“Racing Extinction” Producers Olivia Ahnemann and Fisher Stevens On Their Emmy Nominated Work
A still from Discovery Channel’s Emmy nominated “Racing Extinction.”
Olivia Ahnemann and Fisher Stevens are producers with a strong pedigree. They were both involved with the production of the groundbreaking documentary “The Cove” – a film that used sophisticated production equipment to expose the cruel torture and murder of dolphins in an isolated coastal region of Japan. While they have both been involved with numerous documentary and film projects, last year they mutually produced Discovery Channel’s powerful “Racing Extinction” – a special progam chronicling the mass extinction of species and the work being done to save these precious species. Now celebrating their first Emmy nomination for the inclusion of “Racing Extinction” in the Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking category, Variety 411 asked Ahnemann and Stevens to describe their experiences.
What follows are their descriptions, in their own words.
Variety 411: It seems silly to me to ask the question “why the topic” – however what about “Racing Extinction” inspired you to produce such a massive and important program?
Olivia Ahnemann: Having the opportunity to emotionally connect an audience to the reality of mass species extinction was really motivating. I think many people consider an issue like extinction as something that happened thousands and thousands of years ago or is a problem for the distant future, but to be able to show that it is happening now is very powerful.
Fisher Stevens: “Racing Extinction” is about what I consider to be the most important topic that we face today, the 6th extinction. How man is quickly changing the chemistry of the Earth. I feel it is the most important issue facing mankind, climate change. So when the opportunity came up to work with Louie again on this issue, I had no choice but to say ‘Of course.’
411: Obtaining permissions and rights to shoot in some of the locations you were in seems like a daunting task. How, as producers, were you able to manage to accomplished securing these permissions?
OA: There were definitely some hurdles to get over before filming in some locations but we kept chipping away it. We were introduced to wonderful, conservation minded people who believed in the film’s message who helped us navigate and gain permission to certain locales and we worked closely with locals who connected us in different places.
FS: This was something that I fortunately did not have to personally deal with except for the UN and the Empire State building. The UN were incredibly supportive in letting us film on their building. Climate change is on the forefront of the Secretary General’s agenda so they were very open to us filming; the Empire State Building was another story–it took Louie’s incredible tenacity and us pushing over a year to make that happen.
411: Discuss how you found the crew and collaborators you worked with. Did you have particular people in mind? Did you review a lot of different work before reaching out to selected individuals?
OA: We were very fortunate to work with several colleagues from “The Cove” who shared their talents with us again on this film. We also worked with many people we hadn’t worked with on previous projects and found them through mutual friends and colleagues or they found us serendipitously. Like most producers at the beginning of and during a project, you are constantly reviewing work and getting inspired by what others have accomplished and considering how their talents could serve our film.
FS: Many of the collaborators were people that worked on “The Cove” with us; Geoff Richman the editor, Mark Monroe, the writer. Olivia and I. It was great to have the team back together. In terms of the characters in the film, many of them have either known or worked with Louie before, and others we found through extensive research.
411: Where there specific shooting styles and methods of capturing images that you were looking for when you started the project? Where there visual elements that vastly transformed from the early concepts to the final production?
OA: The film’s director, Louie Psihoyos, had very specific ideas about the imagery throughout the film. For instance, with the FLIR infrared camera, he wanted the audience to see the unseen – to clearly show the invisible carbon dioxide and methane that is emitted all around us, all the time. The architectural projections on the UN and Empire State Building were born out of an early idea of doing banner drops on large buildings but it quickly became clear that the projections where the best way to bring the natural world into an urban landscape.
FS: Because Louie was a photographer and because part of theme of the film is to project endangered species onto buildings and ultimately into the minds of the viewers, it was very important to shoot the movie a certain way and have a certain look.
411: Was it challenging to find professionals who were able to share their expertise and scientific knowledge? Were there people you had to convince or chase after to secure their involvement?
OA: We did a lot of research to identify various experts and everyone was very willing to participate.
FS: Some of the shooting was quite challenging. At times, especially Louie, Paul and Shawn’s lives may have been in danger, but because of their passion for this subject, they never wavered on the assignments. It was also dicey at times to be in Indonesia with the manta hunters. One never knew when they could turn on you, but fortunately they turned out to be very nice and cooperative in the end.
411: What were some of the things you learned through the process of doing this show, as producers, that you can take moving forward with you?
OA: Tenacity pays off and don’t take “no” for an answer. And, on a documentary like this, it all boils down to a tremendous team effort. We couldn’t have accomplished what we did without every single person who was involved.
FS: I learned that even after people say no you can’t give up and keep fighting for a location or for a character. I learned that perseverance and an incredible work ethic are extremely necessary especially when dealing with such a dense subject matter. Also having numerous screenings helped with this film in particular.
411: What are some of the ways you hope “Racing Extension” will be used now that the show has aired – do you have an ongoing commitment to education, perhaps even a vision towards revisiting the series a year or two down the line?
OA: We partnered with Vulcan Productions to create an amazing impact, outreach and education campaign, which is still in full swing and continues to grow. The worldwide premiere on Discovery in 220 territories was a great launch into the global conversation. By April 2016 (only four months after airing on Discovery) over 44,000 lesson plans had be downloaded reaching an estimated 2.2 million students! And we have had over 280 community and education screening requests this year that are being fulfilled. Racingextinction.com
FS: Racing Extinction will hopefully continue to play in schools and inspire young people to understand we can do things to have an effect on extinction and climate. It’s already inspired me to make another film on climate change, which I am just currently completing. Also the “Start with 1 thing” website has continued to live on and educate people in its own way.
411: While a project such as this one is never done with the intention of award recognition, tell me what it felt like to get that call regarding your nomination.
OA: It felt great getting nominated for an Emmy! I’m thrilled for the team, the film, and the animals we all need to work to protect.
FS: I was very honored to get nominated for this film. It’s always nice to be recognized by your peers. And hopefully it will raise some more awareness and have people see the film who haven’t already.
411: What projects are you currently working on?
OA: I’m currently producing a climate related feature doc we aim to complete late next year.
FS: Just produced a film called “Sky Ladder: The Art of Cai Guo-Qiang” that was in Sundance this past year and will be on Netflix in October; I co-directed and co-produced a film for HBO called “Bright Lights” starring Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. And I’m just now finishing a climate change documentary that I am directing starring and produced by Leonardo DiCaprio.