On Jan. 20, 2001, Al Gore left the White House after losing one of the most divisive presidential elections in U.S. history. His future was unclear, but he knew it would include combating climate change.
Gore resurrected a slide show he’d put together while still in the Senate that became the inspiration for An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 film that was named best feature documentary at the 79th Academy Awards. (Gore, now 68, was not an Oscar recipient, but he did win a Nobel Peace Prize the following year.) The $1.1 million picture became one of the most successful documentaries in history, earning nearly $50 million at the global box office.
Today, the former vice president gives talks on the issue three times a week. “I update the slide show nearly every day,” he says. “There are always new images and scientific studies.”
With Inconvenient‘s 10th anniversary looming, Gore joins director Davis Guggenheim, 52; producers Lawrence Bender, 58, Laurie David, 58, and Scott Z. Burns, 53; executive producer Diane Weyermann; and Participant Media founder and chairman Jeff Skoll, 51, in recounting their struggles to make the movie.
GORE I created a slide show on the climate crisis in the late 1980s, and I used three projectors simultaneously. Within a few months [of leaving office], I started giving the show at universities and other gatherings.
DAVID I was working on global warming issues, and when The Day After Tomorrow came out [in 2004], I was asked to moderate a panel discussion at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. Al Gore came onstage and presented five minutes’ worth of slides about global warming, and I was floored. My eyes welled up with tears. It was really clear: We had to make a movie.
GUGGENHEIM Lawrence Bender and Laurie David came in to pitch a movie about climate change, starring Al Gore. And I remember saying to them, “I don’t think this project has the right elements.” A movie about a slide show made no sense to me.
DAVID Then we tried to convince Gore — that was the most challenging part of this whole process.
GORE I had the notion that it would be next to impossible to turn a slide show into a movie.
GUGGENHEIM We all flew to San Francisco to convince him. It was in a conference room at the Ritz-Carlton.
From left: Assistant director Jonathan X, Guggenheim, David and Bender in the editing room.
DAVID We had the presidential room, which was very ironic. Al came in, and we spent an hour and a half convincing him we had to make a movie.
GORE We sat down to have a serious conversation about it, and they persuaded me it was a good idea.
SKOLL I’d launched [Participant] in 2004, and a year later I went to a conference of Nobel laureate scientists in Petra, Jordan. The theme was “the most urgent issues of the world,” and one was the environment. I flew to L.A. and went to see Al’s slide show.
GUGGENHEIM Al gives the slide show, and Jeff said: “I’ll give you the money right now. I’ll write a check today. I want you to start tomorrow.” I’ve never had that happen before or since.
SKOLL Davis, who was running the documentary program at Participant, agreed to leave and go direct the film.
GUGGENHEIM I’d been at Participant for about five months [as an executive]. By all accounts, including my own, I was the worst executive in its history. Sundance was five and a half months away. We filmed [Gore] constantly from the moment Jeff gave us the money. We shot inserts until the day we locked picture. None of us had personal lives at that point.
SKOLL We started following Al around. There was one time when we had a plane waiting to take us from Utah to Minneapolis [that] was sitting in a farmer’s field with its lights on, and it was dusk. We got into the plane, and it was filled with mosquitoes. So we had a very interesting ride, smacking mosquitoes. I saw one on Al’s leg and, without thinking, I just slapped it and he gave me quite a look. I realized that I didn’t know Al as well as I thought.
GUGGENHEIM The night before the first day of shooting, we landed in Nashville and Al called and said, “Would you come to dinner to our house?” And I said, “Oh, I would love to, but I’m with my crew, six or seven people [including co-producer Lesley Chilcott]. He said, “Bring them.” He and Tipper had a classic Southern house. And we sat at a table and Tipper and Al cooked a homemade meal.
The producers rented a soundstage in Hollywood and brought in an audience to tape Gore’s presentation, which was recorded three times over two days.
BENDER We had a moving camera and shot it with three cameras and then a big crane camera.
GUGGENHEIM We made the screen 90 feet wide. The big reveal in the movie is when you see the CO2 rise and rise. It just goes off the chart. So we built a secret screen above our 90-foot screen, and we said, “How do we get Gore up there?” The only way to do that was to get a scissor lift. So the scissor lift arrives, and Al gets in, and we teach him how to go up, and the scissor lift rose to the top and the audience gasped. And then he pushes the stick — and it won’t go down. Al is 50 feet up in the air. And what we realized was we had taught him to go up but hadn’t taught him to go down.
From left: Burns, David, Gore, Guggenheim, Bender and Chilcott at the 2007 Oscars.
SKOLL [As Gore traveled around the country doing talks] there was one presentation that was canceled. A storm was rolling in, and the city was New Orleans and the storm was Katrina.
GORE All 50 of the state insurance commissioners were meeting in New Orleans and had invited me to make a presentation on the linkage between hurricanes and the climate crisis. It was scheduled for the very day that Hurricane Katrina ended up slamming into New Orleans.
GUGGENHEIM We canceled our trip, and we were in L.A. watching Hurricane Katrina happen, watching the levees break and this massive natural disaster. It became the backdrop to our movie.
As the editing got underway, Gore had to be persuaded to lose some of the slides in his presentation and reveal more personal things about himself.
WEYERMANN I had to say to Al, “You know we’re going to have to cut a bunch of the slide show.” He was initially like, “Well, why?”
BURNS Al was very protective of the continuity of the slide show. But it was two hours long. How do we compress that and leave room for these interstitials that give it an emotional soul?
GUGGENHEIM I think he understood the logic of personalizing it, but he was reluctant to do it. It was probably a punishing process to talk about his personal life. Imagine being in Washington and having every word, every sentence that you say, criticized over a long period of time.
Gore and Guggenheim initially doubted the slide show would make a compelling film.
The film still had no title.
WEYERMANN We for the longest time just called it The Untitled Climate Change Documentary or The Al Gore Documentary.
SKOLL We were bouncing ideas back and forth for what the film might be called. Al had a book out called Earth in the Balance and thought, “What about Earth in the Balance?” Diane came up with An Inconvenient Truth, and when we had that, it was, “Yes! This is it.”
The film was ready just before Sundance.
GUGGENHEIM One of the key players in all this, who shall remain nameless, asked to see the movie. And so I said, “Come to the editing room,” and we watched it together. And when the lights came up, this person said, “It’s a feathered fish.” I hadn’t heard that expression before. I said, “What’s a feathered fish?” He goes, “It doesn’t swim, and it doesn’t fly.” I was heartbroken.
SKOLL We did a screening with the head of a studio and the executives, maybe a week before Sundance. Pretty much when the film started, everyone in the room fell asleep and woke up when the film ended. Afterward, the studio head said, “Jeff, I know you haven’t been in this business very long, but nobody is going to leave the house and get a baby sitter and go to the theater and buy tickets to see this movie.”
GUGGENHEIM We went into the theater, and it was packed. And at the end of the movie, the response was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Like, three standing ovations. Al was just swarmed. And very soon after that, calls came in, making offers for the film.
BENDER [After Paramount bought the picture], Tom Freston [then CEO of Paramount parent Viacom] sat down and watched the movie and wrote an email to everybody in the Viacom family — magazines, network, production, everybody: “This is a really important movie to this company. We would like you to do whatever you can to promote it.” Then we raised a few hundred thousand dollars, got buses and took kids from the city to the theaters. We were doing everything possible to promote it. We did everything conventional and nonconventional, so by the time the movie opened on four screens, we broke every record.
Gore and Guggenheim at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival.
The movie played at Cannes in 2006 and in February 2007 was Oscar-nominated as best documentary feature.
GUGGENHEIM [The day of the Oscars] we met at the Four Seasons. Al’s family was there, all the producers. We were all dressed up, and we had a champagne toast together outside on the balcony.
GORE I never had [been to the Oscars]. I had, of course, watched them on TV. I was sitting next to Davis, the producers and Jeff. We had a row of seats that were pretty good, probably 20 rows back.
GUGGENHEIM Being nominated is like being a contestant on a reality show, because it’s a whole night where you’re waiting to see if you’re going to win or lose and you’re sitting next to the people you’re up against. And these are people I loved. And I remember Jerry Seinfeld stepping forward and saying, “The award for best feature documentary …” Then it’s a blur.
GORE Most people think I will give the shorthand description that has me ending up with [the Oscar]. But the Oscar goes to Davis. I like to joke that I have visiting rights.
DAVIS The most important thing that happened out of this was that every morning show, every local paper, every national paper, every magazine covered this story [and] wrote about the film [and] global warming. I can tell you that not a day goes by where I don’t hear or meet somebody who says it changed their life.
GORE I wish the film had over-estimated the seriousness of the crisis, but unfortunately it actually underestimated how serious it is. But on the positive side, solutions are now being developed so quickly that there is real cause for hope and optimism.
This story first appeared in the May 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.