With Jude Law, Radiohead and War Horse on board, how could Michael Geoghegan’s Greenpeace film fail?
Commercial filmmakers all have to pay the bills and of course they love working on the high-budget ads. But sometimes it’s good to get down and dirty on a tiny budget. That’s exactly what director Michael Geoghegan did for his recent Greenpeace film, A Homeless Polar Bear In London.
Rallying around a poignant environmental message, Michael assembled an elite team of talented people to work on the film, including Jude Law, the puppeteers from War Horse and Radiohead singer Thom Yorke, who gave him a free pick of any song from the band’s discography. We interviewed Michael about his dramatic involvement in this labour of love.
Product: Greenpeace – Save The Arctic
Title: A Homeless Polar Bear In London
Production Company: Partizan
Director: Michael Geoghegan
Producer: Russell Curtis
Editing Company: Stitch
Editor: Leo King
Writers: Michael Geoghegan, Simon Riley
Sound Company: 750mph
Post Production House: Moving Picture Company
Voicover: Jude Law
How was the idea born?
I was [at Greenpeace] judging some short films for them. John Sauven, the Executive Director of Greenpeace UK, asked me if I’d like a guided tour of the facility. So I went round the back and we were talking about the upcoming campaign – Save The Arctic.
We went into this warehouse and there was a life-sized polar bear on a pole. It’s a suit. I had this idea. What if a polar bear had been driven from her home, we’d destroyed her homeland and she’s been driven so far south that she ends up homeless in a city?
I didn’t tell [John] about it. I just went and judged the films. And when I got home I started writing. But [in] the first version I couldn’t make a connection. Most of us will never see the Arctic and can’t relate to it. I didn’t feel any empathy for the bear and I think that was because I hadn’t aligned it with the human experience – a homeless person and a homeless bear. As soon as I did that it started to make sense for me.
How quickly did all of this happen?
It was days really because these things happen very quickly. I write everyday. If you write everyday, when an idea comes you just can’t stop yourself. It was nothing because it wasn’t a project – it was just a thought.
I did some Photoshop stuff – got some bears, stuck them in squalor – and then pitched it back to John and Greenpeace. There was no agency; there was no producer, nothing. There was me in a room with three of them discussing this film. And they pretty instantly said they wanted to make it. They didn’t really have any money so it was down to me.
I came away and saw Madeleine [Sanderson, Executive Producer of Partizan] and she very graciously said they’d help me out. Partizan put together the team of people that would ultimately make the film. I guess because I do a certain amount of fairly large-scale commercials I could call in a few favours.
So you came to Greenpeace with an idea ready formed. Did it need many changes?
They didn’t really hammer it out. There were a couple of things though. Shell have the drilling rights for the Arctic. So part of the [Save The Arctic] campaign is trying to get Shell to slow down or reconsider. I had a picture of the bear walking past the garage and they asked if it could be a Shell garage.
VW are in the European Courts, fighting the legislation to reduce emissions. So Greenpeace are on their case saying “what are you doing this for?” We had [the bear] sniffing the exhaust fumes of a car and they asked if it could be a VW.
How did you manage to get the Radiohead track Everything In Its Right Place?
Thom and Radiohead giving us the track was a major coup really because he obviously has connections to Greenpeace. He’s been on the boat. He knows John. They have an on-going dialogue. He’s very concerned about those issues. I think he needed to see the film, so as soon as we had a rough cut that went off to him and fortunately he really liked the film.
And with Jude Law on board too you’ve got some big names…
It’s quite amazing. It isn’t me, honestly. It is how they feel and Greenpeace being able to get to those people. Often you may want Jude Law to do your voiceover – I’m sure lots of people do because it would get you a lot of press and if you look it’s been on the front cover of NME and Rolling Stone – places we would never think that we’d get publicity. You don’t get 400,000 hits on YouTube without those connections.
What caused you the most grief making the film?
Well, it was shot guerrilla style so it was non-permitted. Partly because of the speed we were working at and partly because of money issues.
We got into a bit of trouble at the Shell station. They obviously had security cameras so we’d been around it a little bit and worked out where we could park the van on their forecourt.
We drove onto their forecourt and got the bear out, set up the camera just off their land, trying to be secret. Then I thought “we’ve got to get in and do it.” So we released the bear, went on the site and started filming.
They brought out a couple of guys who tried to stop us, so we eased it off and came back. Then someone arrived and blocked us in with their van and then the police were called – all the drama. But Greenpeace were up for the friction and I didn’t mind it. I’m quite used to it.
Did the puppet cause you any difficulty?
I did a rehearsal of the bear with a couple of Greenpeace activists in the early days. It wasn’t walking very well and I was getting a bit anxious about the articulation. It was made for a play at the National called Greenland. It wasn’t made to walk down roads and interact with things in a canal, so it wasn’t built as a bear would be built. Its legs wouldn’t bend the right way. Their joints aren’t like ours – they bend the opposite way – so it needs someone pretty special to be inside it.
We connected with War Horse and the movement director there, Emily Mytton, [who] set up five puppeteers. I rehearsed with them at the Greenpeace warehouse and within a couple of hours they’d nailed it because they know how animals move. Once those people were in it and walking around I could see it coming together. That helped everyone relax.
Why do you think it’s such a moving film?
Yeah, it’s really hard to make people feel anything. But when it comes to moving people emotionally to watch something that you know is a commercial, to elicit an emotion from anyone is really difficult.
It’s all about timing, the pacing of the film, Jude’s voice and the way the music’s building and becoming more downcast. And even with all of those elements you could fail terribly. I don’t know what the formula is, but somehow we managed to bring that to the film and make it emotive – to make people feel empathy for it and hopefully join up.
Did you try to make it as depressing as possible, or did you have to rein that in?
I was very conscious that there should be little touches of humour. There’s a shot where she’s sniffing a cake stand and behind her is Iceland [the supermarket]. And things like that – some people will see it and some people don’t and I like things like that. Iceland is behind her and she ain’t going to Iceland. She’s off to the cake shop. I didn’t want it to be slit-your-wrists time. I just wanted to slowly build to an end.
But I hadn’t fully considered the end. I hadn’t thought she would die. And there was a lot of pressure in the park. The park people wanted us out of the park and there were radios buzzing. We hadn’t chosen the location.
I had to choreograph [the puppeteers] because I hadn’t worked out what they were physically going to do. So I said “lean against the tree and slowly come down as if you’re so tired at the end of a really long day and you’re just giving up.” I said “now bring your breathing right down and then just lay really still.” Everyone on the set went quiet and I just thought “this is how we should end the film.”
It’s not like I had a closed set and an hour to work it out. I had two minutes before we were being kicked out of the park, so I was improvising at a rate of knots. People were literally carrying gear out as we were shooting because we were about to be evicted. We kept filming and the bear was dying and kids were screaming. But there was a good energy to it.