In his tenure as vice president, and during his 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore was stereotyped as being stiff and robotic.
That's not the guy filmmakers Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk found when they started making their new documentary on Gore, "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power" (which opens in theaters nationwide Friday).
"For whatever reasons, he is anything but wooden about solving what he calls the climate crisis," Shenk said in a phone interview this week.
"There's inherent drama in his life, because he's been battling demons for years and years," Cohen said, citing the 2000 presidential election that he lost in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision.
"He's been the punching bag for years and years for the climate deniers," Cohen added. "He continues to rise up out of the ashes. You want to follow a guy on screen who has that kind of resilience, that kind of passion, but also the built-in dark side."
Cohen compared Gore to a character from literature — specifically, from Dr. Seuss.
"He sort of reminds us of The Lorax," Cohen said. "He speaks for the trees. He's been beating this drum for a very long time, no matter what's been going on around him."
"An Inconvenient Sequel" follows up on Davis Guggenheim's Oscar-winning 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," in which Gore presented his "slide show" — an Apple Keynote presentation that details in stark and scientific terms the damage the buildup of carbon emissions is causing to our planet's climate.
"An Inconvenient Truth," Cohen said, "came out at a very specific moment, and it sounded the alarms like nothing else about global warming around the world. It created a vernacular so that we could talk about it. It was a lightning rod. There was no way to replicate that, nor would we want to."
Instead, Cohen and Shenk — whose past collaborations include the documentaries "The Island President," about politician-turned-environmental activist Mohamed Nasheed of the Maldives, and the cyberbullying exposé "Audrie & Daisy" — aimed to make a movie centering on Gore that also focused on the signs of and solutions to the climate crisis.
For Cohen and Shenk, that process started two summers ago, when they flew to Nashville to meet Gore — and see his updated version of the "slide show."
"We were just surprised that he's never missed a beat," Shenk said. " 'An Inconvenient Truth,' that was just the beginning of his journey. … We were surprised that his energy level seemed to be sustained, or even grown, over time."
The sequel begins by showing Gore presenting the "slide show" to a training session for his Climate Reality Project, which has taught activists around the world how to fight for the environment. It also shows him constantly updating his presentation, adding news footage of floods, ice melts, wildfires and other real-world indicators of climate change. "Watching the evening news is like taking a nature hike through the Book of Revelation," Gore quips at one point.
Cohen and Shenk follow Gore as he witnesses the signs of climate change, from melting glaciers in Greenland to streets flooding from sea rise in Miami Beach. He also visits people who are doing something about it, such as the humorous scene when he visits Georgetown, Texas, described by its Republican mayor as "the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas" — but which is on track to get all of its energy from renewable sources in a few years.
But Cohen and Shenk found a dramatic finish for their film when they followed Gore to the 2015 climate talks in Paris.
He was going to Paris, even though he wasn't part of any delegation, and had no official role. "We figured we're going to go and roll the dice, and if something happens, we'll be there," Shenk said.
Gore did have an in: The United Nations official who organized the talks, Christiana Figueres of Costa Rica, was an alumna of his Climate Reality Project training. Figueres asked Gore to work behind-the-scenes to help get India, whose government bristled at American and European powers dictating terms to developing nations, to sign on to the final deal. Cohen and Shenk captured moments of Gore working the phones with Indian ministers, international bankers and an American solar-tech firm to sweeten the deal for India.
Throughout the Paris portion of the film, another voice pops up: Donald Trump, then a presidential candidate, grousing on Fox News that the Paris talks were a waste of time.
The fact that Trump won the presidential election — though, as with Gore in 2000, the Republican came in second to the Democrat in the popular vote — didn't change the filmmakers' plans much.
"We always knew there was going to be a new president by the time the film came out," Shenk said. "As the presidential election went on, obviously we were paying attention to it — partly because Al was paying attention to it, because so much of his life has been in politics. And we knew, as the whole country did, that climate change was one of the significant issues that would be affected by the new president. We always knew we would have to add some new [material]."
"An Inconvenient Sequel" had its world premiere as the opening film of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival — on the night before Trump's inauguration. That night, Gore expressed optimism that not even Trump can stop the momentum to reduce carbon emissions.
"No one person can stop this," he said at Sundance. "It's too big now. We are shifting, and we are going to win."
In the six months since, the filmmakers only re-edited the film slightly, such as adding a title card in the epilogue to inform viewers that Trump on June 1 withdrew the United States from the Paris accords. "We had to deliver that news to the audience to be responsible to our own plot," Shenk said.
"The unintended consequence of Donald Trump pulling out of Paris is that local and state governments rose up, and they're going to continue to," Cohen said. "The American people are on board. They know what's going on with the climate crisis. … We have a way forward. It's not as easy if the federal government's not on board, obviously."
Gore's passion about battling the climate crisis, Shenk said, is something many people are feeling themselves now. "It used to be something that was difficult to get emotional about," he said. "For a lot of the population, it's becoming easier and easier to see it as a very emotional social issue."