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Jessica Yu and Erin Brockovich Talk “Last Call at the Oasis,” the Journey of the Message and Why “Contagion” is Like “Erin Brockovich 2”

Christopher Campbell Documentary Channel Blog One of the best documentary films I’ve seen so far at the Toronto International Film Festival is “Last Call at the Oasis,” a big issue doc from the producers of “An Inconvenient Truth” and “Food, Inc.” yet also from the Oscar-winning director of less conventional nonfiction works, such as “Protagonist.” Filmmaker Jessica Yu’s last feature was a fictional sports comedy called “Ping Pong Playa.” Now she’s back with docs and trying something seemingly out of her element, concerning one of the elements: water. I talked with her and one of the new film’s subjects, Erin Brockovich (the inspiration for the Julia Roberts movie), about issue docs and the time they take to bring their urgent subject matter to audiences. This is a two-part interview continued from Spout.com — though I think they can be read in either order. How do you approach a subject so grand as water and try to fit in everything and organize it? Jessica Yu: I like to start with some kind of metaphor. You get something stuck in your head, like how I was thinking about the beauty of water. But I also thought about how it’s connected, and we end with this idea that all these little streams are converging. Erin’s been talking about how if everything converges at once we can have an impact. That idea of having the knowledge in the film, you’re not thinking that you need to take this all in at once, but by the end I hope there’s a feeling that you’ve been on this journey and you can see all sides of this subject in some way. That was the trickiest thing, how we wanted to start with the most obvious idea and then ask what don’t we know and find the surprises. When working on a film and doing research I always try to remember when I was surprised by something. Or I think, god I wish I’d known this before I knew that. This is something you can do with film, you can make the perfect journey. It’s a messy journey when you’re researching, but when you put the film together you can realize, a-ha, it will be so cool to be thinking this and then be told that. Or be shown this and then see that. That’s the real fun part about editing. I always have this fantasy before starting any film that I can block out my memory and go into the future and just see the film. Does it make you enjoy doing a narrative film because you can plan everything? Yeah. With a documentary you don’t plan everything but you have a skeleton. And anything that’s surprising is usually the best stuff. This was tough because we were shooting everywhere, but we had a skeleton. You don’t want to go in thinking you know everything. Otherwise it’s just going to be dead. It’s just fill in the blanks. But amazing stuff happens that you can never guess. That’s the part that makes you really go out and want to film. One of the problems for issue docs is that they take so long to make and then to get into festivals, then picked up and distributed, then eventually are released to home video and TV, where most of us finally see them. With so much imperative information in the film that people need to know as soon as possible, how do you deal with the time it takes for a documentary like this to reach its widest audience? And how do you keep it relevant? We knew a film like this would be a moving target, which is why we were trying to be more definitive in what the issues are rather than the specific data. Things have already changed. We tried to make a point that our film is not made invalid. It is tricky, and I think that’s where concentrating on people and stories is better, because it’s about the human situation and the environmental situation but it’s not specifically about the numbers. The interesting thing about Participant [Media] is they’re thinking about the outreach and the impact of their films from the get go. It doesn’t mean they interfere with what we’re doing, but they think about who to reach out to and where to show it. The problem that you point out is how quickly can we get this out and reaching audiences. But the flipside is that we’re actually looking at how long can we keep it out there, how long can we keep some sort of dialogue going. As a documentary filmmaker, you never want your film to be the tree that falls in the forest, but sometimes they are. And your film is somewhat based on a book (Alex Prud’homme’s “The Ripple Effect”), so the genesis goes back even further and the road to getting this information out has already been a long one. The timing was sort of weird. We heard about the book and saw an early draft, but it kind of kick-started the project to know that the book was coming out. But it’s not an adaptation. Well, the way you filmed it, you obviously have your own separate stories from the book, right? Yeah, it’s the kind of thing where we’re following the Australian suicide counselor and he says there’s this couple down the road… It’s amazing how people respond and want you to come over and see what’s going on. Erin, you’ve had an even longer journey with these issues and have now gone through seeing your message communicated through a dramatic work (Steven Soderbergh’s “Erin Brockovich”) and now a documentary. What is that like? Erin Brockovich: Well this is an issue that just doesn’t seem to go away. I began my work in Hinkley [California] in 1991. The film came out in 2000. And here it is 2011 and I’m not dealing with one Hinkley; I’m dealing with thousands and thousands of Hinkleys. The problem hasn’t gone away. The problem we’re either more aware of or it’s just flat out gotten worse. So the time it took to make this documentary went a whole lot faster than the time it’s been since the movie was released, bringing me to my work today. I think we’re at that converging moment, that crescendo where we are really going to have to change the game. I think that’s becoming apparent, clearly to filmmakers, to Participant Media, to myself, to people in these communities. I think government’s kinda skipping on the beat here a little. But I even see companies waking up to the fact that maybe they need to step up to the plate and change some things too. There’s recognition, there’s seriousness to the problem, but it’s going to be a loooong time. We have to change how we consume water, how we utilize water, cut back on water production for fracking and issues like that, how we drink water and how companies do business. It’s almost like changing an entire mentality. And it will take time. But it’s coming because of the social media in front of us, the documentaries and social awareness, and more and more people caring. People have always cared about water and these issues, but now they feel like they have a platform themselves for change. Soderbergh’s movie gave you the fame that’s sprung your career and crusade even further and now you’re like a celebrity draw for Jessica’s film. What’s the difference for you in terms of how each movie has dealt with your life and issues? Well “Erin Brockovich,” even though it was a drama it was very true, very real. I lived it. Universal did a great job at sticking to the truth. What’s different is Steven Soderbergh left room in that film that people could relate to, either me being a single mom, or a single woman, who wasn’t an attorney, doing a toxic site. I think there were little bits and pieces that people could grab on to and walk away going, “Wow, that could be me. That could be me in the community. Maybe I’m getting poisoned water.” Or, “I’m a good person, but I’m not an attorney…” The underdog could still accomplish something. It will be interesting to see what happens with this film because it pulls in a little more academia, science, politics. I hope people come. It’s an important issue that affects all of us. And what I really hope is somewhere corporate America’s mind shakes open. I don’t think they’re looking at what’s going on out there. And we need to hear and see from the people. It’s the one thing none of us can live without. Maybe we need an “Erin Brockovich 2.” That is, if this film doesn’t count as that already. It does work as a kind of follow up. But maybe Soderbergh can add as sequel to his pile of films to make before he really retires. Well, he just made “Contagion,” which parallels. It drives me crazy. I’ve been producing a map of America with the people reporting the issue to me, of disease [The People’s Reporting Registry Map, which is now working with Google]. You want to talk about a pandemic, well maybe it’s here. I’ve got 1,778 sites in the United States alone. Then he comes out with “Contagion” and I’m like, “oh no! Is this connected?” I haven’t seen it yet. I get spooked enough with my own map. http://blog.documentarychannel.com/post/10120842974/jessicayu