Interview: Josh Fox on Gasland
Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland won the Special Jury Prize at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival this year, and the film has sparked recent attention by critics, the general public and the major gas corporations. Gaslanddemonstrates the devastating effects of “fracking”, a process where corporations hydraulically fracture the ground to release natural gas deposits. When Fox is offered $100,000 to lease his family’s land in New York for drilling, he embarks on a journey across 24 states in America to investigate the situation, and he makes the shocking revelation that people can set their home water supply on fire. I spoke with Fox about his experiences while making the film, his concerns for Australia in the future, and his tips for aspiring documentary filmmakers.
Your directorial debut was with the feature film Memorial Day - how did you find the transition to documentary filmmaking?
As a theatre director, there are similar strategies. We are always researching topics and interviewing people. I didn’t realise that would lend itself so much into making a documentary. So it’s really about searching for the correct format. I could have made a play or another feature film, but Gasland was a detective story, and for me, the best way to portray my findings was through a documentary. My style of making plays is also very cinematic.
Are there any documentary filmmakers that have influenced you?
I’ve always loved documentaries, especially those that have found a personal way of dealing with something with greater ramifications. A film called Tarnation is autobiographical and includes various childhood videos and it is really beautifully done – it influenced me stylistically.
How did you manage juggling the different roles of writing, directing, co-producing and filming some scenes?
For me, writing and directing was the same thing. I had a vision for the project. But at times it was hard managing the camera, the microphone and the steering wheel! I made the film without any money at all. There were times when I had friends who helped out, but nobody was able to clear their whole schedule. But the editor Matthew Sanchez helped a lot. He is really the co-creator of the project.
What sort of obstacles were you faced with while making Gasland?
I tried to get the gas companies to sit down and have a talk. There are montages in the film, but that’s not the whole story. We wrote tons of emails and tried to solicit them in many ways, and they wouldn’t respond. But in the end it’s kind of better having the Congress addressing them instead. We set ourselves a very high bar – we knew we had to finish this by Sundance, and it’s a huge topic – it spans the whole country and it’s very technically complicated. While there has been no struggle to get the film to the people with HBO in American and Palace Films in Australia, the main obstacle is whether I can hang in there and keep talking because the gas companies have enormous recourses. It’s been an endurance test.
The film has received a lot of attention – you won an award at Sundance, but the American gas corporations have been denying some of your claims. How have you dealt with the conflicting controversy?
Big surprise there. The gas companies don’t want people to see the movie! But they are lying. It is very clear. It is so simple. On our website – gaslandthemovie.com, there is a link which goes into every single one of their attacks and how they are lying. And then in the media, I have answered all of their questions. It’s a smear campaign. An industry sponsored attack machine that spends millions of dollars trying to attack this tiny little film made by two or three people in the middle of the woods. It’s David versus Goliath. They attack the people in the film, they attack the politicians who are trying to regulate the industry. It’s an interesting psychological position to look at these guys who are denying and attacking at the same time.
How willing were people to participate in interviews?
Well in Dimock, Pennsylvania, the town had been completely taken over and people were very concerned. Some of them were very open, whereas others didn’t know who to trust. But people who had been dealing with it in the West were dying to speak with the media because no one was paying attention to them there. We had too many stories to choose from – a testament to just how many cases of this there were.
There has been recent coal-seam gas exploration and development in NSW and southeast Queensland. What do you know about the gas situation in Australia?
Lots of people have contacted me on Facebook saying that people are in trouble in Australia. So I am here to learn and research. Obviously there are a lot of parallels. This is the greatest environmental challenge facing Australia right now. Fracking is serious. And Australia is in the very early stage of what could be an explosion ofindustrialisation in a lot of areas. I haven’t approached the gas companies in Australia yet but I’m in contact with a resident in Queensland whose property has been invaded by the gas companies, and he’s got water that he can light on fire as well. I think that the film has come at a time when a lot of these issues are exploding. The film will provide a base of knowledge on what is to come. It’s a dramatic film and it’s a great experience. We want people to see it in theatres now.
Do you have any tips for aspiring documentary filmmakers?
I have two equally weighted and totally opposite views.There’s a craft to filmmaking – films have a structure, and you have to study it. But on the other hand I also think that the best way to learn is experience, so just make it, don’t wait for money, get it out there and get people’s responses. Don’t be afraid to show it.