Franny Armstrong's S.O.S. to the World

Sean Uyehara September 19, 2009

Franny Armstrong is a force of nature. Boundlessly energetic and impassioned about something most people only joke about—saving humankind—Armstrong gained a strong following at the San Francisco International Film Festival, where she’s screened two films. Her latest, The Age of Stupid, tackles the effects of climate change, and offers a plea to all who will listen: Change your ways. The plea goes public in a massive way this coming Monday, when The Age of Stupid makes its debut to the world, screening from a tent in New York, to 115,000 people in 400 movie theaters across the country. The evening features 40 live minutes with Kofi Annan, Gillian Anderson, Mary Robinson, Armstrong herself, the star of the film Pete Postlethwaite, and other leading thinkers, celebrities and political figures from around the world. Audiences will hear from scientists working in the Himalayas and Indonesian rainforest via live satellite link and from a group of children speaking from the very room in Copenhagen in which all our futures will be decided at the UN climate summit in December. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke will wrap up the evening with a short acoustic performance. Armstrong allowed us to conduct an interview with her via internet chat.

SF360: This screening on September 21 is one of the most massive in history. How does that feel? To know you have precipitated this event?

Franny Armstrong: I’m in a state of shock about the whole thing. We just set off to make a low-budget climate change documentary back in 2004.

SF360: But you did it on purpose, of course. I mean, you meant to have this effect, right?

Armstrong: I dreamed of having this effect, but never really thought it would happen. We just set out to try to do it, because we felt it was the right thing to do. Not because we seriously thought there was a chance of success.

SF360: In the meantime, you’ve become a sort of climate change celeb… You meet with world leaders, have galvanized all sorts of support. You are asked your opinion. You are in Vanity Fair! What’s that like?

Armstrong: It’s all been happening so fast, that we haven’t been able to stop for even one second to take it all in. So I can’t tell you what it’s like yet. Ask again in two years. When I say I don’t have a second, I mean it: I used to feel guilty if I took a day off, then it became an hour, but the other day I stopped for five minutes and immediately started panicking.

SF360: Fair enough. When you speak with people like Ed Miliband or when you get into the same room with someone who has access to governmental power what is your strategy? What are those conversations like?

Armstrong: I think there are lots of people with lots of great strategies trying to get access to these people. But I’m not like that. I just talk about how it is in my film and I just keep at it. Because I am totally independent, I am not beholden to anybody at all and can just speak my mind. I think this is perhaps a refreshing perspective to these politicians who are so used to being lobbied. Also, I think that most of them really get the urgency of the climate crisis and genuinely want to get the right deal at Copenhagen.

SF360: Just to summarize, for people who haven’t seen it, what is the primary message in your film?

Armstrong: The Age of Stupid is set in 2055, in the version of the future where we fail to act now. The world is devastated by runaway climate change and Pete Postlethwaite plays a survivor who is looking back at ‘old’ footage of us now, asking: why didn’t we save ourselves when we had the chance?

SF360: I’ve heard you say that Copenhagen is the most important meeting in the history of humankind. Yeah, really? True?

Armstrong: Yes, true. If we don’t stop climate change before it enters the runaway phase (when it becomes too late to stop), then we will trigger the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of all time. The number of human casualties will dwarf anything we’ve seen before, including the Second World War. The only way to prevent this is to quickly and massively cut global emissions. The only way to do that is with a binding international treaty. And the last chance to get that treaty within the timescale of the physics of the planet—given that we have to stabilize emissions by 2015—is at Copenhagen in December.

SF360: When you put it that way, it makes me embarrassed to ask you about your beginnings as a doc filmmaker. What could be more important than this meeting… But, I will anyhow. You became a bit of an enfant terrible with
McLibel and then Drowned Out.

Armstrong: Maybe.

SF360: How did you start out with

Armstrong: I was a drummer in a pop group, living the whole rock’n‘roll life. Then I heard about the trial starting up in London where two campaigners were getting sued by McDonald’s. Which I thought was the greatest story I’d ever heard: that two people dared to stand up to Big Mac. And my Dad is a filmmaker, so I just happened to have access to filmmaking equipment, so I thought that I could help them out by borrowing my dad’s camera and making a little video. Ten years later, more than 25 million people have seen my McLibel documentary. But if my Dad had had a printing press, I’d have been making posters.

SF360: So, you took a bit of a detour away from music for a bit, even though at that time you were a drummer in one of my favorite bands! The Band of Holy Joy.

Armstrong: For a year full time. As soon as I started making McLibel, I realized how powerful making independent films can be, so it was hard to go back to hitting things rhythmically after that. I realized that I wanted to have more of a positive impact on the world

SF360: I have heard you say that once this film is done you are over with filmmaking. Do you still feel that way?

Armstrong: Have to admit that when I was shooting Pete Postlethwaite—my favorite actor— for the drama, in the set we’d built, saying the lines I’d written, in the scenario I’d created—that was a thrill like no other….

SF360: So, it’s still up in the air?

Armstrong: Now that I really understand how desperately urgent the climate situation is, it seems impossible to imagine working on anything else for the foreseeable future.

SF360: It must be difficult to imagine making a movie without massive amounts of travel, and I understand you are an advocate of not taking unnecessary plane travel. What constitutes ‘necessary travel’ for you?

Armstrong: I stopped flying for personal reasons—holidays or whatever—many years ago. Before Age of Stupid, I did take some flights to make films highlighted other human rights issue—like my India dam film, Drowned Out. But I don’t think I would do that anymore. Pretty much the only reason I would get on a plane is, paradoxically, if it will actively help stop climate change. Though of course you can never really know, and me flying for Age of Stupid may actually be hastening the apocalypse that little bit nearer.

SF360: Will you be in Copenhagen then?

Armstrong: Yes. We have quite a few screenings already arranged—including in one of the big famous public squares. And there is a special train being put on for the politicians etc to get to the conference and we are screening on the train! Very cool.

SF360: And following, is it ‘celebrate the agreement’ vs. ‘batten down the hatches?’

Armstrong: Let’s hope it’s celebrate the agreement. Celebrate humanity coming together to save itself.

*SF360: And in San Francisco, we will see you on Sept. 21 in the theater, right? *

Armstrong: Yes.

SF360: Any chance you sit in with Thom Yorke? Do we get to hear your drumming?

Armstrong: No, because he is not physically coming to the event. He is being filmed in his studio and joining us live by satellite. The whole point is that people don’t all travel to a central location, but we use low-carbon technology to create a brilliant event without such big emissions. And everyone in the U.S. (and world) is invited to join us by going to their local cinema. (

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