A Conversation with Susan Kucera, Director of 'Living in the Future's Past'

Director and cinematographer Susan Kucera and Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges.

Director and cinematographer Susan Kucera and Academy Award winner Jeff Bridges.

By Cassandra West

Susan Kucera, an acclaimed director and cinematographer, brought to the big screen “Living in the Future’s Past,” a beautifully photographed tour de force of original thinking narrated and produced by Academy Award® winner Jeff Bridges. The documentary will have its Chicago-area premiere during the 2019 One Earth Film Festival, with screenings at three locations .

Kucera, who lives in Hawaii, started filmmaking at age 9 helping her dad, a glaciologist and professor, make science films for Britannica.

In her director’s statement about the “Living in the Future’s Past,” Kucera said the film “gives us a greater understanding of both the physical and the unconscious mechanisms at play in our inner and outer world, like ‘optimal foraging strategy’ or sexual selection. We’re not the only animals with social and economic relationships to the environment.”

Other films by Kucera include the award-winning “Breath of Life (2014), starring Richard Dawkins, and “For the Love of Tango (2015). Kucera, who loves being behind the camera,  does the cinematography for all her documentaries.

JeffBridges6.jpg

Kucera will appear at the festival in a live videocast following the film’s screening at 10 a.m. Sat., March 2 at Classic Cinemas Lake Theatre in Oak Park.

I reached Kucera by phone at her home in Maui on a recent morning, before the director headed out on a film shoot. Here’s the conversation: 

OEFF: You got started in filmmaking when you were nine years old. Incredible. Give me a little bit of background on that.

My father was a university professor at the University of British Columbia who studied the Alabastca Glacier for 50 years, so every summer whenever he went on yearlong sabbaticals, we would go and I learned how to film with him on a Bolex. He was doing little science films for Britannica, so I was really his assistant. Bolex is an old type of camera, 16 mm. Now I use the most modern camera, the RED WEAPON, [a sophisticated, high-end digital camera].

OEFF: Do you have a particular approach to filmmaking?

Kucera: I have a very organic approach. It depends which project I’m working on. This film with Jeff  [Bridges] was a pretty complicated piece to put together. Jeff and I collaborated on it for 2 ½ years. It was a delightful experience. This one is just very different from some of the other ones I’ve made. It’s a very organic approach. Jeff thought once he understood all of the concepts that we bring up in the film, it was ready for everyone. We figured, well, we’re not scientists, if we understand how this is woven together, we thought other people also would.

OEFF: The film’s title, “Living in the Future’s Past,” is intriguing. What is that all about?

Kucera: We were casting about for a title. Jeff had some ideas. I had some ideas. Other people had ideas because it is an unusual film. But “Living in the Future’s Past” we thought was a great metaphor for tuning into what’s already here. And that can be anything that you make it. It could be the climate problem, our ingenuity we already have.

OEFF: So I understand you keep your camera with you at all times. Tell me a little more about that and what it allows you to do?

Kucera: I consider myself a documentarian. Just like you need journalists, I’m reporting on things by way of filming them. I see things that you can’t set up, like a grizzly and her cubs crossing a river. If I had wanted that shot and wanted to go get it, how on Earth would I have been able do that? [Having the camera with me] allows me the freedom—I don’t travel with a crew or anything. So the footage in the film is really about eight years’ worth of material that I’ve been collecting over time. It’s rare and unusual and you just happen to see what you see when you’re there—and you have a camera.

OEFF: Do you entertain thoughts that your films, or this film in particular, can have a real impact on human behavior?

Susan Kucera with her camera

Susan Kucera with her camera

Kucera: In the grand total of all documentaries and the things that artists, scientists—everything that they put in the cultural sphere—all of it helps. [“Living in the Future’s Past”] is unique because it allows people to get a sense of belonging instead of preaching and making people feel guilty. But it also brings up some really fascinating concepts that allow your brain to see things in a different way—everything from emergence to optimum foraging theory. There’s just a lot of interesting dynamics.

I think everybody knows all the problems we have, even if you don’t think climate change is a problem. We have lots of problems, the way our super organism has grown and developed. You’re relying on cheap energy. That’s just obvious to everybody. And even the solutions are obvious, but I think people, umm, haven’t seen themselves as part of this emergent process. …It’s complicated. I know Jeff [Bridges] was definitely changed by this film. And I am acutely aware of every little thing that I do that actually does matter.

OEFF: What do you see as the central message of  “Living in the Future’s Past”?

Kucera: The central message would be that we can’t just be reductionists.  We can’t reduce everything down to, “Well, if we just do this one thing. If the government just does this one thing, everything will be great.” It’s more about connectionism, all the different scientific disciplines working together and how your own everyday life fits into this fabric.

On the smallest level, you’re voting in a sense for a thing to exist every time you go to the store. You obviously have to look more locally in your own backyard. Things we can do here in Maui, like going all electric, are a whole lot easier than somebody in Michigan. How are you going to heat your home with solar panels there?

[The film] has had a big effect on students. People have been sending us videos. We just got this video from a student in Bristol who studies geophysical processes and he wanted to break down emergence even more. We had the University of Texas call us. They’re having their students break down how does credit work in our system.

 An edited transcript

 Susan Kucera/2018/86 min/Climate Change