Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest on a Heck of an Ice Breaker in “Canary” by Stephen Saito
While field work can often take scientists to far-flung locales, it seems like Dr. Lonnie Thompson has truly found himself at the end of the earth when arriving by helicopter in Puncak Jaya, Indonesia in the opening moments of “Canary,” touching down on an ice field in the middle of a tropical rainforest where if nature itself wasn’t presenting risks, there’s an additional warning of the warring tribes that have dispatched snipers in the area. Dr. Thompson, now in his seventies, is formidable, but not imposing – as someone later says in Alex Rivest and Danny O’Malley’s brisk biography upon meeting him at a party, a friend had to tell her “You just met Superman,” and in his globe-trekking adventures, he’s likened to Indiana Jones when he specializes in cracking ancient code. However, it is not written in ink or etched in stone, but instead found in the glaciers that have been around for centuries and can be examined in the same way as one would look at rings of a tree, offering evidence of climate change from an altogether different perspective from which it is typically seen.
“Canary” finds Dr. Thompson in a race against time when his long-term project of keeping tabs on the Quelccaya Ice Cap in the Andes has reached an inflection point, with the glacier starting to recede due to global warming and putting his breakthrough of calculating the earth’s temperature by using the oxygen isotopes found in the ice. The film dips into Dr. Thompson’s past to learn how as a native of West Virginia, he became fascinated with geology through studying coal, but it is largely about the future when he grows increasingly concerned by what his years of research is telling him about how the earth will handle increasingly radical environmental shifts and Rivest and O’Malley observe another transformation as the scientist is compelled more and more to publicly sound the alarm from his findings and comes face to face with his own mortality when he needs a heart transplant.
Such a dynamic figure as Dr. Thompson gets a worthy portrait when Rivest hails from a science background and O’Malley is a veteran of “Chef’s Table,” with the two bringing both an intellectual rigor and verve to the paleoclimatologist who is always on the move and with the film now set for a nationwide event screening on September 20th in addition to select weeklong engagements around the country, the co-directors spoke about how they could chronicle one person’s life to tell a far larger story, making a science story engaging for general audiences and not knowing where their subject would take them.
How did you two come to collaborate on this?
Alex Rivest: In a former life, I was a neuroscientist, and I was getting to this point where I’m trying to figure out what to do, but also very frustrated with the way scientists were portrayed in media in general. They didn’t represent the personalities that I had known [or] the kind of wonder that I knew and just the interesting characters [in that world]. My wife was going to med school in Los Angeles, so we flew out and Danny was working on the first season of “Chef’s Table” at the time, and it was one of those things that happened that’s supposed to never happen, but I sat down with him and I said, “I’ve been a scientist my whole life, but I don’t like science programming. It feels like homework to me. I want to like it more than I do, and I want to change the way the world sees scientists.” And Danny turned to me and said, “Well, that’s great, but what you need to do is understand why it’s wonderful to these people, why these expeditions are interesting, and really follow the character journey that gets you there.”
Danny O’Malley: It’s just so rare when you’re working in Hollywood, [where] everyone brings an idea to you and you think, “Yeah, go make it yourself. I don’t have time for that.” I don’t know if it’s the only time in history, but [this was] literally one dinner and I’ve been working with Alex almost every day ever since for seven or eight years, and a lot of people just didn’t think it could be done, telling a science story at this level and getting people engaged, so we were really excited to go after it.
Alex Rivest: It was at that point that we teamed up and decided to figure it out. We got a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, just to prove that scientists were interesting and we teamed up with Boardwalk Pictures, who Danny was working on for “Chef Table” and in that process, we met Lonnie. Within five minutes, he had us totally enthralled in this world of excitement and adventure and within 45 minutes, he had us crying. By the end of the Skype call, I turned to Danny and said, “If there’s a single story we ever tell in this world, it has to be this one.” That just started us down this path because the parallels with the climate issue were just so profound, but also his ability to express a journey felt like an adventure, but also felt real and had a lot of connective tissue, so we left inspired and we started this process.
It’s a story that primarily is about the past, but very much feels as if it’s happening in the present tense. Was that difficult to achieve?
Danny O’Malley: That’s what my methodology has been on “Chef’s Table” this whole time, so it fit really nicely where the storytelling we do allows it to feel like moments [where] you’re actually engaged in the story rather than someone’s telling you what happened and then there’s a lot of people saying the same thing. By the end of the movie, you get what happened, but you didn’t feel the moments [which is] something that we took a lot of pride on in achieving to separate this from science content and other climate change movies.
Alex Rivest: And I know Danny’s heart smiled when you said that because one of the biggest battles we’ve been fighting over in talking about science programming is a lot of it is very present tense. We’re going off, “oh, this rock flip, oh, is that dangerous?” Or “the shark there, is that dangerous?” And we believe in the drama is really in the human story and you need the past for that, so one of the battles we’ve been fighting all along is this idea that the past makes it feel like you’re in it. The real dangers come out, but you don’t have to fake dangers with sharks [or] with cliffs, because the human state is so much more profound. You just need to take the time to do it.
Danny O’Malley: To build on that, a lot of science programming is like, “We’ll go on this expedition,” and what they find is underwhelming to your average audience. And the trick of telling a life story is you get to pick from a whole career, so you can make sure that every moment is at a high level in terms of entertainment and information and drama. To me, there’s no other way to do it because it’s really hard to be on an expedition that’s changing the world on a constant basis and have a film crew capturing everything because it happens in a sparse way, so this is, in my mind, the best way to tell a science story.
I was surprised I could follow the science of it when it was definitely not a subject I excelled in. What was it like figuring out how to personalize it in the way that you did?
Alex Rivest: What you’re getting at is probably what Danny and I had the most discussions about because there’s the scientist in me who wanted to make sure that everyone understood the [science] — and part of that is me making sure I understand it. But then I tend to want to go a little bit further in a little more detail and then it’s Danny’s storytelling ability that says, “Look, the audience just needs to understand the basic concepts enough to understand what it actually is and how it plays a role in the story.” So there’s been a lot of fun battles we’ve had back and forth of me saying, “Well, but we didn’t explain this, right?” And Danny would say, “That’s right, it might be a nice sound bite, but it doesn’t necessarily serve the story.” Then we do a sanity check, and then pass it back to Lonnie and [his wife and fellow scientist] Ellen, and say, “Is this right? “Does this make sense?” And they never said, “Well, you’re missing this.” They felt like it achieved what we did, and that was a key marker for us.
Danny O’Malley: Yeah, I’m a big believer in the filmmaker should do the work, not the audience and our goal was just to present the science in a way that the audience is eager to learn it. We don’t start any scenes with just facts. We get into a story and the science reveals itself as you go through Lonnie’s journey. Otherwise, science can be a black hole of detail and having integrity around that point cleans up the work.
Where do you literally start out with Lonnie on this journey? Back at his childhood home of West Virginia or out in the mountains of the Quelccaya Ice Cap?
Alex Rivest: The first thing was going to Quelccaya because he told us, “I’m going to the glacier that started my career in August,” and this was probably April [the year we started filming], and we didn’t have money and we didn’t have any knowledge that we could do it, but we just said, “Yes, we’ll be there.” Then we had to figure it out. Once we got to Peru, we got to see Lonnie in his element. And at one point, our producer asked him how he was feeling on the hike with his heart, and he was like, “Well, the heart’s healthy. It’s the rest of my body that’s not keeping up.” He’s got a 22-year-old heart.
Danny O’Malley: There’s one point where we were hiking up and he just turned to me and said, “Do you feel the power?” And I was like, “Oh man, what are we getting into?” But we were just figuring it out because I’m used to working with a film crew that has 10 people and we’ve got people driving us everywhere. On the mountain, if we had to film something, we’d hike and if we’re lucky, get some horses carrying the camera, but not always, so it was very different from making any other type of film.
Alex Rivest: Also, Lonnie is the kind of guy…he and I were driving down from Columbus to his home in West Virginia, and I remember right before we got in the car, he [wasn’t] using GPS, he brings out one of these old maps and put it on the front of the car, and he’s just like, “All right, “Well, which route do you wanna take?” He’s just got his methods, and they always work.
Danny O’Malley: He has this old school expedition style to what he does, so when we were in Cusco, he’d just be like, “We’ll see you in the morning.” And we’d be like, “Where though? What time?” And he’s like, “We’ll see you in the morning.” So we just had to wake up early enough and hang out in the lobby until we saw them, knowing that we might go on a hike.
It sounds like you could expect the unexpected, but was there anything that really took you in a direction you didn’t expect?
Danny O’Malley: I feel like every step of making a movie is that. You don’t know how you’re going to do it. You just have to trust that you do, and for me, the biggest surprise was the ending because with climate change movies, if someone’s fighting to make a difference, they haven’t beaten climate change, it’s still a problem, [and in this story] Lonnie has been going through a lot of changes in his life after the heart condition, so there were all these different ways the story could end. It was fairly late in the process that we finally cracked what that was.
Alex Rivest: One of the moments, for me, that changed the way I saw the whole [film] was when we met Lonnie’s mom in Ohio. She was 93 at the time, and we realized she has a power from all the stories we heard about her being this tough West Virginia woman who could inspire her kids to want more and to change the way things happen. There was something about seeing her and hearing her talk about it, and how she put Lonnie on the path that is essence, the story that the world needs to hear — her can-do attitude. It is a proper American story, a proper human story, and an inspirational story that’s saying, life can throw stuff at you, but you need to go out there and do the thing that you want to do, and that is the story for all of us. That is the story for climate change. So meeting her, all of a sudden, it was like looking into the matrix. It all made sense because she is the engine behind most everything that Lonnie’s done.
This isn’t spoiling the ending of the film, but you do attach end titles giving audiences ways to take action, which certainly isn’t uncommon, but seems like it might’ve been a decision that follows Lonnie’s own thinking, where after years of simply reporting the facts, he’s been more proactive in warning people about climate change. How did you end up making that choice for yourselves?
Danny O’Malley: When we set out to make this movie, The goal was not to make a climate change film. We were looking to tell science stories and we were researching scientists from all over the globe and we have a long list of them. This is the one that revealed itself to us that we could make [a film about] and follow through on. And, we cared about climate change going into the movie, but not in the same way [we do now]. Living in the world with Lonnie, seeing what he’s seen, and most importantly, seeing that when everyone called him crazy and said it can’t be done, that you can find a way. That revealed itself as the heart of who Lonnie is in the film. He always says there’s a thousand reasons to fail and only one to succeed. And to us, that is what this film is trying to re-shift [in terms of] the story on climate change because a lot of people feel hopeless. A lot of people feel that it can’t be fixed, but it’s actually a political campaign that’s making them feel that way. We have the solutions to solve it. All we need is people to believe in it, to vote with that issue in mind and work in their communities to make a difference whether it’s where they work or going to a city council meeting. But the road ahead of us is pretty clear to those who are dialed into it. It’s just a matter of bringing everyone else along and believing that it can be done.
Alex Rivest: And when I was back at MIT, I was curious about climate change. I did all the equations to figure out actually how much sea level would rise or if Antarctica would melt. So I knew all the facts, and all I ever did in my life was vote the right way. I was like, “okay, I did my job. What else do you want me to do?” And that felt like the solution that I understood at the point. But when we went to Peru with Lonnie, there was something that revealed itself. We got to Cusco and there’s 500,000 people who get their hydroelectric power from the river that runs off of Quelccaya at the glacier. Then we took the journey up to Quelccaya. We were going along the river. We saw the agricultural beds where people are growing food at the breadbasket for millions of people in the area. We get up further to some of the indigenous communities and you see they’re raising their alpaca and llamas with the same water. And then you get to the glacier, and it’s the largest tropical glacier on the planet, and you’ve seen all the connectivity of how it’s sustaining life.
I asked Lonnie when is the projection that the glacier is going be gone? And he said, basically, by the time my daughter, who at the time was three, is my age, [he said] it’s gone. And if you just think of the chaos that comes from that, people are going to have to move. You need water, you need power. There’s going to be mass migration. And I realized at that moment that I wasn’t doing [what I needed to]. You have to be doing more. So when we get to the campaign [at the end of the film], it’s just that you have to try to find ways of having people see this issue. And as part of that, one of the things that Lonnie’s story really speaks to, and especially his partnership with his wife, Ellen Mosley Thompson, is how you can pull together teams of people from all over the globe. Ellen is amazing at those kind of logistics, finding the right people for each thing that you need to get done and making sure everything runs. You can actually bring the world together and accomplish big things. That’s what Lonnie’s story is, whether in China or Peru, it’s about finding a way because there are a lot of good people and you just need to find a way to talk to them.
“Canary” is now playing in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center, Columbus, Ohio at the Gateway Film Center and New York at the Village East. It will play across the country on September 20th during a special one-night event. A full list of theaters is here.