Josh Fox on 'Gasland' and his Oscar nomination
Q – How did you get the idea for Gasland?
Josh – My father got a proposal in the mail to drill for natural gas on my family home in Pennsylvania. They wanted to use this new technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Halliburton invented this technique, which involves pumping water and toxic chemicals into the ground at extremely high pressures to fracture rock formations, which hold natural gas. It’s an extreme measure for gas development. Previously, you would drill down until you hit a pocket of gas and capture it as it rises. With fracking they pulverize the rocks with the pressure of a cluster bomb. I didn’t know any of this stuff when I started. When we got the proposal in the mail, we started looking around to all the other leasing that was being done and saw that 80,000 acres had been leased in the Delaware River basin. I started to wonder how it was that we were all of a sudden in a gas drilling area when before we were never in any kind of industrial development area. It was worrisome and disturbing. It’s a watershed area. It’s beautiful, scenic and amazing. On the other hand, they were offering us $100,000 for the lease and potentially a lot more. Then I discovered that 50% of New York state was being leased. 60%-65% of Pennsylvania was being leased. That meant that land was being turned over at an alarming rate to the gas companies for exploration and if they drilled all those areas, this would be utterly transformative of the entire Northeast. I needed to find out what this process entailed.
Q – Where did you go first?
Josh - Dimmock, PA. It’s about sixty miles away from my father’s place. It was a nightmare. Halliburton trucks were swarming everywhere, drilling rigs were all over the place and people’s water turned green and brown, smelled bad and fizzed. They could light it on fire! Their children were getting sick. Their animals were getting sick. There was a sense of fear, betrayal and chaos. I looked at that and said, “There’s no way this is happening where I live.” I went back to find out if this was some kind of aberration or was it going on all over the country.
Q – Was anyone else talking about this issue?
Josh – Actually, the alarm was sounded first by one of my neighbors. Barbara Arrendale who makes glass sculptures and has a degree in biochemistry from Columbia University lives nearby in the mountains. She started looking into the process and the more she did the more she freaked out. She became scared of the process and all the chemicals they were pumping into the ground. She gave a presentation to a sustainability group showing these moonscapes in these drilling areas in Wyoming. But I didn’t know if I could trust these groups. Were they crazy environmentalists? I wanted to find out on my own. What I found out was the actual reality was ten times worse. The people out West that were in the film were all about saying their lives had been destroyed. They said, “Our water is contaminated. Our homes are valueless. Stop this before it happens to you.”
Q – Was it easy to gain the trust of your interviewees?
Josh – When you work with lots of actors from all over the world, you develop a deep respect and cultural sensitivity for people from different places and languages. When people see that you have respect, they appreciate it. I may have been weirded out to go to Texas, but I realized that these people were in crisis. They were dying to talk to anybody - even a guy from New York and Pennsylvania showing up in a beat up 1992 Toyota Camary with no crew. But more importantly, I was in the same boat. They could see that I was sincere. I feel as a director, it’s important to be down to earth, never judge anybody and love your subjects. The more you listen and incorporate what they’re saying and doing into the story, the more they will help you. As you gaze inside a character, it’s your aim to find the most profound thing about them. If you aim for that, your questions are going to be about that, and your responses are going to be like that. I didn’t come in there like a network news crew, “I’m here for 30 seconds. Here’s the mic in your face. Give me the sound bite.” I came there to hear what they had to say and spend time with them – even though I was usually only in one place for a day.
Q – Did you have trepidation about putting yourself in front of the camera?
Josh – I didn’t want to be in the film. It made me feel nervous and awkward. But my friends and dramaturge all said that this was my story. I initially developed the voiceover as a placeholder. It was the easiest and best way to give context to a scene. And when we showed segments of the film, something funny happened. The segments that I was in or narrated, people laughed and enjoyed. The ones I wasn’t in, not so much. They would get bored. So we realized that a guide was important to enjoying the film. Look, it’s an incredibly dark and depressing subject and you can watch a film about gas drilling and want to blow your head off. We didn’t want to do that. We wanted to make sure there was a sense of human hope and positivity. That was the same tone ringing through the interview subjects. They are extraordinary. They are so moving, human, funny and real. If we had not matched that with my story, I think it would have been too grueling. I have a laugh every ten minutes on purpose because it helps keep the audience engaged.
Q – How much of the shooting did you do? There are several DPs in the credits.
Josh – I did about 75% of the shooting. I’d shot most of my feature film, Memorial Day and documented about twenty of my plays so I was used to cameras. It’s like an extension of my hand.
Q – What camera did you use?
Josh – I started with the Sony PD-170, which I loved because of its sensitivity to light. When I shot Memorial Day, every shot was at night. So I could open up the iris and get these brilliantly washed out colors. When I shot Gasland, I’d never shot anything in the daytime. Now all of a sudden, all of my settings don’t work. It looks weird, fuzzy and out of focus. So there are actually several cameras at work in Gasland. There’s a beautiful pastel, fuzzed out, almost looks like Super 8mm, that’s the PD-170. Then you have the Panasonic DVX standard def camera, which I started using midway through the trip because I figured it out one day. And then my editor Matt Sanchez, who is really the co-creator of Gasland, had a Panasonic HVX, which is all the HD stuff. When we were in Congress we shot together. On some of the shoots like John Hanger, the Pennsylvania Secretary of the EPA, Matt was there. He’s an incredible artist with the camera. The nature shots, the shots of the stream, they are the beautiful moments in the film and they’re Matt’s camerawork. Molly Gandour, who was one of the research producers was there with me from Grand Junction until Texas. At Divide Creek when I break down, she’s the one shooting me. Matt as the editor took all these different visual styles and wrapped them into one cohesive whole. He chose shots that I never would have because they were artistically beautiful or jarring. I’d be like, “Why are you going with that completely out of focus shot of a pipe yard?” Then I’d look at all the other shots and he’d be right. He was very bold to take this very subjective approach to the rhythm of the editing.
Q – Sometimes when a director shoots his own film, they can worry too much about framing or getting the shot and then lose their connection with the subject. Did you have that issue?
Josh – No. When I do a sit down interview, I’m behind the camera and the subject is looking at my eyes. So I don’t have any problem connecting with people while I am shooting. Of course, I always let them know that they have my 100% attention and focus. I may say, “I’m also running sound so I may stick the ear piece in and out of my ear to make sure it’s working, so don’t let it throw you off.” I think there is an unseen connectivity to the person who is in your frame. In my body, I may be looking down to hear the sound or to adjust the focus or exposure, but I’m only doing that as a reaction to what they are doing. You need to accentuate what’s happening. The best directing is no directing at all. It’s reacting.
Q – How long was the whole production cycle?
Josh – It was remarkably fast. A year. The road trip across the country took thirty days. The entirety of the editing took about five to six months.
Q – How did you manage the editing sessions?
Josh – Matt and I worked side by side for months in my house in Pennsylvania and out of my theater company offices in Brooklyn. We had a dual editing system. I’d cut a sequence, and hand it off to Matt. Matt would cut a bunch of stuff. It was really a co-creation process. I’m the director, he’s the editor. I’m the writer, he’s the refiner. We dealt with structure. We dealt with dramaturgy. I’d write and record voiceover from 4am to 6am and then hand it over to Matt and he would come back with the three lines that were any good. That was the way it was stitched together. As to how sequences were born, he would take a segment like Wyoming, find the essence of that interview and cut it together beautifully. He created the segment where there are three of me going up the well site on the ladder and there’s music there. He didn’t understand how to approach Jeff and Rhonda Locker’s interview, so I said, “I think I have to put a little voiceover there.” Then with Louis Meeks, he took a risk in order to get into the interview. He said, “I am going to take this Esquivel track and the gun fire shots and put it together with Eastern Wyoming. I think this is going to be funny.” I did the first 30 seconds and then he adds in all the stuff with the kids and the Easter eggs. So after four or five days we have a segment that has this grace and beauty. When you have a creative relationship like that, the results can be incredibly gratifying.
Q – What were your thoughts on the music and the score?
Josh – Music is an instinct and the soul of any work. It’s a strictly emotional decision. But it’s also a narrative decision. You need to hear that big, jangly Preston Reed as you head into Colorado. We’re charging forward. Matt had a take on the music. I had a take on the music. And we had an amazing music clearances person in Sue Jacobs who got everything cleared. We didn’t have to change a single track in the film. There were a few nail biting moments where we thought someone might pull out and then we thought this might be a house of cards and the whole thing would fall apart. If we take out this one piece of music, are we going to make it to this next scene without being exhausted and depleted? But from Pete Seeger to Radiohead, people realized that we had a film that was a labor of love made for very little money, so they gave us their music for cheap rates. The music budget came out of what became the HBO sale. We could not have afforded it without that for we had forty-six tracks and it was going to cost us a pretty penny. And I played a few banjo tracks here and there, too. That probably saved us $10,000!
Q – Was there an average cost for the licensing?
Josh – There was no average. Some pieces cost $10,000. Some cost $500. But once we got through Sundance, the real question was, “Do you have a $60,000-$70,000 music budget out of money that could be going into your pocket or are you going to make the film that has the integrity it needed?” There was no question. This is the film that won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance. This is the film that works. We’re not changing a thing. It cost three times what it cost to shoot the whole movie! But there’s no Gasland without the music in it.
Q – Did you always plan on submitting to Sundance?
Josh – We had no plan B. Sundance was plan A. Matt and I had both premiered our first feature films at CineVegas, so we had a relationship with Trevor Groth, who was a programmer there. We did a lot of late night, Vegas, Gray Goose fun together. So when we were submitting, I think he was very surprised that either Matt or I were submitting a doc. We knew people in our community loved what we had shown them of the film. But we had no idea if it was going to translate to audiences who weren’t under attack. Are people going to care who aren’t in the drilling zone? That was one really big nerve wracking question. When we showed up at Sundance, we were totally star struck. We had been shot out of the cannon. We were so excited and we had spent the last six weeks not sleeping at all. The film was literally finished the day before the festival. When we got there, the elevation gave me the worst stomach pains, back pains and headaches. And then our assignment was to go to these Hollywood-y parties and try to explain hydraulic fracturing to people. They would say, “Oh that’s interesting. I’m going to go over here and talk to the girl from Twilight.” By the end of Sundance, we overheard people on the shuttle bus explaining hydraulic fracturing to each other. That’s when I knew it was going to work. We got standing ovation after standing ovation at Sundance. We were the best-reviewed film. It was such a relief to know they didn’t hate me or think I was a jerk. I don’t think I’ll fully understand what happened at Sundance until five years from now. It was such a weird event.
Q – When you show the water being lit on fire for the first time, I think everyone is hooked.
Josh – That’s interesting because when we were testing out which sequences to keep in the film, we thought we were going to go chronologically. I actually went to Arkansas before I went to Colorado where that happens. In Arkansas, we had some of the most horrible incidences of water contamination. You can see that footage on the DVD. But I told Matt we had to have that water on fire within the first twenty minutes because the minute we have that, we’ve got our audience. It was a hard decision, but it was a rhythm based decision. People can fill in the gaps. They can figure out that I drove from Pennsylvania to Colorado without stopping in Arkansas. We had an interview with a Congresswoman and we ended up cutting that. We had to beeline to that scene. The sense of humor of the whole film comes out of that moment. It’s gallows humor and Mike Markham, Amy Ellsworth and Renee McClure are genuine beautiful human beings in a very tough spot. They’re not being paid attention to by the government. In fact, we got kicked out of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission’s office even though we had a scheduled appointment!
Q – How did you structure the film?
Josh – We were making a road movie and the structure of any road movie boils down to The Wizard of Oz. In each place, you have to meet the Tin Man and the Lion. In Dimmock, PA, we showed the initial shock and confusion by the people there. In Colorado, the families are documenting what’s going on with the TV crews coming in. In Wyoming, there’s the chemical contamination in the water. Then we get to Western Colorado and the health crisis. Down in Texas, it was about the air. Louisiana, it was about the discovery of the dumping of the wastewater. And at the end of Act two, when I break down by the side of the stream it’s like the poppy fields in The Wizard of Oz. In New York City, we show the crisis that twelve million people’s drinking water could be affected. Then to DC to watch the industry just lying to Congress.
Q – What are you doing next?
Josh – Gasland 2. There was an assumption when we made Gasland that we called attention to the problems on a big enough scale, that is to say if we were a big enough success, which we have been, that there would be action taken and the problem would be solved. That was a naïve assumption because what we’ve encountered since is a year and a half worth of attacks, smears, obfuscation, misinformation and a multi-million dollar PR campaign to try and discredit the film on behalf of the National Gas Industry. Their MO is to lie to the government. So Gasland 2 is an inquiry into the very way our government processes information. In addition, gas drilling is not just an American problem. It’s spread out all over the world. We do a fair bit of international reporting in the next one as well. The big alarming fact, though, that compels us to make the next movie is that it has been scientifically shown by a study out of Cornell, that fracking contributes more greenhouse gas into the atmosphere than burning coal, which is the worst of our fossil fuels. The water issue affects millions and it’s not to be undersold. But the climate change issue with natural gas and how it speaks to switching to renewable energies is going to be part of a trilogy of films about our energy choices. The third part will be about renewable energy, which we are also filming right now.
Q – When you were on Jon Stewart, he really challenged you on the facts of the film.
Josh – That’s because the oil and gas industry blasted his office with phone calls and misinformation trying to discredit the film. I’ve never seen the interview. It was the most terrifying thing of my life. Everyone watches Jon Stewart. My Mom watches Jon Stewart. He’s unpredictable. You don’t know what he’s going to say. I thought he took it seriously. Though at times, it was almost like a Mutt and Jeff routine. He would lob them up and I would knock them down, then I would lob them up and he would knock them down. He would say, “Well, if it’s just your water, why would I care about you?” Then I would say, “Well, interestingly where I live supplies you with water.” Then he made that Jon Stewart face like, “Dammit!” Then I try to get serious and talk about the Halliburton Loophole and he says, “That sounds like the worst sexual position of all time.” And that’s unbelievably hilarious! But three days after our Oscar nomination, he lets T. Boone Pickens on and softballs questions to him and let’s T. Boone off the hook when he says he’s had no problems with fracking. My fans went ballistic. We had a little payback when Tom Ridge went on Stephen Colbert and Colbert had a field day with him. Ridge was the Governor of Pennsylvania, the first director of Homeland Security and now lobbies for the gas and coal industry. He started lying about how the gas is naturally occurring and not harmful. So Colbert said, “Which of these toxic chemicals should I have my toddler drink?” Then he showed a big clip of Gasland. It would have been nice to have seen Jon do that to T. Boone, but at the same time by having me on he broke the doors down for everyone learning about fracking. Between that and PBS and CNN, it was part of a media week that has not ceased. MSNBC played Gasland for three days in a row. So I will always be thankful to Jon Stewart for having me on.
Q – It’s a weird thing with the media because you are the media in this film.
Josh – Right. That’s awesome because I can go on CNN in front of 300,000 people, but when Gasland 2 comes out we are going to have a viewer-ship of millions. That’s a great feeling. We’re reporting honestly and humanly which means we will get that kind of audience and we hold it sacred. What bothers me is that independent investigative journalism is seriously on the rocks right now in American. We rank last in industrialized countries in supporting public media as a nation. That’s why you see documentaries picking up so much of this long form journalism because newspapers and other media outlets are not doing it. I can always tell if I’m on a show with someone who’s studied the topic. Jon Stewart hadn’t gone out to the field. And yet, his staff told me they had received one hundred phone calls and faxes from the gas industry. They slammed them with misinformation. So in a way the interview was colored with the fact that the oil and gas industry came breathing hard. Now Carol Hoye from CNN went into the field and interviewed people from across Pennsylvania. When I did my interview with her, she was 100% on the side of the reporting that we did and had to conceal her bias.
Q – What was the Oscar experience like?
Josh – We used the nomination as a means to forge on in Washington. It was an incredible thing to happen because it allowed us to get right back in the media at a very crucial moment. At Sundance, I met Mark Ruffalo who lives in my area. He has been an anti-gas activist for over a year. We were both nominated for Oscars and have become friends so we hit the campaign trail. We went to DC and lobbied. We went on CNN. It was huge. We did very little Oscar campaigning to win and we didn’t, but I think we got so much more out of the experience. As for the event itself, there’s no real way of being at the Oscars. When you watch it on TV, you’re not there. And when you’re there, you feel it’s not as real as when you watch it on TV. And when you’re in documentary, you know you’re not the main event. Everyone wants to talk to Nicole Kidman and Natalie Portman and that’s fine. I kind of wanted to, too! I did spend time with the most incredible documentarians. It was an incredibly surreal experience. And nerve wracking. I had to use internet and Youtube instructions on how to tie a bowtie. I practiced my 45 second speech to President Obama. It’s the most incredible honor of your life to be honored by your peers. To be welcomed like that. To have people say you have made one of the best documentaries of the year – there’s nothing like it. I love those people for acknowledging us in that way. The last thing about the Oscars is that it meant an enormous amount to the people in the film. It validated everything that they have been going through.
Q – What advice would you give a new filmmaker?
Josh – Don’t wait for anything. Just do it. Get the hell out there and don’t wait for money. Grab your cell phone, grab whatever video camera you can and just start working. That’s how you learn. On the other hand, Gasland is the culmination of twenty years of experience telling stories. You have to realize that you’re on a timeline of craftsmanship that’s going to take you your whole life.