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Drones, Getaway Cars, and Saving the Planet: Louie Psihoyos Is the Real Life Steve Zissou

Yeah, we're about I'd say, 60% done with the new movie. You do your best to try to budget a documentary. But you zig and zag so much because, if you're doing a good job, you're not on script – (laughs) there really is no script.
September 19, 2012, 3:00pm

Standing in contrast to documentaries like Planet Earth, whose beautiful shots inspire plenty of oohs and ahhs but not much else, Louie Psihoyos’ new film The Heist is an environmental film designed to inspire action. But that’s not to say that The Heist, like The Cove before it, won’t look stellar. Psihoyos has serious artistic chops; his passion for photography at a young age caught the attention of the National Geographic, and the magazine sent him around the world for 17 years.


In the early nineties, Louie travelled the all over to document paleontologists for his book on dinosaur bones, toting with him the skull of Edward Drinker Cope as inspiration. He’s also been named by Fortune to be one of the top ten photographers in the world.

When I first encountered The Cove, I was truly struck by the audacity of it (enough so, that I made some fan art). With The Heist, Psihoyos’ ambitions have escalated, his subject has opened up, and he’s taking consultation left and right from greeny showbiz vets. So needless to say, I was pretty stoked to get on the line with him and chat about the upcoming film, mercury-soaked fish, the stunning rate of global extinctions, and just how one makes plankton cute and cuddly.

Hi Louie, I wanted to check in and see what you’re up to with this film.

Yeah, we’re about 60% done with the new movie. You do your best to try to budget a documentary, but you zig and zag so much because — if you’re doing a good job, you’re not on script – (laughs) there really is no script. We just came up with this, we thought it was a really good idea for the ending of the movie. It’s a pretty audacious plan. I don’t want to reveal too much, but it’s the kind of thing that I think – ya know – it’s gonna get a billion hits when we pull it off. We want it to be sort of more dramatic than the last film. Not in sort of the dark way that The Cove had that one scene of the bloody cove, but… hmm — The movie is about massive extinction of species caused by mankind. There have been five mass extinctions in the history of the planet. I’ve done four stories on the Mesozoic, the mid-life of the planet, for National Geographic. My friends who are paleontologists tell me that we’re going through a mass extinction right now, and I think it’s the biggest story that there is.


We’re very species-centric, mankind. You look in the newspaper — everything is about humans and the problems of humans. And they’re really kind of minor, in comparison to a species that has been on the planet for 20 million years, blinking out because of what mankind does. But that’s been happening all over the planet with all kinds of species. There are about 80 species of dolphins and whales. The Baiji river dolphin went extinct about ten years ago. We’re down to about two or three hundred Vaquita dolphins in northern Mexico, the Gulf of Baja. To me, it’s the biggest story that there is out there, because once you lose a species you can’t get them back.

Species are always coming and going but we’re losing them at about a thousand times faster than the background rate right now; and it seems to be accelerating. So, how do you make that an interesting subject? How do you make that a movie that people want to go to? That’s kind of our job while we’re trying to make it. We’re very sensitive that you’ve gotta make this film entertaining otherwise I wouldn’t go to it. And so we’ve thought of something that’s just going to be really just bold and audacious. Something that people kind of expect from us, and we expect from ourselves. So we just want to do something that is going to be outrageously cool, and it’ll connect people dramatically to the subject.

Can you tell me anything about characters? Do you have a central, Ric O’Barry type of guy? Or is this more of a chorus or team?


I really do kind of. I realize that a kind of conceit has got me reffering to it as kind of an Ocean’s Eleven team. I was at the Academy Awards and George Clooney came up to me and said, ‘Great film,’ about The Cove, and I said, ‘Well, actually we kind of based it on your film, _Ocean’s Eleven_,’ and he goes, ‘Oh, it’s better than that,’ and I say, ‘Why is that?’ And he says, ‘Well, because it’s real.’ I love the idea of a team coming together with a special set of skills that are very unique and you adapt them to work out together a big problem. So we’re working with Leilani Münter, she goes by the moniker Carbon Free Girl. She’s a Nascar racer, she did a Cove car at Daytona back this winter. She’s going to be our getaway driver. I love the idea of a female getaway driver that’s so connected to the environment like her. Charles Hamilton is back, he was our director of covert operations for The Cove. We have Heather Rally, who works undercover. She helped us bust The Hump restaurant. I don’t know if you remember that, but there’s a sushi restaurant in Santa Monica; a trendy restaurant that was serving whale meat. We worked with federal officials to bust them and she’s been working undercover with us.

Is Ric involved in this at all?

We’re talking, he expressed a real enthusiasm in trying to do it. I love the idea of reprising Ric, too. He’s really busy right now, but we’re trying to figure out a way to leave him in. And I think we can do it. But it can’t be forced, its got to be organic… I love the idea of the 1%r’s and the 99%r’s getting together to solve a really huge issue. Chris Clarke, he worked at the Cornell Bio-aucoustical laboratory, he’s the director there. It has the biggest repository of animal songs on the planet. He’s sort of our inspiration for this because, he’s kind of our way in


Is this The Singing Planet?

That was the working title, we’re not using that anymore. According to Chris, "The whole world has been singing, we just haven’t been listening." Everything from insects to blue whales has a song; songs are not unique to human beings. The animal kingdom has songs that are certainly as complex as humans if not more, and much longer. I think that’s our way in to the subject that we’re losing the chorus; nature’s chorus.

“They’ve adapted so in the deep ocean channel … they can literally hear another whale on the other side of the planet.”


I remember something about a mouse or a bird having a similar song to a blue whale depending on whether or not you sped it up or slowed it down. Is that sort of thing going to be in there?

Right. What’s cool about a blue whale – although there are so many things that are cool about it. We were just filming them last week off the Dana Point Coast in California. They have the loudest song in the animal kingdom, it’s like 240 decibels, but most of it you can’t hear. It’s below our threshold for hearing. You can feel it if you’re in the water, but you can’t hear it. They’ve adapted so in the deep ocean channel — down in the Southern Ocean so that it’s not obstructed by land — they can literally hear another whale on the other side of the planet. They’ve evolved so their songs go as long as the oceans are. It’s pretty astounding. They probably have a loud song so they can communicate over large distances, because they’re not gregarious by nature; they’re very solitary creatures. It’s called reciprocal altruism. They need to rely on each other for their existances. Krill blooms happen in different places in the Southern Ocean all the time, so when they find it, they basically sing, and the other ones know where it’s at; they’ll go and get together for a feeding frenzy. That’s how they live. But a blue whale’s note — even if you could hear it — you wouldn’t recognize it as a note because the notes are 60-90 seconds long. And then, when you do speed it up, it sounds a lot like bird song.


To me it’s a way in. James Cameron told me, "You have to find a ‘way in’ to this subject that hits people emotionally." And I think that part of it, it’s through the songs, and we have to build compassion for these other creatures. You always think that the big things in the oceans, like whales, sharks and dolphins are important because they’re big, but they’re really not. In the African plateaus, you think of the biomass as the big things like elephants and tigers and lions, but they only make up about 5%. What’s important are the small things. When the small things start to go, the big things start to go. That’s when you have to worry. And of course, we’re losing grasslands and the oceans and the seas, plankton. There’s been an estimate that we’ve lost something like 30 or 40% of the plankton in the ocean since the industrial age. We’re losing about 1% a year right now. Plankton is not just the basis of the food chain, it’s responsible for two out of the every three breaths you take. So that’s why you should care.

Yeah, people care so much about the ‘Halo Species.’ I guess the thinking is that it’s a lot easier to use images of polar bears and worry about cute animals, lions and tigers. But I guess your film is more curious about the massive amount of insects and plant species that are going extinct as we speak. How are we able to get emotional about those?

Yeah, emotional about plankton, that’s a good one. But the plankton, when you look at it, is really cool. You’re probably not going to make too many stuffed animals out of it, but the world’s fastest animal by size is a copepod, a kind of plankton. When you start getting into it, they look very psychedelic and beautiful and interesting. But, they’re not cuddly, you’re not going to take plankton home.


We should be caring about it, but we’re acidifying the ocean. We shot a story up in the northwest of the United States, up in Washington State. They haven’t been able to grow oyster larvae in the wild in the last seven years because it’s too acidic. And ok, so you don’t eat oysters maybe. You think, "big deal," but it’s ruining coral reefs. One of the interesting things is that preceding the five major extinctions in the Earth’s history, going back through the Ordovician the Devonian, the great die-off, the Permian and the K/T extinction that killed the dinosaurs — preceding the extinctions the oceans became acidic. This happened through the buildup of methane or carbon dioxide, and then the reefs disappeared. And when they do disappear, they don’t come back the same; it’s not like some little remnants of them survive; they disappear completely. After one to seven million years, they start to come back. If you look at the ramifications for that, there’s a billion people that rely on the coral reefs for food and recreation and to make a living.

When you think of the short-term greed by oil gas and coal companies, and the long term economic and environmental damages, it’s just unconscionable. There’s a billion people every generation. It’s not just like, "Oops, we messed up – ya know – wait 40 years and we’ll get the reefs back." When they’re gone, they’re gone for good. Extinction is forever. That’s why I think this is the most important story at humanity’s stake. And to me, what is appalling is that we’re the one generation that can fix it. If you’re my age and you start to have kids that are about to have grandkids – for my grandkids, it’ll be too late for them to fix it. The generation living right now, is the only generation alive that can fix this problem. And this problem will have a ripple effect through humanity for as long as we live.


When you start to realize the scale of what we’re up against, it’s not demoralizing to me, it’s empowering because it just means we have to get galvanized. I think the people that understand the issue, they just haven’t been able to get the traction on it. And I think that’s what we do, we want to amplify these voices of these people that can’t get to the mountain tops like we can. We want to make this so that a year-and-a-half, two years from now when this film comes out I want everybody on this planet that has access to any kind of media whatsoever, to be aware of this. This is a global problem that we have. In addition to the awareness we have to create a solution. The awareness is act one in our film; we’re not trying to depress people with the facts. But like any story arc that Aristotle has talked about since day one, you have to take people down before you can bring them back up, and that’s what we’re going to do.

Are you eating any fish as of now? Any salmon?

No, I’m a near vegan. I say, ‘near vegan,’ because I was just in Sweden and cheese is about the only thing they have out there that I can eat. But, I’ve been a vegetarian for – well, I haven’t eaten things that walk since 1986 — I stopped eating fish about three years ago when I found out I had severe mercury poisoning. I was a pescatarian, and fish was all I ate for animal protein, but when I went to The Cove, I went to interview the doctors at Minimata.


I went to visit Dr. Ekino who is the premiere doctor that was established for victims of Minimata’s disease. This is a company called Minimata, that was dumping mercury into the environment of Minimata bay, and the establishment of the supreme court there was to find how much mercury poisoning a person had in relation to how much income they’d get from the settlement. And I interviewed him and his doctors, his researchers in the morning and asked, "Can I take you guys out for lunch?" He said to me, "Sure, where would you like to go?" And I said, "Sushi, I love sushi."

I knew it was expensive for the Japanese doctors because they don’t get paid what the doctors in the States do. And I had my Japanese interpreter order these big platters of Japanese sushi – kind of expensive stuff – and halfway through the meal I look down at Ekino; none of the other doctors were eating any of the fish. They were eating the miso soup, they were eating the veggie sushi, but they weren’t touching the fish. I said, "What’s with this? Japanese people eat more fish than anybody on the planet. 66 kilos per person per year." And they said, "Well you should have known that the six of us are on the table. We’re curious how fast mercury bioaccumulates in the human body."

“I had the highest levels of mercury my doctor had ever seen in Colorado.”


So they did an experiment that they called the “Supersize Me Experiment, Japanese Style.” They ate 200 grams of tuna every day for a month. And they would measure the uptake at the end of each week to find out if anything went up or down, and after two weeks their numbers had doubled across the board – on average. And they were buying the smallest, cheapest cuts of tuna they could, because they couldn’t get the hospital or the government to pay for the study. So they decided there must be something wrong with the bonito, this very small, short-lived tuna — so they sprang for the good stuff; the sushi-grade tuna. They did that and the mercury level went up eight times. They were now in for the levels of the victims they were researching.


I was horrified, and the doctor. came up and said, "Do you eat a lot of fish?" And I said, "That’s all I eat." And he said, "Well you should get your levels checked." I did, I had the highest levels my doctor had ever seen in Colorado. My son is a professional fisherman, he had higher levels than me. So, I don’t eat fish. I haven’t eaten fish in three years. And if you’re a woman that’s about to become pregnant, you should lay off the fish many years in advance, because all of those toxins go out through the fat and gets dumped into your fetus, or the enzymes in mother’s milk.

Did you see Jiro Dreams of Sushi?


How did you feel about his argument on overfishing?

Right now, if you’re eating blue fin tuna, it’s almost like you’re having snow leopard or something. These things are nearly commercially extinct and we’re eating it like it’s chicken. There’s all sorts of guides, there is a Monterey Seafood Watch Guide. NRDC actually has the best one. Two things to watch out for with fish are 1) is it sustainable? And 2) is it toxic? Fish are like sponges. The longer they are in the ocean, the more mercury they collect. The smaller, short-lived fish are going to be much better to eat, they’re going to have much lower mercury intake. If you’re eating shark or tuna or dolphin, you know – you’re at the very top of the food chain. I’m not an advocate of eating fish any more.

Did you ever hear from Jeremy Piven?


Yea, actually, I was at an art opening about two years ago in LA. And I don’t watch TV, I didn’t know who he was. But we were chattin’ for quite a long time and he says, "If you ever need me to advocate your mission, let me know." And I asked, "Well, why’s that? Who are you?" And he said, "Jeremy Piven." There is actually a tie between The Cove and Jeremy Piven — he’s good friend with Fisher Stevens, the producer. They got together before he was doing that play in New York and Fisher was telling him about my mercury poisoning and what some of the symptoms were, and that one of them is memory loss. And that sort of got him think like, "Maybe that’s why I can’t remember some of my lines."

He was like me, I was eating fish three times a day when I was in Japan. I did seven trips there for The Cove and I was eating it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Now that I know the damage it does to you, it’s just insanity. I definitely feel a lot healthier.

Without telling me any big give-aways, what kinds of things are you at liberty to share about The Heist? Just in watching your trailer on Kickstart, what strikes me is this guy attaching a camera to an off-road Segway. I’m just curious if there is anything that you can share at this point.

It’ll be like a real life James Bond movie. But, it’s going to bigger (laughs), not in term of how many people go to it – I don’t want to be that crass, but we’re going to do something that the whole world is going to take notice of. And that’s about all I think I can say at this moment. We’re lining up some very big dominos so that once they start to fall, it’s going to be really cool. It’s sort of like The Avengers, we’re getting together this team of people that are passionate about the environment. We feel convinced that this is the way forward, there are all these people working on big issues, but what we need to do is come together. The movement is so fragmented that what we’re trying to do is consolidate the effort so that we can amplify this and do this event so that the whole world takes notice. It’ll be a different world after this event has been pulled off.


What would you say, most basically, is the human role of stopping extinction?

Well, first of all, there are a lot of different entry points for the topic. It’s not just one thing causing it. The big thing that we’re concerned about is the burning of fossil fuels making the oceans more acidic. Getting off of fossil fuels, you’ll save 25% of species in the ocean. Because 25% of the ocean’s species live on coral reefs. The coral reefs will be gone by 2,050 at the current rate of warming and acidification. That’s really soon. Geologically speaking, that’s tomorrow.

“It’s horrifying, the worst thing you can do to the environment is make a film about it.”


When I made The Cove, we did a carbon assessment of what it took to make the movie over the first two years. Primarily because I was concerned with how much coal was being burned, because we live in Colorado which is a state that burns a lot. Our energy comes from coal here. I was thinking, "Jesus, this movie is about mercury, and killing sentient animals, and people that are eating it. How much are we contributing to it?" And so I put somebody on it for several months, they came back and said, "646 tons. You add up all the travel, the commute times, the cost of the production, the building of the computers – bla bla bla – 646 tons of carbon will be released into the atmosphere." It’s horrifying, the worst thing you can do to the environment is make a film about it. So I installed 120 solar panels on the studio of the roof where we were making The Cove and I bought two electric cars.


In town, I don’t pay for gas, I haven’t paid for gas in four years. In December, the darkest month of the year, the electric company is still giving me a check. I used to pay about $1,000 a month for electricity between the business and home, now I don’t pay anything. The electric company gives me checks. And that system [the solar panels] that I built four years ago, it’s three times cheaper now. Electric cars are really pretty rare, I have one of 1,500 Toyota RAVs that were made, now they’re reissuing it, and there’s going to be 24 new brands of electric cars coming out. There’s one moving part in the engine, the rotor. That’s why car companies hate electric cars, it’s because nothing goes wrong with it. The only time I ever stop at the gas station is to get windshield wiper fluid.

People don’t realize that every time you make a purchase, you’re voting. Like if you eat burgers. Cows are much more polluting than cars. The methane that they put out is 23 times more of the greenhouse gas than a car is.


There are going to be some really funny, beautiful sequences in our film that we’ll be able to show people about cows and cars. Things that you weren’t able to see up until this movie. What we’re using is this wonderful mix of science and art to show people what they’ve never seen before, and hear what they haven’t been able to hear before. We only see and hear a very small segment of reality. The visual spectrum that we have is very very narrow. Using the thermal cameras that we used for The Cove, and upgrading them like we have, you’re going to be able to see things you’ve never seen before. And with the hydrophones and microphones that we’re using in the oceans, you’ll be able to hear the songs of the animals that traditionally are not heard. But, partly by speeding it up like you said, so that blue whales might sound like birds singing. They’re melodic. Our metronome is on a completely different scale than a blue whale. A 60-second note is not fathomable. A blue whale has two heart beats per minute. It’s a whole different time-scale than our own. What we’re trying to do is make things seen that haven’t been seen before, and heard that haven’t been heard before wso we can give these endangered species a voice.

We’re so species-centric that we can’t comprehend the intelligence of other creatures. The natural world, I think, is just unbelievably worthy of our awe. The monarch butterfly has a migration that spans three generation. It goes from Canada to Mexico. So, one generation has died off, but somewhere in its genes, its DNA has this ability to find this 23 acre spot in Mexico – over three generations! You know, you take away our iPhones and our GPS’s, we can’t find our way across town. These animals do it naturally and we dismiss it.

I’ve talked to researchers that have over 600 words for prairie dog. You’ll hear a bearded seal on the top of the ice in the arctic, it sounds like a barking dog, but underwater it’s like a Mongolian throat singing but with several different octaves at the same time. These animals are way worthy of our admiration and I think once people are able to relate to how we fit into the grand scheme of things, I think we’ll all be in shock that our lifestyles are causing half of the species on the planet to blink out by the end of this century.


What kind of cameras are you primarily using on this doc? Reds? Phantoms?

We’re using everything from a button-hole camera to a – you know, there’s a lot of covert stuff in this movie so we have all sorts of reall cool tech toys, we have aerial drones -

Wait wait wait, what kind of drones are you using?


What kind of drones are you using? We’re making a drone documentary here at Motherboard. What kind of drones have you been able to get your hands on?

We have one, an octocopter. The flight time is pretty short, it’s about 15 minutes. But it’s programmable to go a certain distance. There’s one that was just being used on a boat for blue whales. It’s a plane and it goes up for about hours. But we’re able to do a lot better just with a Sony 1500 with a gyrostabilize cineflex rotating on a helicopter. But it’s pretty cool. The drone that I saw that was part of an experiment that we we’re on.

Droning over a blue whale

You pick a point, on a blue whale, and it locks on to that point; and it’ll circle at 45 mph around that point. And it’s pretty stable. But the optics – right now, the camera that’s on that one it’s not – the drone is made by the army, but it’s not good enough for what we need to use. We went up and used the helicopter and we’re able to stay up for three hours and use a much better camera, a much heavier camera. We’re using all sorts of covert cameras. The Alexa is our main camera, and we use the RED underwater, and the Sony 1500 on the helicopter. That’s about it.

You said you’re about 60% of the way done. After you get this funding from Kickstarter, when do you want to wrap up all your shooting?

This time next year.

What part of the budget does the Kickstarter funding represent?

It’s a small fraction. With the last film I was taking it out of my kid’s college account. I was bumming it from everywhere. My traditional source of funding was my IRA, my kid’s college account, and my own personal income I made as a photographer; but that’s dried up by now. Every dollar that we go over-budget is a real dollar. So, it represents a small part of the budget, but we hope to raise more than $50,000. I think we just wanted to be fairly conservative. Every time we go out with five or six people in the field, we all need hotels, we all need to be fed. But the covert stuff – like the building of the getaway car and stuff like that is what we want to use part of the Kickstarter campaign for.

Well I guess it’s effective marketing?

It just wasn’t in the original budget, you know? "One getaway car."

Reach this writer at or @danstuckey