Director and producer Sonya Pemberton is one of Australia’s hardest working science-focused filmmakers. From her award-winning work on ABC’s Catalyst to working as director on science-backed films like Jabbed: Love, Fear and Vaccines and Vitamania: The Sense and Nonsense of Vitamins, to her work as a producer on Uranium: Twisting the Dragon’s Tail and the newly released Carbon – The Unauthorised Biography, Sonya has laid down the template of how best to present clear science in films.
In this in-depth interview about Carbon – The Unauthorised Biography, Sonya talks about exploring our incredible universe through the history of carbon, how to trigger curiosity in the viewers minds, and the process of casting Sarah Snook to voice the element carbon. Carbon – The Unauthorised Biography is an Australian/Canadian co-production, with Daniella Ortega writing the script, and co-directing alongside Niobe Thompson. Featured science experts in the film vary from Neil deGrasse Tyson, to Katharine Hayhoe, to Gisele Martin, and Joelle Gergis.
I understand you’re touring Carbon with doing Q&As. Is that correct?
Sonya Pemberton: I think we’ve got about twenty cinemas now that have confirmed which is great given (we’re) living in the time of COVID. Cinemas are doing it so hard. And to take our doc, let alone a science doc, is really brave and courageous. But I think everyone who’s seen it gets that it’s got kind of sparkle dust. I direct most of our films, but I didn’t direct this film, it’s directed by Daniella Ortega and Niobe Thompson in Canada. And they did an amazing job of making it really engaging.
One of the reviews we got from one of the Canadian papers was interesting. I think the headline was something like “A Climate Change Film That’s Fun” (laughs) with a question mark. You feel vaguely like it shouldn’t be an enjoyable ride, but we set out to make sure this wasn’t a film that made you feel guilty and depressed. Because those films are important, but this is a different kind of film. Did you get a chance to see it?
I have. I watched it last week. And I think that’s the thing that I found really fascinating too. It is very much a history lesson of the role that carbon plays in our lives and the role that carbon has played within the universe and certainly on earth. It’s a really fascinating dive into that particular story. Where did that decision come from?
SP: We make science docs at Genepool, and I did the COVID doc for ABC last year (Cracking COVID – 2021) at the same time I was doing Carbon so that was fun. We make very high-end science docs for the international market and for the Australian market. And the reason we do this is because we want to take on what I call ‘the epic stories of our times’. We did COVID, we’ve done vaccination, we’ve done uranium. We’ve done crude oil, we’ve done vitamins, of all things. We take on stories where I, as the creative director of the company, believe that the audience perhaps would gain something from knowing and understanding an issue at a deeper level, at least a scientific level. And my passion is science and I’m a bit geeky around science stuff. So I have devoted our company to focusing on science filmmaking, but doing it in a way that’s really engaging and very different. And we obviously wanted to do climate.
Ten years ago, I was executive producer on a film called Crude: The Journey of Oil, and that in its time was a big film. It won lots and lots of awards all over the world and directed by an amazing guy called Richard Smith. We were looking at how do we make a film about climate change without just making a film about climate change? Because there’s lots of good films out there and lots of powerful advocacy films, and I watched a lot of them and my team, we all watched a lot of them. We wanted to do something different but we weren’t quite sure what we could bring to the table that would be different and original.
And then Daniella Ortega, the writer and director, brought to me this extraordinary piece of prose writing by the author Primo Levi, and he wrote a book of the periodic table. I knew about it because when we made Uranium, it touches on elements, obviously. But the final chapter is called Carbon, and it’s the journey with a carbon atom through these incredible cycles of life. And Daniella tentatively said, “I think this could make a film.” I read it and I went, “Yes, it could.” And we spent two years working this up into what felt like a palatable, digestible film. Because the whole point is if you just want to give a lecture about carbon, no one’s going to watch it, let alone in the cinema.
But what we found enthralling was the journey of carbon through every single part of our life. And I remember being in high school, learning about the carbon cycles and it was really boring, right? And if you were to Google carbon cycle right now and put it into the internet, you will come up with all these boring diagrams. It sounds flat. Actually, this is the most incredible story in the universe. This is the fundamental story about how elements bond. And if elements don’t bond, they don’t create more than themselves.
And so when we realised carbon was this incredible bonding agent, Daniella came up with this idea of what if we made it first person? Originally, we made carbon a male, and then I went “Hang on, why should the most powerful element on earth be male? No, it’s the great bonding agent. Let’s make her female.” And we did talk to quite a lot of feminists. I’m a feminist. We all looked at this quite carefully and went, “Is this a problem?” and went “No, because she’s incredibly powerful and she shapes all life on Earth. This feels very strong and very fitting.”
So it came from this desire of wanting to tell the climate story, but tell it in a way that didn’t feel like a climate film because really, this is bigger than a climate film. It’s a story of carbon. And once you understand carbon’s role in the formation of our planet, in the formation of us, in the formation of every plant and that process of photosynthesis, and then you understand how it shapes climate, you get to understand how our role in digging up lots of carbon is playing a vital and critical role in changing carbon’s journey in our planet. It ended up being what we call a bit of a love story. Because it’s a love story in a way to carbon, it’s a story of how wondrous she is, and the gifts that she can give as well as the threat she poses.
And she’s so wonderfully voiced by Sarah Snook as well. What was the casting process that you went through? How did you decide on Sarah?
SP: I hadn’t even seen Succession. When we did the recording because of COVID, I had to be in the suite and Daniella was directing remotely. And Sarah was so thrilled when I said, “You know what, I haven’t even watched Succession.” She said, “Why did you ask me?” And I said we saw this really beautiful little short film she did about a plant, a plant that speaks (The Poet and the Plant – 2020), and we thought, “Goodness, here is an actress that really gets personifying an object, a creature that isn’t normally considered able to speak.” So that was one of the things that kind of blew us away. And we went, ‘oh look, she’s done this beautiful little story of a plant’. And then of course as we dug deeper into her whole CV, we realised what an extraordinary talent she is.
And we wanted carbon to be useful and energised and yet have depth and power. We felt Sarah Snook brought all of that, she’s a remarkable actress. She’s young, she’s only in her early thirties, she’s on her way up. And she brings this mixture of enthusiasm and girlish playfulness combined with this terrifying sense of female power. And that’s what we wanted. We did look at quite a few actresses, and some of them were excellent for the older, wise woman of carbon but Daniella the director in particular was really conscious that she wanted a young, vibrant voice that had huge range. Sarah was perfect for that.
I really appreciate how she starts off as this almost bubbly voice at the beginning and then as it folds into the climate change narrative, there is this portent of doom there. It shows how great an actress she is and how great a voice actor she is.
SP: She wept. When she said, “Can’t you see I have nowhere left to hide?” the tears were pouring down her face. She was talking about how she agreed to do this film because she has a great commitment to the climate issues and climate change as an important issue that needs to be explored. She said she felt viscerally that she wanted to bring everything she could to this film because the issue is so incredibly important.
And also I think she really loved the idea that we weren’t doing an advocacy film where we were wagging our finger and telling people things they shouldn’t do or should do. Instead, helping them really connect emotionally to the story of carbon. That’s a great gift she gives the film, she allows us to connect to this on more than a cerebral or academic level. You really get it in your gut.
We’ve seen people cry. There’s two points in the film where people just cry. It is a true narrative journey. Carbon starts young and naive in a sense, and she forms and she travels this journey of increasing knowledge and understanding. And ultimately, she is this epic, immortal creature that will outlive us all.
One of the things I’ve been really fascinated by your work as documentarian – I really found Crude and the vaccination films very fascinating because you take these subjects – and Carbon as well – these subjects that are perceived to be contentious, and you bring them into the spotlight and you say “No, let’s look at them here. Let’s look at this way.” And I find that really quite interesting. As a filmmaker, what draws you to bring those kinds of subjects into the spotlight?
SP: Well, you’ve hit the nail on the head. I’m very interested in contentious areas of science where there is a debate, where people feel torn. I have a background in science and a training in science, and I spent twenty-five years working in science, science of filmmaking. What I want to contribute is my understanding of the science that underpins any given issue.
And I choose to sidestep the politics, like we do not engage with the politics or the toing and froing. My way of thinking is we must just explore the science and travel the journey with the science in the most interesting way we can. For example, in the uranium series, uranium is incredibly controversial as well. But we chose to sidestep the politics like we did with vaccination, and go “Come on this journey to understand how this thing works. We will take you through the science and we will take you through the history. And at the end of it, you can make up your own mind. We’re not going to tell you how to think or how to act. We will suggest what we think is a sensible way. You will see by the end of all these films where we land. We never hide our own bias.”
Because I have a belief that no filmmaker and no artist, no creator is unbiased. We all of course bring our bias to subjects. But the trick is you have to acknowledge your bias, and then try and put it to one side. So with the vaccination film, I went deeply into the story of vaccine injuries and when vaccines went wrong. We didn’t avoid that. We went deeply into it. We found a child called Luke who had a catastrophic brain injury after vaccination. Now it turns out that the vaccines didn’t cause that injury. They were a trigger that allowed the genetic problem to arise. But that child would have had the same seizures had they got a severe cold or a terrible infection with measles. Those seizures would have started. It just happened to be the slight fever that was triggered by the vaccine which was the thing that brought this genetic error to the fore. Now that’s a very, very tricky journey to take an audience on, and I spent years working on that to get it right.
And likewise, with Carbon, it’s been five years in the making. We’ve worked closely with climate change experts and with climate change and science communication experts. I spent many years working with a team at Yale, Professor Dan Kahan who has an extraordinary body of work that’s called Cultural Cognition. You’d love it probably for your website. I spent three, four years working with Dan on various projects, and he helped us with the vaccination projects, again with uranium and others.
And what we learned that was if you truly want to – what I call – ‘cross the divide’, if you want your films to speak to people who do not love science like I do, who do not agree with the premise that the science says ‘this is okay’, we have to find a way to not preach to the choir, we have to cross the divide. All of the science communication shows you that the way to do this is by triggering curiosity. Once you trigger curiosity and refuse to use the normal tropes or trigger points that people often use in these kinds of films, if you absolutely consciously avoid them, then it allows an audience to come to your film and journey with you and come to their own conclusion at the end.
With Carbon for example early on, we agreed that we would never show a polar bear on a floating piece of ice. We would not open the film with all the usual images of climate change. We would instead squarely preface this film with an exploration of the element of carbon with a clear acknowledgement that at some point, we’re going to look at the climate issue, but that’s not our focus. And by personifying carbon as if she were a human who could speak, we hope to trigger a curiosity at that point. Kind of what the fuck moment, like “What? Carbon speaks? You’re kidding me. Really?” And that moment of going “Really?” hopefully allows people to watch your film with a degree of freshness.
In the uranium series, the minute uranium became a dragon, most people went “What? How can uranium be a dragon?” and that was the moment of kind of going, “Really? How are they going to do this?” Hopefully we’ve engaged people to then come on the journey. In the vaccination films, we used the upfront acknowledgement of vaccine injuries, so-called vaccine injuries, and come on a journey to really understand what these are and how they work.
Now each of these ways of approaching this filmmaking is dangerous. Some people don’t like them. It polarises – not audiences, not hugely – but there’s always a contingent that go, “You made the wrong choice there.” And I have done this with full knowledge and full acceptance that for some people, this will be tricky. But the reason we take these novel approaches to these contentious subjects is to try and engage with a fresh approach and a fresh take and to say look, this is slightly different, come with us, bear with us for this.
In Vitamania, we used songs. For God’s sake, our presenter suddenly engages with song and dance. That’s weird. But you know, we did it, because we wanted you to go “Hello, that’s that vitamin film about that has songs in it.” Or “That’s that uranium series that has dragons in it. And now that’s the carbon film but carbon actually speaks.”
I discovered this from making films over a long time. My films last about ten, twelve years on the on the shelf because science doesn’t date quickly, right? Around about ten, sometimes fifteen years, the science starts to change significantly enough that you have to go ‘no, these are now retrospective films’. But what people remember is the sparkle dust, the thing that makes them fresh and feel different.
Fundamentally I’m a science communicator first and a filmmaker second. And my broadcaster sometimes finds this a bit uncomfortable, but I’m very clear about this. Because my primary commitment is telling really thoroughly researched scientific stories that have impeccable credentials, impeccable fact-checking. Our range of expert advisors are always outstanding, usually at Nobel laureate level, and they help us make these slightly unorthodox scientific films. We’re not doing it blind.
We’re using the experts in the science, plus the experts in science communication. And then we test our films very carefully. We show them to people and we make sure that the key messages are getting there. Because we want them to be useful. I always say that my real reason for creating Genepool Productions is that we want to make films that are ultimately useful. That can mean educational and engaging, you learn something but you also enjoy learning something. And I don’t think that something informing you and educating is bad. Some people go, “Oh no, no, we don’t want to be educated.” I go, “Why not?” I like learning things.
I love it. It’s so exciting.
SP: It’s really exciting. And it also gives you a sense of purpose. I worked in drama for years. My husband, our main DOP, Harry [Pangiotidis] – he shoots dramas, he shoots Peter Jackson’s movies, he shoots lots of big movies. But for me with our company, he comes and shoots most of our docs – not Carbon, but he shoots most of our docs. Because it makes us all feel good, knowing that we’re trying to contribute something.
I’m very proud of the fact that all of our films win scientific awards as well as film awards. We hold the record for five Eureka Prizes of science journalism. That is a record and we have many scientific awards from around the world as well as an Emmy, and we’ve been nominated for Logies and all that sort of stuff. I love the fact that the scientific community say these films are really great because they’re doing something difficult. They’re taking real science, important science, contentious science, science where people are confused maybe and have questions, and they’re delivering it in a way that reaches people, and hopefully is memorable.
Well, I think so. It’s been years since I’ve watched some of your previous films and they stick in my mind because of everything that you’re saying.
SP: That’s great. I’m chuffed.
When it comes to organising the science advisors, do you go through a casting process similar to what you did with Sarah Snook?
SP: Yes. I have some very strict rules, as my team will say. When I used to run Catalyst – I used to be the head of specialist factual at the ABC for a number of years, and I ran Catalyst and the science department and then all the factual departments at the ABC for a couple of years. I brought these same rules in there, and I’ve honed them because I think they’re important.
Every film has to have a mix of scientific advisors. And these scientific advisors must not be in the film. Number one rule – and this is a rule that a lot of filmmakers don’t employ, because it’s often very hard to find advisors who are as good and as qualified as the ones in your film. And when you find them, you often want to put them in the film. But the second they are in the film they stop being an advisor. Because in my way of thinking, they are no longer unbiased towards your film.
I choose people that are the highest-ranking people we can find, some in the same country because it’s helpful having them down the road, but also around the world. They agree to be on board for at least a year and there we have a little contract that we do. And they will give us x number of hours and they will engage at key points: at the beginning, at the formation of the idea, at the first treatment, at the first script, at first rough cut, and then just before lock-off, and then of course they can see it after it’s finished. And at any point, they can withdraw. Because I think this is really important. If we were to choose not to take on board one of their comments, sometimes they might go “Look, that means I’m no longer interested.” It’s never happened but they always have that option.
We have scientific advisors that are extremely high-ranking but do not appear in the film that have an ability to be sceptical, and they are briefed to be sceptical and push back on what we’re creating. We don’t want people who just say “Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great, Sonya.” That’s not much use to us. And so I send them a list of questions. “What do you like about the film? What is not working for you? Are there any characters that you feel are very strong? Are there any that you feel are weak? Are there any things you want to change? Are there any areas that we have factual inaccuracies?” We guide them, and our advisors tell us this is extremely helpful.
We have templates now, we’ve done so many of these films. I’ve done over – I can’t remember now how many hours I’m up to, but it’s over fifty hours of science doc. So I have these templates that we share with our advisors. And if at some point, one of our advisors is so charismatic and so compelling and we go “Look, actually we’d like to interview you for the film. But that will mean you’re no longer an advisor on the film,” they understand that and then we have to find another advisor.
I like training up new directors and helping them take the next leap. Daniella was at that stage where she was ready to make the leap into a much bigger film. Our current project actually struggles a little bit because sometimes you fall in love with your characters. And one of the things you have to do is be able to push back on your characters and be sceptical. We have a little sticker that I give everybody to put on your computer and it says “What if I’m wrong? What if my character is wrong?”
Because you fall in love with your characters, you fall in love with your thesis, and you fall in love with your film. You have to. That’s the process of making films. You need to have a factually accurate, scientifically rigorous film. You have to have a methodology, I believe, of checking – and not just fact-checking – but checking your bias.
For example, we had one version of Carbon, I think it was one of the rough cuts, and we had created a very different opening title sequence. It was very good. I was watching it and watching it and watching it and going, “Something’s wrong. I can’t figure out what it is.” I watched it and watched it and then in the middle of the night, “Oh, bingo.” We had put a couple of grabs in the pre-title sequence that basically declared a bias, pro-climate change (action), wanting to save the planet bias. And by doing that, it just blew the film. It just wasn’t appropriate. This film wasn’t a film about telling you what to do. It’s not an advocacy film. There were beautiful grabs where our scientists [had] heartfelt declarations of how important it was that we use our knowledge to fight climate change. But by putting it in the front of the film, it was wrong.
We were all very – especially our two directors – were grief-stricken when I said, “We have to take this out. We just have to, because this is not what we set out to do. I know we all feel this very strongly, but we set out to make a film that is a different kind of storytelling. And we’ve blown it because we’ve fallen in love with our characters, we’ve fallen in love with what they’re having to say.” When we took it out, the film’s equilibrium was re-established.
And Dr Rebecca Huntley who has written a wonderful book about how to understand climate change and how to communicate climate change, she helped guide us through the section with Joelle Gergis and when we went to the bushfires, because we know that just like polar bears on floating ice floes, bushfires in Australia are trigger points for people who are climate sceptics. Now we would like people who are sceptical of climate change and feel like it’s all a bit overblown to come and watch this film because this is a film about the underlying core processes that drive climate change, heating and cooling. It’s really important that we don’t accidentally trip over what the experts know are trigger points. And so they were able to say, “Look, if you take out these trigger points, then people can just watch it smoothly.”
It doesn’t mean we can’t make the same points and that we can’t be clear on our intention in the film. We’re not lying about what we want to do. But we don’t need to accidentally force our audience to come up against their own bias. So being conscious of these things really helps to avoid unnecessarily stepping into areas that are politically fraught because that’s not the point here. We don’t want to get into the climate change debate. We are showing you where the science is done, the science is settled. The science tells you this is the carbon cycles. These are how these various carbon cycles work, to the best of our knowledge. And this is what they mean and this is where we’re headed. All of that is just what the science shows you. So let’s not get sidetracked with an argument. Let’s not accidentally inflame people’s passions. Let’s make sure we’re providing this information so that people who are sceptical can watch this film too.
And they’ll have a good time.
SP: And they’ll have a good time. We screened it for people who are climate sceptics, in the same way that when we did the vaccine films, we screened it for vaccine skeptics, we get their feedback and we see what works for them. They find it fascinating because they’re not being lectured to.
Which is something that shouldn’t be surprising, but it almost is in a way. It puts everybody on the same level. And that helps so much.
SP: And we also use the scientific process to inform our films. The scientific process basically is you have a hypothesis and then you test that hypothesis and you measure the data, and you work out whether or not your hypothesis holds, right? That’s the basis of the scientific principle. We apply that to filmmaking here.
When the film comes out, there’s going to be surveys and little QR codes on the seats and also when it goes on various platforms, there will be a QR code you can choose to fill in. And over the next year we’re working with Monash University and the climate communication team there to measure how this works or not. We did this with the vaccination films in different ways and we’ve done it with the uranium series, we measure whether people can come to this story and engage with it without activating the knee-jerk biases that we all have. And we learn from every single film how to do this better. That means we’re making films that hopefully are able to inform in ways that are wide-reaching.
I hope so.
SP: I’m not knocking climate change films. I think climate change film serve a very good purpose. And I’ve been to lots of them, and I’m very, very supportive of what they’re doing. But we make a different kind of film. We’re not making advocacy films. We had to explain this to the Documentary Australia Foundation (DAF), when we were working with them. They kept saying, “Oh, where’s your advocacy plan?” We go, “That’s not what we do. That’s not our purpose.”
This film is going to go into universities, into schools. It’s got a big educational life. We’ve got our one-hour version, a forty-five-minute version. I’ve got a French version, an English version, a Chinese version, lots of versions. It will go out there and hopefully help people understand the background of all of this.
I’ll tell you the key moment for me was when my eight-year-old niece and I were on the school’s climate change strike March. And she said, “Aunty, this is the first time I’ve ever been on a march that I want to be on.” I thought, “Oh, that’s nice.” And then she said, “But one thing I really don’t understand. Why does planting trees help?”
She just didn’t understand why planting trees helped because she didn’t understand the carbon cycle. And at that moment, I went, “Okay, I have to do something.”
So when Daniella came up with this idea, and we workshopped it for two years and brainstormed how we could do it, and then we started production, and then we got a Canadian co-pro and the whole big huge catastrophe and filming during a pandemic in fifteen countries. Oh my God. Behind it all is hopefully at the end of the film my niece who is now twelve will understand how planting a tree helps. And this lovely line of fundamentally we all have to figure out how to give carbon places to hide.
Which is fair.
SP: She’s got nowhere else to go now. She’s got no room left.
That’s a really beautiful way to wrap up. I think I could talk to you for hours and hours and hours.
SP: That’s all right. I’m really pleased that you’re interested in covering it so thank you for that.
The diversity of what we create here in Australia, that excites me so much. It really does.
SP: And we’re so lucky to have incredible funding structures that support us. I mean, the Canadians have very good structures as well. But Americans and Europeans, they just look at our funding, and we’re so lucky to have Screen Australia and Vic Screen and others that will support filmmaking in this country. And I feel incredibly grateful to them for supporting it. And to have the major broadcasters come, to have ABC, RTE and CBC come behind a film about an element (laughs) and to put it in primetime, and to have a distributor prepared to release it in cinemas across the country, and to have cinemas prepared to take it on. You’re going, “Wow.” I never imagined that a film about the elements of carbon – that everyone would get what the vision was and get that it could be an extraordinary beautiful ride.
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