'I Am Greta' Director Nathan Grossman on Greta Thunberg's Extraordinary Year

I Am Greta with inset of director Nathan Grossman
Courtesy of Tiff; ALBERTO PIZZOLI/AFP via Getty Images

The documentary follows the teenage climate change activist from her school strikes in Sweden to being named Time's Person of the Year in 2019.

Nathan Grossman had no idea what he was in for.

Back in August 2018, the Swedish documentarian heard from a friend about a teenager who had decided to stage a protest — a "school strike" — in front of the Swedish Parliament, demanding action on climate change.

"I thought it would be a three-week shoot," he recalls, "that this teenage girl, this Greta Thunberg, would be a story of a few minutes in a short, arty film about child activists."

The job turned into a full year of shooting, with Grossman struggling to keep up with Greta, as this shy, 15-year-old student with Asperger's became the global face of the climate change movement. Grossman's documentary, I Am Greta, is with her every step of the way, from that first day on the parliament steps with her homemade sign — Skolstrejk för klimatet (school strike for climate) — to her meetings with world leaders, addressing the U.N., and becoming, in 2019, Time magazine's Person of the Year.

Along the way, Grossman also depicts a rarely-seen side of the activist, how the teenage girl from Sweden deals with the stress of nonstop travel, constant public scrutiny, and the growing online vitriol of right-wing pundits. 

Grossman spoke to The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the film's world premiere at the Venice Film Festival on Sept. 4, about his amazing year with Greta, what the press has gotten wrong about the teen activist and why he thinks, despite it knocking climate change off the media agenda, the coronavirus pandemic could revitalize the environmentalist movement.

How did you first come in contact with Greta Thunberg? 

I have a friend who's a screenwriter, and he wrote to me that he knew about this school kid interested in climate change, this Greta Thunberg, who was going to stage a school strike in front of the Parliament buildings in Stockholm. It seemed interesting. I'm an environmentalist filmmaker, and I was interested in how children were reacting to the issue. On that first August morning when we started filming, I connected very quickly with Greta. We had the same take on the issues, and I was very impressed, from the beginning, by how very straightforward she was, how she was able to directly formulate and express the problems.

Did you have any idea that little school protest would turn into a global movement? 

Never. I thought it would be a three-week shoot. And that this teenage girl, this Greta Thunberg, would be a story of a few minutes in a short, arty film about child activists. She'd be one of many characters, many different child activists. If you look at the beginning of the film, you can see how we shot it, using tripods, very artsy-style, lots of headroom, static framing. Then suddenly things took off and we were in a meeting with Greta and Emmanuel Macron. 

How did your perspective on Greta change during the course of the shooting?

When I first started shooting, she was very shy — it's hard to express because a lot of how she is comes from her diagnosis, from Asperger's. She is very specific about what she wants to talk about and what she doesn't want to talk about. Initially, our conversations were very focused on environmental issues, the topics we had in common. The rest she didn't want to discuss. But as we started to get to know each other — and she got older too — she started to open up. I think you can see that in the film. 

How do you think she changed in the course of that incredible year? 

I don't think she changed her ideals. She still remains true to her ideas and her cause. But from very early on I wanted to get into her inner monolog, to understand how she sees the world. That's the perspective film has, and that perspective changes as she changes. The year wasn't just about positive hype. It was a very tough year, very heavy and very frustrating for Greta. We see how the world may be ready to hear her message but it is not ready to act on her message. It shows the frustration and pain that has been part of this year for her.

What do you think the media has gotten wrong about Greta Thunberg?

I think maybe you have gotten wrong how she's not in this for the fame, she was never in this to become Time Person of the Year. She's deeply worried about this issue of climate change. I think the media had trouble framing this kind of obsessive activism. It was hard to explain to readers sometimes. That's where I think film is better, because it gives so many dimensions. 

Once when we were shooting I asked Greta if there was anything she was worried about regarding the film, and she said "I'm a bit worried that I won't recognize myself in it." She felt sometimes she didn't recognize herself in the stories about her, that showed her as a one-dimensional icon. So I was so happy when I showed her the movie, and she said she recognized herself, that she recognized that year in her life. 

We get a glimpse of her family life in your movie, in particular her relationship with her father, which I found very touching. 

Her family's support has always been very important to her. Greta has always been very open and frank about the fact that she comes from a privileged family and that, of course, it is much easier if you come from that background to be able to make the sacrifices she talks about. But I think it's been important too, it has meant she has not been funded by anyone, she paid her own train tickets, paid her own way. On the other hand, this conspiracy theory that it's her family that's been orchestrating her, telling her what to do, the film shows how ridiculous this is. I didn't intend this at the start, but her father is almost a figure of comic relief in the film. I shot this movie from Greta's perspective — I didn't do any interviews with her father, and he doesn't get a voice-over — and from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl, your father can be a bit of a joke. But I hope that's one part of the movie that everyone can recognize in themselves: that relationship of being a teen and having a father, of wanting to do your own thing but still needing your parents.

The coronavirus pandemic has pushed the issue of climate change off the public agenda. Do you fear this film is coming out too late? 

Actually, I think the experience of this pandemic could help the climate change movement. Greta is taking the pandemic seriously. She listens to the scientists and knows we need to have medical expertise to fight this pandemic. But for a lot of people in the climate movement, the reaction to this crisis, where suddenly billions in funding came from everywhere, compared to the climate issue [which has been] been on the agenda for 40-50 years and the answer was always: "we don't have the funds – let's take another meeting," it just seems hypocritical. I think people will remember this. There will be a day when this pandemic will be over and our response will show the young people that the world had the ability to act. That when we wanted to, we had the billions to spend. And if we want to, we can spend them now on the climate. 

The film ends on a bittersweet note. Greta helped spark this movement, but we are still a long way from her goal. 

Whenever you see progress, it is bittersweet. You are happy you have come this far but there's this bitterness about how much further you need to go. The end of the movie shows that doubleness as well. What Greta has created is, in itself, not enough. It's not enough to have people marching in the streets. I think she feels she has made an impact but, not just for her but for the entire young generation, that is not enough. Every month, every year that passes without radical change, it gets worse. There is more CO2 in the air, it becomes harder for us to change course. 

What do you hope audiences take from I Am Greta?

My main goal of the movie is to get people to see the world from the perspective of Greta Thunberg. She's maybe 4 feet, 11 inches tall. I'm closer to 6 foot 3. But I scrunched down to get that perspective, to shoot the world the way she sees it. I hope people come away from the film with a deeper understanding of her as a person. And that it maybe will say to people who are a little bit different, that we need you guys, not just to speak out on climate change but on all of the aspects of this hypocritical world. If Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was Climate Change 1.0, just getting people to realize that climate change exists, maybe this movie can be Climate Change 2.0., the one to get people to start taking action. We have to start listening to this little girl, Greta. And we should be as scared as she is.

I Am Greta premieres in the U.S. on Hulu on Nov. 13.