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The Battle for America’s Backyard: An Interview With “Gasland” Director Josh Fox

Josh Fox

Part of the Series

After an Oscar nomination, an Emmy win, a Special Jury Prize award at Sundance and many other accolades, “Gasland” director Josh Fox considers his greatest prize to be the fact his “homemade documentary” – a term he loves to use – may just change the political climate and environmental stance this country is about to take on fracking. If you don’t know what fracking is you’ve obviously never watched “Battlestar Galactica” and have been living under a rug this past year. Fracking according to Wikipedia is a common name for hydraulic fracturing “the process of initiating and subsequently propagating a fracture in a rock layer, by means of a pressurized fluid, in order to release petroleum, natural gas, coal, coal seam gas, or other substances for extraction” but if you’re a “Galactica” fan, you’ll know it as the show’s replacement word for what Fox says we will all be if we allow the natural gas companies to continue fracking.

Impassioned and driven, Fox is known as much as an environmental activist as a filmmaker. Before shooting “Gasland,” he had spend the previous 16 years of his life as a playwright and theater director, but those facts are easily forgotten as he battles with Congress and makes regular appearances on television news shows. He splits his time between discussing the pitfalls and ominous track natural gas companies will lead us down and defending the truth in his filmmaking as “Gasland” experiences an all-out assault on its presentation of the facts.

If you haven’t seen “Gasland” yet, you are missing out on learning about one of the most heated and important environmental dialogues going on in this country at this moment. It’s damn entertaining as well. Impressively, “Gasland” is still playing almost a year later in select theaters across the country, and is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray.. The documentary follows Josh on an adventure that manages to slip a ton of information in what otherwise might be dry on paper. I learned even more about fracking in this almost two-hour interview with Josh. I tried to keep up.

Amanda Lin Costa: Did you consider yourself to be an activist before you made “Gasland”?

Josh Fox: I didn’t consider myself to be any kind of gas activist. I’ve been a concerned citizen my whole life. The work that I’ve made for many years in the theater has always had a social context. I kinda believe you can’t make art without including the political spectrum. I find a lot of what we consume in main stream culture to have the politics taken out of it purposefully, sorta like the process in “The Dark Crystal” where they extract the essence. (He asks me if I have seen that, and, of course, I respond, “Yes.”) All art is ideological in some way.

I think with “Gasland,” it has to be the least pointed thing I have ever done. It is very common sense; you have a huge section of the population being disenfranchised, contaminated and betrayed. This cuts across any partisan political lines. In “Gasland,” you have people from red states and blue states; you got red people and blue people and all kinds of people in between. It was never in my mind divisive, the way one takes a political stand. It was always common sense. As we run out of fossil fuels, the fossil fuel companies instead of doing the rational thing of moving our whole world over to renewable energy, have gone in the opposite direction and gotten even more desperate and extreme in their business model to go after things ever more risky and dangerous.

ALC: So, if you were a concerned citizen going into making “Gasland,” coming from a theater background, was there a point in the documentary filmmaking process where you realized that your role in the debate over fracking was going to grow beyond that of a filmmaker and become more of an activist?

JF: There was never a question that the film was first off always made to defend the Delaware River Basin, which is a watershed area where I live. I didn’t know if the film was going to be a full feature or what was going to happen because we made short segments as I investigated. We showed those segments across the Delaware River Basin and in some section of New York to educate people about what this process really was because the gas companies were not being honest. They weren’t telling people the whole story. They were telling people, “You’re gonna make a whole lotta money and it’s environmentally safe and friendly and there’s no problem.” They never mentioned any of the problems that were coming up everywhere this drilling was being done like rampant water contamination, massive industrialization of the area, air pollution, health problems and no ability for citizens, outside of being organized, to fight these companies in any effective way that protects their rights. They never mention the long history they have of the total betrayal of the American Dream.

We went out there to show these segments to people that were leasing land to the gas companies. This always went hand in hand with the grass-roots organizations that had sprung up in the wake of leasing. It was easy to look up what hydraulic fracking was and how many chemicals were involved; how it they (the gas companies) got exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act and the 2005 Energy bill. The players behind all this being Dick Cheney, Karl Rove and Halliburton; all these very familiar people were pushing this. So there is a very real battle going on.

In early times, there were those saying, “I don’t care. I’m gonna take my million bucks and move to Brazil.” This was the attitude of neighbors of mine. Later, it became a different tactic for the gas companies, “We believe we can do this safely.” Which is ridiculous. It’s a massive industrialization process! It’s like saying, “We believe we can build a massive power plant on the banks of Niagara Falls and everything will stay the same.” It’s ludicrous. It’s only motivated by one thing and that’s money. It has nothing to do with clean energy or safe energy. It only has to do with their bottom line.

ALC: So, to clarify, at what point from when you first picked up that camera did you decided fracking was bad? Because one of the things I felt was the most successful aspects of the documentary was that I, as the viewer, was going on this journey of exploration with you, that you, the filmmaker, had received this letter about selling your land to be used for fracking and you set out to figure out if this is the right or the wrong thing to do. But in reality, had you already decided your stance about fracking before the letter arrived?

JF: No. I didn’t. Living in a watershed area in the upper Delaware River, which is one of the last pristine rivers in North America, any kind of industrialization proposal is going to be seen as a threat. However, I didn’t have information. I didn’t know people could light their water on fire. I had seen one photo of a gas field in Wyoming that looked like well pads stretching on forever and spider veins connected them. It was like looking at a virus or cancer that had spread. I love Wyoming and had traveled there in my twenties and fallen in love with the American West.

A Google Earth view of fracking. Click here to view larger.

When I saw this picture, I got very worried. I hadn’t been out there in a long time and part of my curiosity at the beginning was to see this land that I remembered and fell in love with. “Gasland” is a love story, a love story with America.

ALC: But you didn’t fall in love with what you discovered and is that how the segments grew into a film?

JF: Well you know that saying, “When it looks like the deal is to good to be true, then it probably is.” Or like Tom Waits says, “There’s always free cheddar in the mousetrap.” Going into it, I knew who we were dealing with but I had no experience with energy extraction or understanding how that worked. Thinking back to ANWR, there was this huge debate about whether to drill in Alaska, a controversy that raged for ten years and all of a sudden I’m like, “Wait a minute! We are going to drill a fifth of the United States. This isn’t a wild life preserve, this is where millions of people live!” It just seemed so crazy to me.

Traditionally, if you look at the history of extraction either of oil or coal or natural gas, you have people either soaked in money or considered expendable. Look at the people in Appalachia in West Virginia they have been expendable for a hundred years. The people that live on Refinery Row in Louisiana, they have been expendable for a very long time. So this was just going to expand the area of who was expendable and this insanely included New York City because the proposal was to drill in a watershed that supplies 16 million people with water.

They were dumping radioactive, toxic waste, some of the most hazard waste we know of on the planet directly into the public drinking water source for the city of Pittsburgh; directly into the public drinking water for all of the Pacific Southwest because they were back flushing these fluids into the Colorado River that supplies Las Vegas, New Mexico, Los Angeles and directly into the public drinking water for FT. Worth and Dallas. There was no program set up to discern what was in the waste. It took a New York Times investigation to discover it was radioactive and going directly into public drinking supplies. That is simply poisoning people with no regard to the consequences. We all drink water. We all shower in water. It is a resource that belongs to the people and they were deliberately hiding the fact that wherever they were going, they were poisoning the water supply at the surface and at the source through their waste, spills and the fracking process. And it is still going on.

ALC: That leads me into the next question. I am always left wondering, after I watch a documentary that is engaging and successful, what is happening since it was shot? When did you know you were going to make another “Gasland”?

JF: The truth is we never stopped shooting. We finished the first movie because the Sundance deadline came and we were like, “That’s it, put the DVD in the mail,” The film was always a campaign to educate people in our local area. Obviously, we were aiming for a mainstream audience and wide release across the nation. We got that and I think it changed the game in a lot of ways but we hadn’t counted on that. When the film came out, HBO really went to bat for us and they did it with passion. They allowed me to tour with the film and let it be in theaters because I had made the case to them that we had a grassroots movement out there unlike anything I had ever seen. We had incredible turn out. We had one screening in the middle of Pennsylvania where 1600 people showed up. It totally blew me away and it was because these people have no way of “checking out.” There is no way for people in the anti-fracking movement to go home. They are home and the battle is in their front yard.

As I’m screening this film across the nation, I’m checking in with people and their stories are just as compelling, so on the tour we would shoot during the day and screen at night. We built the majority of the second film over the course of that year. We are still shooting but we are very close to completing that aspect of the film. It has been a volatile organic process.

ALC: I read that some screenings of the film had been labeled as eco-terrorist events, and that some of your property in Pennsylvania had been attacked. Many documentary filmmakers become entrenched in their subjects and then move on to the next subject, but with you instead have taken on the entire gas industry, Tom Ridge included. Would you tell us a little about this aspect/backlash of making “Gasland”?

JF: There has been some nuttiness and that’s been very disturbing. Tom Ridge is lying his ass off and I hope you put that in Truthout. Tom Ridge is also not very good at his job. Tom Ridge went on Colbert deliberately to try and discredit the people in my film and the film. Tom Ridge took over as the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s chief spokesperson. He was of course the former governor of Pennsylvania and the first homeland security director. Two months after he became the spokesperson, we started to get communication leaked that Pennsylvania intelligence bulletins, which were secret documents distributed to law enforcement, said that eco-terrorism was on the rise in Pennsylvania related to fracking and that one of the places these eco-extremists could gather were at “Gasland” screenings.

They also targeted several citizen grassroots groups that were exchanging information about drilling. These were not radicals, not the bottle-throwing crowd but rather stay at home moms and dads, college professors and land owners that were concerned and overnight had familiarized themselves with the intricacies of the local, state and federal governmental democratic processes. I’ve never seen a group that had more faith in their ability to petition the government through the democratic process. To criticize them as terrorists is insane and their justification for doing so was that they found in gas drilling areas a few road signs that were shot up. I don’t know how much you know about Pennsylvania, but it’s pretty much a state past time to take a shotgun and blow a hole through a speed limit sign.

The group that Pennsylvania hired was called The Institute of Terrorism Research and Response and their website featured sophisticated surveillance techniques and an Israeli Swat team guy and a picture of a spooky owl and picture of a weird blue hand playing chess. It’s like you couldn’t tell if it’s really rinky-dink or some kind of Israeli counter-terrorism squad. Virginia Cody posted this intelligence bulletin on line and the Director of Homeland Security in PA wrote to her and told her she should take it down and indicated in his letter that the homeland security office in PA was collaborating directly with the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the gas industry that Tom Ridge just signed on to be spokesperson for.

Fast forward a year later and some FOX news types begin to do crazy things like rearrange my Q&As and make it sound like I said things that I didn’t. So now Tom Ridge goes on the “Colbert Report” and shows the clip of the water catching on fire and says that it is all naturally occurring. Meanwhile, there is a Duke University study published by the National Academy of Science that states there is an overwhelming relationship between gas drilling and water catching on fire from methane gas in the wells.

ALC: I saw that you have on your web site a section called “The Truth About ‘Gasland'” was that prompted by the anti-propaganda attacking the fundamental truths of your film?

JF: The gas industry has an attack squad that’s kinda like a rabid dog that’s taken a lot of Redbull and they are called Energy in Depth. Energy in Depth is a public relations front sponsored by Shell and all the Super Majors even though originally they claimed they were working in defense of mom and pop industry gas people. Those guys do everything from attack “Gasland” to attack families that speak out by saying they secretly work for the wind industry. They specialize in smear campaigns. They are merchants of doubt. In the media industry, both sides of the fracking debate are covered, even though the one side is obviously representing the industry itself and is only propaganda. Debate slows everything down and then the politicians say, “We have to study this” and that give the gas industry time to mess with the studies.

But in the end, to come back for a moment to the connection between the office of homeland security in PA and Tom Ridge and the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the scandal resulted in James Powers Head of the Pennsylvania Office of Homeland Security resigning and Pennsylvania’s Governor, Ed Rendell, issuing an apology for spying on its citizenship. The science is clear. But, you don’t win the war again fracking in the lab but in the media and unfortunately they are spending millions on ads, consultants and PR firms to get people like Tom Ridge on “Colbert Report” to say things that are utterly ridiculous with a straight face.

ALC: How prepared were you for this kind of backlash and how emotionally exhausting is it defending the truth in your film? Did you think you were signing on for this?

JF: I was actually shocked that they attacked the movie. We didn’t think there was anything in the film that needed to be defended. We had done all of our homework. Maybe that was naive. I didn’t think they were going to attack it because it caused so much more attention to go on to the film. I think there was a lot of internal debate in the gas industry about whether or not to attack “Gasland.” I think, especially when they attacked our Oscar nomination and said the nomination should be rescinded, it just showed how bullying they are and arrogant. It was like a temper tantrum. That caused a lot of attention on the film and caused us to spend two or three weeks putting “The Truth About ‘Gasland’” together, a 44 page PDF showing all our research behind the film.

It was exhausting and troubling but at the same time, I have to believe the gas industry has a much harder sell than I do. They have to convince people to industrialize their home. It’s unfortunate that so many people are in such a difficult economic circumstance that their backs are up against a wall and they are signing leases. I would never fault anyone for signing a lease, especially when they are in an economic situation where they are about to lose their home.

ALC: So, are you winning the battle?

JF: There is no question we are winning the PR battle. We are changing the public’s perception on a fraction of what the gas industry spends a day on their PR machine. We are not winning the battle in congress yet.

ALC: “Gasland” is being compared to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” on the enormous impact it is having in the environmental movement today to motivate people to become active. Is that a heavy weight or burden to carry?

(I’d like to note Josh’s long silence in response to this question. He is at a rare loss for words.)

JF: Whatever the comparisons are, the real work is done by the people organizing on the ground. What we are seeing here, right now … (long pause again from Josh) obviously, that is an unbelievably kind comparison that really blows me away. I think the people in the film are extraordinary. I was at the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] interviewing Lisa Jackson. We walked into a hallway with huge green marble floors and walls and Matt Sanchez, the editor and co-creator of “Gasland,” looks over at a plaque on the wall. It reads, “The Rachel Carson Great Hall” and we were like “wow” and felt slightly at home because once those comparisons happened we had to try and live up to that. Then all of a sudden I was like, “Oh but pan down” and he pushes the camera down and right below the plaque at the EPA is a fake plastic plant. I said, “Houston we have a problem. If you can’t grow a plant at the EPA …”

(We both have to take a laugh break at this point.)

But what’s really great about the comparison is just how many more people need to read Rachel Carson. How many fake plastic trees are at the EPA is indicative of how many people at the EPA need to read Rachel Carson.

ALC: So another comparison you are getting is to Michael Moore and I wonder how you feel about that?

JF: I think Michael Moore revitalized the documentary. I went and saw “Roger and Me” in high school in the theater because my best friend came up to me and was like, “You gotta see this movie. I’ll go see it again! You have to see this guy, he’s great.” “Roger and Me” was a movie about globalization before globalization existed. He was prescient in doing that and some of the stuff he has in that film, my god. I re-watched it recently because I met Michael Moore recently. He’s a great guy and really deeply into supporting other documentary filmmakers. He’s willing to say things no one else is willing to say and get out there and I appreciate him so much.

He was the victim of a wide spread strategy by the health industry to try and go after him. I don’t know the whole story, but his is a very brave American voice and is very necessary. I can’t imagine having done what I did without Michael Moore paving the way. I’m a fan of his work. His sense of humor is very different from mine. My thing is very wry and deadpan. He does it a different way.

ALC: Let’s talk about that for a minute. Your film is very entertaining and humor plays a very important role in that. How did that come about, humor in such a heavy topic?

JF: I knew I wanted to be funny because there was humor in all the aspects of it but I knew I didn’t want to be over the top because that’s just not my style. I’m uncomfortable being a “jokester” but there is a sense of humor that is my Humphrey Bogart impersonation. That’s the way I think about it. “Gasland” is a detective story. I’m a big fan of “The Big Sleep” and “To Have and Have Not”; that kind of understated, gallows humor.

Also, it’s taking a note from the interview subjects. When you talk to Mike Markham and his faucet practically explodes and he looks at the camera and says, “That’s the best one I’ve done,” it’s hilarious. It’s a credit to him. There’s strength about it; to be humorous because there’s nothing else they can do. I felt the story deserved that to be brought out. It isn’t all heart wrenching and horrifying. Humor, juxtaposition and irony – it’s an Orwellian Landscape. It’s truly upside down. The only way you are going to be able to truly grasp the tragedy is through levity. That’s just the way my mind thinks.

ALC: You are a big “character” in the documentary and I read that you had recorded all the voice-over the days of the shoots and then went and later spent a lot of money in the post-production stage to rerecord the voice-over only to find the studio version just didn’t work. Would you speak about that?

JF: I didn’t record them the DAY of the shoot. [Strong emphasis by Josh.] I recorded most of them between 2:00 am and six in the morning, alone at home. It’s a homemade project.

First off, it’s quiet and nobody’s going to call you but it also was capturing my first impression of watching the footage. It’s intimate, a dream space and very personal and from the heart. Also, I speak slower, which is important. (Josh and I both laugh again. Josh does not speak slowly AT ALL during this interview.) I’m not an actor so I couldn’t recreate that honesty later in the studio. I write most of my plays from midnight to four in the morning. It’s a good time. The next day, Matt would look at it and be like, “That’s good. That’s crap. That’s you mumbling. This is good. This is crap” and every once in a while I’d have to rerecord something because you truly couldn’t understand what I was saying.

ALC: I thought it was also an interesting stylistic choice to have you shooting the documentary, as well as other cameramen shooting you shooting the documentary. How many other cameramen worked on the film?

JF: There were quite a few people that were around but most of the trip I did myself. I connected with a friend Laura Newman that was one of the producers in Colorado and she did second camera there. Molly Gandour was another one of our producers that did a lot of the research and also came with me on a leg of the trip between Grand Junction and Texas. Matt Sanchez, who again I say is the co-creator of the film, is the genius cameraman and editor. He was able to synthesize a lot of this and shoot the nature stuff in Milanville with his eye and lens. He has a very unique sensibility. I had shot my first feature film on Memorial Day, by myself. As a director, I had almost 30 full-length pieces that had premiered on the stage in NY, Europe and Asia so I have a sense of aesthetic and rhythm and what I want to see in the frame.

ALC: And yet, I would say that one of the things that works so well in the film is this sense of “home movie-ness”- as though you just decided to pick up a camera and go on this adventure, with, yes, some gorgeous nature and landscape shots, but an “everyman can do this feel to it.” Was that also an intentional stylist choice for the documentary? Or perhaps, part of the rallying call to get people involved? Like, “Look you can do this too!”

JF: Both of those things are true. I did kinda just pick up the camera and go but the person that picked up the camera is also directing with sixteen years of experience behind them. I’m not a layperson.

I am starting a program called “Shale Watch” where we are distributing cameras around the country to what is almost like a neighborhood watch. People can post their footage and document themselves hopefully in collaboration or conversation with the EPA. One thing I did come away with from my meeting with Lisa is that their stated policy is to enforce where the states do not; I said, “I have dozens of case I could tell you about and will you work with us?” and she said yes.

I talk to a lot of young filmmakers and say, first off, don’t wait for funding. Go out there and do it and if people are there for you, you will build that support system. When we started “Gasland,” there was no funding. There was no mechanism. There was no people. Just myself, then I met Matt and he joined. Then other people participated as we showed our work all the way up to the biggest media company in America with the greatest viewership, HBO.

So on the one hand I tell people just do it, but on the other hand I say to them, storytelling is a craft and you have to approach it like you would anything else. When you start Ballet at age five you aren’t going to be any good at it until you are nineteen or whatever it is. You wouldn’t pick up a violin and expect to be a virtuous in five minutes. That’s just how art works.

The truth of the movie is it is my story that I am personally invested in. I didn’t want to be in the movie but my friends insisted that I had to be in the movie. I initially did the voice over so something would be there but they said, “That’s really good you should keep that.” So it was kicking and screaming going in. I like being behind the camera but I’m getting more used to it. When I was a young director at twenty-two I was like, “Get out of my way. I know what I’m doing” and it was do whatever you had to do to get the production done. When I look back at that now, it’s more like, “No, you were learning and finding your way even though you thought you were at the top of your game at twenty-two.”

If I could, I’d say to people, “You have to know what you are doing but you are also putting yourself on a timeline that is your entire life to know your craft.” Young filmmakers have to have the absolute confidence that they are the only person for the job and nobody else can do it but they have to do the litmus test – Is this project important to other people? I was speaking with Rachel Grady who did “Jesus Camp” and “12th and Delaware” and she had the greatest quote about this. Someone asked her how she gets her ideas for her projects and she said, “You have ideas for projects all day every day and some of them should be a feature film and some should be a short story and some should be a letter to your mom.” The difference is, does it matter to anybody else?

ALC: Speaking of quotes, I found a great quote from Mark Ruffalo, “If you’re losing hope then you’re not doing enough.” I thought it was really great and I saw that you appeared together on CNN and wondered how you guys hooked up and if having a celebrity associated with the film has helped it or if there’s been a pitfalls to that?

JF: I love Mark. He’s an awesome guy that comes to me not as a celebrity but as a neighbor. He lives in the upper Delaware River Basin on the New York side. I met him at Sundance. He came running up to me and was like, “Hey buddy you’re a hero” and I was like, “umda adda umadda um.” I mean, what am I going to say to that? I’m a huge fan of his acting and I always found him to be honest and down to earth in his performances. We sat together at the awards and “Gasland” won the special Jury Prize and he wins special jury prize for his narrative and we just had a big celebration and became friends.

We followed each other’s years, his with “The Kids Are Alright” and mine with “Gasland” and then we both make it all the way to the Oscars. That was crazy. During our Oscar nominated month, where you don’t know what is going to happen, we went out and poured it on with the press about the gas industry. He’s going to lose everything he has, his house with his three wonderful kids and his amazing wife. They’ve chosen to live in a beautiful place. One that’s not pretentious but down to earth and he likes living there. He doesn’t want to see it be destroyed.

I think of Mark as an advocate. He’s very articulate and I like working with him. Obviously, there is a downside to a “celebrity cause” kinda thing, but I don’t think that is what Mark is doing. I think he’s doing this because he is a father and as a concerned person. I have a good time with him, we support each other and we doing a lot of things together moving forward.

(Josh pauses and thinks.)

It’s great because it makes it less lonely doing this. It’s a very weird thing to go through the looking glass and end up on “The Daily Show” and CNN countless times, MSNBC, on television commenting on Karl Rove’s speech the day after the mid-term elections on the Keith Olbermann show; these are things I used to do at home before by throwing shoes at the television set. Maybe you shouldn’t write that part? Shoe throwing thing and all … (He has a worried tone and I assure him it is O.K. to throw shoes at a TV.)

ALC: Do you think you accomplished what you wanted to by making the documentary “Gasland”?

JF: Anytime you’re involved in the conversation it is better. I always make things that are personal but this was a surprise. It’s my job to create things but this was outside the context of my company at first. But then again, my job is as the creative director of a production company and so the projects are the priority; that allowed me to take a month off and drive cross-country.

Documentary just seemed the best format for this. It wasn’t going to be a feature film or a play, though now it may become both and a book and a sequel at this point, but at first it was just, “I really have to get these real people on film.” I wanted to create a conversation between people around me that were leasing land but perhaps had a cultural divide. I wanted the people in Wyoming and Texas and Pennsylvania to speak to each other. I didn’t want to get in the middle of that. It’s not always clear to me if that particular objective was successful. I think the gas industry has been really relentless in trying to stereotype the film as some kind of Hollywood or New York kinda thing but it really is what it is.

The bottom line is, it really is a trip across the country to save my home that turned into a my whole country being at risk. The scope of the project just exploded, it’s like what I say at the end of the movie that your backyard just keeps getting bigger and bigger until you realize it’s all just connected. All the water is connected, all the air is connected and everything is our backyard.

To learn more about Josh Fox and “Gasland,” please visit his web site. To learn more about his work with the Delaware River Basin, please visit this web site.