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In Conversation: Darren Aronofsky

Hollywood director wrestles with Alberta’s “out of whack” tar sands on a trip with the Sierra Club and Leonardo DiCaprio

Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky just returned from an excursion to see up close and personal the Alberta tar sands, and judging by his response to how oil companies are impacting the environment, this unregulated part of Canada sounds more like the Wild West than the Great White North. Aronofsky – who directed and co-wrote the $135 million, 138-minute Paramount Pictures adaptation of the Biblical tale of Noah – made the expedition way up yonder with a Hollywood superstar and prominent conservationist.

In this candid conversation conducted by phone shortly after his return to New York City, Aronofsky presents a compelling eye witness account of how the Alberta tar sands extraction impacts the environment and the health of First Nations communities in the region. In his thick Brooklyn accent Aronofsky – who helmed 1998’s Pi, 2000’s Requiem for a Dream, 2008’s The Wrestler, and who earned an Oscar nomination for directing 2010’s Black Swan (for which Natalie Portman scored the Best Actress Academy Award) – also discusses celebrity activism, how he expresses eco-consciousness in his art, kindergarten, caribou, the Keystone Pipeline and more.

Tell me about your trip to Alberta.

The whole idea of the trip started maybe two, three years ago when I was researching Noah. While looking at the story of Noah we realized that in Scripture there was this big environmental message about how man had destroyed the world, and that part of the reason for the destruction of the world was because of not taking care of creation. So when we started researching, we started looking at the modern day and looking for places that were the worst polluted places on the planet. My partner is actually from British Columbia and she started telling me about the tar sands and they became a big influence on the visual look of the prediluvian world.

photo of men standing and talking by the shores of a lakephoto by Nico TaverniseDirector Darren Aronofsky (right) talking with Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan, as Leonardo DiCaprio and Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune watch.

At the same time I’d just met Michael Brune [executive director] at the Sierra Club. I was talking to Michael about possibly shooting out there. We talked about taking a trip up there. It didn’t happen during the making of [Noah]. But we decided to go up there and have a look at what was going on. And I sent an email out to Leo, Leonardo DiCaprio, who was up there, and asked him if he wanted to join the trip because it looked like an exciting trip. And he jumped on. So it was basically the three of us. Michael had a woman named Jody from the Sierra Club and Leo had the head of his foundation, Justin, with him. So all of us went up there to check it out. We just got back [on August 24].

And what did you find?

[Chuckles.] Well, a lot. It’s very, very incredibly complicated and just very eye opening. It’s hard to pinpoint it. I’m still sort of collecting my thoughts. I’ve been trying to write about it and digest it, because so much happened. You know, we did everything. We went on the official Suncor tour – Suncor [Energy, headquartered in Calgary] is the Canadian oil company that’s one of the first companies that was up there working in the tar sands. They took us on a tour; they gave us an aerial tour, then they showed us their facilities. And then they showed us some of their so-called “reclaimed lands.” Then we had a big discussion with them over lunch. That was kind of a big part of the first day we were there.

We got the oil company’s point of view, or at least Suncor’s point of view. It was pretty interesting; I was kind of surprised with their arguments. Because here we are with Michael Brune, the head of the Sierra Club, who definitely is well-versed in the issues. Many of the arguments were just very questionable. Which made me think maybe they didn’t give – they didn’t care about the issues or there really wasn’t an argument to justify what’s going on. There’s lots of questions – the big issue is the amount of expansion that these oil companies want to do up there and what’s sustainable. When you look at what’s going on, even at the level of production they are now, it’s pretty much impossible to say it’s sustainable at the level it is now, at least with any sort of reclamation.

Some of the statistics are just insane. Only 1 percent of the land that’s been disturbed has been reclaimed. Which means, basically, after they pull the oil out of the sand they are by law – I don’t actually know if it’s law, but by some type of agreement they have to put the land back to how it was. Just seeing that process was … They’re cutting down these forests that haven’t been touched since – for a very, very long time, and they’re trying to recreate these ecosystems and it seemed like a big folly.

aerial photo of a former wildland marred by a giant open pit minephoto by Nico Tavernise“Out of Whack”: A tar sands mine eats into the boreal forest.

All the waste product that’s coming out of cleaning the sand to get the oil out – there seems to be very little planning on what to do with it. And also very little ability to do anything about it. It’s just sort of sitting there and a lot of it is very toxic. The other big thing is that there’s very, very little regulation. It felt a lot like the way all the deregulation happened with the financial institutions here on Wall Street. Oh, we can trust them to regulate themselves seemed to be the philosophy up there as it was down here before the big bust.

How long was your trip to Alberta and where did you go?

I was in Alberta for a while. But up to the tar sands we were there for four days. We started off at Fort McMurray and then the second day we went up to Fort Chip, which is what they call Fort Chipewyan. You have to get there by a single prop plane and basically it’s an Indigenous hamlet. I don’t know how many people are there, but not many. It’s on the edge of Lake Athabasca. It’s interesting because two days before that I was up near Jasper, [where the Columbia Ice Field] feeds the Athabasca River, which goes to Fort McMurray, and [past] the tar sands and then eventually pours into Lake Athabasca. It was interesting because, you know, it goes from this pristine glacial runoff to an incredibly polluted lake where all the fish they’re pulling out of the lake have sores, and no one’s eating the fish anymore, no one’s drinking the water. And the health effects of all that on the Indigenous population – everyone’s telling the same story.

And what is the impact on the Native tribes?

We spent a bunch of time with two different – they call them “bands” up there, they don’t call them “tribes” – and it was pretty intense. Everyone’s talking about the health effects, about all the new types of cancers and sicknesses. No one drinks any tap water – even though the oil companies have paid for big water filtration systems. They drink bottled water, which is also brought into a bunch of communities for free. No one’s eating the fish; a lot of people are not eating the traditional foods. Up at Fort Chip we met a couple of hunters who basically talked about how when they open up the birds, and even when they open up some moose, they find all types of ghastly tumors all over their traditional foods.

Presumably this was not the case before the tar sands.

That, of course, is the claim. But the oil companies fall back on scientific data. Of course, there’s very little baseline data, because this has happened so quickly. And that’s the thing – it happened so quickly that some people are calling for it all to stop but many of these communities are asking for it to slow down and not expand so that we can figure out what exactly is going on.

photo of men standing by a moored boat at the edge of a lake and marshland photo by Nico TaverniseDarren Aronofsky, Chief Adam, Leonardo DiCaprio, Michael Brune on the shores of Lake Athabasca.

But you can see so much evidence of industry out of whack and out of control. I kept thinking about kindergarten, where your first lesson, or one of the first things you learn in kindergarten, is to clean up your mess. There’s absolutely no strategy for cleaning up their mess. And there definitely isn’t the technology to clean up their mess – they’re still behind in figuring it out. So a big mess is being created. We’re not just talking the mess of carbon into the air, which is also part of the mess. We’re also talking about just what’s happening to the land. When you see it from the air or even from the ground it’s pretty shocking and pretty clear that it’s going to take a long time to figure out how to make this in any way resemble what was there before all these companies showed up.

During the trip you tweeted, “Woodland caribou doomed.” Why?

The Pembina Institute [a Canadian environmental think tank] was talking about how the woodland caribou – basically all of the land that is their range has been leased to oil companies. Maybe not all of it, but a vast majority of it. They showed us a bunch of slides – and they’re sobering. Because it’s a huge percentage of their land, so it’s illegal to do that, yet it’s not being enforced. That was what was really interesting.

Our perception of Canada is a very, very green place. Yet it doesn’t seem they enforce any of their laws. In fact, there was one study we saw from an academic institute that only 1 percent of environmental violations are actually enforced up there. It seems, in fact, that the government is using a lot of power to figure out any way they can get the oil out of the ground. They’re willing to bend any rule.

How will you use these experiences in your filmmaking?

Well, I think we already used the tar sands in Noah, because part of the story of Noah is that we have a responsibility to creation, and if we aren’t responsible for creation then our worth is questioned. That was the kind of message I found in Genesis and that was the story we expanded out of it. But I think as a filmmaker it’s really important to be connected to as much of what’s going on Planet Earth as possible so the stories can be informed by what people are dealing with around the planet.

You’re working on a project called MaddAddam. Does it have an environmental edge?

Yeah, it’s based on the trilogy by Margaret Atwood, a great Canadian writer who actually has done a lot of environmental work. Definitely in her writing there’s a lot of ideas about mankind and the planet. I’m the executive producer and we’re developing it into a series.

What’s your expertise as somebody who can speak out knowledgeably about tar sands?

Well, I don’t know if I have – there are a lot more people that are more expert than me. I was happy to work with the Sierra Club, which I think is a great organization. It’s a very respected organization and Michael Brune is a great executive director and by bringing Leo and a little bit less myself – I mean a lot less myself – to the tar sands maybe we can draw a little attention to what’s going on there. A lot of people definitely in the States don’t really have a sense of what it is. They’ve heard of the Keystone Pipeline issue, which is connected to transporting the oil created up in Alberta down to Texas, but they really don’t know how that oil is being extracted and what the impacts of it are. Drawing a little attention to it is great.

My background is – I’ve done a lot of environmental work since I was a teenager. I was trained as a field biologist by the School for Field Studies, which is an organization out of Massachusetts that takes students around the planet to sensitive environmental places and trains them in biology and different sciences. I always had that perspective and I’m definitely trying to get more involved now that I have somewhat of a voice.

What do you think President Obama should do about the Keystone Pipeline?

Absolutely, the benefits for the United States and the world are negative. It should be completely struck down.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian and critic and co-author of The Hawai‘i Movie and Television Book.

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