Abrahm Lustgarten in "Killing the Colorado"

Interview: Rob Epstein & Jeffrey Friedman on Going with the Flow for “Killing the Colorado”

When John Hoffman, the Discovery Channel Executive Vice President of Documentaries and Specials, named his latest initiative Discovery Impact, he didn’t want those words to be empty, knowing how much the network’s brand means to him.

“I’m fascinated by the responsibility that comes with working for a company that has the earth as its logo. With all the storytelling potential we have to showcase Earth’s wonders also comes the responsibility to tackle the serious threats to this fragile blue planet of ours,” Hoffman told me in an e-mail. “With Discovery Impact, we’re commissioning and acquiring films about Earth’s most pressing environmental problems… and we’ve created the best possible home for filmmakers to channel their passion for the health of the planet.”

If “Killing the Colorado,” the first project of the new initiative is any indication, Discovery Impact may just leave a greater impression in the minds of viewers than they have had on the environment, dispatching six of the world’s most distinctive documentary filmmakers to get to the root of the crisis faced by the gradually depleting Colorado River. Based on the reporting of ProPublica’s Abrahm Lustgarten, the omnibus investigation is as far-reaching and diverting as the winding river itself, thanks to the participation of “The Celluloid Closet” directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman as executive producers, who in turn enlisted Barbara Kopple (“Harlan County U.S.A.”), Jesse Moss (“The Overnighters”) and Alan and Susan Raymond (“The Police Tapes”) to direct segments that put a human face on the issue of water distribution and use.

Though divided into three chapters, “Killing the Colorado” flows seamlessly between the past, present and future, charting the increasing failure of outdated policy and infrastructure to properly address water needs in Barbara Kopple’s “Farming the Desert,” which centers on the thirsty crops of California’s Imperial Valley, while Jesse Moss’ “Damned If You Do” chronicles the tug of war between Arizona and New Mexico over a billion-dollar dam that could reroute the Gila River, a tributary of the Colorado, and the Raymonds’ “Water for Sale” explores the explosive growth of water as a commodity, where small towns such as Crowley, Colorado sell their water rights to bigger cities and corporate interests, literally leaving them high and dry. A diverse group of interview subjects from both ends of the political spectrum in Democratic Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper and Republic Arizona Senator Jeff Flake as well as water resource experts and industrial farmers, give a panoramic view of the effects of a water crisis largely manufactured by man as well as what can be done to turn the tide.

On the eve of “Killing the Colorado”’s premiere on Discovery Impact, Epstein and Friedman spoke about how they tackled such a wide-ranging subject and brought together a collection of some of the most distinctive nonfiction filmmakers around, as well as the logistical challenges of the project and adapting a series of news articles into a dynamic documentary.

A scene from "Killing the Colorado"How did this come about?

Jeffrey Friedman: Discovery initiated the project [after] they started this new initiative called Impact, and John Hoffman, an executive there who we worked with before, called us and asked us to take on [the film] about the water crisis in the West. The idea was to have it be an omnibus project of different filmmakers and as the executive producers, we brought on the other filmmakers, a mix of veterans and up-and-coming all stars.

Rob Epstein: Barbara [Kopple] and the Raymonds are filmmakers whose work we’ve known for decades — for me personally, they’re filmmakers that inspired me to want to be a filmmaker, seeing their early work when I was just getting started, and Jesse Moss, I was actually on the jury of the San Francisco Film Festival which is how I discovered him [since] we gave him the Grand Jury prize for “The Overnighters,” a brilliant doc, so that’s how we came up with the team.

Since Abrahm’s series for Pro Publica ran last May, did you actually accompany him while he was doing his reporting?

Jeffrey Friedman: We [were shooting] after he’d done the articles, but we figured out what the stories were based on the areas that he covered and the stories came out of the reporting, all related to how human mismanagement has contributed to the water crisis — one of them was about agriculture and the conflict between farmers and cities, which is one of the huge issues out here [in the West], one about the inefficiencies of the infrastructure that we built to deliver water for the last 100 years-plus, and [another story] Abrahm was working on about a possible market-based solution, built around these hedge fund traders in New York, who are trying to bring some kind of market rationality to an intractable problem.

A scene from "Killing the Colorado"How much freedom did you have as filmmakers to leap off from there?

Rob Epstein: Certainly out in the field, that was all the filmmakers. We brought it to the point where we had established what the subject areas were going to be, and where there were active stories to follow. Then it was really up to the filmmaking teams that went out to get the stories. We worked very closely with the Abrahm in writing the treatment and [narrowing down] the story selections, and he got to review the final edit, but the films themselves are really the filmmakers’. Jeffrey and I did all the interstitial material.

Was it difficult to figure out how to put a human face on this issue?

Rob Epstein: It was challenging in the way all documentary filmmaking is challenging. We had a really limited window of time, so for each of the stories, we had to find something that was actively happening that we could follow within our limited production period.

Since Jesse’s segment about the Gila project was ongoing, did that make it the trickiest to follow?

Jeffrey Friedman: It made it an interesting project to follow. All the big infrastructure projects — the big dams — have been built already, but there are lots of proposals for new infrastructure projects all over the West, and very few of them are in active conflict, so when we found one where people were actively fighting on both sides of the issue, we jumped on it as a fruitful source of dramatic illustration.

A scene from "Killing the Colorado"Logistically, was this difficult to pull together? You cover so much geography.

Jeffrey Friedman: Having the different filmmakers certainly helped with the geography. Nobody had to be in four places at once, but the big challenge really was trying to maintain a sense of consistency between the films, so that they would feel of a piece and at the same time also feel like the expressions of the individual filmmakers. What’s the point of bringing on these world class filmmakers if the voices aren’t going to be distinct?

Have you been using a little less water lately yourselves as a result of the film?

Jeffrey Friedman: I have a drip irrigation system in my backyard and it hardly uses any water, and it’s mostly succulents anyway, but I did that before I was working on this show. We were all pretty aware of the situation. But we think of this as a fact of nature, and what was surprising about Abrahm’s reporting is that so much of it is actually created and controlled by human decisions.

Rob Epstein: I just didn’t know much about the degree to which we’re dependent on the Colorado River and how we’ve turned it into an unsustainable plumbing system. But yes, I don’t flush number one as often. [laughs]

“Killing the Colorado” premieres August 4th on the Discovery Channel and will be available on Discovery.com, Discovery Go, and Discovery On Demand on August 5th.

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