Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Brett Marty Is Helping To Change Our World

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Follow your gut. If it’s interesting to you, follow that. It’s all you have. It doesn’t matter if it’s not interesting to other people…yet. That’s your challenge. But if you don’t find it interesting yourself, you certainly can’t make it interesting for someone else.

As a part of our series about “Filmmakers Making A Social Impact” I had the pleasure of interviewing Brett Marty.

Brett Marty cut his teeth as a commercial director and made the transition to filmmaking with a handful of documentary projects and his narrative directorial debut, YOUTH, which won a handful of jury awards and played at more than 30 festivals, including Cannes. His latest docs have been commissioned or featured by Patagonia, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and National Geographic. In previous lives, he studied ceramic sculpture at UC Berkeley, drove an old Buick from San Francisco to Argentina, and helped Nate Silver launch Five Thirty Eight in 2008.

Thank you so much for doing this interview with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit. Can you share your “backstory” that brought you to this career?

I didn’t go to film school, so before I got into documentary, I cut my teeth doing ad work right after college (where my major was sculpture, of all things)… But, throughout, I always had an eye toward doing film. It was pretty stressful to learn on the job, a kind of fake it til you make it situation, but not growing up with a lot of money, getting paid to learn the craft was preferable to having a lot of student-loan debt, to say the least.

Right after college, I did a long road trip from San Francisco to the bottom of Patagonia, did a tour as a presidential campaign photographer during Obama’s first run (a weird but fun quadrennial habit I can’t seem to kick), then got a gig editing an older photographer’s first documentary, where I taught myself to edit.

I still do commercial projects (the doc world isn’t exactly flush), but after a few years of ad work, it became kind of soul crushing. And I managed to eventually save up enough money, quit my job, and promised myself I wouldn’t do anything for money for an entire year. That gave me the space to refocus on film. (And, you know, get really good at darts.)

It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Reverse rolling — everyone’s worst nightmare. It was one of the first big shoots I was DPing as the cinematographer, and I didn’t realize the camera was rolling already. I pushed record again, which turned it off right when we were starting a series of really crucial shots. That’s a mistake you only make once. (Well, hopefully…)

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

I dunno, Nick Bostrom? Aubrey de Grey? Being in documentary is kind of amazing. I can’t tell you how cool it is to be able to reach out to the foremost expert in any field or topic you find fascinating or inspiring, and they’ll usually just write you right back (!) and have long conversations with you about what they do and how they see the world. And it’s totally okay if you don’t know much or anything about the subject! That’s why you’re talking to them… (And in documentary, it can sometimes be incredibly useful to be an outsider or newcomer to a subject.) Still wild to me, every time…

I’ve gotten to talk to NASA scientists, the foremost experts in AI, longevity, and environmental conservation — just all really impressive and brilliant people. If you’re a curious person, that’s really a dream come true. (And pretty funny if you were a sculpture major.)

Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?

I read the Gleick biography of Richard Feynman a couple years back. Love that dude. And I guess the Isaacson bio of Einstein got me going, too. Guys like them, Carl Sagan. What imaginations they had, you know?

Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview, how are you using your success to bring goodness to the world? Can you share with us the meaningful or exciting social impact causes you are working on right now?

Lately, my creative partner, Josh Izenberg, and I have refocused our work on environmental stories. Hard to say it’s not the most urgent problem facing humanity right now — and will be with us for decades to come.

If you’re someone who wants to make an impact with a film, that feels like the spot. At least to me.

The problem is: it’s a bit of a struggle right now. Streamers and distributors aren’t taking that many environmental films right now. Not that they don’t think they’re important. I’m sure they do. But, a lot of people just aren’t watching them. And I think that’s because so often, stories about the environment are obviously pretty bleak right now. It’s hard to watch 90 minutes of despair, to see an endangered animal that, if you’re honest with yourself, doesn’t have a lot of hope of being around when your child is an adult.

A lot of filmmakers seem to be struggling with that right now: how do we tell stories about the environment that people are really excited to watch? Sure, it’s one thing for a film to be intellectually stimulating; but, to reach a really wider audience (and expand your impact), entertainment has to be enjoyable to watch, you know? And again, if you want to make an impact with film, despair just doesn’t seem like a good motivator. You need hope and inspiration — and ideally fun. At least that’s our theory of the case. It obviously doesn’t work for every film or story, but it’s become our approach.

So with our latest film Eco-Hack! we wanted to try something different: Make an environmental story that’s fun and hopeful — and hell, bonus points if you can make people laugh or smile. And that’s what we were trying to do with Eco-Hack! … When we found Tim Shields and heard about his work, it seemed like a golden opportunity. Here’s this zany, endlessly optimistic guy running around the Mojave desert trying to solve an urgent environmental problem — but doing it with all these nutty tech tools like laser cannons, drones, and exploding tortoises — all to wage war on ravens. It just seemed inherently quirky and hilarious. And it was so hands-on and solutions-based. What he’s doing is really inspirational, and he’s a pretty damn inspirational, charismatic, and passionate guy himself. It had all the pieces we were looking for…

I guess that’s a common thread in our work. Find stories about people working on urgent problems that are solutions-based and that can also either tug on your heartstrings or make you smile. Before this film, we did a doc in collaboration with Earthworm about farmers in developing countries who are trying hard to adjust their practices to help fight deforestation. And another about a group of people trying to bring life-saving heart surgery to kids, even babies, in rural India. (It’s wild to be in the room when a 6-year-old is getting open-heart surgery, let me tell ya.) We try to find the people that inspire us personally, and that usually takes us somewhere interesting.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Most recently, with Eco-Hack!, Tim tells us the film has been a huge stepping stone for him and his team’s work. A lot of that is him, though — all you can do as a filmmaker is draw attention to something. It’s a testament to how novel and on-point their work has been, not to mention how endlessly adaptable their tech toolkit is for conservation. That was his approach from the start, and why this problem of raven predation on the desert tortoise was so interesting to him. It’s a perfect microcosm of what’s happening to ecosystems all over the planet, from one man-made problem or another. He’s a tortoise guy, through and through, but his aim was to put together a toolkit that could work for countless other species and ecosystems all over the world. That’s why his team has gotten so much high-level support lately: a couple big grants from the National Science Foundation, a prestigious Roosevelt Prize, and is leading a $2M project from the State of California to test his entire toolkit at once, at a large scale, throughout the Mojave. They’re already expanding beyond not just other tortoise species, but totally unrelated species in unrelated ecosystems like sage grouse, rare frogs, etc.

Are there three things that individuals, society or the government can do to support you in this effort?

No doubt! Go to and donate or get in touch with Tim if you want to get involved. I gotta tell you, it’s pretty damn fun to go out and shoot those laser guns at ravens, or bury some exploding-tortoise boobytraps. Doesn’t hurt the birds at all, and it’s like the best, real-life video game you’ve ever played.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

Find mentors. I didn’t really have any for the longest time, but I think it would’ve been incredibly helpful.

Follow your gut. If it’s interesting to you, follow that. It’s all you have. It doesn’t matter if it’s not interesting to other people…yet. That’s your challenge. But if you don’t find it interesting yourself, you certainly can’t make it interesting for someone else.

Watch that old Ira Glass snippet on Vimeo about making work you don’t think is good enough and catching up with your taste. And why that’s a good thing.

And in my case, learn to count to 5, I guess.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Don’t hesitate. If you set out to do work you hope will have an impact or do some good, it then doesn’t matter how successful you become or don’t become in your career. For a filmmaker, even if you only ever make small films your whole life, you’ll go to bed happy and fulfilled. Even if only a few people see your work (and it’ll be much more than that if you’re telling stories you think are important!), you never know who you inspire or help. It’s the best kind of safety net.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

How about: “Anything worth doing is worth overdoing” from Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes. Knowing him, he probably plagiarized that quote from someone else. But I think it’s spot-on…

For me, that means don’t try to do too many things. But, for the ones you choose, take them as far as you absolutely can. Make them as perfect and polished as you possibly can. Otherwise why waste your time? And if you’re a filmmaker asking people to take X minutes of their time to watch what you made, that’s X minutes out of their short life on this planet that they could spend doing literally anything else. So respect that and make it worth their time…

How can our readers follow you online?

You can find me at either (creative domain, isn’t it?) or — or for more real-time stuff @brettmarty on Instagram.

This was great, thank you so much for sharing your story and doing this with us. We wish you continued success!

Filmmakers Making A Social Impact: Why & How Filmmaker Brett Marty Is Helping To Change Our World was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.