Nearly two decades after meeting then-Vice President Al Gore in 1998 and the creation of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, the actor is more vocal (and active) than ever, serving as the U.N. Messenger of Peace, using his Oscar win for The Revenant to speak out about climate change and joining Beyoncé and others onstage at the 2015 Global Citizen Festival. Now, DiCaprio is stepping in front of the camera in Before the Flood to showcase the ongoing (and rapid) effects of global warming. He also serves as producer on directors Richard Ladkani and Kief Davidson’s undercover documentary The Ivory Game, about ivory trafficking and the depletion of African elephants -- animals that the actor’s foundation has helped protect.
The timing of their releases -- less than one week apart -- could not be more important, with the U.S. presidential election coming up on Nov. 8 and China promising to announce a timetable to phase out commercial ivory trading by the end of the year. These films are not just about creating awareness, they’re meant to have real impact. “It'll be partially a failure if a million people saw it but there was really no end resolution,” Davidson tells ET by phone, adding that he and Ladkani have real legislative goals that they want to accomplish with The Ivory Game.
With Before the Flood, DiCaprio wanted to make sure voters knew this could be the last chance they have to elect a president who sees the environment as a real priority. “Time is not a luxury we have,” he said in a press release, later telling ET’s Kevin Frazier at the film’s premiere, “You really understand at the end of the day why people don't seem to connect to it as much, because it seems like such a complex issue and it seems beyond our control. But the truth is we need to use our vote, we need to speak our voices through our vote and elect leaders who believe in the modern science of climate change, who believe in empirical truths -- and if we don't do that and lose our voice this election, ultimately we're not going to make a dent in this issue.”
For many audiences, Before the Flood will be the first time since Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (or even The 11th Hour, narrated by DiCaprio) that they’ve seen the effects of climate change up close. “Al Gore was the first person to make Leo understand that this is an important issue,” Before the Flood director Fisher Stevens says by phone. “But that movie was more of a lecture. It was a wonderful and important movie, but we really wanted to make a cinematic experience.”
It’s also why it was important for DiCaprio himself to appear on camera. “I like to keep my private life as private as possible, but we knew that I had access to certain people, I had access to have conversations with incredible influencers and people that can be insightful about this issue,” DiCaprio says.
“I’m hoping that he will finally bring more attention to the issue than ever before,” Stevens says of DiCaprio’s ability to reach a wider audience. “It's also a movie where he's learning. He is the audience and he is everyman.”
“This issue was an educational experience for the both of us,” DiCaprio says. The many ups and downs the actor experiences on camera are very real and “a side of Leo you don’t really see,” Stevens adds. “We tried to make this movie very human and very emotional, because if people can relate to this issue on an emotional level, that's the only way anything is going to get done.”
Also elevating the film beyond just a lecture was the access DiCaprio brought to the project. In addition to traveling to five continents and the Arctic, DiCaprio speaks with activists and world leaders, including Pope Francis and President Barack Obama. “As a director, it was probably the easiest time I ever had getting interviews with difficult people to get interviews with,” Stevens says.
In the case of The Ivory Game, which follows operatives and undercover activists as they go inside the dark underbelly of ivory trafficking in Asia, it was about collaborating with people who were passionate about the cause. “We talked very early on about who would be the most natural fit for this on the activism side that is obviously a known celebrity entity,” Davidson says. “Leo was the first choice because he’s actually been very active with elephant conservation.”
With the support of DiCaprio and his production company, Appian Way, they were able to see the film through to the finish. “Having people like Jane Goodall and Leonardo DiCaprio who are very passionate helps keeps us going because this in particular -- more than anything that either of us have worked on before -- was the most difficult film we’ve ever done,” Davidson says of the 16-month shoot, which required his team to go undercover and, at times, risk exposure to very powerful syndicates. “We needed to be around people to keep us going and give us the energy to get through it.”
Adding to the pressure was the need to get the movie out in time to make an impact. Normally, a documentary such as this would screen at a big festival before being purchased by a distributor and, months later, released to audiences. “We didn’t have the time to do that because of the issue at hand,” Davidson says of finishing the film in June, in time for a few festival premieres before its launch on Netflix.
And for both projects, the work doesn’t stop now that the films are complete. Stevens recalls talking to DiCaprio at the final premiere for Before the Flood about how they were going to miss that experience. “But then we go, ‘We’re not nearly done,’” he says of finding a way to use their extra footage to tell more climate change stories. “We’re going to keep this going. He’s still going to be speaking and I’ll still be shooting.”
Before the Flood premieres on the National Geographic Channel on Oct. 30. The Ivory Game will be released on Netflix and in select theaters on Nov. 4.