Interview by Tanya Ishikawa |photos courtesy oceanic preservation society
Louie Psihoyos [pronounced siHOYos] is an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who has lived in Boulder since 1993. A former National Geographic Society photographer, he is known for his films’ ability to capture the beauty of the natural world while exposing environmental crimes in an emotionally effective way. His first film, The Cove, won an Academy Award in 2010 for Best Documentary Feature, and his current film, Racing Extinction, was a favorite at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, screened at the Boulder International Film Festival and will be distributed in autumn 2015. Psihoyos cofounded the Oceanic Preservation Society, based in Boulder.
(Above photo: Louie Psihoyos (fourth from left), Jim Clark (left) and support crew on a dive and photography expedition in Indonesia, on board Clark’s yacht Seven Seas. Meeting Clark changed his life, Psihoyos says, calling him “a visionary … the Steve Jobs of my era.”)
BOULDER MAGAZINE: What motivates you?
LOUIE PSIHOYOS: [Laughs] Oh boy, it sounds so grandiose. Photography was my first profession, and I come from the school of so-called ‘concerned photographers’ who use it as a way to show man’s inhumanity to man so that people could evolve. I’ve sort of adapted that to filmmaking. Most photographers, and I think most people, want to change the world. I can’t think of a better, more efficient way to do it than making a film.
I see what’s going on environmentally, certainly with the oceans—that we are set to lose 25 percent of the species in the oceans by the year 2100, because all of the coral reefs will be dissolved by then or in a severe state of dissolving. Time is running out. There’s an urgent need for people to see Racing Extinction and the next film [The Game Changers, about top athletes who are vegans] so we can start evolving quickly. It’s a call to action.
The issue with a film is that you have to make it entertaining. I try not to make myself all about doom and gloom. I want it to feel like there’s hope, that things can evolve. There’s a lot of motivation. I think everyone wants to leave the world a little bit better, and I don’t think we’re doing that right now. We’re leaving a degraded environment for each successive generation. I’d like to help have a hand in at least slowing it down, if not putting a stop to it.
When you started at National Geographic, did you realize that you would see devastation, or did you think you would be looking for the beauty only?
Actually, the first story I did was for a special issue on energy that came out, I think, in 1981. I was sent up to Wyoming to do a story on the Powder River Basin. You could see the ranchlands being given over to the big Powder River coal seam, so you saw the devastation going on. I saw the future and it wasn’t going to be pretty.
And the first story I did for the “yellow magazine” was on garbage. Back then there was only one mandatory recycling program in all of America, and the story I proposed was called “Urban Ore,” to give people an idea that what we were throwing away was actually very valuable. It became a cover story. About 44 million people saw it. I don’t want to give the illusion that because I did this article the world changed, but it certainly became one more piece of it. When you start to see images on something controversial, like garbage on the cover of your favorite magazine, it changes the way you think about garbage. For a lot of people it was the first salvo into the public consciousness that trash has value. And now I’m really proud when I go to an office anywhere in the world and see recycling bins under almost every desk, and I feel like I had kind of a hand in that. I could see how a good story and imagery could change the world.
How did you make the transition from magazine photography to environmental filmmaking?
I have got to give a lot of credit to my friend Jim Clark. He’s a remarkable man who started Silicon Graphics, Web MD and Netscape, the first Internet browser. I met him as I stopped working for National Geographic and was doing a lot of covers for Fortune magazine, shooting people who make too much money. Jim was building a boat at that time that had the world’s tallest mast, and it was over in Holland. One day absolutely changed my life because I met this guy who was a visionary. He was like the Steve Jobs of my era. Jim invented the first 3-D graphics engine that allows you to create things on a computer in real time. That brought in the advance of CAD cams. The world we have today couldn’t have been imagined without his advances.
Anyway, this guy becomes my dive buddy, and he said, “Louie, would you teach me how to be a good photographer?” and I said, “Jim, I’ll teach you how to be a great one if you can teach me how to be a billionaire.” And he would pick me up at Jeffco [the former Jefferson County Airport, now named Rocky Mountain Regional Airport] in his Gulfstream and we would fly around the world and we’d go on his boats and we’d take pictures, mostly underwater. I think it was the third time we were at the Galapagos and we saw a fisherman illegally long-lining in a marine sanctuary, and Jim said, “Who should do something about this?” and I said, “How about you and I? We’ll use your money and my eye and we’ll make films.”
And that was the beginning of OPS, the Oceanic Preservation Society. He did the first four years of funding, and the first film we did was The Cove. I didn’t know how to make a film back then. I took a three-day crash course in Boulder in how to make a film before I went to Japan [to film The Cove.]
Did winning an Academy Award for The Cove make it easier to do your next film?
It’s easier for people to take calls now. It’s funny what that little gold man does; he opens up a lot of doors. But you still have to make a good film. The money is the fuel that we need to make a film, but you still have to do something great.
Documentaries don’t make money. You can point to a handful of them that have made as much as $250 million, but when you get down to number 20, it probably makes less than 3 or 4 million. That’s the box office; it doesn’t mean the filmmaker takes that home. The theater takes 60 percent. The distributor takes most of what’s left over; then the dribs and drabs of what’s left go to the filmmaker. You can count on three fingers the documentary filmmakers that are making serious money at it. No, I take that back—you can count on one finger the person who is making serious money on it: Michael Moore. You don’t get into documentary [film] because you want to be in Hollywood. You do it so you can change the world. At least that’s why I do it.
Is The Cove still making waves in any way?
Just last week [mid-April] Mattel abandoned making a Sea World-trainer Barbie doll. Also, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums kicked out JAZA—that’s the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums—for getting animals that breached their code of ethics, by getting dolphins from the Taiji dolphin slaughter. And the week before that we delivered over a million signatures to the White House, calling for a ban on the Taiji dolphin slaughter. So yeah, we’re still working on that campaign six years after we finished the movie. I tell the crew that we’re not making movies, we’re starting movements, and movements don’t end until the issue ends.
In movies like The Cove, how do you deal with the danger of that covert style of filmmaking?
Everybody is a little bit out of our comfort zones, but we feel like this is what we are really good at, the covert operations. It’s exciting, it’s challenging and it’s definitely risky; we all risked jail. In fact, I’m told that there are arrest warrants out for me in Japan right now for conspiracy to disrupt commerce, trespassing, and photographing undercover cops without their permission. I could get back into Japan; I just couldn’t get back out.
I feel like [long pause] there’s the laws of man and there’s the laws of angels, and I feel like we’re on the side of angels. We tried to do that story legally. In fact, that’s the first line of The Cove: “I just want to say I tried to do this story legally.” We would have had a much different story if the fishermen and the local government in Taiji had cooperated with us. Because they wouldn’t talk to us, we thought, “What are they hiding in there?” We hid the cameras in fake rocks and we started to get that footage back and do translations. And we’re like, “Oh God, I’m so glad they never gave us the interviews.”
Not only did we see what they were doing back there [in the cove], which is one of the great crimes against nature, we also heard what they were saying to each other. Those dolphin hunters were actually whale hunters. The older ones were talking about hunting whales, sperm whales or blue whales, back in the day when they were so plentiful that they covered the horizon like a clump of bamboo, they called it. And I thought that was just chilling. In fact, I am getting chills right now talking about it. Here are the guys who had a hand in the near-extinction of the blue whale. The only reason they stopped hunting them is because they were commercially extinct. And they’re bragging about it to these younger guys who are doing the same thing to dolphins, to porpoises. We realized at that point that we could get a lot more done and said if we could do it covertly.
I think we really lucked out in a spectacular way with The Cove, and we probably did in the same way with Racing Extinction. In The Cove, we were basically sneaking around. We had the cops after us. It felt like a cloak-and-dagger spy movie. Racing Extinction is a step up. There’s some scenes in it that, to me, are much more gripping to watch because we are confronting our adversaries directly.
You mentioned that you could get into Japan but not back out again. Will it be the same with China? If you keep going to countries where some people are doing shocking environmental damage, will you pretty soon be barred from every country in the world?
Yeah, there might be an Interpol out for me, like for Paul Watson [the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, environmental activists who disrupt commercial operations around the world to save marine wildlife]. I think that’s the risk we’re going to take. What we uncovered in mainland China—it was illegal there, what they were doing. I know we were breaking the law using the cameras the way we did, but I think what we exposed was far more valuable. There were seven shark-processing plants in this town called Puchi; we closed six of them down. When I say “we,” that’s also my fellow Boulderite Shawn Heinrichs and his pal Paul Hilton. They did the heavy lifting on that one. But it was basically the footage that helped shut those illegal processing plants down. The government knew what was going on but they didn’t feel challenged to do anything about it. But once that footage made not just the international press but the Chinese press, it compelled them to enforce the law.
Was it strictly the filmmaking that led to that change, or was there a letter-writing campaign or other citizen pressure that came before?
It was a combination of a lot of other work that other organizations had done. First of all, the animals that were being illegally taken—great whites, basking sharks and whale sharks—had to be protected by CITES [the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species] to make it internationally unacceptable to trade in [that meat]. Then, it had to be illegal in China. Other groups and lawmakers were working on that. What we did was expose the operation that was illegally selling the animals. Most of what happens is never done by one person. It’s usually small organizations with really passionate people that work together to try to change laws and get them enforced.
Does OPS work on other projects outside the films?
We do a lot of things. Jim Clark built the best underwater camera in the world, so we have an ongoing project to document reefs with this camera. The idea is to give people a baseline so when we start losing these coral reefs and people say, “Oh, they’ve always been changing,” we have a baseline to show how beautiful they were.
We work on many other campaigns, mostly related to cetacean issues and extinction issues. These are big, big projects. Racing Extinction is just epic in scope, so we have been partnering with organizations like 350.org, Greenpeace, Sierra Club, NRDC [National Resources Defense Council]. We try to get many partners because we are a small organization—the core of the whole operation is just about a half-dozen of us. Everybody at OPS could fit in a Mini Cooper, but a thousand people worked on the film. The point of that is we need people; we need other organizations to help us. We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel.
A film is just an incredibly powerful weapon. I call it a weapon of mass construction. You drop a bomb—you kill people. You make a film—you create allies. The idea is to create allies with these other groups so we can get stronger together.
With all these projects, how much time do you get to spend in Boulder these days?
Very little. You know, I sold my house this winter and I haven’t bought a new one. I look at my calendar and I won’t need a house until next year. We’ve been invited to 140 film festivals, I’ve started The Game Changers and it just doesn’t make sense to have a house. I’ve been living out of a suitcase for the last two months; I did that for National Geographic for years. OPS is still based in Boulder, but we might be moving to the coast in California. I run the Oceanic Preservation Society from a landlocked place. We joke that we’re located between two oceans.
There’s more certified divers per capita in Colorado than any other state, I’m told, though that might have changed in the last year or two. It’s harder to get financing for ocean films in Colorado. People are passionate about the environment, but most of our funding comes from the coasts. I guess that’s not so strange.
Is there any other news about your work that you can share with Boulder Magazine readers?
Well, the next film I’m doing is on elite athletes whose diets are plant based. The world’s strongest guy is a vegan. The world’s fastest guy, Carl Lewis, was the first to break 10 seconds, and he did it when he was a vegan. The nine-time world-champion arm-wrestler is a vegan. We’re trying to dispel the myth that you need protein from animals to become a real man. It’s being executive produced by James Cameron, so it’s going to be a great film. I’m probably more excited about this one than anything I’ve done so far because I feel like it will change things perceptibly.
How long have you been a vegan?
I stopped eating animals that walked in 1986. I was a pescatarian up until five or six years ago. I wish I could say I became a vegan for ethical reasons, but it was really because I got bad mercury poisoning from eating too much fish.
What was the seed to begin The Game Changers?
The film was actually started by a UFC (Ultimate Fighting Champion), James “Lightning” Wilks. He and Joseph Pace, who works on animal rights up in Canada, came to me with the idea. They wanted to know if I knew of a director who could do the film, and I started thinking about it.
Why go from ocean conservation to a film about plant-based diet? This sounds really strange, but the ocean is acidifying because of the carbon dioxide that we put into the atmosphere. About a half to a third of all the carbon dioxide that we produce gets absorbed by the ocean. It creates carbonic acid, and that’s what’s dissolving the coral reefs.
Now, the largest way an individual can contribute is not about their personal transportation; it’s what they eat. About 18 percent of the carbon dioxide that we produce comes from the raising of feed for animals that we, in turn, are going to eat. Sam Simon, who is one of the founders of The Simpsons, the cartoon show, told me that a vegan driving a Hummer uses less energy than a meat eater riding a bicycle. So if you want to save the oceans, if you want to save the environment, the best thing you can do—and you do it three times a day—is develop more of a plant-based diet. It’s more important than solar panels or driving a Prius or an electric car.
James Cameron went to the deepest part of the ocean last year or the year before. Obviously he’s a big ocean lover and we have that in common. We met with him to get him on to this project. He is just so passionate about it. He started a foundation where he’s hired some of the best scientists in the world, so journals can get all the information accurately about what’s going on with the environment and food production. We could not only make people aware about the issue, but try to start to transition people over to a plant-based society. Because all protein comes from plants originally; you’re just mugging an animal to get its protein. If you were abusing an animal you’d be thrown into jail, but somehow we can put it into rape racks [an apparatus used by the beef industry to artificially inseminate female cows], push tens of thousands of them into these Quonset huts and raise them in lightless rooms and then consume them, and somehow that isn’t animal abuse?
We’re a strange society, and I think everybody who starts to get that light turned on starts to see how crazy things are. And like I said before, the best way to turn a culture around is by making a film about it.
Interview by Tanya Ishikawa
photos courtesy oceanic preservation society
Tanya Ishikawa is a CU-Boulder graduate who contributes regularly to Brock Media magazines. She also makes documentary films, participates in environmental activism, edits magazines and books, and supports her son, Canyon, in all his creative endeavors.