I Talk With the Creator of Apple TV+’s New Series on Climate Change
Last week I had the opportunity to review Apple TV’s new climate change series Extrapolations for Sierra Magazine. The assignment included talking with show creator Scott Z. Burns. Burns is best known for producing An Inconvenient Truth and writing the scripts for Contagion and The Bourne Identity.
Burns had a lot more to say about climate change and storytelling that didn’t make it into the piece. Like any good environmentalist — from snout to tail — I’m going to use the whole hog. So, on the day of Extrapolation’s fourth episode’s airing, here’s my broader interview with Burns.
Don Carr: Vulture TV critic Jen Chaney told me she believes that because of the recent Covid 19 pandemic – suddenly there’s this event we’d only experienced in movies and books and now was reality – it allows viewers to conceptualize climate change onscreen without it seeming like an abstract idea. As the guy who brought us Contagion, do you agree?
Scott Z. Burns: Humans have a hard time looking ahead and personalizing a threat. We are not good at what the military calls situational awareness. So, when I was writing Contagion the realization was that we have fire departments that we staff even when your house isn’t on fire. The same goes for government responses to public health emergencies.
Contagion hopefully made science seem like a reliable source for people to get some understanding of what the risks are. But then we also saw human instinct and politics come into it and suddenly there’s misinformation and suspicion and these two things seem to be constantly in a dance in society now. A thing happens, everyone volunteers an explanation or finds someone to blame when we should be focused on solving the problem.
We wanted the show [Extrapolations] to not be too distant. The time difference between right now and when the show allegedly starts is about the same amount of time between now and when we made an Inconvenient Truth. What I wanted to do was make it impossible to push it away and say that’s not a world I recognize. We wanted to make the future something that you couldn’t deny.
DC: The show is packed with stars like Meryl Streep. Did you have to do any cajoling to get actors onboard?
Burns: Yeah, a lot of them share my feelings and your feelings about this issue and were thrilled to have a piece of material that aligned with it. Or in Mathew’s [Rhys] case or Kitt’s [Harrington] case they made really great villains. I hope that they responded to what was on the page as much as what was in their hearts. Apple made it clear that wanted us to have the bar really high and I was still stunned every time I sent a script out and got on the phone with someone and they really wanted to do this. Working with Tar Rahem was as much fun as I’ve ever had with an actor as a director because that was an important story to tell.
DC: What was the challenge with making a show about climate change not feel prescriptive or like eating your broccoli?
Burns: A big lesson I learned from Stephen Soderbergh over the years was the audience is not going for a science lecture. They don’t really give you points if the story you told aligns with their politics. What you’re asking them for is an hour of their time and you better give them something entertaining for that hour. That was the obligation. If I’m taking an hour of someone’s time, then my goal should be — can I make their favorite show? Can I make something that is funny and moving and all the possible things that they could want? We started from a point of we’re making entertainment and the audience will not and should not give us a pass because we are doing something with a social good attached to it. That should be between them and their own personal compass.
DC: In Extrapolations, we see future afflictions like summer heat, heat rage, and fatal misquote bites — was it important to show the whole breadth of threats we face to our health beyond fire and flood?
Burns: We had to work as a production team in a very granular way about everything that was put in front of the camera and how its effected by climate change. How do clothes change? How does food change? We were looking at what climate change would do to everything. How does it change your life expectancy?
DC: In your show, cryptocurrency is killing us with its carbon impact, Beyonce’s daughter Blue Ivy cuts a holiday record, Texas secedes, billionaires shoot rockets into space instead of doing what’s right for the planet — did you make an effort to sprinkle those references to our current time in the narrative?
Burns: Absolutely. We are very much a product of what came before. In your daily life your music you’re listening to tends to be from a different time in your life. I wanted to find things from this moment and allowed them to morph as they go into the future. Will there be an opportunity with holograms? These things in terms of world building are very important.
We’ve also made it very easy to relegate that kind of speculative storytelling to the science fiction part of the bookstore. But Jules Verne and Orwell were also doing social commentary. So was Ray Bradbury, Kim Stanley Robinson, William Gibson and Neal Stephenson.
There’s more to those books than just science fiction. It’s more what the future looks like and how it informs the present.
Extrapolations airs every Friday night on Apple TV+