It's Easy Being Green

Scott Macaulay visits the set of Sam Mendes' upcoming movie for Focus Features, the first environmentally friendly studio movie.

Film shoots leave a lot in their wake. Feelings of accomplishment, relief, and nervousness about post-production are all common. But there’s something else that’s not remarked upon as much, and that’s a ravaged surrounding environment. Diesel generators powered all day to provide electricity, a veritable army of craftsmen and technicians guzzling from small, throwaway plastic water bottles, and huge amounts of leftover waste in everything from paper and construction materials to chemically-produced film stock – these are just a few of the things that make feature filmmaking a particularly egregious environmental offender. Comments executive producer Mari-Jo Winkler, “We are probably one of the most wasteful businesses – we set things up and then break them down and throw them away. But due to our current climate crisis, it is a necessity now more than ever for the film industry to change the way we work by keeping the environment in mind.”

If Winkler’s wishes are realized, the film industry will soon shift to a more environmentally aware, less wasteful production model. She has just finished production on Sam Mendes's latest (currently untitled) feature, a comedy about a couple traveling the country to find the best place to raise the baby they are expecting, and due to her efforts the Focus Features film is the first studio production to adopt green filmmaking initiatives that, she hopes, will form the basis for a set of best practices adopted by the rest of the industry. Winkler, who has been honored by the Environmental Media Association for her work greening film sets , and whose credits include Dan in Real Life, Shall We Dance, and In Her Shoes, says she was inspired to turn movie sets green when she attended a lecture by Dick Roy, founder of the Northwest Earth Institute. “He talked about voluntary simplicity and how to create a sustainable lifestyle,” she recalls. “I was doing a lot of [environmentally-conscious] things in my own life, and I thought, I need to bring this to my work. So, I started going through every line of the budget of the film I was working while saying to myself, how can I bring some of these ideas to a film set?”

To begin her efforts, Winkler said, “I started with garbage. I began an aggressive recycling program and took it from the production office to the construction department to the set. This was before An Inconvenient Truth had come out, and I was getting good responses from crews. People started coming up with their own ideas of how [to conserve and recycle], and with each movie I would bring a little bit more to the table.”

Then Winkler was introduced by producer Lydia Dean Pilcher to Earthmark/Green Media Solutions, a consulting group that works with film and TV production companies to reduce their carbon footprint and the overall environmental impacts of their productions. Earthmark/Greenmedia Solutions approached me about using my next film as a pilot program, that would help to refine a process for the greening of film productions. They wanted to collect data and try to figure out what the carbon footprint for a film would be, from the time you open an office to the time you wrap the movie.”

Although the popular image of the film industry is of politically concerned, Prius-driving types, turning a film set green wasn’t necessarily the easiest task to envision. Crews are used to working in traditional ways that are the result of practices handed down from one generation to another. And executives are often concerned with bottom-line costs before environmental impact. Fortunately, says Winkler, “I had willing partners in [director] Sam Mendes and [producer] Ed Saxon.” So, when Mendes’ movie was greenlit by Focus, Winkler approached executive vice president of physical production Jane Evans with the Earthmark/Green Media Solutions proposal. Recalls Evans, “I was thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in the Earthmark/Green Media Solutions pilot program. I was only concerned about whether the crew would cooperate or not. Old habits die hard.”

As the first step in building a green set involved consciousness raising, Earthmark/Green Media Solutions presented what Winkler calls a “mini-An Inconvenient Truth-style talk to the production’s department heads, explaining why it’s important to bring environmental practices to what we do.” Next, Earthmark/Green Media Solutions met with each department head to review their current practices to determine the opportunities that could create a more sustainable set. With the support of Earthmark/Green Media Solutions and Focus and the backing of her engaged crew, Winkler was then able to expand upon her past work by extending environmentally friendly practices to almost every aspect of the filmmaking. The construction department was encouraged to purchase low-toxicity paints. Individually marked recycling receptacles were placed throughout the set each day so crew could recycle paper, bottles and cans. Garbage was reduced by half. The caterers used ceramic and washed dishes as opposed to throwaway products. Winkler proudly boasts, “we had little or no plastic water bottles on set,” and, instead, crew drank from reusable Sigg containers donated by Earthmark/Green Media Solutions. Locally grown and organic foods were incorporated into much of the catering, and craft services steered away from packaged processed food in favor of fruits, nuts, sandwiches and juices. Seventh Generation, a leading brand of green cleaners and recycled paper products, donated their goods in exchange for promotional product placement. A company was contracted to recycle sorted materials and to transport the production’s compostable waste to community gardens and other recipients. And when it came to pest control in the hot summer months of Connecticut, the production considered the environmental effects of commonly used pesticides. Comments location manager Tyson Bidner about the bug issue, “You have to think to yourself, how do we approach this in a green way? So, you talk to the locals and sort of go outside the box. Instead of hiring a company that’s just going to zap them, someone mentions using garlic, so you try it and it works.”

The movie’s green agenda included larger initiatives as well. “One of the biggest challenges was getting David Haddad [one of the Northeast’s largest renters of motion picture trucks, star trailers and honeywagons] to consider letting us put biodiesel fuel into his vehicles,” says Winkler. “He had concerns about putting it in some of his engines due to their age.” With Earthmark/Green Media Solutions’s help, Winkler was able to contact the engine manufacturers to get a sign-off on the safety of using B5 biodiesel in Haddad’s trucks. Tri-State Biodiesel, which reclaims used cooking oil daily from over 2,000 different New York City restaurants and then blends it with diesel, provided the production’s biodiesel. Finally, the production shot three-perf film stock, “which uses 25% less waste and chemicals,” according to Winkler.

Earthmark/Green Media Solutions helped in two other very significant ways, noted Winkler. First, the organization was a constant resource for a film production company trying to adopt practices that were both environmentally as well as politically aware. During the pre-production, for example, there began the debate over whether alternative fuels are impacting commodity prices and leading to hunger and starvation in developing countries. “I picked up the phone and called Earthmark/Green Media Solutions,” says Winkler, “and said, ‘Please tell me biodiesel from reclaimed fry grease is okay.’ And they immediately said that as long as it was reclaimed, it was.”

Ultimately, Winkler says, the work done by her and her colleagues at Focus and on Mendes’ film will add to the knowledge base necessary to develop green standards for film production. . For now, though, the positive vibes created by this green experiment have provided their own reward. “It’s been fun to have been part of this,” says Winkler. “Just getting into the consciousness of the crew is exciting. They see what’s going on on the set, and they bring it home to their own lives. I also hope people will take it with them to their next jobs and talk to management [about instituting similar practices].”

Says Evans, “I’m grateful to Mari-Jo for being such a wonderful role model. She inspired everyone to do the right thing.” And will Focus follow Winkler’s lead by initiating other green sets in the future? “Yes,” says Evans. “There’s no turning back. Don’t look for a plastic water bottle on any of our sets!”