Filmmaker Josh Fox (Gasland)’s memorable advice in a March 17 master class to graduate students in the Film and Media Arts program at the School of Communication: “Don’t do what you think you should do. Do what you want to do.”
Read our Pull Focus interview with him here.
Fox has taken his Academy Award-nominated, Sundance Special Jury prize-winning film all over the country, reaching some 80,000 viewers in 13 states and 100 cities, while also getting it on HBO. He’s been learning as he goes. An avant-garde theater director with a short fiction film behind him, he had never made a documentary before Gasland, which takes on Big Energy for “fracking,” the highly toxic process of extracting natural gas. He got into the subject when his own home was threatened with water and air pollution from the practice.
Questions, not answers
From the start, the film was as much an art project as a cause. “Aesthetics were as important as the reporting,” he said. “We kept up a sign, WWGD—‘What Would Godard Do?’ We wanted to remind ourselves to have fun. We figured if we could keep ourselves awake and we were having a good time then other people might have a good time watching it.” He said that he thinks more musically than visually, and that he wants his work to be “beautiful and painful.”
His goal was to involve the audience as actors in the story. “I never tell you what to think,” he said. “I ask you questions. That leaves room for you to act.”
The intimacy of the interviews he got with people whose land and homes are ruined and whose health has been impaired are a result, he said, of the fact the “we’re all in the same boat.” Even so, many of the people he approached were afraid to be on camera, because of tensions within their community and fear of the energy companies.
On the attack
“The gas industry is on the attack,” Fox said. He has been in a media war ever since the release of the film, fighting lies with facts. The Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security charged the filmmakers, Fox said, with domestic terrorism in a memo that was leaked. The office’s director had to resign after that embarrassment.
Tensions are high in communities divided between people who want the money from leases and people afraid of poisoning their water. Fox’s own house has been vandalized four times, and there has been suspected arson on his property. “These are threats, but the initial threat was the worst—to trash the entire Delaware basin. It’s infuriating and you get let it get you mad.”
Fox’s outreach efforts developed with the help of advice from Working Films and financial support from the Fledgling Fund, Park Foundation and the Eleventh Hour Fund. Social media is a great tool, Fox said (the film’s Facebook page has 45,000 followers) but personal contact is essential. “Get out there and meeing the people. I have met America in touring the movie,” he said. He urged students to make contact with any organizations that might be interested in the subject of their movie while they are still making it.