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”Canary” Introduces Viewers to a Real-Life Indiana Jones

September 14, 2023

FC is proud to have been a fiscal sponsor for “Canary” which will begin a limited theatrical run on September 15, followed by a one-night-only special nationwide screening on September 20. The film’s co-directors, Alex Rivest and Danny O’Malley  recently joined us on Making Media Now,(MMN) the FC podcast. Here are some excerpts from our chat!

MMN: What was it in the story of Dr. Lonnie Thompson that felt so compelling to you?

Danny O’Malley: Lonnie always talks about his youth in West Virginia, and he grew up in coal country. So he’d listen to the miners talk. And one thing that I think we’re all familiar with is people brought canaries into the mine. And when the canary died, it meant there was gases that could kill you. There was something bad happening and you needed to get out. At the heart of this film, there’s all these warnings.

Lonnie is a climate scientist who is warning the world about climate change. His doctor tells him he needs a heart transplant. And there’s this question of will we respond when we’re warned or will we find out the hard way?

My whole thing with documentaries is you wanna find a character and a story where you don’t have to put spin on the ball. Working in documentary television, there’s a lot of half-baked ideas and things where people pitch something but the story’s not there and it’s heartbreaking to work on. So I’m just always looking for a story where you just find out what happens and you’re like, this already feels like a movie like this already.

We have a hero, we have stakes, and there’s something that it’s trying to tell us the story. And then the job becomes how do you bring out the truth, bring out the power, and bring out the universal feelings of that story so that everyone feels it.

MMN: And Alex, you come from a very different professional and academic background. Share with a bit of your story and how the story of Dr. Lonnie Thompson came on your radar.

ALEX: I grew up in science. My dad is a professor at MIT in computer science. I grew up kind of in the shadow of academia. I fell in love with neuroscience at college and ended up going to MIT to do a PhD in neuroscience, studying memory systems.

We would genetically engineer mice to turn off and on very specific parts of their brain and look how it affected memory acquisition and recall. So I was doing that on the academic track, finished my PhD, did a postdoc.

But during the whole time, I had a love to get out and adventure and go to places as far off the map as I can get. And I always saw that as far as I was off the map and reporting back from that, there was always a group of people that were a little bit further away. And I started realizing that those people were scientists and that their curiosity had brought them to places that were very hard to reach, very unique, very beautiful, very tough environments.

And I realized that there was something that this was not being communicated right. That that curiosity alone can make
you one of the explorers on the frontier. And there was something, there was just a magic to that, that I felt like was missing.

And, and like Danny said, I grew up watching science television. I try to watch as much as I can of it. It always feels a little bit like homework. Hmm. And, and it, and it, as I, as I got into science and I met more scientists and I worked with ’em, I realized that the, the, the essence of who the human is has been completely removed from a lot of science television.

And I came across Lonnie’s story in New York Times article and reached out to him and said, we’d like to talk to you about this, this kind of TV show idea we’re developing.

So we got on a Skype with Lonnie and within five minutes he had us totally pulled into this adventure story that he was telling us. Within 40 minutes he had us both crying on the Skype call just about his, his life and, and how close to to death he actually came. And then at the end of it, we hung up. It was about an hour long Skype call I, I turned to Danny and I said, if there’s a single story we ever tell in this world, it has to be this one. And reading about Lonnie Thompson, I heard him described as the closest living thing to Indiana Jones.

MMN: Danny, tell me what you saw in the opportunity to tell his story and trying to strike that balance between charismatic figure and actual hard science.

DANNY: When me and Alex first talked and he was talking about these charismatic scientists and he’s never seen them represented the way they are in real life. One of the things that came to mind was Indiana Jones. And I was like, well, Indiana Jones, has car chases and gunfights and all this cool stuff. We may get cool stories but we’ll never get that.

But when we went and actually talked to scientists, a lot of them had been kidnapped, had been caught in civil wars, we met one scientist who negotiated a peace treaty between war tribes so he could dig up skull with the oldest child skull found in discovery. So I was like, yeah, there’s no limit on how cool these scientists are gonna be and how great their stories are gonna be.

And like Lonnie has no exception.

MMN: How old was Lonnie roughly when you andmet him and how far along in his career was he?

ALEX: I think when we first got in touch with Lonnie, he was 69 or 70, I believe he’s 75 now. And as we’re speaking up at 18,000 feet.

MMN: He’s up there with, not to throw a spoiler at anybody, but he is up there with his second heart.

ALEX: Yes, he got a heart transplant. He was the only heart transplant recipient ever to go to these altitudes. A year after his heart transplant he, he was back up at 20,000 feet. And I think that’s an important story about what is possible. I mean, Lonnie’s story is always about taking the seemingly impossible and making it possible.

MMN: I think typically, and maybe it was just me, but when I hear glaciers I’m thinking of the Arctic. And can either of you talk to me a little bit about what is specific and specifically compelling about the evidence that’s being found in glaciers in South America?

ALEX: It may be good to just step back for a second and say when they study ice and study glaciers, what they do is they pick a site on the ice and they drill a hole into the ice and then recover a cylinder of that ice. And as you go down from the very top of the ice to the bottom, you’re going back in time. So whatever snow fell last year will be near the top ever. Snow fell 10 years ago will be a little bit further down. Whatever snow felt 4 million years ago will be at the bottom of the ice core.

And so you can reconstruct the exact atmosphere of that part of the planet by getting an ice core. So that’s kind of a fundamental feature here. So in Antarctica and Greenland and in the Arctic where we, where we think of ice, there’s these massive ice ice sheets and they are kind of far away from human populations for the most part.
Now there’s this whole thing and people didn’t know the term tropical glaciers, right? You don’t think of glaciers in the tropics, right? But there are lots of glaciers in the tropics. They just are have, have to be in places that are cold enough. And to be cold enough you have to be kind of above 16,000 feet. Most of ’em are above 18,000 feet. Peru has a huge majority of glaciers. And the thing that’s kind of beautiful about ice cores in places like the Andes: they contain these local histories too.

DANNY: Yeah. One more thing to mention about tropical glaciers is like Alex said, it’s where the people live. You know, when we think about melting glaciers, we think about sea level rise, but there’s this other factor where there are cities that depend on the runoff from these tropical glaciers in the mountains. Like the rivers create hydropower, they fuel whole cities and towns during the dry seasons.

And when these glaciers melt, there’s going to be agriculture that can’t grow food anymore. There’s going to be cities that don’t have power. And part of what’s important about Lonnie’s work is shining a light on that issue because if we don’t figure out how to globally support these places that are gonna be losing water, those people are gonna have to move. And you know, there are estimates of climate change that go from like a hundred million to a billion climate refugees.

And there’s no political infrastructure, there’s no treaties, there’s no anything that’s prepared for that. And I think part of the hard work that we have with climate change is getting the world together to prepare for those outcomes so people don’t have to move or people can, we can find a way to find new places for people that are equitable and don’t lead to political backlashes and things like that.

We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation