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Louie Psihoyos: Helping the Planet One Film at a Time

When Greek Reporter last spoke to noted photographer and documentary filmmaker Louie Psihoyos two years ago, he was gearing up to head to the Academy Awards with a nomination for his first big screen project, “The Cove.” Just a few weeks later, Psihoyos accepted the Best Documentary Oscar for a film that changed how people look at marine life, particularly the excess killing of dolphins.

As “The Cove” garnered more attention after its win, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) became bombarded with thousands of emails protesting the killing of dolphins. Psihoyos himself continues to get an inbox full of heartwarming messages on a daily basis. Even with a new project underway, things haven’t changed all that drastically since the Spartan Greek-American added “Oscar winner” to his resume.

Psihoyos and team after winning Best Documentary Oscar for “The Cove” in 2010. Photo: AP

“It’s slightly easier to get financing,” he admits. “People think you win an Oscar and all of a sudden you’re wealthy. The most amazing thing is the success it’s had and I don’t just mean the awards; it’s effecting change…they’re killing half as many dolphins in Japan since [‘The Cove’] came out.”

While documentaries generally don’t tend to make a lot of money, Psihoyos points out, “you have to do it because you love it.” He says the film was very lucky to have received backing from philanthropist Jeff Skoll, who founded the socially conscious production company Participant Media. Celebrities have also taken notice, and are taking action.

“There was this article in the newspaper where Ben Stiller was talking about his next movie, his voiceover for ‘Madagascar,’ and the whole thing was talking about how ‘The Cove’ changed his life, and how he doesn’t take his kids to zoos anymore,” says Psihoyos.

For nearly two decades before making the doc, Psihoyos was a photographer for the celebrated National Geographic magazine, and while the job was a thrilling ride, the reaction to “The Cove” has, so far, been his most memorable professional experience.

“[I] went to the Sundance Film Festival, it was the first time being screened for a public audience. I was talking to the distributor wanting to buy the film…and I’m trying to get to the screening and I hear people laughing, and I can hear people crying, and I can hear people cheering, and I thought, ‘What film are these people watching?’ And I looked behind the curtain and saw they were watching [‘The Cove’] and I’m like, “Oh my God!”… to see that you can have this effect on people.”

The film, which he lovingly nicknamed a “weapon of mass construction,” came as a result of over 30 years diving in deep waters. He says the transformation of reefs which were once spectacular, are now “rubble.” The organization he founded – the Oceanic Preservation Society (OPS) – works to create awareness and reverse the damage so future generations will have the opportunity to enjoy marine life.

“The most beautiful thing I’ve ever done, outside of making a family, is swimming in the ocean. It’s like space travel; you go to another world just by putting your head underneath the water. It’s completely new life forms, spectacular colors…it’s a world you can’t imagine,” he says. “It’s really scary to me to see it disappear.”

The erosion has not been limited to Greece, or Japan, or the U.S.; Psihoyos has seen the problem “all over the world.” During our interview, he emphasizes that carbon burning is a major issue because so much of it is being absorbed by the ocean; considered a good thing at one point, the disappearance of coral reef and plankton over the last 10 years has many people realizing that it’s actually not. He also points out, “plankton is responsible for two out of every three breaths you take,” and that the life support system of the planet is being compromised “for cheap fossil fuels.”

Preparing to create a large event just in time for World Oceans Day on June 8, 2013, OPS is working hard to grab the media’s attention and bring light to the subject. In addition, with a scheduled release date expected the following year for his new eco-thriller, “The Singing Planet,” he’s hoping that advance planning will create enough buzz so audiences will watch it in theaters rather than wait for a DVD release or to see it on TV.

Psihoyos and his “dream team” as he calls them, are picking up where “The Cove” left off. Not for the faint of heart, his second documentary is a reality check of the ongoing environmental issues that many are not fully aware of, and addresses the question of what people can do to help.

“The bright minds of our culture see it coming but they don’t know what they can do about it. They see this disaster coming, but they can’t get the word out, so that’s what we’re trying to do with this next film. We want to do something that’s going to make all the eyes of the world take notice.”

Greek-American Gina Papabeis, an Associate Producer working on “Singing Planet,” says it’s been fulfilling for her to be able to “merge filmmaking as a storytelling medium with a cause that is really important.”

The 3D documentary still has a long journey ahead. Production will be completed next year, and the plan is to promote it via the festival route in 2014.

With his current and upcoming projects, Psihoyos is clear on one thing: he will continue to give people a great story, “one that’s going to excite them, that’s going to rivet them, that’s gonna make them feel like they just went through psychotherapy and they’re happy for it,” adding, “the mission when we make a film is to change the world.”

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