This Changes Everything may be the only film on which Alfonso Cuarón shares a producer credit with Seth Macfarlane. The documentary, directed by Avi Lewis and based on the best-selling 2014 book by Naomi Klein, has nine people credited as executive producers, but Cuarón and Macfarlane’s names stand out, as much for their unlikeliness as anything else. “These are Naomi’s fans,” says Lewis.
More than just admirers, though, Cuarón, the acclaimed Mexican director of Gravity and Children of Men, and Macfarlane, the impish creator of the animated Fox TV series Family Guy, were instrumental in helping to wrangle Klein’s massive, 600-page polemic about the impact of unfettered capitalism on global climate change into a streamlined, 89-minute motion picture. Macfarlane helped by providing an animator for a key sequence in the movie, and by convincing Comedy Central to allow the filmmakers to use a brief but uproariously funny clip from The Colbert Report.
And Cuarón provided a piece of advice that proved invaluable in structuring the film: “You need a clothesline,” Klein recalls the filmmaker saying, “and everything has to hang on it.”
Klein’s book, which won the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction, is a daunting edifice: a mass of facts and arguments surrounding the science, politics, and economics of climate change. The film, by contrast, provides a clear through-line featuring several groups of people around the world – from indigenous communities in Canada to grassroots activists in Germany and India and China – who are working to counter one of the globe’s most pressing existential issues.
“It’s one big idea,” says Klein about the hook for the film. “It’s not like, well, where’s the section on privatization and where’s the section on free-trade deals? This is not a film for undergraduates who are hoping to fake their way through a test on [the book]. That won’t work. They will fail.”
The fact that the two works feel so different – in addition to its compactness, the documentary takes a much more upbeat tone, adopting the optimism in the book’s second half as its driving principle – is perhaps a function of the way they were created. Klein and Lewis, who are married, decided early on to develop their projects simultaneously, which absolved Lewis of having to whittle down a gargantuan book that already existed.
“That was the key to our approach,” says Lewis. “There was no 600-page book. When I was shooting there were early drafts of early chapters, and the book changed tremendously in the writing. Naomi said that most of the final book was written in the last six months to a year, when most of the film had already been shot.”
“The more we let go of the idea that it was a movie of the book,” Klein says, “the better it worked. The first cut of the film was trying to cram way too much in.”
This approach was, at least in part, a reaction to the experience Klein had with the film adaptation of her previous work, 2007’s The Shock Doctrine. Optioned by director Michael Winterbottom, the film appeared in 2009, and highlighted what for Klein is an “inherent flaw” in the way non-fiction books are adapted for the screen. “It creates a situation where you’re basically faking it,” she says. “You’re going back to places you’ve already been and you’re pretending to discover things you’ve already discovered. And also, just on a really practical level, I’m somebody who takes five years to write a book, so the last thing I want to do when I’m done is do it all again.”