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‘Extrapolations,’ ‘Five Days at Memorial’ Teams Talk Importance of Environmental Storytelling at EMA Impact Summit


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A call for action and innovation in the fight against climate change rang out during the first day of the annual Environmental Media Association Impact Summit. Held at Pendry West Hollywood in partnership with Apple TV+ and The Hollywood Reporter, entertainment and sustainability leaders focused on the positive impact of environmentally conscious storytelling in the global media landscape.

“The time is now to support personal action for our climate health,” EMA CEO Debbie Levin said as the summit kicked off Wednesday. “This is a century that keeps on surprising us — storms, torrential rain, floods, earthquakes, snow and, sadly, human unrest as well. But in this room, we represent the best of us and the most innovative and the most authentically conscious. We are the change makers.”

Elisabeth Rabishaw, the executive vp and co-publisher of THR, introduced keynote speaker Lisa Jackson, vp of environment, policy and social initiatives for Apple, who spoke of the concrete ways the entertainment industry can inspire people to action. Jackson pointed to , Apple TV+’s new anthology drama charting eight stories of lives affected by climate change in the near future, as an example of the powerful ways storytelling can inspire change.

Tahar Rahim, Lisa Jackson, Scott Burns, Dorothy Fortenberry, Kit Harington, Yara Shahidi and Sienna Miller

Seija Rankin, Tahar Rahim, Lisa Jackson, Scott Burns, Dorothy Fortenberry, Kit Harington, Yara Shahidi and Sienna Miller speak onstage during the “Extrapolations: The Future is Unwritten” panel

Amy Sussman/The Hollywood Reporter

THR senior editor Seija Rankin then hosted “Extrapolations: The Future is Unwritten,” a panel that included Jackson, executive producer and creator Scott Z. Burns, executive producer Dorothy Fortenberry and stars Kit Harington, Sienna Miller, Tahar Rahim and Yara Shahidi.

Burns spoke of how he first reached out to Meryl Streep to tell her about the project. “It was during a time when I was losing my father,” he recalled. “For me, it’s a lot about saying goodbye. I called her, and then we talked about loss and climate change and species and extinction. And at the end of the conversation, she said, ‘So when do you want to do this?’”

Miller, who plays Streep’s daughter, signed on soon after. “Scott said something really interesting — that any show that is set in the future that doesn’t include a kind of radically different climate is science fiction,” she explained. “This is where we are heading, and we’re seeing it increasingly all the time. It’s an undeniable truth. So as much as this is entertainment … it spends a lot of time in the space of human connection and what we cherish about humanity. Hopefully, it will galvanize people to really start to take more action. I certainly feel that pressure and excitement to be more involved than I have been.”

Shahidi, already a prominent social justice activist, echoed that sentiment. “There’s something about seeing the potential extremes of where we’re heading that I think … catalyzes extreme solutions or catalyzes dreaming, vigor about how we respond to it,” she said. “You walk away thinking about what is the biggest thing you can do in response to this. I’m excited to think of what people will imagine or dream next in response.”

It can be a struggle to present the disasters brought on by climate change on the small screen. This topic was explored on the second panel for Five Days at Memorial, hosted by THR deputy awards editor Beatrice Verhoeven. Stars Cornelius Smith Jr. and Julie Ann Emery were joined by showrunner Carlton Cuse to discuss the making of the Apple TV+ series, which follows the deadly effects of a flood caused by Hurricane Katrina on a hospital in New Orleans. Based on the book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink, the show also stars Vera Farmiga, Cherry Jones and Robert Pine.

Julie Ann Emery, Carlton Cuse, Debbie Levin, and Cornelius Smith attend the Apple TV+ and The Hollywood Reporter's Environmental Media Association IMPACT Summit

‘Five Days at Memorial’ star Julie Ann Emery, showrunner Carlton Cuse, EMA CEO Debbie Levin and star Cornelius Smith

Amy Sussman/The Hollywood Reporter

“It was sort of superficially about a disaster that struck New Orleans, but it was really about all the inequity that followed those events and the larger societal impact of this environmental disaster,” Cuse explained.

By focusing on the real-life humans who lived through the tragedy, Emery felt a deeper connection with the overwhelming topic of climate change. “We talk about climate a lot in a very meta kind of way, it is very heady. And what Carlton and John [Ridley] did so beautifully was really take us inside each person’s experience through that,” she said. “We don’t very often get to put ourselves in the shoes of people trying to survive that moment. And we need to because we are all going to be in need at some point, as our earth continues to change.”

Cuse also highlighted the need to portray the enormity of the disaster realistically, no matter how difficult. “Everybody involved in the visual effects saw it not just as a kind of a technical challenge, but as a moral and emotional challenge to really authentically recreate some of the things that happened that led to this disaster,” he said.

To this end, production built a four-million-gallon water tank the size of a city block in Hamilton, Ontario, featuring an exterior façade of the hospital which real boats could zoom up to. An actual U.S. Coast Guard helicopter staffed with members of the Coast Guard was also used.

In the face of such a serious topic, and in the midst of COVID, the cast and crew banded together, with Emery baking pies and Smith running games of “Mafia.”

“We were telling this very intense story, and when we were done with our work at the end of the week, we would all kind of just get together and spend time together,” Cuse said. “It was really powerful and really connected everybody in a way that I’ve never experienced on a show before.”

The feeling of connection — of quiet resolve and team spirit — could be felt throughout the first day’s sessions of the EMA Impact Summit. “I have to be optimistic about what we can do,” said Harington during his panel. “That’s how I’ve tried to approach being in this piece, to stop myself dropping into despair, which is not going to get me.”

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