Behind the Scenes in the Making of Green Fire

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One of my fondest early memories is going to the theatre with my father to watch Walt Disney’s Jungle Book. To this day it is on my top-five list of favorite all-time mov­ies, along with Lonesome DoveSearching for Bobby Fisher, and The Power of One. It is with some trepi­dation that I credit Disney with molding my interest, concern, and ethics toward the natural world, but giv­en the dates of my formative years and the typical sub­urban upbringing I had, the multi-national corpora­tion clearly did have an impact through this film.

The Jungle Book —even with its warped and inaccurate sense of ecological communities and species assem­blages—does present the case that humans, despite our strained relationship to other large predators and our overriding attraction to our own species, are in fact part of the larger biological community. It shows how, with courage and connections, humans can come to appreciate and care for other species.

Add to this storyline the fact that I watched this film with my father during a most impressionable pe­riod, and I begin to connect the dots: watching that particular film, at that particular time in my life, in the presence of my father truly did have an impact on my own personal orientation and appreciation for the natural world and humanity’s relationship to it. It also gave me a profound appreciation and awareness of just how powerful an impact film, a “tool” in this case, can have on an audience and an individual.

Communication Challenge

I should acknowledge—or confess—that I don’t keep up with journals like Minding Nature as atten­tively as I should. At the age of forty I find myself in between phases, or stages, in many respects, but most particularly in respect to technology. I use email reg­ularly, but I don’t text. I surf the Internet regularly, but I still rarely read newspapers or articles on-line. I watch movies but don’t subscribe to Netflix. It isn’t that I have some hard-core philosophical position on the matter. Rather, it is more a consequence of not having the knowledge and not being adept at using the technology. And yet, here I sit, writing an article for an on-line journal on a laptop in a park in Madison, hav­ing just served as the executive producer of a film, full of substantive ideas as well as profound images, that has required a large investment of time, energy, and financial resources from multiple institutions. Though I won’t be doing it, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some people watching it on their cell phones in the not too distant future.

We all know our society is becoming increasingly disconnected from the natural world, in large measure because we are more “connected” to the virtual than ever. The Internet’s ability to connect us to others with shared interests and values, as described in The Long Tail by Chris Anderson, has given rise to new and stronger “communities” while fragmenting the ability of the traditional communication media, such as print and television news, to convey information and values.

This reality, in combination with rapidly chang­ing demographics, poses a fundamental challenge to the conservation movement at the moment. How do we communicate, cultivate, and instill a conservation ethic that will advance any genuine and sincere defini­tion of a land ethic, or, in common parlance, sustain­ability?

Project Background

It was the realization of this profound chal­lenge by the film’s proj­ect team that ultimately resulted in the concep­tion, development, and production of Green Fire: Aldo Leopold and a Land Ethic for Our Time. For years, many people at and around the Aldo Leopold Foundation dis­cussed the potential val­ue of having a documen­tary about Leopold’s life. This was fueled by the prominent role Leopold played as an individual in films such as Tallgrass Prairie, The Greatest Good, and Lords of Nature, which examined broader topics but used Leopold as a central theme.

It was when the Leopold Foundation hosted a pre­miere screening of The Greatest Good, a history of the first one hundred years of the U.S. Forest Service— and, by extension, a history of the conservation move­ment—that the potential to do a film on Leopold took a step forward. At the reception after the film’s Baraboo, Wisconsin, premiere, Leopold biographers Curt Me­ine and Susan Flader were talking with me, Sally Col­lins, a U.S. Forest Service leader, and with filmmak­ers Steve Dunsky, Ann Dunsky, and Dave Steinke. The filmmakers indicated that while Leopold had a large role in The Greatest Good, relative to any other former employee except the Forest Service’s founder and first chief, Gifford Pinchot, they still had a lot of additional material on Leopold—perhaps even enough to do another movie on him. The hook had been set.

Project Development

Fortuitously for the project, the Dunskys and Steinke were all professionally trained filmmakers and were also employees of the U.S. Forest Service. As the partnership between the Forest Service and the Leopold Foundation came together for Green Fire, the agency’s leadership recognized both the value and im­pact The Greatest Good had in sharing the agency’s history and mission. They also realized that a subse­quent film on Leopold could extend the energy and enthusiasm created with the release and distribution of their previous film. But the agency’s commitment to the project at the highest level created an opportunity for the Dunskys and Steinke’s expertise, experience, and energy to be brought to bear to the project.

When these factors were combined with Flader and Meine’s deep knowledge of Leopold and contem­porary conservation and with the time, energy, and connections of the Leopold Foundation staff, the mak­ings of a project team were in place. Along the way, a scriptwriter was added, along with associate pro­ducers, transcriptionists, field researchers, and many others.

Finding Direction

As with many projects, we had a general sense of what we were doing—making a movie. But where we were going . . . well, that was a little fuzzy. There was, of course, Leopold’s life, which needed to be conveyed and was the raw material of the storyline. There was his idea, his vision, of a land ethic, which of course emerged and evolved over the course of his lifetime. But there was also his legacy—how people had learned from him and had been inspired to think critically or differently about the natural world, our place in it, and our responsibility to it. Early on, everyone agreed that weaving historical and contemporary segments to­gether was critical. How to do that, however, was at best uncertain.

There were also a lot of eyes on the project in the sense that, because of the partnership, there were lots of people to please, all of whom had their own ideas and opinions about what the film should do and how it should do it. Add in other realities such as wanting the film to be only about 60 minutes to facilitate wide distribution, our limited financial resources, and the multiple shooting locations, and I can now see, look­ing back, that the challenges were significant.

Overcoming Obstacles

I’ve always felt Leopold’s most admirable qualities were his foresight, patience, and persistence. His fore­sight was articulated in his vision of a land ethic, his patience revealed by his understanding that cultural change was slow, and his persistence embodied by his will to come back and plant pine seedlings at his farm after they died four years running from drought, or to continue to work on his manuscript for what would ul­timately become A Sand County Almanac after six re­jections before finally landing Oxford University Press as a publisher.

This project used each of these three strengths. The project team was held together by the foresight that if the film was done right and could capture Leopold’s compelling vision, it would have the desired impact. And, at various stages, equal parts patience and per­sistence were required. Patience was needed to allow the film to develop its own identity. It was also needed because the economic recession greatly impacted our ability to raise the financial resources necessary for a project of this scope, scale, and quality. Persistence was required because some of the locations were dif­ficult to get to, the weather didn’t cooperate, more money was needed to keep the project moving, and at times, the team had to weather doubt and concern about the direction of the project.

One of the biggest challenges was weaving the his­toric and contemporary storylines together in a coher­ent and compelling manner. There were times in the project’s development that we were heavy on the his­tory, and times when we were heavy on the contempo­rary. At some point in the process, the idea emerged that Curt Meine, as Leopold’s biographer and also as an active conservation biologist, could connect the past and present to help “guide” the audience through Leopold’s life and legacy. Different than your typi­cal removed narrator, Curt would instead be what we called an “on-screen guide.” For those of you that have the good fortune to know Curt, he was predictably a reluctant star but rose to the occasion admirably. The partnership was then formally expanded to include the Center for Humans and Nature, where Curt serves as Director of Conservation Biology and History, as one of the organizational co-producers.

Making the Sausage

“It ain’t pretty,” as the saying goes. Well, it turns out the saying holds true for making documentaries as well. While the finished product is delicious, at least for most palates, it is amazing what all goes into it. Mostly there is a lot of hard work, of both the physi­cal and intellectual sort. Hiking to remote locations with heavy camera equipment, working in inclement weather, and transcribing hours of interviews is just a sampling of the physical demands. The intellectual portion only begins after you figure out where the film is headed—the “narrative arc,” in industry terminolo­gy. Then you have to develop the more detailed script, shoot to the script, respond to the reality of what the interviews and shooting provided, develop both visual and verbal transitions, hone language, reduce ver­biage, and all the while keep it accessible and inspi­rational.

It is not enough to manage the physical and intel­lectual, however. To have a really successful film, you must also include the artistic element. This begins with the cinematography captured by the cameramen, includes the sound and music that get laid over the im­agery, moves on to the “animation” that brings photos and footage in and out of the picture, and ends with the editing that brings all of these pieces and more to­gether in a coherent way.

In order to ground our direction and execution we listened to Leopold’s counsel to “pause for breath.” During these pauses, we invited comments and criti­cisms from focus groups. Feedback ranged from the mundane to the profane. Everyone involved had to develop thick skin, but in particular Curt. “Too much Curt,” “Not enough Curt,” and “Why did Curt say this, or that?” are just examples of some of the things we heard. Conflicting feedback was common: “more his­tory,” “less history,” “more about Leopold’s life,” “what about climate change, species extinction, and other current efforts?”  The most polarizing moment revolved around how the incident described in Leopold’s essay, “Thinking Like a Mountain,” was handled, which is of course significant because it provides the film’s name, Green Fire.

Candidly, some were concerned that we might not be able to realize the ambitions of our project.  One colleague, Peter Annin—a former Newsweek journalist and vice president of the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources who is now the managing director of the Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative—recently expressed this as follows:  “As I said when we spoke after tonight’s premiere, last year—after seeing a short preview of the film while it was still a work in progress—I was a little worried about how Green Fire would turn out.  And tonight, as I was leaving for the show, I confessed to my wife that I was somewhat worried about what the evening at the Barrymore might entail.”

Finally, after three years of earnest work, we were pushed by a deadline, just as any good project is: we had scheduled the film’s “world premiere” a year in advance, and amazing­ly, the Earth had nearly completed its cycle. In­put was synthesized and digested. Decisions were made. And the race to the finish line was on . . .

Selling the Sausage

We are still awaiting the final verdict, which will be years out. But based on preliminary reports, the film is off to a spectacular start. We have had multiple “sell-outs” with crowds of over one thousand people at some venues. In addition, the feedback from the great turnout at our early premieres has been overwhelm­ingly positive. Peter Annin, the same colleague who had expressed concern about the film, said this after one of the Madison, Wisconsin, showings:

One of the reasons I was worried, I suppose, was because of the enormous importance of the task: I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to capture the essence of Leopold and his conser­vation philosophy in film, and vicariously, I felt the pressure you both [Curt Meine and Buddy Huffaker] were under.

But I could not have been more impressed with how the final product turned out. I thoroughly enjoyed the film, and so did the people seated around me. They laughed, they cried, and they sat riveted and fulfilled by the final product. I learned from the film, and felt it did an out­standing job of conveying the importance of Leopold’s work and what the land ethic means for past, current, and future generations.

Steve Dunsky, one of the filmmakers, says, “Every film has an audience; the challenge is finding it.” So, ironically, now that we have “finished” the film, the re­ality is we have just begun a new phase of the project— finding the film its audience.

Our strategy at the moment—provided financial resources are available—is to continue the series of major premieres across the country. Upcoming ones in the spring and summer of 2011 include Chicago, Denver, Portland, and Boston. Fall will include Seattle, most likely New York, and many academic showings. We are also contacting film festivals and conferences to utilize them as major venues for showings. And then, if resources permit, a national release on public television will take place around Earth Day 2012.

From the beginning our target audience was not people in the “know” or in the “choir.” We purpose­ly developed the film to connect with a more general audience—one that probably will have never heard of Aldo Leopold. That said, we also feel our primary mechanism to reach these folks will in fact be our friends, who themselves have been moved to action by Leopold’s eloquence and ideas. This is why we are so pleased with the response to date. In order to continue to engender that response, we have developed a re­source kit that is designed to facilitate and support just this kind of community showing. We are pleased and proud that, less than two months into the distribution phase of the film, we have shipped over two hundred kits.

Additionally, from the beginning, “community” was the central theme we wanted to communicate— that we are part of the biological community, not apart from it. If this expanded sense of community can be achieved in even a few people, the success of this proj­ect will be profound. Therefore, we think the film will have its greatest impact at the community level, in li­braries, nature centers, visitor centers, civic centers, churches, and other places where people gather to think and act on behalf of their own community.

Final Chapter

We end the film with Leopold’s quote: “I have pre­sented the land ethic as a product of social evolution, because nothing so important as an ethic is ever ‘writ­ten.’” This is our call to arms—the evolution continues, and, as Curt says, it is now in all of our hands. Many of the decisions we made in the film’s development were made with this thought in mind. How can we best inform audiences about our shared heritage and the conservation movement through the life of Aldo Leopold, while at the same time inspiring—or, just as importantly, re-inspiring—people to be careful stew­ards of what Leopold described as the “slow laborious process” of building a new relationship with the natu­ral world?

The film, as a documentary, was not particularly made for the pre-K-12 audience.  However, I hold out hope that someone at least younger than me will watch it with a loved one and that one day he or she will look back and experience something similar to what I feel when I remember watching the Jungle Book with my father.

How did we do? Well, you will have to be the judge—you, or perhaps your spouse, partner, parent, or child. The best measure we have is the feedback we have gotten to date. In the words, once more, of Pe­ter Annin: “I know the last few years have been brutal as you and your team spent countless hours compil­ing and honing the material for this project. I can only imagine the late hours, the feverish debates, and the genuine concern you both must have had about pro­ducing a product worthy of Leopold’s legacy. But you should know, as you make the rounds across America with this premiere, that all that hard work has paid off. You and your team have produced a moving, tangible, and highly accessible film that will carry the Leopold legacy well into the next century—a major accomplish­ment.”

If we were able to play any role in carrying Leop­old’s legacy into the twenty-first century, it was worth every minute of it.

  • Buddy Huffaker

    Wellington "Buddy" Huffaker, IV, is the executive director of the Aldo Leopold Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. With an academic background in landscape architecture and plant ecology, Buddy joined the organization as a seasonal fellow in 1996.

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