the neighbourhood and they were in total shock. Now, those people can’t speak because they were forced to sign a non-disclosure agreement as a settlement.
They had 100 pages of water tests. They had confirmed that this gas had come from the lower shale area. There was no other way it could get in there. They were actually showering in the dark because they were afraid that the light switch would create a spark that would blow their house up. This is the kind of terror that they were living in. Those are the words they used – they felt terrorised.
Matt: The documentary itself is only a couple of hours long. Was there a lot of footage and were there a lot of other stories that you didn’t get to show?
Josh: Oh yeah. We could have made a six hour movie but thankfully we didn’t. There was a lot of stuff that was really compelling that we had to leave out because we wanted it to have a mainstream timeframe so it’s about 100 minutes.
We’re still filming and documenting this crisis. We don’t know what we’ll end up doing with it but it goes on and on. I’ve now criss-crossed America three different times and as we show the film in these affected areas, we’ve had thousands of people come out for individual screenings. They even bring the water samples to the screenings. That gives us more leads and we shoot those stories.
Matt: When you started out, you would have been trying to get a lot of this information yourself. When people realised you were making this film, were a lot more people approaching you with their stories?
Josh: Yeah. I’d show up in a town where there’s a lot of drilling going on. I’d have one interview lined up at 9am and by the end of the day, I’d have done eight interviews and finished at 2am in the morning. My phone would then start ringing. I don’t know where they got my number from. There was this desperation of people to get their story on tape. They had no recourse, their water had been contaminated and they were hauling water from 10 miles away. They didn’t know what to do. Their properties were valueless. No one was listening to them.
Matt: Was there a lot of stuff that was off the record? People telling you stuff that you couldn’t use in the film?
Josh: We tried really hard for months to get the gas industry to come and do interviews. We asked the heads of all the major gas companies and none of them would come forward. We had a few off the record phone conversations with their PR people that we couldn’t include.
Some of it is outrageous. I did have one sit down with the CFO of a major gas company. He stated that he had no knowledge of the environmental regulation laws that they had been exempted from. In the United States, the gas industry is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clear Air Act, the Superfund law – all the basic public health and safety and environmental laws.
The cameras were not on. We were trying to do a pre-interview to get him to sit down with us but after a while we could tell he wasn’t going for it. So I asked the question – if gas is so safe to drill, why did the industry spend $100m lobbying to get these exemptions? And he said “what are you talking about? I don’t know what you mean.” Just amazing.
Matt: It’s so tough to get the message out there. When people go to the movies, they want to see their rom-coms and their big action blockbusters. Trying to sell war films and documentaries that are telling a serious message can be very difficult. How have you found that?
Josh: Hey, we’ve got explosions! It’s really funny too – the people in it are amazing. They know how to crack a joke when they can light their water on fire. There are sequences in the film where people in the audience will be laughing and that’s a big asset to the movie. We’ve tried to make sure there’s a sense of humour that wasn’t going to be condescending.
We did cut the car chase. I still regret it. We also cut the talking dog and some of those other things that we really wanted to keep – like the sequences where the monkeys take over the car. (laughs)
Although the subject matter is serious and upsetting, the absurdity of the situation - where people can light their water on fire – is both enraging and humorous. I think its one of the reasons why people like to watch it.
Matt: The film has grown in stature and the bigger it gets, the more vocal the critics become. Is that tough having to listen to a lot of stuff said about yourself and the film which may be misleading? Do you have be pretty thick-skinned in this business?
Josh: The gas industry has come out to attack the film. They don’t want people to see it. They don’t want people to see it in the right light. The one thing that’s most frustrating is that it’s very hard to debate an opponent who’s willing to lie. They’ll come out a lie straight up.
They’ll say “we’re not exempt from those laws” even though you can look the laws up. They’re counting on a media that maybe doesn’t have time to look it up. If someone comes out and says “the sky is green” and if no one else is in the room to say “the sky is blue”, then the media will report it as “the sky is green”. They’re counting on that. They’ll come out and say outrageous things and this is their PR campaign. It’s crazy to me. Extremely unfortunate.
It’s one thing to attack the film but it’s another thing to attack the credibility of families who have been told to move by their doctors because their kids have woken up in the middle of the night with nosebleeds and respiratory problems. Their doctors are telling them they’ve got to leave. They come out in the media and say “We’ve got no place to go. What do we do?” The gas industry then issues attack documents against the families. This is how vicious and despicable this kind of thing has become.
In China, when they were building the Three Gorges Dam, they employed whole villages to knock their entire towns down. They said “we’re going to flood your town but how would you like a job knocking down your house?” Now that’s a little bit more honest than letting the gas industry come in a put a well pad 100 feet from somebody’s front porch and then wait for them to get so frustrated that they move away.
Matt: Have you noticed any change to the attitudes of the gas companies since the film came out? Has there been public pressure?
Josh: They’re digging their heels in. It’s really sad because I think they’re going to do themselves in. What’s sad is that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) came in and said they’re going to have to provide a municipal water source to this town of Dimock. They acknowledged that the aquifer was contaminated and that the wells were poisoned. A water line has to be run from the nearest town which is 7 miles away.
The gas company ran full page ads attacking the DEP in the local paper. It stirred up the AstroTurf movement against the water pipeline. It turned the town against itself. This amazed me. The people in those towns are feeling incredibly isolated. The gas industry is basically saying that they’re more powerful that the states.
Matt: How long have you been working on the film? When did it all begin?
Josh: We got those letters in April 2008 so it’s been two and a half years. When we first started working it, I was still directing plays. I made four different plays while shooting the film. Since its premiere, I’ve only done one play in New York and it’s pretty much taken over since then.
Matt: Looking forward, are you able to let this go? Can you move on to other projects or move back to theatre or will this going to dominate your life for the next few years?
Josh: What it’s done is that it’s shifted the focus of the work that I was doing about globalisation and international culture to sustainability. That is the chief topic moving forward. There are a million projects I could make about that.
We’re making a theatre project called Reconstruction which is about building sustainable theatres. We’d like to do it in Australia and we’re going to do it in New York. We’re gong to build a sustainable theatre with the audience. We start with an empty space and over the course of three months, we’ve built the sustainability theatre by the end of it. That’s the dream.
I’m also working on a follow up to GasLand about renewable energy. As an artist, you always want a new wrinkle to open up. It’ll be a nice addition to what I’m doing with the theatre company and I’m excited to have found the documentary format. It seems that people like it.