In 2004, Fisher Stevens went to Ohio with a coalition of artists to help John Kerry get elected president. It didn’t work, but Stevens — an actor-turned-director best known for campy roles in a string of ’80s and ’90s films such as “Short Circuit” and “Hackers” — emerged a changed man. “It was a fucked-up time,” Stevens recalled over lunch near his offices in downtown Manhattan, “but this a whole other fucked-up time.”
Flash forward a dozen years and Stevens is enmeshed in a new stage of his career, as a prolific documentarian who moonlights as an actor. Six years ago, he won an Oscar as a co-producer of “The Cove,” photographer-turned-filmmaker Louie Psihoyos’ thrilling exposé of the Japanese fishing industry. By then, he had stepped away from GreeneStreet Films, the independent production company he started in 1996 with John Penotti. That same year, Stevens launched Insurgent Media with Andrew Kirsch and Erik Gordon with the explicit purpose of making documentaries.
Those efforts have come to bear this year, with Stevens promoting three documentaries at once: For HBO, he made “Bright Lights: Starring Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher,” a vibrant portrait of the mother-daughter actors that screened at Cannes, Telluride, and NYFF; he also produced “Sky Ladder: The Art Of Cai Guo-Qiang,” Kevin Macdonald’s portrait of the ambitious Chinese artist that opened the Sundance Film Festival and was released this fall by Netflix.
However, Stevens’ greatest passion lies with “Before the Flood,” his ecological awareness documentary that he directed with the help of Leonardo DiCaprio and National Geographic. The movie finds DiCaprio traipsing across the globe, from Indonesia to the North Pole, wandering through the devastating effects of climate change in between landing face time with Barack Obama and the Pope.
National Geographic Channel
“I like to mix things up, but my passion is the environment,” Stevens said. “I’m really worried about it.”
“Before the Flood” isn’t the most subtle form of message mongering, but it resonates with necessity. Stevens—who previously captured efforts to preserve the planet’s health in 2010’s “Mission Blue”—weaves together a dense array of footage, and DiCaprio’s charisma doesn’t eclipse the movie’s urgency. The pair capture melting ice caps and dry fields, with various experts to put the jarring images in context. Stevens and DiCaprio, who co-produced the project, rushed it to completion in time for a premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. In a savvy move to spread its agenda as rapidly as possible, National Geographic released the movie on YouTube at the end of the October, where it has so far been viewed over 12 million times. In terms of pure exposure, it’s Stevens’ biggest hit in years. (Watch the film in its entirety below.)
At the TIFF premiere, DiCaprio introduced the movie to a warm crowd, recalling how he and Stevens first began discussing a collaboration while visiting the Galapagos Islands and witnessing the effects of climate change there. “To us, I think, the origins of wanting to do a movie about this was to give the scientific community a voice,” DiCaprio said, noting that 97% of that community agrees that human production contributes to climate change. “We have long ignored their predictions.”
Stevens believes the weight of celebrity is essential to the movie’s impact, and that was borne out at TIFF: The audience clung to DiCaprio’s every word. “Part of the reason we need Leo is because scientists just don’t communicate that well,” Stevens said. “Ignorance is bliss. That’s the problem with climate change — people understand it to a certain extent, but not enough.”
The movie’s release in the weeks leading up to election day was far from coincidence. Stevens and DiCaprio first began targeting that date during the Republican primaries, when none of the five top presidential candidates expressed a belief in climate change, let alone initiatives designed to mollify its effects. “Not even John Kasich,” Stevens said. “That really motivated us even more.”
Stevens speaks at a rapid-fire pace, his face permanently locked in a half-grin, as if he’s afraid to slow down now that he’s found a groove. “One of the biggest regrets of my career is that I stayed with GreeneStreet too long,” he said. At the height of that company’s productivity, when Stevens and Penotti produced breakout hits like Todd Fields’ “In the Bedroom,” Stevens had already started to contemplate his own shift into the director’s chair (his debut, 2002’s “Just a Kiss,” flew under the radar). Meanwhile, the media pigeonholed their efforts as an attempt to steal Miramax’s glory. “I should have left earlier,” he said. “I wasn’t being creatively fulfilled.”
Still, he was especially proud of producing 2001’s “Piñero,” a portrait of the Latino poet and playwright Miguel Piñero, which turned him on to documentary production. In 2007, with publicist Dan Klores, he co-directed the Sundance-acclaimed “Crazy Love,” which profiled the oddball romance of Linda Riss and maniac Burt Pugach. However, the turning point arrived when a mutual diving friend introduced him to Psihoyos, just as he was contemplating a movie about illegal dolphin slaughter.
The rest is history: “The Cove” was a landmark achievement in activist filmmaking that raised awareness for its topic while generating critical acclaim. “Fisher is both creative and connected, which is a powerful combination,” said Roadside Attractions co-president Eric d’Arbeloff, whose company released “The Cove.” “He’s the kind of multitalented guy you’d think you’d meet a lot in Hollywood — but, in reality, is very rare.”
In truth, Stevens isn’t Hollywood at all. Now settled in Brooklyn with his girlfriend and two young children, he maintains a creaky office for Insurgent filled with used furniture and old movie posters. A few years ago, the company stopped financing projects to focus on their films’ artistic process. “Fisher’s own appetite for life — his passion and interest in such a wide variety of issues and subjects — is what makes him such a good producer,” Macdonald said. “In other words, he’s not primarily a money man, but a filmmaker.”
That mindset has freed him to easily shift between topics. In “Bright Lights,” Stevens manages to capture intimate moments between Fisher and her mother, from tender moments with fans to emotional breakdowns. It exists a world apart from the activism of “Before the Flood,” but both movies demonstrate the ability to maintain a consistent tone.
Stevens relishes the opportunity to discuss both projects at once. “It’s nice to take a break from climate change and talk about the other one,” he said. “It was really great to make the movies at the same time, because it gave me a little perspective.” In the case of “Bright Lights,” he wasn’t entirely sure if the project gelled with his sensibilities until he met Fisher and Reynolds with his co-director, Alexis Bloom. “I really grew to love Carrie,” Stevens said. “After 10 minutes, we were like, ‘We’ve gotta do this.’” Initially, the directing duo fronted their own money to finance the project.
Despite his filmmaking commitments, Stevens hasn’t stepped away from acting. Recently, he surfaced on HBO’s “The Night” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” He also landed bit parts in the Coen brothers’ “Hail, Caesar!” and Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Stevens said those roles provide him with a sense of catharsis. “It’s really nice after shooting and editing all day to just focus on a performance.”
Nevertheless, there’s no doubting his main priority. In the wake of “Before the Flood,” he has started developing an environmental series. “Telling the story of climate change is a monster,” he said. “I know I have so much to learn. I’m always just trying to up my game and make something that will move people.”