Degrees: Real talk about planet-saving careers

Hollywood screenwriter and producer Scott Z. Burns on making climate change central to storytelling

Episode Summary

Scott Z. Burns intends to be part of climate action, and he’s using his prolific storytelling talents to both entertain and inspire others to do the same. You’ve likely seen his work. Scott has spent years honing his storytelling chops as a screenwriter, director, producer and playwright. He wrote screenplays such as the 2011 medical disaster thriller “Contagion,” 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Informant,” and was also a producer on Al Gore’s documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.” His new project, “Extrapolations,” is a series about how climate change impacts our relationships, work, worship– and ultimately every aspect of our lives. In the sixth season of Degrees, “How to Green Your Job,” Scott speaks with Degrees host Yesh Pavlik Slenk about how he went from advertising (the famous “Got Milk” campaign) to Hollywood. He also talks about how a love for the planet has been an ongoing theme for much of his life, and how his experience volunteering at an otter rehabilitation center following a crude oil spill continues to haunt him. Finally, Scott shares advice for filmmakers and storytellers about “Trojan horsing” climate change into all genres.

Episode Notes

Scott Z. Burns is a screenwriter, director, producer and playwright. His film writing credits include “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “The Informant!," "Contagion,” “Side Effects,” and “The Laundromat.” As a director, his work includes “Pu-239” and “The Report.” He also was a producer for the Academy Award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and served as an executive producer of the film’s sequel as well as “Sea of Shadows.” Most recently, he’s the writer, director, executive producer and creator of the Apple TV+ series “Extrapolations,” which features eight interconnected stories exploring how climate change will affect all aspects of our lives.

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Who makes Degrees?

Degrees: Real talk about planet-saving careers is presented by Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). Yesh Pavlik Slenk is our host.  Amy Morse is EDF’s producer. Podcast Allies is our production company. Stephanie Wolf produced this episode. Mia Lobel is our story editor. Ayo Oti is our researcher. Engineering by Matthew Simonson. Our music is Shame, Shame, Shame from Yesh’s favorite band, Lake Street Dive.

Episode Transcription

YESH PAVLIK SLENK: How many of you, during the pandemic, rewatched this terrifying movie from 2011? I know I did.

TRAILER CLIP: “On day one there were two people, and then four, and then sixteen. In three months it’s a billion. That’s where we’re headed!”

PAVLIK SLENK: That’s a clip from Contagion, directed by Steven Soderbergh and written by today’s guest, Scott Z Burns.

Fun fact - Scott was in part inspired by a conversation with his dad about a bird flu outbreak in the early 2000s. And his interest in science-based storytelling has not waivered. Today, he’s focused on something we’re all pretty familiar with. 

SCOTT Z. BURNS: “The question about climate change isn't if it's going to happen, because it already is happening. The question is, what consequences of it are we going to act in time to prevent?”

PAVLIK SLENK: Scott intends to be part of that action, and he’s using his prolific storytelling talents to both entertain and maybe even inspire others to do the same. . We’ll hear about his path on today’s episode of Degrees - Season Six - How to Green Your Job.


Change is coming, oh yeah

Ain’t no holding it back

Ain't no running 

Change is coming, oh yeah!

PAVLIK SLENK: You’re listening to Degrees: Real talk about planet-saving careers from Environmental Defense Fund. I’m your host, Yesh Pavlik Slenk. 

Scott Z. Burns has spent years, decades really, honing his storytelling chops as a screenwriter, director, producer and playwright. In addition to Contagion, Scott also wrote The Bourne Ultimatum, Side Effects, and, most recently, a new project for Apple TV Plus called “Extrapolations.” It’s an 8-part series about how climate change impacts our relationships, work, families, worship, every aspect of our lives. He was also a producer on one of the most impactful climate films of all time - Al Gore’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth.”

TRAILER CLIP: “Scientific consensus is that we are causing global warming… I am Al Gore, I used to be the next president of the United States of America.”

PAVLIK SLENK: But before all that, Scott was witness to the aftermath of a terrible accident that changed the course of his life.  

BURNS: I actually worked in Chicago the first 10 years of my career in advertising. And then I ended up going to Alaska after the Exxon Valdez when I was in my twenties. I worked as an otter center volunteer. I cleaned otters after the Exxon Valdez. 

PAVLIK SLENK: It was spring of 1989, when an oil tanker owned by Exxon Shipping Company spilled millions of gallons of crude oil in a region off the Gulf of Alaska. The Exxon Valdez Spill is one of the largest environmental disasters in U.S. history. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the spill killed hundreds of thousands of seabirds. It also killed harbor seals, killer whales and 2,800 otters. At the time it seemed that everyone was mourning this loss of wildlife. 

BURNS: “Well, cleaning otters definitely had a big impact on me, not in the way that people might think. There was a lot of hypocrisy in the otter center. The otters that we put, that we cleaned and put transmitters in, most of them, I believe, died. And it wasn't like a feel good story at all. And it's still not. But the important part of that story for me was that there are bigger stories here. And I wanted to roll up my sleeves and get into them. Wow. I haven't told that story in a long time, obviously.”

PAVLIK SLENK: It’s been more than 30 years and those memories still haunt Scott.

BURNS: “It made it very hard to go back to working in advertising.” 

PAVLIK SLENK: Instead, Scott took a job at a local radio music station WXRT in Chicago. 

BURNS: “I did this big Earth Day thing for them where we did a solar concert in Lincoln Park, and it was this big deal.”

PAVLIK SLENK: A big deal indeed. Because one of the event’s attendees was Denis Hayes… an environmental advocate and one of the organizers of the first-ever Earth Day. When Scott met Denis, he fan-boyed.

BURNS: “And said, ‘I'll quit my job, I'll come and work for you. You know, what do I do? How can you use me? Put me in coach, I'm ready to play.”

PAVLIK SLENK: Denis Hayes did not recommend that Scott quit his job. Quite the opposite. 

BURNS: “He said, I need you to stay where you are and reconsider what you do in your day-to-day work. And can you make a difference where you are?” 

PAVLIK SLENK: That was an important message for Scott to hear. He started to consider how he could take the skills he already had as a storyteller and use them to make a difference for the planet. 

BURNS: So that, that moment back with that Earth Day concert at WXRT, you know, was sort of the beginning of me thinking how do I ride both of these horses and you know and can I ever can I ever be Robin Hood. You know so that was that was at that point that was you know if you had asked me what my career objective was, I would have said I want to be Robin Hood”

PAVLIK SLENK: “Robin Hood for the Earth.”

BURNS: “Yeah.”

PAVLIK SLENK: Robin Hood for the Earth. I love that idea. But it would still be awhile before Scott could fully realize that vision. First, he had to make one of the most iconic advertising slogans ever.

CLIP: (Sound of milk pouring) “Got Milk?” 

PAVLIK SLENK: Yep, Scott helped come up with that one. More about that - after the break.


PAVLIK SLENK: Welcome back to Degrees from Environmental Defense Fund. I’m your host Yesh Pavlik Slenk. Let’s pick up where we left off with Scott Z. Burns. One of the founders of Earth Day had just told him not to quit his day job! But Scott didn’t listen. He instead decided to cobble together freelance work in advertising while doing environmental work on the side. One of those advertising contracts was with an agency now known as Goodby, Silverstein and Partners. 

BURNS: “They put me on this pitch to get the California Milk Advisory Board, which was ironic for me because I'm lactose intolerant.”

PAVLIK SLENK: Dairy adversity aside. Scott started brainstorming with colleagues about how to make milk cool again; milk consumption in the U.S. had been on the decline. The ad team was initially stumped. 

BURNS: “We decided that there wasn't really a great reason for adult mammals to drink milk, but that if you didn't have it  and you were eating something that that could be a problem. And so, you know, I'm not gonna say that this was a time where weed really helped me in my life, but I couldn't deny it. and so after like wandering around San Francisco, thinking about how I could possibly make people do milk, I wrote what turned out to be a thing called the Aaron Burr commercial, which if you go on YouTube, you'll find it. And that was the beginning of the campaign.” 


PAVLIK SLENK: OK, so how do you get from a super-famous ad campaign to climate conscious filmmaking? Scott says he actually learned a ton about filmmaking from his work in advertising.

BURNS: “The first film sets I was ever on were on commercials that I wrote. And I wanted to help build the dolly track, I wanted to understand, you know, what the gaffer was doing. I wanted to understand what the different temperatures of light meant to film. And so I'm grateful that my film education came from being on set and understanding how a story would be told even if it was only a 30- or 60-second story.”

PAVLIK SLENK: Scott did eventually make it out of advertising and into longer-form storytelling. In the early 2000s, he moved to Los Angeles. While he was there a colleague took him to see Al Gore speak. Soon after, came the opportunity of a lifetime.

PAVLIK SLENK ON TAPE: “And I wanna talk about ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ because it is such an important piece of media for this movement. It certainly was for me. What really sticks with you today about that experience?”

BURNS: “Al had sort of gone MIA after the election in 2000. But this is what he was doing. He found that talking about healing the planet and allowing himself to take the best part of himself to work with him was really healing. And he and I think connected a great deal over that over if you stop compromising yourself from nine to five, you know, how does that feel and how much more energy will you have.”

PAVLIK SLENK: Scott became a producer on the documentary. And now, he’s thoroughly in the movie business. In addition to building his producing resume, Scott started racking up writer credits with films like “The Bourne Ultimatum” and “The Informant.” And then, in 2011, his screenplay “Contagion” hit the big screen. 

BURNS: “It became sort of a tracer through our political system, through our social systems through public health and science and misinformation, of just how vulnerable we are to fear, to politicization, to the fact that, you know, science, by its definition, will be wrong at certain points in time. But it will learn from its mistakes, and then it will correct. A virus is a moving target. And so COVID, as we now know, was going to change. And, you know, the lessons for that are super applicable to climate change.” 

PAVLIK SLENK: Which brings us to Scott’s most recent work. “Extrapolations” is a drama series featuring eight interconnected stories. In the not too distant future, the human race has made so many advances. And yet, the climate crisis looms large.

EXTRAPOLATIONS CLIP: “I think it helps to look at climate change like a bear. And the whole planet’s been in the ring wrestling with the bear for decades. And so far it’s been kicking our ass.” 

PAVLIK SLENK: Notably, the series does not predict the end of times. People are living with and navigating climate change, some are profiting off of it. Scott says - in this series, he’s exploring what he calls “the messy middle.”

BURNS: “A lot of times when Hollywood has told these stories, we cut to a very dramatic end. And it's usually dystopian and everybody's dead, or, you know, there are two people who have found each other and they're in love. We tend to go to a very dark dystopic place, and start our storytelling there. What I wanted to do on this show was start today.”

PAVLIK SLENK: In short, the messy middle is all of the living that has to be done before this Hollywood-esque climate apocalypse. Scott wants his viewers to ask, “What will we do to stem some of the repercussions of the harm we’ve already done to the planet? Will we take more action?”

BURNS: “We are nowhere near where we need to be. And the sad part, and the happy part, is that we have everything we need to solve the problem. And that's why like, this isn't a scary place to put your energies professionally.” 

PAVLIK SLENK: I’m gonna pause Scott right there because that really resonated for me. What he’s saying is that working on the solutions is a great balm for your anxiety about the climate crisis. That’s a lesson we can all learn from.

BURNS: “When I was interviewed a lot about the show, they would go ‘wow, is this like a bummer for you? Are you going to need a lot of psychological help to get over it? Clearly, yeah, clearly, I need some psychological help getting over the otters! But the first part is, I don't need to get over a lot of shit like I can use it. Secondly, the most fun I've had in the last few years was making the show because every day I got up and I went to work with really talented people who cared about what I cared about, who noticed things that are important to notice. Who were living through this. And what I can tell you will happen if you surround yourself with people like that is the sad goes away pretty fast, and it's replaced by the funny, by the loving, by the empathic, and who doesn't want to work with like that?”

PAVLIK SLENK ON TAPE: “Why do you think that television and film are good mediums to tackle climate change?”

BURNS: “Look, a lot of days I wake up, and I don't know that I even think that anymore because it gets really discouraging. I know from people much smarter than me, who have periodically encouraged me to keep going, that storytelling is how societies and cultures are built.”

PAVLIK SLENK: Scott says a well-told story can grab people’s attention in ways that a report or chart just can’t. 

BURNS: “It's easy for someone to look at a graph and say, I don't really care about climate change. And then you need a storyteller to come in and go, ‘Yeah, but actually, climate change cares about you. It cares about you a lot. It's going to take away your food. it's going to make it impossible for you to do some of the things you wanted to do. It's going to hurt your kids. It's going to do a lot of things. And so that is, I think, what inspires me to try and find a way of telling stories that will help people consider climate change in new ways.”

PAVLIK SLENK: I really believe that too, and yet, there are few mentions of climate change or climate-related topics in most scripted entertainment. That’s according to a media impact report that also found that extreme weather events are rarely linked to climate change in scripted film and TV. Scott wants to see that changed.

BURNS: “I think we have to Trojan horse genre, you know. Like there can be a cool climate horror movie. There can be a cool climate love story. There can be dark comedies, not everything needs to be doom and gloom. Steven Soderbergh I think made an incredible climate movie called “Erin Brockovich.” And the best thing about it is nobody would call it a climate movie. But that is what that movie is. It's about one person changing a very large system. You could do a climate change Romeo and Juliet. And I think, if we accept that, and make it ubiquitous in people's lives, that climate is a driver and all of our stories, personal or otherwise, that's what we need to really change stuff.”

PAVLIK SLENK: Scott has one final piece of advice for all budding storytellers, and climate job seekers. It’s that hoping for change is not gonna cut it. 

BURNS: Hope to me is not a strategy. Hope is not an inoculation against what's coming. Action is, like I had knee surgery this year, I hope my knee turns out great. And I could hope that and sit in this chair, or I can go to the gym, do my exercises, go to PT. You need to do something. 

PAVLIK SLENK:: That's it for this episode!

Next week on Degrees… we hear from you!… and answer all of your green job questions with career coach Shannon Houde.

Be sure to check out the rest of S6 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Amazon Music, or wherever you're listening now. Share this podcast with a friend.

Don’t forget, check out our Green Jobs Hub to find all the resources to jumpstart your green job career search. 

Degrees is presented by Environmental Defense Fund. Amy Morse is our producer. Podcast Allies is our production company. Stephanie Wolf produced this episode. Mia Lobel is our story editor. Ayo Oti is our researcher. Engineering by Matthew Simonson.

Our music is Shame, Shame, Shame from Lake Street Dive. And I’m your host, Yesh Pavlik Slenk. Stay fired up y’all.


Change is coming, oh yeah

Ain’t no holding it back

Ain't no running 

Change is coming, oh yeah!

PAVLIK SLENK: “Well, Scott, I really appreciate your time today and your openness and vulnerability.”

BURNS: “Thank you. Thanks for having me. I love that this thing exists in the world like I would have been a big fan.”