Co.Create

Here's How You Get A 9-Hour Documentary Series About Climate Change On TV

David Gelber, co-creator of Showtime's Years of Living Dangerously, talks about enlisting the help of Hollywood heavyweights James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub, and Arnold Schwarzenegger to elevate a passion project beyond the average doc and find it a place on television.

The media is failing to give climate change the amount of coverage it should be getting, according to David Gelber, who spent 25 years of his career as a producer at 60 Minutes. "In the 2012 presidential debates, not one question was asked about climate change. Not one question," he says. "How could that be?"

Eager to put climate change back on the national agenda, Gelber and Joel Bach, also a former 60 Minutes producer, co-created and co-executive produced Years of Living Dangerously. The doc series premieres on Showtime April 13 at 10 p.m. EST, and you can also watch the first episode online for free at YearsOfLivingDangerously.com.

Combining science with star power, the series finds celebrities including Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, and America Ferrera acting as correspondents, traveling the globe to learn why our weather has gotten so extreme and what kind of effect it is having on us and our planet. Veteran journalists like Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes and the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman also report on the subject.

Among the stories examined are the effects of deforestation in Indonesia, the role drought plays in political conflicts in the Middle East, and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Here, Gelber talks to Co.Create about how he and Bach managed to get the comprehensive doc series—we’re talking nine hours of programming—on television and how they plan to inspire social action on the issue.

It Began With A Willingness To Change Course

Gelber and Bach wanted to spread the word about climate change, and while they were still working at 60 Minutes, they would go out for lunch at a Greek joint on 10th Avenue near their Manhattan office and brainstorm potential projects.

Initially, they thought a feature film was the best way to go, and they were intent on fictionalizing the real-life story of coal baron Jim Rodgers, the former CEO of Duke Energy who came to believe that climate change was real and lobbied for a federal bill to regulate carbon dioxide emissions. Then reality hit. "We realized we don’t know how to make feature films," Gelber says.

Undeterred, they decided to produce a theatrical documentary on climate change. The pair got a meeting with movie producer Jerry Weintraub because Bach knew his niece and shared their grand plan hoping he could help them get Hollywood people involved so that the documentary would have a bigger reach. But Weintraub didn’t think a theatrical documentary was a good move. "Jerry looked at us, and he said, 'Listen, if you want eyeballs, nobody goes to theatrical documentaries. You want eyeballs? You do television,'" Gelber recounts.

Gelber and Bach definitely wanted eyeballs—as many as possible given that this was a passion project. "So we morphed it overnight into a television series," Gelber says.

They Went Hollywood In A Big Way

The pair knew they had the newsgathering and reporting chops to produce the series. They would ultimately spend a year researching climate change and finding the stories they most wanted to tell. They brought in Dr. Heidi Cullen, chief climatologist for Climate Central, which researches and reports news on climate change, and physicist Joe Romm, a fellow at American Progress and founding editor of the blog Climate Progress, to serve as chief science advisors, and they created an advisory board including the likes of Frances Beinecke, president of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), Michael Brune, executive director of Sierra Club, and primatologist Jane Goodall, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute.

But they also wanted to ensure that Years of Living Dangerously was entertaining and would reach an audience beyond science geeks. They wanted to produce "a blockbuster," according to Gelber, so they sought help from Weintraub, James Cameron, and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who all came on board as executive producers. (Schwarzenegger also served as a correspondent, reporting on the causes and effects of the now year-round forest fires in the western part of the United States.) "On the one hand, we wanted to do something to help save the planet," Gelber says of the ambitions he and Bach had for the series. "On the other hand, or in addition to that, we thought we would do something to help save the television news show format. We wanted to try and inject some life into it, so we had this idea of putting a lot more emphasis on production values, on cinematography, than you see in most of the television news magazine shows."

The Search Was On For A Daring Television Network

Gelber and Bach shopped the idea for their doc series around to a few networks and got some "tepid offers," Gelber says. "They were clearly nervous about how advertisers were going to react. This is such a partisan political issue. We thought, 'A thermometer is neither Republican nor Democrat,'" he says. By the time they took their pitch to Showtime’s president of entertainment David Nevins, Cameron was involved as an executive producer and had helped them make a sizzle reel, which he narrated. Nevins, who greenlit the impactful but hard-to-watch Time of Death doc series, liked what he saw. "Nevins was amazing. I’m not kissing ass here. The guy has been fantastic. He said, 'This is the kind of stuff I want to do,'" Gelber recalls of their first meeting. "He has been totally supportive."

The True Potential Of Celebrity Talent Was Tapped

The celebrities featured in Years of Living Dangerously aren’t simply window-dressing. Not one of them stands atop a mountain lecturing the world on the effects of climate range, Gelber points out. Rather, they are out in the field reporting stories. Gelber says care was taken to find celebrities who were seriously interested about climate change and had a grasp of the subject even if they weren't experts. Ian Somerhalder was chosen, for example, because he runs the Ian Somerhalder Foundation, which is all about getting young people involved in environmental issues; Don Cheadle is a global ambassador for the United Nations Environment Program; Harrison Ford is a board member of Conservation International; and Matt Damon works to bring clean drinking water to people around the world as co-founder of Water.org. "When you talk to somebody like Matt Damon, I mean, I can't teach Damon anything about this issue," Gelber says. "He's an incredibly smart, decent guy, and he could be a 60 Minutes correspondent tomorrow if that was something he wanted to do."

That said, all of the talent needed prep like any broadcast journalist would. "I did what I did at 60 Minutes. I worked with Ed Bradley for 20 years. Ed was doing 25 stories a year. I was doing four or five stories a year, and I knew more about them than he did, but he was a quick study. We did preparation and got him up to speed. The same thing happened here, and I would say in every case they really did get it," Gelber says. "We wanted to make sure they understood it well enough to be able to follow up and ask tough, critical questions, which they did."

The Message Will Extend Beyond Television

The doc series has birthed a social action campaign via YearsOfLivingDangerously.com. "We are really hoping to have a role in generating a grassroots movement and popular action on climate issues," Gelber says. "We are hoping that we can encourage people to not just simply change a light bulb but to join with others and demand decisive policies from our leaders."

Currently, visitors to the site are asked to help Beyond Coal by writing to the EPA to lobby for limitation on the amount of carbon pollution emitted from coal plants.

On the education front, YearsOfLivingDangerously.com has partnered with the National Wildlife Federation to provide learning resources for students of all ages designed to extend the experience of Years of Living Dangerously beyond the screen.

[Images courtesy of Showtime]

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