Following the initial screening of ‘A Plastic Beach’ at Raindance Film Festival, producer Jo Ruxton kindly spoke to Elliot Burr and James Baxter-Derrington about the making of an exciting and ambitious project, and the legacy which she hopes will follow the film’s release.
As co-founder of the Plastic Oceans Foundation, can you give us some background into how it was founded and what you do specifically?
So I started off just with the making of the film, and my background is with the BBC, and I thought it would be something like a documentary for BBC Two. I started finding out more and more about it and realised it was a much bigger problem than I’d originally thought. We decided we could make a proper feature-film out of it, but that needed a lot of money raising and the budget was pretty low at the beginning but then we started to realise, you know, what we wanted to do and we needed more. Also we wanted to have a legacy from the film, we didn’t want people to see it and talk about it for a bit, we wanted it to go further than that. So, we decided to set the Foundation up as a charity because it’s easier to raise funds that way and also if the charity is to continue being funded then we can fund research into this and we can fund education programmes, and that’s just what we’re beginning now. This film became the first tool of an education programme and we’re now working with various exam boards to get this into the curriculum and to take it to 140 countries. We’ve got lots of ideas, so we’re building the education programme now and we’re also in partnership with Brunel University London. They’re the European leaders in eco-toxicology and human toxicology and they’re also looking at material science for replacements. So, it’s going to be much more than just a film, but the Foundation will see it beyond that. So my role from now on: I probably won’t be doing many more films. If I do, they’ll likely be very short ones, because that would nearly kill me.
You implied that the scope was so much bigger than you expected, can you give us an idea of how long this took you to make?
I was told originally told that there was, as you saw in the film, a great floating island of trash in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that it was twice the size of Texas, that it was ten metres deep. At the same time I was told that you can turn plastic into fuel and that with a fleet of fishing boats continually working and refuelling you could actually get rid of it and turn it into fuel and bring the fuel back and so on. To me it sounded too good to be true and I thought: there’s an environmental story that’s not all doom and gloom. But of course, the reality is so much worse. You can’t see it, it is much more insidious: it’s mixed with the plankton, it seems invisible on the surface so you look like you’re looking at clean water. If you did start to collect all those plastic pieces you’d take all the plankton with it and there will go your oxygen supply and the base of the food chain. So, it became something much bigger. I then, on journey out there, went to the North Pacific with six scientists and I discovered that there were five of these ocean gyres, not just in the North Pacific, and that the plastics are attracting hazardous chemicals which are in the oceans from decades of agriculture and industry, and even ones that have been banned like DDT in the 70s is still out there and these things don’t like water. It just so happens that the one thing they really get attracted to is plastic, so the plastic is absorbing them at much higher rates than the water itself has, it’s pulling them all in, and that’s getting into the food chain, toxins are being released and being stored in the fat of the animals and it’s going on right the way up. And these are toxins that have been associated with cancer, cognitive, developmental and behavioural problems and endocrine structures. They’re all things that are on the rise now.
How did you go about meeting with the director (Craig Leeson)?
I’ve known him a long time actually, because I’ve been based in Hong Kong when I was working for WWF. One of my projects was a pink dolphin campaign, as Hong Kong has its own population of pink dolphins which were threatened by the development of the new airport, as they were building it right in the dolphin nursery grounds. I started the campaign (which is difficult when there’s a new airport being built!) and Craig was a local current affairs journalist and programme maker so we did that story, and we did another one about cyanide fishing in Indonesia, the livery fish trade, so we’re just really good friends. That was about 25 years ago.
Did he give any more insight into making it more of a feature-length than a television documentary?
Yes. I’d only done television and Craig knows all the people in the industry and he’d shown the whale footage – which is the first footage we got – to the Weinstein brothers, and they said “this is really good footage, this should be on the big screen” and I’m going, “Really?”, so it was totally out of my comfort zone. So I asked him then if he would direct the topside stuff. Most of my work had been in… I went to the BBC after WWF, I worked on Blue Planet and the other underwater series, so a lot of my directing experience had been with a single cameraman underwater, so to do something with multiple cameras, topside, and to get all the artistry right… he knows all about the different cameras because they change so rapidly all the time. He’s really interested in that and I’m not so… (laughs) it was quite good to have him do that.
What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced?
Fundraising. That was the hardest thing because when we started this the whole world had plunged into a recession and getting any money to do anything was very, very hard. That’s what took so long. We would fundraise just to shoot, we couldn’t have people that we wanted on the shoot because you had to book people so far in advance and that’s why we ended up with Craig being one of the presenters and Tanya (Streeter) as well, because Tanya wasn’t working full time then, she was doing occasionally representing and stuff, but to have someone who’s more well known like Ben (Fogle) originally, all the way through, just didn’t work because you’d have to book them so far in advance and sometimes we were, like, a week away from a shoot waiting for the money to land with everyone on standby.
What was your experience like when you were on the field?
We were blighted actually by the weather almost every single time, and with the whales we were blighted by the tsunami. It sounds awful saying that because it was such a massive tragedy to so many people, but we’d gone out there to look for the whales and the first problem we had was that there were totally unregulated whale-watching boats coming out of Sri Lanka and there’s guidelines you have to follow when you’re watching cetaceans: you don’t chase them, you keep within 500 metres of them unless they come to you when you’re still and they were just absolutely on them. To make matters worse, the Sri Lankan navy were doing it in a jet propelled boat going straight at the whale. So getting cameramen in the water was pretty dangerous anyway with the boat activity, and whales move very, very fast. Once they do disappear they can come up kilometres away so that was hard enough. Then the tsunami happened and they disappeared altogether for ten days. We’d go out to the same place every day because they would feed at the drop-off of the continental shelf and just not see them. It was a very expensive shoot because to get that many people off-shore with all that equipment, you’re paying as much for each cameraman as you are for each camera, and as much again for housing. It triples the cost. In the last morning we were taking cameras out of the housings and heading back, and that’s when we saw seven of them. It was like they’d come back to their safety ground, hungry, and that’s why they let us go around. They’re not inquisitive, whales, they don’t leap out of water, they’re just on a mission. But they would let the guys get in with them, they pooed all over the camera team (laughs), and the baby – one of the cameramen had to move his leg because the baby was coming up right in front of him. So that’s how we got those shots and that’s how we were the first to do it. They’re very hard to film.
What do you think is the most important thing you discovered at the end of the project that you didn’t know when you set out to make this film?
I didn’t know about the threat to human health. And that, to me, makes it so much more important because… people might care about the environment, in which case, people will care about the animals and the oceans but some have a total disconnect from the ocean and don’t even know that every second breath they take comes from the ocean. People think that it’s our forests that provide our oxygen, but the oceans provide more than half of it. If the oceans get sick then what hope is there for any of us? They don’t realise that we have this connection. So for those sorts of people, it’s hard to get them to care. Everyone cares about their own health and the health of their children. These are major factors that these chemicals have been associated with. What we haven’t been able to say is that if you eat that fish that’s eaten plastic you’ll get this, you know, you can’t legally feed toxins to humans and test them! But the incidental reports and stuff that’s been done in the laboratories all points the same way. I think it’s enough for serious precaution. Before I started this, I didn’t really think about recycling. I did do it, but we didn’t have curbside recycling, so I’d collect my plastic and take it to a recycling centre, but if I was in a rush for work, you know, and the rubbish van came along, I’d just put it all out there. I wouldn’t dream of doing that now. I would also always take my bags to the supermarket, but if I forgot I’d get more bags. Now I stick it all in the boot of the car, go and get my bags from the inside and then take it all inside.
You were saying that you might do some shorter features…
Well we could make short films out of this, there’s footage that we didn’t use and a couple of stories that I think are very interesting and that kids will enjoy, so to make short ones… if we were doing education programmes about each topic, people take more in from what they see visually. That will enhance our education programmes and I’d like to make other short films which could be put online. But I’m not thinking of doing another big one unless someone gives me the money and says go and make it! That would be so easy.
One final thing: was the idea of education in school an idea as the project came along or something initially planned?
No, it’s something we wanted to do anyway. Both of my daughters are teachers. But the curriculum is so jam-packed and so difficult to change. The teachers themselves are so busy that learning a new topic and bringing it in is very difficult unless it’s certain schools that have time to do projects and enough teachers to cover that. Then we discovered that the OCR board were putting it on the Geography syllabus this year, Geography A-Level, so we went to see them and said, look, this is far more than Geography and it’s going to have to start at primary level to give them these ideas. If we produce a lesson plan, research notes, worksheets and workshop materials, everything, then it’s easy for teachers to download. If you look at a certain topic that’s already on the curriculum, for example, in Biology: bioaccumulation – instead of using bioaccumulation or whatever they might be using, talking about the toxins in plastics and how they pass up the food chain and accumulate and how they threaten health, that’s in the curriculum but looking at another topic. That’s what I’m working on now and also with the Cambridge Assembly, and they work in 140 countries. We’re also talking to digital education people as well, so this is all just the beginning. It’s all been about getting the film out there but that’s what we’re fundraising for next.