Of Fuel & Film

Filmmaker Josh Tickell has joined forces with an ambitious Hollywood producer who believes 'Fields of Fuel,' a feature-length documentary film about biodiesel, could help jumpstart an American biodiesel revolution.
By Tom Bryan & Ron Kotrba | February 01, 2005
At last year's National Biodiesel Conference in Palm Springs, Calif., Josh Tickell received an emotionally charged response from more than 500 biodiesel proponents when he previewed a trailer for the full-length feature documentary he is shooting. Cheers rang out as the three-minute clip concluded-many stood, applauding as Tickell said the film, "Fields of Fuel," would be the biggest biodiesel commercial the world had ever seen.

Twelve months after that memorable introduction to "Fields of Fuels," the young filmmaker believes the documentary will be edited and on the festival circuit by this time next year. But there's a long journey ahead.

As a new promotional trailer was being cut in early January, Tickell spoke with Biodiesel Magazine from Australia, where he was spending time working on a book that will be released in conjunction with the film. Tickell said a "dynamic shift" changed the project last year after the arrival of Greg Reitman, a persuasive young producer who is currently focused on raising capital for the film and bringing structure to the project. Tickell said Reitman brings a heightened sense of focus to the project. "He has become my primary creative partner-a guy who can take a stand-back perch to my work and give me straight, dry advice," Tickell said. "He brings focus. He keeps us moving toward deadlines.

He makes sure every important aspect of this film is coming together."

Reitman's arrival might have left some wondering if Tickell was still in control of the film. Dispelling any speculation about his creative influence over the project, Tickell told Biodiesel Magazine that he remains the creative force behind "Fields of Fuel." Although, by necessity, he has disengaged himself from what he calls "the mechanical aspects" of the film. "I'm continually reevaluating what 'Fields of Fuel' is creatively," he said. "We're following the traditional filmmaking model with this project, which enables the creative vision of the director. … I am very Heartland-centered, very 'America' in my vision of what this film is all about. So it's my job to bring these semi-sacred aspects of America to the film-sunrises over soybean fields, sunsets over biodiesel plants, U.S. flags … farmers … a red Corvette … that's the type of thing I bring to the table."

Tickell's own story
"Fields of Fuel" is a story that continues to unfold. Primarily, the film tells Tickell's own story as he travels around the globe looking for an immediate solution to the looming oil crisis. The documentary shows the young filmmaker as he begins his quest to "free America from the shackles of energy dependence."

"Fields of Fuel" combines scripted narrative and documentary elements in an attempt to create a conflict-driven, dynamic visual story. In the film, Tickell takes to the road in search of an answer to the question that has been driving him for the better part of a decade: Why isn't the United States using more biodiesel than it currently is? "I will personally have 10 years of my life invested in this film by the time it comes out," Tickell said. "Twelve years ago I walked into a college professor's office and told him about this dream of making a feature film about biodiesel. He basically said, 'Get out of here kid. You're nuts.' It's interesting to look back on that day and think about how far I've taken this."

nterestingly, Tickell said what the film means to him personally changes almost every day, as he constantly reevaluates the direction and scope of the project. "There is something so powerful about what this film represents-something so special about what it means to me -it's rooted in what biodiesel itself means to the world," Tickell said. "This is the first time in American history that you are seeing oil companies, farmers, entertainment, left and right politicians all coming together to make something like this happen. It's a landmark moment in history."

Tickell said "Fields of Fuel" represents a shift in American consciousness. When asked if he is attempting to rewrite history or change it, Tickell answered, "Neither. As filmmakers, we are on the forefront of a wave and we're watching this all happen. We're simply capturing this moment in history on film."

Stronger as a team
A passion for documentary filmmaking brought Tickell and Reitman together. Reitman, who's been working in Hollywood for eight years, brings experience to the table. His own documentary, "Hollywood's Magical Island-Catalina," was produced by Bluewater Entertainment, a production company he owns. Explaining how the "Fields of Fuel" production team is being assembled, Reitman said his company's own production people make up the "nucleus of talent" that will bring Tickell's film to life.
In true Hollywood fashion, the young filmmakers met when Tickell's first film, "The Veggie Van Voyage," opened for Reitman's documentary at a film festival in 2004. The two started talking frequently and subsequently formed their current partnership. Reitman was eager to collaborate with the talented writer/director; he believes Tickell has a solid future in Hollywood. "His craftsmanship as a writer is intelligent-it's cerebral," Reitman said.

Celebrity interviews expected
While Reitman believes the story of biodiesel is more about America's Heartland than it is about celebrity advocacy, there is nothing quite like the support of famous "A-list" actors to drum up support for a documentary. Reitman was understandably excited to learn recently that actor Woody Harrelson had agreed to be interviewed for "Fields of Fuel." Harrelson, a longtime advocate of renewable fuels, is among several well-known celebrities that use and promote biodiesel. "Woody fits in this film," Reitman said, explaining that several celebrities have shown "a profound interest" in the documentary. Reitman dropped a short list of big name actors and musicians that might appear in the film-Daryl Hannah, Drew Barrymore, Willie Nelson and others. He goes on to explain that he recently spoke with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and is hopeful that the celebrity-governor will also participate in the film.

A team approach to filmmaking
"Everything takes time," Reitman said when asked how the project was progressing in early January. "We will have a clearer view [of the development of the film] come February or March."

As the 2005 National Biodiesel Conference approached, the "Fields of Fuel" team was heavily focused on fundraising and filming; it's a stage of the project they expect to be in for a number of months as the second half of the film is shot. "We expect to have 95 percent of the film shot by early summer," Tickell explained. "We'll cut through the summer months."

The film is just 90 minutes in length but will require over 300 hours of footage. "That's why it's so expensive," Tickell explained.
By late summer, the post-production team will complete editing and move into fine-tuning the film. Also by late summer, "Fields of Fuel" will have been through the first of multiple test screenings-viewings that serve as workshops for the production team before final editing.
If all goes as planned, the "Fields of Fuel" will be "colored"-an expensive process of adjusting the eight different film formats of the film to one color set-in the later part of 2005 and should hit the festival circuit in the spring of 2006, landing at Sundance, Banff, Telluride and other festivals.

Exposing an 'inherent conflict'
When confronted with the possibility of this film being construed as controversial, Reitman responded by saying that the world's petroleum supplies are running out and consumers deserve to know the truth about where energy comes from, and at what cost. "America doesn't need to fight a $100 million war in Iraq for oil," he said, adding that the intent of the film is not to vilify Big Oil.

"Oil companies have a role in this film," he said. "Oil companies have polluted … We have to show that horror. But the message we produce will resonate with every American. Energy affects us all. I believe if most Americans had a choice, they would choose biodiesel."
Reitman said "Fields of Fuel" is a film that captures the evolution of energy from non-renewable fossil fuels to renewable sources. "It's not a perfect world, but we can make it better," he said.

According to Tickell, the controversy, or perceived controversy, that "Fields of Fuel" may invoke is tied to an inherent conflict between petroleum fuels and alternative fuels. "The potential for renewable energy is going to bring out that sense of conflict," he said. "The idea of energy independence-the idea of independence in general-is inherently controversial. But are we against oil? No. This film is as much about opportunities for petroleum companies as it is about opportunities for farmers."

Tickell said the true surprise in the film, the aspect that "will surprise Americans more than anything else," is how people with disparate views are coming together to make alternative fuels a reality. "It's an incredible synthesis, a story about integrating people who have never been integrated," he said.

Reitman and Tickell both communicate a sense of urgency when discussing the making of "Fields of Fuel." Reitman said he believes America needs to see this film in the next 18 months. "Watching what is going on in the Middle East … it is critical to get it done this year," he said. "I just listened to Michael Moore speak at the [Writer's Guild of America] Awards. He just stopped and said … 'It's all about oil.'"

The search for investors
Michael Moore's trailblazing work has inspired a generation of young filmmakers to pursue ambitious documentary projects. He is perhaps the most widely recognized documentary filmmaker of all time-especially following his latest controversial hit, "Fahrenheit 9/11"-and Reitman said his work has proven to the world that documentary filmmaking can be politically and socially influential and profitable at the same time. Reitman sat close to the famous filmmaker at the Writer's Guild of America Awards in late 2004. "When Michael spoke, he held the floor," the young producer recalled. "Michael Moore was the first to reach $20 million at the box office for a documentary. There's an appetite out there … people want to see [these types of films]. Our documentary has political issues, environmental issues, and it affects every human being on Planet Earth. 'Fields of Fuel' hits home and resonates in the same way [Moore's films have]. This documentary profiles all of the right categories."

Convincing investors that "Fields of Fuel" is going to be a financial success is Reitman's primary focus at this stage in the project. As planned, the project needs about $600,000 to be completed; about $50,000 was raised in 2004, much of it coming from the biodiesel industry.

In talking about striking prints for viewing, Reitman mentioned that the theatrical trailer alone would cost about $30,000 to produce. Thus, investment capital is crucial in getting the film to the four-month-long festival circuit by early 2006. A seemingly obvious solution would be to solicit the Hollywood stars who have already shown an interest in the film. However, Reitman said, "It's difficult to ask them for money when you are filming them."

Instead, Reitman is looking to the business world for capital. "We're meeting with an investor … the name of whom I cannot say due to a non-disclosure agreement, but this investor will be putting up $100,000 for prints and advertising, and $100,000 for production," he said.
Reitman said negotiations had been ongoing for 90 days with this particular investor. The potential funding would be used to facilitate the documentary's total theatrical release-financing, distribution, marketing and production. The investment buzz could drum up interest from others. "We hope to get [an additional] $500,000 to $1 million [invested] eventually, after the festival circuit," Reitman said.

Reitman is looking beyond the near-term festivals and the box office opening though. He is reportedly in negotiations with a company out of Boston-the name of which, again, cannot be disclosed-which has already bid $300,000 to $500,000 for the first-run U.S. broadcast rights.

As Reitman and Tickell continue to speak with investors, the costs of making the film continue to add up. "I tell people it's one thing to pick up a camera and shoot a documentary about your dad's passion for playing guitar," Tickell said. "It's another thing to shoot a major motion picture with 30 team members."

Tickell explained that feature-length documentaries are made in two stages. "About half of our film has been shot," he said. "But films like this are done on two levels-especially documentaries and independent productions. The majority of the money will be spent on the last half of the process. We have generated about 150 hours of footage. The next 150 hours we shoot is where things will get very expensive and more difficult. We're shooting in eight different formats that capture 50 years of history."

It's the biggest project either Reitman or Tickell has ever worked on, and one that, if successful, could make their careers and help catapult biodiesel to the forefront of mainstream American culture.

"I feel lucky I got the job," Reitman said. "At the end of the day, I know I'm making a difference."

Tom Bryan is editorial director of Biodiesel Magazine. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] Ron Kotrba is a Biodiesel Magazine staff writer. He can be reached by e-mail at [email protected] Both can be reached at (701) 746-8385.
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