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Interview: Directors Josh and Rebecca Tickell talk ‘Kiss the Ground’

It might be difficult to focus on another global issue in the year of a pandemic, but environmental filmmakers Joshua Tickell and Rebecca Tickell are going to do their best to get you to pay attention in their stellar new climate-change documentary, Kiss the Ground, currently streaming on Netflix (our review can be found here). Much more than just another doom-and-gloom analysis of how we’re killing our planet, Kiss the Ground actually lays out a plan to save Mother Earth through something called regenerative agriculture. With the help of some celebrity friends who are just as motivated as they are, the Tickells have made a film that is motivational, educational and surprisingly entertaining. I recently talked to the husband-and-wife filmmaking duo about the challenges they had making this movie, what they hope comes out of it and what they really think it will take to get the world to pay attention to the climate crisis.

Catherine Springer:  It’s great to talk to you.  I don’t get to talk to people who are actually trying to change the world. Kiss the Ground is a film everyone should see.  I love documentaries that make a real impact and are a force for change.     

Rebecca Tickell:  We feel the same way. We love making movies, and we love how powerful they are and the fact that they have the ability to truly impact and change the world. We just wanted to make sure that this film was worthy of its message and that it touched people the way that films can when they really shift the tide. 

CS: Since most people may not be familiar with your work, how did you get into this?  How did this all come together?

Joshua Tickell:  Rebecca and I have been making environmentally themed films together for 13 years, and we’ve made 14 environmental films together. So, Kiss the Ground is a continuation of all the work we’ve done. It is the next chapter of this sort of education and conversation we’ve been having. Rebecca and I are filmmakers and we’re storytellers, but we’re enmeshed in a very large community of scientists, ecologists, environmentalists and people who are very tapped in to the pulse of what’s happening on planet Earth. Since 2006 the conversation within that group has been largely, “What are we going do about climate change?” Since An Inconvenient Truth, really, which was such a watershed moment, but, in a way, it was also an extremely disempowering experience. Because, for 14 years, people have been told that they need to screw in better light bulbs, but you point to the atmosphere and say, “the planet is boiling.”  The climate conversation has been, for 14 years, in stagnation, disempowerment and, ultimately, cynicism.  And now we have a new conversation called “We have a global pandemic.” And the only thing you have to look forward to after the global pandemic is the planet’s going to boil. 

RT: And you wonder why young people don’t want to go to school. 

JT: You wonder why the world is in such a cynical state about these issues. And so our job, as ecological storytellers, is to tell the story of ecology and ecology is the interaction between plants, animals, humans, the atmosphere, the planet itself and biology and chemistry. And that there’s a hopeful end.  

CS: The film is about regenerative farming. How do you make that sexy?  Celebrities, help, right? 

RT: We started making movies about oil, so we know about those challenges.  Who wants to watch another movie about an oil spill or alternative energy? So when our friends started talking to us very excitedly about the possibilities of regenerative agriculture to draw down carbon and help fix the climate crisis, that was very intriguing, to say the least. We made these movies about oil, and here now we’re going to try to make a movie about soil.  The only thing more dull that I could possibly imagine trying to make interesting than oil would definitely be…

CS:  Dirt!

RT:  Yeah, basically!  We went through fifteen versions of the movie. One of the most challenging parts was having it be more than just a science lecture. How can we convey all of this information in a way that’s really entertaining and engaging, an adventure almost? That’s how it became this global adventure, looking at how people are using all of these different regenerative techniques. And yes, fortunately, some of those people also happen to be celebrities, like Patricia Arquette.  Yes, she’s an actress, but she’s also the executive director of GiveLove, an organization that promotes compost sanitation to restore soil fertility. And, before we even picked up a camera to start filming Kiss the Ground, Ian Somerhalder had gone to Africa. He literally risked his life to go there and get the footage that ended up in the movie. And that was nine years ago. We didn’t start on this until seven years ago. This was something that he was deeply fascinated by. I think all of us by a decade ago or so were really looking at the state of paralysis that we were all in and what we as individuals can do about it. We’ve known Woody Harrelson from back in the bio diesel days when Josh was driving the veggie van around the country. He’s always been into this. This is something that he’s truly passionate about. So it was really helpful to have people who were our friends be a part of it.

CS: It seems like you are all part of a community, committed to this. 

RT: Well, you know, seven years ago when we started, this was not really a thing that people knew about. So I think all of us kind of found this in our own way. And that goes for people who from all ends of the spectrum, not just people who are celebrities and filmmakers, but also farmers are coming to this, soil scientists, climate scientists. And so, one of the reasons why it took us so long to make this movie is because there were so many people coming together over the last seven years coalescing this movement, the regenerative movement. It’s not that regeneration is a new concept, it’s been around for decades, but the urgency behind the promise that regeneration provides is something that we’ve never quite had until now. This is truly the right moment for the film. But it’s taken us a while because we’ve all had to kind of wrap our heads around this concept and the process. We’ve been trying to find an engaging, funny, entertaining way to tell the story.  For most people, this is the first time that they’re learning about it. 

CS: I know it was for me!  And I consider myself a pretty sophisticated and educated person.  But what you do is you make all the science accessible and almost fun.  The visuals are fantastic, the graphics, animation and CGI.  What was your vision for the look of the film? 

JT: Just like the characters in the film are all part of this evolution and this coming together, the visual language of the film was something that evolved from the standpoint that no one has ever been able to create a consistent visual tapestry for carbon and for what we call the biogenic cycle—the cycle of carbon moving in and out of land and through plants and animals. And so, it is funny looking at a couple of the reviews about the film, and people are “Well, I knew all this about carbon!” But what’s funny is we’ve done hundreds of test screenings of this film for various audiences, and I love that some reviewers knew everything in the film, that’s wonderful, but the reality is in hundreds of screenings with very sophisticated, well educated people, we had 99% of people in those screenings saying, “Can you make it simpler? Can you make it easier? Can you make it more visual?”  Because the reality is the average science education in the United States stops at sixth grade. That doesn’t mean that we’re not intelligent people. We have a failure in our education system around ecological literacy. So we have to develop a visual medium to bring people from sixth grade all the way through PhD level science and have a movie that was interesting, all in eighty-five minutes! So, from the carbon bubbles to what’s called the Mauna Loa curve to the use of the satellite data we got from NASA and NOAA. We needed all of that to illustrate the journey of carbon. And what you don’t realize is you’re getting this steroid injection of some of the top science and data points in the world compressed into these really tight little animations. For people who watch the film, if they’re unfamiliar with the science, it can be exciting. But if you go back and watch it a second time, you realize, wow, there is a deep, graphical language in this film. 

One powerful moment for me, regarding the graphics, was when we were struggling to get anybody to agree on the science. We were talking to a large group of people from a very wide spectrum of fields and expertise. And I remember we went to talk to Paul Hawken, who wrote Drawdown. He’s one of the most renowned people on this issue. We drove up to his house and sat down with him and were trying to extract from his brain an agreement on how to form the movement. We were afraid to get lost in the weeds, so we wanted a sense of consensus. I remember he and Josh were doing the carbon model and it was just going up and up and then it started going down. I have never seen a graph showing carbon levels going down. The conversation revealed that within 30 years we could see global cooling. So to have created that visual with him and for it to have come about in that way was so exciting because it was revelatory.  There really is hope. The consensus is that we can do it.  

CS: You make the movie entertaining and interesting, but I think in the long run, at the very end, you make it very clear that you want it to be motivational, is that right?   

JT: Yes. But ultimately, this is an advocacy film, but it’s an advocacy film for science, because I think when people truly understand the science, the action follows naturally, you don’t have to force them or cajole them or manipulate them to action at that point. 

RT: I would actually answer it differently, because of my own experience.  I started making films with Josh thirteen years ago after he showed me a clip from Fuel. I remember it was honestly like a spiritual experience for me. It was an awakening of something that resonated with me so deeply and it gave me so much hope. It gave me so much inspiration that I couldn’t help but take action. And the action I ended up taking was telling him, “I’m going to help you with this as much as I possibly can.” And he’s like, “Good, but that’s going to be all the time because I need your help all the time.” And that was thirteen years ago. And here we are with two children and fourteen films about the environment! I’ve seen it happen over and over again with people, when they get entertainment, education and inspiration all together, it truly does change people’s lives. 

CS: Especially the young people, that’s who we really need to get inspired. 

RT: Yes!  They feel so disempowered, like to the point that they feel like they’re being robbed of their future and they’re angry about it, which I completely understand. It’s so wonderful that there is light at the end of this tunnel. We’ve been in a state of fear and paralysis, and now we can see what it is that we need to do to turn the situation around. I’m excited. I want people to have that spiritual awakening and I hope that’s what people take away from it. 

CS:  Josh, you mentioned that you called this the next chapter. Is there going to be a second part or a series of films about this? 

JT:  Well, we’ve made three films about oil, so I think we reserve the right to keep going. [Laughs]  Well, we have the TV show, most of which has already been shot, so we’ve been quietly in production on that. 

CS:  Tell us a little about it?

JT:  Well, it’s a deeper dive into the parts that people really love— the food, the compost recycling of waste, the turning deserts back into forest, the big, fun concepts that people love to participate in and want more information on. So we hope to be done with that next year. But I think it’s going to take some sowing of seeds and nurturing of ground to really get the conversation solidified in the public consciousness. It’s been a particularly hard year. When you have to pierce through the part of people’s minds that doesn’t see a future, it’s difficult. We have to get past a general election and get past the infighting. It’s about the bigger picture. And for the first time, we have a really clear set of tools. As you mentioned, the first thing that people think after this is, “Oh my gosh, I can compost!”  And compost is the gateway drug of the regenerative movement. Once you start composting, you’re like, “Oh, I made soil. That’s cool. What else can I do? Oh, I can plant these seeds.”  And, before you know it, you’re up to your elbows in soil and planting. And whether it’s a planter box in your apartment or it’s your backyard, you start to see the powerful sort of concert that we can be a part of with ecology. 

We’ve never looked at the problem of climate or water scarcity or food scarcity or desertification from an ecological perspective. And when you do, you pull back and you look at the whole system and you realize, my gosh, we don’t have to solve this. All we have to do is support the natural ecology and the ecology has the solutions built in. There’s this term called ecological memory. A good film example is they were originally going to film the last Mad Max movie in the desert in Australia. But it rained, which is does once in a while. And what happens when it rains in the desert? The desert blooms immediately. No one has to go out there with seeds, no one has to go out there with mulch or nutrients or compost or fertilizer or cows or anything. The desert just blooms. And so, what we know about Earth is even the most degraded, destroyed ecosystems have inside them the ecological memory to self-regenerate. It happens the instant the ecosystem has the right elements. Usually water is one of those elements, and through the tools and ground we show how to bring water back. The ecology explodes, plants come back to life. Microbes come back to life, the carbon gets sucked into the soil. Animals show up. Predators show up, bigger animals show up, and it’s a trophic cascade. As soon as you can get the large herds and the predators back onto the land, the jump-started ecosystem starts to reinforce itself and it rebuilds. We can rebuild essentially two thirds of the planet—all of the land that we haven’t cemented over. Yes, climate balance is going to be a positive ramification. But the real exciting thing in regenerating two thirds of the planet is the whole thing changes: poverty changes, water changes, food changes, the economies of the surrounding countries change. With a global level effort, it can be done within the next 20 to 30 years. We can regenerate planet Earth to a state of almost pre-industrial natural beauty and we can do it together. 

CS:  Wow…how are you getting me excited and actually hopeful about climate change? 

RT:  Now you can see why I married this guy!

JT:  It’s the greatest opportunity of our lifetime! 

CS:  It really is.  And everything you just said is in the film and done so beautifully. 

JT:  Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk’s brother, just posted on Instagram about the movie. Elon’s always wanted to go to Mars as a Plan B. The thinking is we need to have humans up there in case we make a mess of this thing. But now we’re realizing the reverse. If we can figure out how to regenerate Earth, anything is possible. Save Earth, then you can go to Mars and regenerate it. That’s really astronomical thinking. That’s ultimately what we’re talking about. 

CS:  I’ve read that this film narrowly escaped from a drought, a massive fire and flooding. What adversities did you go through to make this movie?

JT:  Oh the drama!!  Let us tell you about the drama!

RT:  We make our films here at our regenerative farm in Ojai. We’re transitioning our five-acre avocado orchard into our regenerative farm and the avocado barn became our movie studio, and that’s where Kiss the Ground was made. In December of 2017, the Thomas fire came really close and we had the whole crew here that we needed to evacuate, which included bunnies and dogs and cats and babies and a goldfish. We were trying to extract the movie out of the server, which is sort of built into the avocado barn. The film lived on this array of hard drives on the server and in all these different places. It took our team two nights and two really stressful days just trying to make sure we had a complete copy of the film, in case the place burned down. Thankfully, we were able to come back, but some of our team did lose their home.  At that time, it was the largest fire in California history. Which then led to the huge flood, and, of course, we’ve been in a drought for the last seven years that we’ve been here.  It wasn’t lost on us that we were making a film about how to stop these massive climate issues while experiencing them first-hand. It was really a unique time, very bonding time for the whole team. But, since then, we’ve had four more fires in California that have been bigger than that. It’s all the more reason why we wanted to make sure that this got out to the world. Because we can turn it around. We can protect our ecosystem as fire resistant and drought resistant and have a really healthy water cycle and all that’s available to us through regenerative agriculture! 

CS:  I’m hoping that people aren’t too distracted by everything else that’s going on in the world. What’s it going to take for people to finally pay attention? I mean, we can’t lose the Earth before people finally wake up. 

JT:  Yeah, we can’t lose the Earth. But we might lose L.A. 

RT:  [Laughs]

CS:  That won’t motivate anybody, Josh. 

JT:  It would make us, in Ojai, the number one film production company. So, unless you want us making the next Game of Thrones, pay attention! 

Interview has been edited for content and brevity.

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