Q&A with the director of the nat gas documentary "Haynesville."

Saturday’s Chronicle has a version of my interview with Gregory Kallenberg, the director of the new documentary “Haynesville” (which is showing in Copenhagen today). Below is the full version.

Gregory Kallenberg (standing) films a scene involving squirrel meat from his documentary “Haynesville.” (Photo courtesy of Kallenberg)

Kallenberg may be familiar to some Texans as a former reporter for the Austin American-Statesman, where he worked in the late 1990s on their excellent XL magazine and wrote a technology culture column. He has a background in cable television writing as well, and did a documentary about a competitive eater (I kid you not). He was in the middle of another project in Shreveport when the Haynesville story literally sat down next to him.
The Chronicle (with help from Tudor Pickering Holt) will be bringing “Haynesville” to Houston late in January for a showing at Rice University. We’ll have more details at the date draws closer.

Q: What’s your elevator pitch description of the movie?
A: Haynesville follows the momentous discovery of what is looking like it will be the largest natural gas field in the country. The film itself looks at the discovery from the perspective of three people’s lives and how they’re affected by the find. One is a single mom fighting for her community’s land rights. One is an African-American preacher who’s trying to use the proceeds from the Haynesville to build a Christian school. And the other is a self-described good ol’ boy who becomes an overnight millionaire. The other part that’s woven in between these personal stories is what this vast amount of energy means. What does it mean when you find 170 TCF of natural gas? How does that impact the national energy picture and eventually the energy future?
Q: What got you interested in this idea?
A: I’m from Louisiana and I was here working on a different documentary. I was literally in a little café called Strawn’s in late February 2008, and it was like the crazy miner comes in from the hills and he has found gold. This one gentleman started talking about a well that had been drilled by Chesapeake and what this well was yielding. At the time what made me switch my camera off on one project and turn it on the Haynesville was this idea about the fervor and the hysteria of thinking that there’s something huge out there, 12,000 feet under the ground, and who the hell knows what it is. But once more of these wells came online and we started to find our characters, we found that we had a pretty hefty and important project on our hands.
Q: Documentaries about energy seem to be either preachy, Sundance Channel-like environmental pieces or a pro-industry, heavy on the economics films. Where does “Haynesville” come out on that scale?
A: My background is journalism, and being a journalist I was always taught to present things in a balanced way and let the reader pick though the facts and decide what they thought about the story. I approached this film in the very same way. What I had to do was walk a very fine line. It’s the line of not being preachy and not being pro-industry. This is a piece that shows in a very balanced way where energy comes from and what effect it has on the people at the ground level. We all use energy and using energy it’s important to know how we get it. And it’s important to know what this energy could do for the nation’s future.
We went through various iterations of this film turning up one part, turning down another, but my ultimate goals was to create a balanced piece that showed the costs of the energy but also the potential positive impact that it could have on the country.
Q: Did making the film change your ideas about energy?
A: I came at this project really focusing on the personal stories. I find them compelling and it’s what pulls people through a film. But it was the vastness of the Haynesville that made me all of the sudden understand that there was more to the story and there was a larger energy piece. This led us down a totally different path that looked at where we are as a country as far as energy goes, what we have and where we’re going. Personally, I found myself convinced that natural gas was the way to go, that it’s an essential part of the puzzle to complete the energy picture. I found that I had to come up with a very methodical argument, and it was that you had to look at current sources, and when you look at current sources of electricity, coal is terrible, it sucks, How we get it is horrible and what we do with the waste is terrible. And then I looked at renewables, which is the sexy solution that everyone feels is what they want to see out there, me among them. But once you realize that renewable will take 20 years — to the most optimistic views — to develop, you need something else to buy you those 20 years that get you to where we can at least have a more realistic chance of developing renewable energy sources. I didn’t expect to think this way, but I truly think that natural gas is the energy source we need to get us there.
Q: How do you think the movie change’s audience opinions?
A: We’ve now shown this film in Louisiana, in New York, in England, and we’re about to show it in Copenhagen at the climate summit. What we’re seeing with the audience is an empirical change in the way they think. I think people know how much coal we use in the United States. But I don’t think people know how clean a fossil fuel natural gas is. I don’t think people know there’s no utility level storage for renewables. Bringing these things to the table really does change an audience.
During the Q&A at the end of the film you really expect the audience to want to talk about the personal stories but they want to talk about energy and natural gas and how they had no idea these facts were there. I believe I’m very balanced about it but I believe the vast amount of people coming out of it are coming out pro-natural gas.
Especially in Europe these guys come in with a preconceived notion of what an oil company is and what they do, or what fossil fuels are. The European audiences came out very positive to some of the notions that came out at the end of the film.
Another thing that we did with the film very consciously is there are no industry people speaking on the expert side. We strictly use academics, pundits and environmentalists. So when all of the sudden you have Bill McKibben saying that natural gas is a good solution to take us from where we are to a more green and clean energy future, it has huge impact. That was a conscious decision not to use energy people that has paid dividends because audiences are coming out of the film thinking a different way.
Q: What kind of reaction have you received from viewers in the industry?
A: I can’t really say who in the industry has seen this film in the form it’s in. There might have been one-third of the audience at the New Orleans screening that were industry, but they didn’t get up and introduce themselves. But the reaction I was hearing is overwhelmingly positive, which is a pretty humbling thing when you work on something for a year in a dark room with men who need showers. You don’t know what you produce. Your nose it pushed up against a fishbowl. So to go out and show it and get these reactions is incredibly fulfilling.
Q: Since you stopped filming in early 2009 there’s been a lot of negative backlash against natural gas shale drilling, particularly in the East. Did you experience much of that when filming?
A: It’s definitely a different environment in Louisiana than in the East. You have open land, hopefully a number of companies who are working through the water issues that exist now. They really weren’t thinking about those issues when we were making our film. It’s very different than up in the Marcellus [shale in Pennsylvania and New York]. We didn’t cover the issues that you’re seeing in Marcellus because they just didn’t exist in Louisiana. That said if someone wants to pull out a checkbook and get my film crew up to the Marcellus we’ll make that one too.
Q: What’s your take on the conflicts that are happening up there?
A: I only understand as much of it as I read in the papers, but I can understand if someone is concerned about their water. But one thing I can say about Louisiana is we really searched hard for water contamination. We really wanted to kick over every rock we could, and at least in Louisiana we found that the oil companies seemed to be very careful. I don’t know if that’s because they’re watching their pocketbooks or they truly cared. But the fact is I found the energy companies to be decent stewards considering what they do. They’re clearing land and poking holes in the ground, they’re bringing in big trucks. So there is some damage that occurs but we didn’t run into exactly what they’ve seen in the Marcellus, or the fervor that’s up there both for and against the drilling.
Q: Were done filming when there was a fracking fluid spill Caddo Parish where more than a dozen cows died?
A: No, that was way after we had stopped filming. One of the questions I get asked a lot is ‘How do you know when to turn off the camera?’ The blessing and the curse about documentary filmmaking is if you’re capturing life your film really never ends. But the reality is we had a budget, we had a timeline and we wanted to be in the thick of it as we are now. We wanted to lead the energy discussion. We wanted to turn the camera off and get a film out there so we can be a part of this.
Q: What’s next after this (besides a Jan. 21 showing in Houston)?
A: Right now we’re very focused on Copenhagen. What a huge honor to go there to represent the U.S. and show the world what we found here in the U.S. We will do some limited showings, aim for a couple of big festivals and see what happens. The primary idea is to show the film and spread its message. I’m very committed to some of the issues and messages presented in the film Haynesville. Above all else I want to make sure that that message gets out. Whether someone’s buying a DVD or hosting a screening, the more people we can get this in front of the better.
I would love to do something else on energy. I believe there’s a lot more to do in this field. There’s a lot more stories and information to get out there. If I had my druthers I’d do it again. In fact one company in Europe is asking us to consider going over to Europe and doing the same type of project as the European shales come online. If you look at the Paris Basin and Poland it’s the exact same thing going on. Their issues are really clear: the idea of energy independence is incredibly important to them. Someone was asking me the other day ‘What does Germany know about energy independence?’ Well, when Russia turns off your gas all of the sudden in the middle of winter, then all of the sudden you want to find your own energy sources. They think the shale plays could replace a big percentage of Russian natural gas. Going over there [to Europe] was incredible. We’ve had these really enthusiastic crowds coming from different places. We’ve been asked ‘You’re at a film festival, surely there are environmentalists who see it and hate you because you made a film about natural gas?’ But again, you have to see the film and it’s very balanced. It looks at all the issues and shows the pluses and minus and lets you walk out and have that discussion. If people can see the film and walk out and have that discussion then I’ve done my job.
Q: Where did your funding come from?
A: I was very careful to do this as an independent project with no industry money. Part of my background was cable television writing, so I took that money and put it into it. And then from there it was friends and family. Much to my wife’s chagrin her next six summer vacations are in the film Haynesville.
Q: Does she at least get to travel with you?
A: She and the kids are coming with me to Copenhagen. So it will be a really cool experience.