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Collapse Director Chris Smith on His New Doc and the Impending Fall of Civilization

None of the we’re-totally-screwed documentaries we’ve seen over the past few years could've prepare us for the terrors unleashed on our minds in Chris Smith’s riveting new documentary Collapse (out today). Basically a monologue by writer and thinker Michael Ruppert about the state of the planet and the problem of peak oil (the theory that once our oil resources reach their peak and begin to dwindle, industrial society will crumble along with it), Collapse at first seems miles away from previous films by Smith, which include such hits as American Movie and The Yes Men. And yet, despite its grim, intense atmosphere, Collapse subtly, almost imperceptibly, begins to show some of Ruppert’s very human vulnerabilities. Slowly, we become aware that the man is not a prophet, but just another human trying to come to terms with the decay he sees all around him. And, of course, that's when it becomes even more frightening. Director Smith sat down with Vulture this week to talk about the scary experience of discovering Michael Ruppert and the even scarier experience of making a movie about him.

How did you decide on the visual approach for Collapse?
This was very different from the other documentaries I had done, where the style was dictated by what was happening; I was filming events as they unfolded. The goal was to try to get people inside his head. We wanted to put the audience in his world — and only in that world — for the duration of the film. Our first obstacle was to find a place where the interview could feel like it was being done in one sitting. My cinematographer Max Malkin didn’t want to film in a studio; he wanted to film on location somewhere. So we thought maybe we could do a bombed out café somewhere and make it look like something out of The Road. But then we thought about the basement of this abandoned meatpacking plant. We wanted it to feel like a place where secret information could be conveyed. I wanted the style of the film to feel like an interrogation. Because it’s an interrogation for Michael and also for the audience.

It’s almost like an enhanced interrogation. It’s pretty brutal on the audience.
Everyone on the crew walked away from the experience feeling like they’d just been punched in the gut. But that’s kind of what we were trying to do — this was very much about this man and his mind and trying to allow the audience to experience what it’s like to live in his world for even the shortest period of time.

How convinced are you, now, about the accuracy of the things he says?
My opinion on these issues changes on a daily basis. This film made me think about these issues and to try to educate myself. And I discovered that there’s a huge number of scientists and scholars that fall on both sides of every issue that Michael talks about. The conclusion I’ve since come to is that no one really knows anything. Some think we’re headed for another crash, some people think that the market will continue to recover. There was a huge meeting on peak oil in Denver recently and so many articles came out of that. Different Ph.D.'s and industry experts say that we’re at this point in history where oil may have passed its peak. But then there was an article in the New York Times a month ago or so that was very convincing, and it said that we might actually have endless resources. I know a lot more about it than I did going into it, but I haven’t formed any conclusions.

Some will say that Michael is the classic model of the conspiracy theorist: He can process any piece of information and fit it into his worldview.
I wanted to have a dialogue with him where we could literally jump around form subject to subject. He knows so much about so many different topics that it was really hard just to question him in order to have an educated debate with him. He definitely can look at any piece of information and give you an argument about why it supports his theory. He is very intelligent and makes fairly convincing arguments. At first the film starts out, and it looks like it’s about you and what’s going to happen to you. And then it gradually starts to become about him. That mirrors the experience we had while making the film.

And you even reveal some inconsistencies later on. At one point, you ask him whether human ingenuity can save us, and he scoffs and says that it’s no use in the face of physical laws. But later on he says that the human mind will save us.
Those things were all intentional, to give this a kind of narrative arc: We wanted the character to evolve and to grow. But in order for all this to happen, you first had to understand his theory, which is why the first half of the film is all about his ideas and the second half is about the man and everything else that goes on with him. We wanted to show that he’s a complicated individual.

You seem to collect these very eccentric types and hold them up to the light. You made a film called American Job and a film called American Movie. And while there are pessimists and doomsayers in all countries, Michael Ruppert, too, seems like a distinctly American character.
You’re right. Maybe that’s what I’m attracted to. Michael definitely falls into the world of Mark [Borchardt, the filmmaker subject of American Movie] in terms of his energies and his unique view of the world. And he’s larger-than-life in a very American way.

And so much of the world has already experienced some form of collapse that some of his concerns sometimes seem like very American concerns.
That’s true, too, to some extent. We’re all about excess. When we were making our film in India, you know, the power would go out and they’d say, “No power for four hours,” and people just deal with it. Here people would completely freak out.

Did you feel a pressure to be more optimistic toward the end? A lot of documentaries about grim subjects, like An Inconvenient Truth, end with rah-rah calls to action these days.
Well, I hope we didn’t go that far. [Laughs] But Michael did take it there on his own accord. There were points in the interview where he did talk about how we can overcome these problems. I think part of the point that he and many of the peak oil people are trying to make is that whether this problem hits us now or in 30 or 50 years, it takes time to change the energy infrastructure of the entire planet. And if you wait till it’s too late, it could and it will have dire consequences. He does believe that mankind can change if it focuses its energy on it. His fear is that if you look at humankind, our tendency is to procrastinate and leave things till the last minute — which is something I do on a daily basis. That’s when it seems the scariest to me. What they’re talking about in terms of energy is that this isn’t something you want to react to; it’s something you want to prepare for.

Photo: Getty Images