“Fahrenheit 11/9” producers and Academy Award nominees Carl Deal and Tia Lessin (“Trouble the Water”) are developing a documentary that explores the world of climate profiteering and how the planet’s wealthiest are planning to weather the uncertain century ahead.
The duo will be pitching their project during CPH:FORUM, the international financing and co-production event held during the Copenhagen International Documentary Film Festival (CPH:DOX), which runs March 23-April 3.
“Sink or $wim” is inspired by journalist McKenzie Funk’s bestseller “Windfall: The Booming Business of Global Warming,” which details how a growing legion of corporations, high-stakes gamblers and entrepreneurs are cashing in on the climate crisis.
“We’ve all seen a lot of movies about climate change. And there are a lot of movies that offer solutions,” Deal tells Variety. “We think it’s time to tell a new kind of climate story, to take an audience on a rollicking journey into a side of the story they may not know is happening – to follow the money into the dystopian future that is happening now.”
He adds: “The climate is changing, we’re causing it, and some people are making a killing on it.”
Currently in development, “Sink or $wim” will follow a colorful cast of climate prospectors, profiteers and their ultra-rich clientele, whose interrelated storylines will shed light on how the privileged few will survive and prosper at the expense of those without economic or political power, so long as the free market continues to dictate the world’s response to the global climate crisis.
It’s far from a portrait of earnest green energy advocates installing solar panels or erecting windmills to wean the world off fossil fuels, says Lessin. “It’s not about how to build solutions. In some cases, it’s worsening the crisis. In some cases, just monetizing climate change.”
Among the characters staking claims to the new frontier are Wall Street speculators buying up land and water rights; real estate developers building opulent floating islands; entrepreneurs towing icebergs to parched cities (or melting them into premium bottled water); doomsday realtors selling posh bunkers and climate-proof sanctuaries; and private firefighters partnering with insurance companies to protect mansions from wildfires.
Theirs is a world of absurdism and extremes, but one which the filmmaking duo is determined to approach with an open mind. “It’s a fine needle to thread because we’re not vilifying these folks. We want to look at them and honestly learn from what they’re doing,” says Deal. “We won’t always agree with the folks who are creating that world, but we will learn about ourselves from them, and we hope to have a lot of fun watching them succeed or fail. And hopefully they too will learn something along the way.”
The Brooklyn-based filmmakers were nominated for an Academy Award for their 2008 debut “Trouble the Water,” a documentary that examined the impact and aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans from the perspective of a family that stayed at home during the storm. They also directed and produced (along with Gillian Caldwell) “Citizen Koch,” which documented the rise of the Tea Party that laid the foundation for the election of Donald Trump and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Lessin and Emma Pildes also co-directed “The Janes,” a Sundance selection this year, which tells the story of the female-staffed underground service that provided over 11,000 illegal abortions to women in need between 1968 and 1973.
The duo has also produced several of Michael Moore’s films, including “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Academy Award winner “Bowling for Columbine,” “Capitalism: A Love Story” and “Where to Invade Next.” Deal praised the rabble-rousing, populist filmmaker and activist’s ability to inform, incite and entertain – often in the same dizzying breath – and said a similar approach will animate “Sink or $wim.”
“You don’t want to tell people what they want to know. And it’s one of the things that, in our work with Michael, he always does really well,” says Deal. “He’s actually talking to the audience and challenging the audience about who they think they are. But he does it in a way that’s so entertaining, that’s funny, that’s cutting, that you don’t even realize it’s happening sometimes.”
It’s a tactic of laughing grimly into the abyss that might also sound familiar to audiences who followed the debate around a certain star-studded Netflix extravaganza last year – a comparison Lessin doesn’t shy away from.
“I’ve been inspired by ‘Don’t Look Up,’” she says, “and Adam McKay, his body of work, his extraordinary ability to take these tragic situations and use humor and satire to make an entertaining story.” Despite the dust-up around McKay’s divisive climate change allegory, which some critics accused of making light of the climate crisis, Lessin believes that laughter is often the perfect vehicle to confront the existential threat to our planet. “We all feel a lot of anger right now. Sometimes the way to express anger is with humor.”
“Sink or $wim,” which has received some development funding so far, is being developed as either a feature-length film or a limited series. “We’re open to both,” says Deal. “Our goal is to find a partner or partners who share our vision and want to help us realize it. We want to find people who are as inspired by this idea as we are.”
Already on board is Emmy-nominated director Jared P. Scott, a filmmaker “whose work we have long admired,” says Deal, and whose credits include the Venice-selected eco-doc “The Great Green Wall” and the Noam Chomsky documentary “Requiem for the American Dream.” “Jared brings a global perspective to the table, a great sense of humor, and considerable knowledge and experience with the climate space,” Deal adds.
It’s a partnership that he feels will offer a fresh take on a crisis that has increasingly come to disrupt our daily lives – and occupy our screens. “There are a lot of films that are inspiring, that have heroes who are fighting the good fight. There are films that warn us of all the gloom and doom to come. And there are a lot of films about the victims,” he continues. “Ultimately, at the end of the day: (A) you want to entertain people, and (B), you want people to transform in some way. We’re not filmmakers who tell people what to do. But I think we’re trying to guide people to think a bit more.”