Following up on its inaugural edition last year, SnagFilms is launching the 2nd annual SummerFest, a free online festival showcasing exclusive, limited-duration runs of popular new documentaries, beginning with Franny Armstrong’s acclaimed film, “The Age of Stupid.”
[Editor’s Note: SnagFilms is the parent company of indieWIRE.]
Unique for a documentary, “The Age of Stupid” incorporates a narrative thread, starring Oscar-nominated actor Pete Postlethwaite as an archivist in the year 2055, when the Earth has been completely devastated by climate change. The film is his recording of a last message for his archive, intended not for humanity – “It’s too late for us,” he gravely intones – but instead, “for whoever, whatever, eventually finds this recording” as a “cautionary tale.” The message consists of documentary footage from around the globe, focusing on stories of climate change and the world’s addiction to fossil fuels.
indieWIRE spoke to the film’s director, Franny Armstong, from London earlier this week about the project’s origins, its creative fundraising, and the groundbreaking (and environmentally friendly) ways the film has been reaching audiences.
iW: One of the striking things about the film is its unique hybrid of documentary and drama. Tell us how this happened, and why you felt the hybrid form made sense for this project?
Franny Armstrong: You can find out a lot more details from watching the “Making of” documentary , but basically, the original idea was to follow five different people, with none of them being the “good guy” or the “bad guy,” because the issue is not black and white. We made the film as a pure documentary and showed the rough cut to investors. What we found was that everyone who was already into climate change thought it was brilliant, but everyone else didn’t get the links between the different people followed. It wasn’t anything greater than the sum of its parts, and it was never going to go mainstream, which defeated the point. So we had a few dark months there while we found the structure to make it work.
iW: And this is when Pete Postlethwaite become involved?
FA: Once we decided on incorporating a dramatic element, we needed to find the right person. Everyone in the UK adores Pete. We didn’t think we would have a chance of getting him, but I Googled him to see if there was any chance he was into climate change, and I found a recent article in his local newspaper about his efforts to get permission to install wind turbines, where he was quoted saying that “everyone’s responsible for climate change.” So we reached out and he agreed to do the project.
iW: Let’s talk about the documentary elements of the film. How did you find your subjects and stories?
FA: We had about ten researchers amassing different stories, split up into different themes we were considering – areas like ever-increasing consumption, alternative energy, etc. For example, they found the story about low-cost airlines in India, and that was perfect – we wanted to involve India or China, and it’s very difficult to film in China – we found Jehangir Wadia and his interest in ending poverty through the airline. A fascinating character, a rich guy – a person of contradictions. We didn’t want the viewers to love or hate any subject. To find all the characters around the world, it took three years of researching.
iW: Tell us about how you’ve released the film and the reactions you’ve received.
FA: We had our global premiere in September. We broadcast live from New York City to 63 countries. Rather than go the traditional route and physically travel all over the world, we could leave a much smaller carbon footprint by having one enormous event, linking everyone by satellite. We had an amazing response – Kofi Annan spoke at the event.
The most amazing thing to happen has been the 10:10 Campaign, which aims to reduce our carbon emissions by 10% this year. Huge companies have signed up, committing to this goal. It started in the UK but it’s spreading to other countries quickly.
iW: The film’s title, and the tone the archivist uses, really issues a challenge to the viewer. What kind of personal changes have you made from learning all that you have in the process of making this film?
FA: Well, I’ve been into the subject since I was in school, so I have been making changes for over 20 years now. But I can see the impact around me – My dad installed solar panels a few weeks ago. I’m most proud of the way that we made this film, and how we’re getting it out to audiences and the change that is still possible.
iW: Franny, can you tell us about how you used crowdfunding for the film?
FA: I had tried to get my previous film, “McLibel,” made in the normal way for the UK, by having it commissioned, but nobody wanted to support the project. I ended up making it with credit cards and a rich boyfriend. This meant that I completely owned the rights, and could control the distribution, and this became very important for me [and] for my next project. It was going to cost more than the previous film, and by this point, the rich boyfriend had departed, so I invented a funding plan on the back of an envelope. My lawyers told me it was the most original film financing scheme they’d ever seen, but they needed to rewrite it to make it legal.
Because I had plans to interview representatives of an oil company, I didn’t want too many people to know what I was doing, so the funding plan was kept to friends and friends of friends, which kept growing. I needed £450,000 for the production and another £450,000 to distribute the film. Under my plan, individuals could invest a minimum of £500. The maximum individual contribution we received was £35,000. And we made our first payment to our investors this January.