Greta Thunberg has become the face of the climate change movement, but watch five minutes of I Am Greta—the new documentary about the young activist, which released on Hulu today—and you’ll see that she never wanted to be.
Certainly, she never expected her current level of fame when at age 15, she staged a “school strike” outside of Swedish parliament, demanding action from officials on climate change. Director Nathan Grossman never expected that, either. Like most of the world, he had no idea who Thunberg was when he began filming her in August 2018. He had half an idea to perhaps make a short film about young activists. But over the next few months, more and more teenagers began to join Thunberg in striking. By December, more than 20,000 students across the world were joining her in striking every Friday. They called it, “Fridays For Future.” It was then that Grossman realized he had stumbled into something much bigger than a local short film.
Throughout I Am Greta, Thunberg insists that it is the movement, and not her, that should be receiving attention. And yet, the film is an intimate portrait of her interior life. If you didn’t know already, Thunberg was diagnosed at a young age with Asperger syndrome and has struggled with eating disorders, depression, and selective mutism over the years. In one scene, her father pleads with her to eat a banana before an important conference. In another, she refuses to stop obsessively editing the grammar in her speech. In the film’s climax, on a cross-Atlantic sailboat journey to speak in New York City, she breaks down sobbing. Grossman spoke to Decider about working with Thunberg, capturing those intimate moments, and sailing across the Atlantic Ocean.
Decider: Where was the idea for this film born?
Nathan Grossman: In August 2018, a friend of my mine who knew Greta’s family told me that she was going to do some small manifestation outside the Swedish parliament. I’m interested in climate-related topics, and I’ve done films and directing before. So I took my camera and my friend who’s a sound technician, and we went to this narrow street in the middle of the parliament building. There, this young girl sat by the stone wall with a sign. I went up to her, and I’d never met her before—in Sweden, she was totally unknown—and asked, “Don’t get your hopes up if I feel that isn’t interesting, but I might be here for one or two days if it’s okay for you.” She said it was fine. She kept doing her activism, and I stepped back and started rolling.
I read that at first, you thought it might be a short film, with Greta as just one of many characters. When did you realize that this was really going to be a film about Greta?
It was like this weird baseball game, in a sense. You have different bases, and you don’t really know to which one you’re running. When the movement started to become a bit bigger with the Scandinavians, we were discussing with Scandinavian channels of doing something kind of local. And then when I really understood that this is becoming a national base was when the strikes popped up in Australia and Belgium, suddenly. It’s important to remember that the strikes with the Scandinavians then were maybe 50, 60, 70 people maximum per strike. Suddenly, in Australia, there were 10 or 15,000 people striking. I think that was when I understood that her words and the way that she spoke about this issue was so powerful, and was also something that related to other people in totally different cultures, with totally different views of the world.
Watching Greta, it’s clear that she doesn’t like having attention on her. So how did you convince her to be in a movie that is so focused on her?
It’s something that I’ve thought a lot about. Like, ‘Okay, we’re making a movie about someone who doesn’t want to be in the spotlight. Isn’t that kind of a weird thing?’ But I didn’t have to convince her in any way. It was more of in the process of, as I said, this baseball game of trying to figure where this movie was heading, she kind of became very famous during those months. And already was kind of put in the spotlight. Then, I think she felt like doing a documentary. Showing a more three-dimensional view of yourself was probably not something that was weird, when she was already that much in the spotlight.
Tell me about those early conversations that you had with her. How did you guys connect?
Greta was, more than today, a bit shy. She was very into climate. That was her thing. I remember on those early days—in Riksdag, on the street in Sweden—that we talked mostly about climate change. I was very surprised by the way that she took down this huge issue and made it understandable. I, of course, had read some things. I’m knowledgeable on the topic. But many of her striking formulations stayed with me when I left. Then, later on, when we started to travel together and she went together with her father to some of these speeches and manifestations in Europe, she went by train, electric car. It took so much time, going from Sweden as far up north. Then, we had much more time to talk about other things as well. Her view of the world, and a lot of the humor.
Is there anything in particular that she said about climate change that stayed with you?
One thing that I remember was definitely the thing of: why should we learn these facts in school, when the finest facts given by the best scientists in the world are neglected by the political elite? It’s not just how she formulates herself with climate change; actually, how she formulates herself with anything. She’s very good at—maybe a little bit because of her [Apsperger’s] diagnosis—seeing through when you say something, and you do something else. It’s very important to learn facts and study math and physics, but then at the same time, the same physics is ignored in the parliament. I think she has this sense of that: Saying one thing, and then doing else. Especially when it comes to climate change.
Her father is such an interesting figure in the film. At what point did he become a character?
As she was a minor, I had discussions with him, and I also had some discussions with her mother early on, saying that we’re going to film Greta. But it wasn’t until she started traveling, that the more road movie appeared as an idea for me, that he became a character. I remember being on the first travel in the car with them, and that’s when you really heard that father/daughter chit-chat and conflict. I remember I sat in the back of the car and I was smiling, because I recognized myself so much from being a teenager, and definitely felt that this was something that I wanted to include as a narrative. Showing the normal-ness that can be in these very extremely emotional narratives of the year that she had.
At one point, they have a very real father vs. teenager fight, when she refuses to stop editing a speech. How do you film a scene like that—at what point do you give the family privacy?
I think what’s so important—and I think this stays true for any documentary filmmaker that wants to do as ethical documentary films as we can do—is that you need to have respect for the people that you’re filming. It doesn’t matter who they are; if they’re adults or children. I told Greta, “If there’s anything that you don’t want me to film, tell me. If you don’t want to follow on some specific trip, tell me. You don’t even need to, sometimes when we film, say something. You can just nod or pull my jacket or do a sign, and I will stop.” She actually very seldomly said that. But also, I was open with them: “If I’m going to do a film, I’m going to need you to assume my point of view. I’m not interested in showing a one-sided portrait.” I also think it’s important to show scenes and situations where things maybe aren’t going in the right direction.
[That fight scene in the film] is maybe just a few minutes. But I think in real-time, it was a longer situation where you kind of step away. Maybe go back and listen if it’s okay, maybe be like, “Hi, how are you guys? Okay?” You kind of feel the situation, so you’re not always shoving the camera into someone’s face. You’re showing, in a sense, with your body language. Maybe taking down the camera sometimes. If there’s any sign that they want me to leave, they should feel that there’s space for that. I hope that was what they felt.
The narration that she does is so insightful and grounds the film. Where is that from? Her diary? Somewhere else?
I started doing radio interviews with her early on. Maybe more in the research phase, because I wanted to hear her in her monologue. How did it sound? It was connected to the way I wanted to understand her. Then we listened to the way she spoke, and it was so good. She read from her diary. During those sessions, she brought up her diary and she read the situations she had been in and thoughts that she had had. Then we started to layer that in as an inner-monologue. It worked really well. I don’t remember where the ideas come from, but lots of them are definitely coming up from notes that she had in her diary. Some of them are direct formulations, actually, from the diary.
The big climax of the film is Greta’s journey across the Atlantic in a sailboat because she wants to attend the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit without flying. You were also on this sailboat trip, I assume?
[Laughs] Yes. Yes, I was.
What was that experience like?
It was a very special year. It was a very emotional year. I think the film really shows that. But if I had no idea that Greta would become a big activist, I think the last thing I would think of was sailing over the Atlantic during that same year. I remember when she told me about this. It was going to be in a race boat, where they didn’t even paint inside of the boat. This is not a luxury—this is some serious machine. I was like, “Okay. I filmed this entire movie with a camera over my shoulder to get that intimacy, and to be able to get into the rooms of these political discussions. But now, I need to find someone else that can go over the Atlantic.” But after speaking to the captain, and to Greta, I understood that it was going to be very bumpy, but not dangerous. I decided that I would go on this journey. It was, of course, very bumpy. But it was very special, in the sense that now we all know how much two weeks is. That’s the length of quarantine.
So you spent two weeks on the ocean?
Yeah. A little bit more than two weeks. It’s a lot of killing time and looking at the ocean, trying to meditate to kill time. Otherwise, it’s becoming boring. It was also very funny because some people have a very hard time sleeping on these boats. Sleep deprivation can be a very big problem when you’re sailing. Me and Greta, by some weird kind of thing, we had a really good sleeping pattern. I could sleep 12 hours on the boat. I had nothing to do. It was a little bumpy. Greta was the same. She slept very long. That was probably how I endured it—all the sleep deprivation I had from filming for one year constantly, I kind of took back on the boat.
Are there any fond memories from that journey that we didn’t get to see in the film?
One scene which was cut out very late into the film was this extremely weird situation. Greta was playing this game together with one of the captains of the boat, where you have this sign on your forehead. I don’t know the name of that game in English, but everyone has played it in school. We were playing that on the Atlantic Ocean, practically in the middle of a storm, and everything was flying around. Greta was sitting there and was like, “Who am I?” I remember it was Winston Churchill who was on her forehead. It was this bizarre moment of, “What’s happening here?” The cross-conjunction of normality and absurdity, which I think the movie has many of those kinds of points. It was sad, leaving that scene out. But it was for space.
What was Greta’s reaction when you showed her the finished film?
Making the movie with an idea of creating a film from within someone, not labeling someone from outside—it’s very special showing it to that person. Because at the end of the day, I have interpreted her diary and her interviews and these situations—so I was a little bit, ugh. It felt a little bit weird. How would she recognize herself? But after, when the rolling credits were going, she said to me that she recognized herself in a way that she maybe didn’t use to do in the media, where she was so taken down to being a very angry Greta. Here, she was shown in so many more dimensions. She said, “This is more the person I recognize myself as—this very nerdy person.” That made me very happy, in the sense that: at least I had interpreted her in somewhat the same way she saw herself.
Has Greta given you any update on what she’s up to now, in the pandemic? Is she back in Sweden?
We don’t have the same daily contact as we had from filming, but we still have some contact. She took this one sabbatical year, and went back a few months ago, to school. Now she has three high school years in Sweden, and she’s focusing on those studies. But she is continuing her activism on the side. Now, with the pandemic still running in Europe and the U.S., Fridays for Future and the School Strike movement have always been focused on: “Listen to the science and the scientific facts.” They have actually been very quick on shutting down the strikes and making sure that they are not a part of spreading this disease. My gut feeling is, of course, as soon as this pandemic is starting to go down, these strikes and other climate-related activism activities will start to come back again.
How closely are you, and how closely is Greta—if she’s told you—following the American election here? [Note: This interview was conducted the week before the U.S. presidential election.]
Yeah, we’re following it even here in Sweden. It’s on the news every second. Of course, we don’t know what’s going to happen. What we still know is, yesterday, the fourth of November, the U.S. pulled out of the Paris Agreement. It says a lot about where we are right now, and what situation we are in when we have less time than ever to solve this issue. We have more pollutants flowing out of cars and pipes all over the world. Time is running out. At the same time, we’re moving in the wrong direction. I think this will definitely not make young people less worried about how their future is going to look like.
I think [whether Biden is elected] doesn’t matter that much, in the sense that Biden also has a lot to do in regards to lowering emissions and creating a completely new way of looking at the world. But of course, the more climate deniers we have in high political positions in the world, the less bright the future will look for the children and grandchildren. I think the big generational conflict is within the film. It’s not the main narrative, but I think it’s a very important narrative—showing how older people have the economical and political power, and the young people, they are the ones that are going to live in the future. They have no impact on how the future is crafted. I’m worried that that divide might become worse and bigger, in the future.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Originally published at https://decider.com/2020/11/13/i-am-greta-director-nathan-grossman-interview/ on .