Josh Fox, founder and artistic director of International WOW Company, a film and theater company that creates new work to address current social and political crises, furthers his commitment to bringing social issues issues to the front, with his first documentary feature “GASLAND”.
It is happening all across America—rural landowners wake up one day to find a lucrative offer from an energy company wanting to lease their property. Reason? The company hopes to tap into a reservoir dubbed the “Saudi Arabia of natural gas.” Halliburton developed a way to get the gas out of the ground—a hydraulic drilling process called “fracking”—and suddenly America finds itself on the precipice of becoming an energy superpower.
But what comes out of the ground with that “natural” gas? How does it affect our air and drinking water? “GASLAND” is a powerful personal documentary that confronts these questions with spirit, strength, and a sense of humor. When filmmaker Josh Fox receives his cash offer in the mail, he travels across 32 states to meet other rural residents on the front lines of fracking. He discovers toxic streams, ruined aquifers, dying livestock, brutal illnesses, and kitchen sinks that burst into flame. He learns that all water is connected and perhaps some things are more valuable than money.
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Josh Fox
Producers: Trish Adlesic, Josh Fox, Molly Gandour
Cinematographers: Josh Fox, Matthew Sanchez
Editor: Matthew Sanchez
Animators: Juan Cardarelli, Alex Tyson
Consultants: Morgan Jenness, Henry Chalfant
Researchers: Molly Gandour, Barbara Arindell, Josh Fox, Joe Levine
Director Josh Fox on what led him to become a documentary filmmaker and his Sundance project “GASLAND”…
It’s amazing what you can do these days on your own, with a not so super expensive camera and a decent editing system. Film right now is more accessible, as far as the tools of production, than most art forms. The story of “GASLAND” is that of one guy traveling around the country talking to people about the largest Natural Gas Drilling campaign in history, which is now occupying 34 states and which is very underreported. I set out to make a film on a very personal level, telling my own story, because I thought that was the only way of really conveying this historic environmental crisis. History is often best told from the ground, out of a car window or in someone’s kitchen, not through some huge production mechanism or grand framing device. So this level of accessibility is what drew me to the medium, that I could be a one person crew and make a film that could really get out there was very very exciting. I have made all of my films and plays with my company International WOW Company in a very home grown kind of way and that was the way I wanted to make “GASLAND.”
I was compelled to make “GASLAND” out of necessity. I was asked to lease my family’s land in the Upper Delaware River Basin, the only consistent home I’ve had throughout my life, for Natural Gas Drilling in May of 2008. I looked into it and found out that the Natural Gas industry was leasing thousands of acres all across New York State and PA and proposing the most massive drilling campaign in the east in history. The industry comes in and tells people they are going to get rich and that the process is not that invasive or environmentally damaging, but when I looked into it I found widespread water contamination, air pollution and health problems that can be related to the chemicals and compounds used and released in drilling. I found literally hundreds of stories nationwide with citizens screaming for some attention to the issue. People who felt that they were being poisoned in their own homes by the industry…and the amazing phenomenon of being able to light their water on fire after drilling. It’s just the most bizarre thing you can imagine. To see someone light their water on fire right out of the sink, it just turns the world upside down. So when I found out what I was in the midst of, the realization was incredible, if the drilling happens in the east coast, where it has been proposed and not yet permitted, it will mean a massive industrialization of upstate New York and Pennsylvania, including the NYC watershed and the Delaware River basin which provides water to 15,600,000 people. It was literally a race against time. Because so few people know about the drilling I had to make the film fast—literally race coast to coast all over America to 30 or so states and edit as fast as we possibly could to get it out there in order try to make it in time to impact the situation. We originally put up clips of the film in progress at a site called www.waterunderattack.com which is still up as an information site for the public. We have now expanded that at www.gaslandthemovie.com.
The Natural Gas industry was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005 as a result of Dick Cheney’s personal influence on congress and a 100 million dollar lobbying effort to congress. This exemption allows them to use a process called Hydraulic Fracturing which injects toxic chemicals into the ground including known carcinogens and neurotoxins unchecked directly into or adjacent to underground drinking water supplies. The process has gone unchecked unmonitored and unregulated throughout the past decade and there are currently about 450,000 gas wells throughout the US. I found, wherever I went, considerable to severe water and air contamination issues, massive land degradation and industrialization of previously pristine areas. I can’t get across the massive scope of this campaign enough. Huge areas of the US, some which are very very important to water supplies to major cities, being adversely affected and no one is minding the store. The EPA was taken off the job completely for almost the entire decade. We are just now discovering the breadth of the damage.
Fox on the process behind making his film…
I made the film as a personal journey. I brought along my banjo as a companion. As dark as the subject matter is, it’s an extremely inspiring and funny movie. The people who are affected and who have been battling the gas industry for half a decade, even those that are sick, were amazingly resilient, inspiring and in many cases hilarious. When you can light your water on fire due to methane contamination in your ground water, what else can you do but laugh? So it was my ambition to make a personal document of this moment in America and find the best in people, what was inspiring and courageous and down to earth. I found that. I don’t think I would have found that if it had been a big crew that was in any way intimidating. I used the same approach even when I went to congress to interview Representatives Hinchey and Degette. We made no pretense and that lack of pretentiousness comes through in the film. I am very happy with the portrayals and how honest they are. I think people will find it very touching, straight forward and compelling on a human level.
Fox on the challenges faced in completing his film and making sure the message gets out…
My biggest challenge remains the burden of getting all of this information to the public. I have had to become a kind of unlikely spokesman on the issue of Hydraulic Fracturing Natural Gas extraction. I just hope I am able to get the word out adequately and respectfully for all of those involved and affected. The editing process was also very intense. We had 200 hours of footage. The subject, the scope of it is so massive. We could have easily made a riveting six hour film. Getting it all down to 100 mins was a lot of work. And even though it seemed appropriate from the start, it was also very difficult to put myself in the film. I am much more comfortable behind the camera. But at the urging and support of my friends I stayed in it as weird as it feels to watch me in it.
Fox on what he hopes Sundance audiences will get out of his film…
It’s a huge issue out west which many many people are affected by. There are some incredibly beautiful areas in Utah which could be totally decimated by the industrial process of Hydraulic Fracturing there, so I hope that people see the film and want to get involved. What is so crazy is that with a 34 state drilling campaign, there are people all over the US that are affected directly by drilling in their backyards and millions more that are affected through the water contamination issue. I am really hoping that the film can bring people new knowledge about the issue at the same time as they are thrilled by the roller coaster one man epic road movie aspect of the film.
Fox on some inspirations…
I was very inspired by “Into The Wild”, because of its supreme respect for nature and the amazing story there. Also by probably my favorite film of all time, “Koyaanisqatsi”, which is about the change in mankind’s home base in the world from a natural to a technological milieu, which is still the most beautiful and emotional doc of all time, I think.
…and his future projects…
Many projects ahead. I am currently writing a feature narrative called “A Place To Live” which is about the changing landscape of New York City. I am also writing a feature with Matt Sanchez, editor of “GASLAND” about an office that no one ever gets to leave tentatively titled “AQUARIUM”. I am also very interested in the next step to “GASLAND”, a world spanning doc about the future of wind and solar energy. I think that the world is in the middle of a huge transition that we have to make, to renewable energy. We have to transition away from fossil fuels very, very quickly. So I am in the planning stages of a doc on the big shift that we have to make in very practical personal terms. I am also working on an epic play and building project with my company International WOW Company called “RECONSTRUCTION” in which we build an entire theater building during the course of the theatrical run of the play. The project involves actors and architects working together to build a new kind of sustainable theater.
[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]