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Mark Mathis: The TT Interview

The director of SpOILed, which has been described as a "love song to Big Oil," on who funded his film and why he gives short shrift to climate change.

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Last year Mark Mathis, a New Mexico filmmaker and retired newsman, debuted his movie SpOILed, which has been described as a "love song to Big Oil." The film, which covers aspects of the oil industry, was shown a week ago in Austin, just ahead of the South by Southwest film and music festival. Mathis sat down with The Texas Tribune last week to discuss the movie, including how he came to make it and why he gives short shrift to climate change. The following has been edited and condensed.

TT: You’ve been showing the film in Austin, and what has been the reception here for South by Southwest?

Mathis: It’s not in any way planned to be next to SXSW. Even though we’re here the week prior, it’s driven up the price of everything — hotels, rental cars. I’m actually kind of annoyed by it. This trip is costing us. Our own personal film economics are very tight. It’s a little operation. I struggle to go from city to city. ... [The film showed multiple times last week in Austin.] We try to, everywhere we can, show the film in universities. We want everyone to come to this little party here and expand their thinking about energy or oil and transportation specifically for this film. I love it when people come from the audience and press me: “Wait a minute, Mark, I don’t like what you said about this or that. I think commuter rail is a good idea. Explain that further.” I’m happy to do that. Now we’re getting to productive discussion. I go to some places like Midland, Texas. They’re like, “What’re you doing here, Mark? You’re preaching to the choir.” I’m like, "Well, I know. But we have to run this operation. I’ve got to build interest and fire." So you have to go to a place like Midland. And now I get to go to a place like Austin. I want to be challenged. It’s okay for us to disagree, so long in doing so we’re not disagreeable. Let’s not be nasty. Some people have been nasty. It’s unfortunate, but we’re out there, fighting the fight. 

TT: How much during the making of this film did you spend in Texas? I noticed you interviewed [the late] Matthew Simmons.

Mathis: During the filming of the movie, we came to Texas multiple times. We were in West Texas to shoot energy production — windmills — and were there to do interviews with people like Matthew Simmons and Robert Bryce. We probably came to Texas maybe half a dozen times.

TT: How did you decide to make this film and when?

Mathis: I came to this from way outside the energy sector. I never lived in an energy town. I never worked for an energy company. I was just a news reporter. I did that for 10 years in places like California, Nevada, South Carolina and New Mexico. I got tired of that and became a media consultant to all different kinds of groups of people who needed to understand how to work with the media. ... Along the way, I had a small oil and natural gas trade group approach me just to help them do a better job dealing with the media. There’s almost no one in the industry who’d tell you they think they do a good or adequate job. They all confess to doing a really bad job of dealing with the news media. I started doing some work with them, like every group that I did work with, on a consulting basis. I went to school on what it their problems are. The interesting thing that happened was they brought me to educate them, but I was really the one who got the education. Once I started seeing what these folks did, and then understood the direct connection to my life, that’s when the big moment happened for me. I could not believe, at 40 years old, at that time, that I was that fundamentally ignorant of how my world works. 

TT: How long ago are we talking here?

Mathis: Ten years, roughly. Then I spent many years learning more, studying more, trying to figure all of this stuff out. I started an energy education nonprofit organization called the Citizens’ Alliance for Responsible Energy as an attempt to try to educate people about energy in a broad view — about everything from renewables to oil. That, then, brought more education because if you’re going to write material on that, you need to understand it. Then the other big moment happened. In a total fluke, I got called in to work on a documentary film. It was a very minor role, which then turned into a much larger role. I saw the documentary film process – not from start to finish, but fairly close to the beginning to the film getting into theaters. On that project, I started talking to the crew about energy and specifically about oil. Their minds were blown as mine was blown. So many things that I thought I knew, I didn’t. And other things I didn’t know at all. We started saying, “We need to do a film on this.” That was five years ago. 

TT: What surprised you most [while making] this film?

Mathis: I was really surprised by how difficult it was to make the movie. ... The biggest surprise [in terms of content] has been that people have what I’ll call “willful denial.” They will either watch the film or hear me talk and they really just don’t want to deal with reality. They’re like, “Well, I hear everything you’re saying, I see the way you’ve rolled it out in your film, but I just don’t want to go there. There’s got to be another way. There’s got to be something else." That’s been surprising to me. But there really isn’t anything else that works. Unlike a lot of people, I want people to understand. The best-case scenario for the world is that we figure out ways to be less reliant on oil. If we can do that, that’ll be the most important thing this country can do for itself. Not just in the energy sector, but in all sectors. But now reality intervenes. We’re not getting to that place anytime soon. This is going to be a multi-decade process, and at the minimum, we’re looking at a century and beyond. In the meantime, we have to run this machine called the modern world — and it’s going to take a lot of oil. 

TT: I’m struck by the fact that in the movie, climate change gets fairly short coverage. There was a passing [and skeptical] reference. Why was that? That seems like an issue that is very front-and-center to environmentalists.

Mathis: One of the great challenges of making a film like this is that I look at all the different segments we cover in the film — and it’s our strength and it’s also our weakness. Trying to give people a broad view of the issue when it comes to oil, and to do that in 90 minutes, is incredibility difficult. So I’m constantly being asked questions. “Mark, why didn’t you say anything about refining? Why didn’t you talk about the issues in this country when it comes to aging personnel and to aging infrastructure?” I could go on and on and on. I have to say, this film was built for a general audience, and I just wanted to encompass as much detail as I could in as broad a context as I could so that people could leave with a thought process that they didn’t walk into the film with. When it comes to climate change, it got the same treatment that a lot of different pieces got, which is, look, here’s the basic issue, here’s our position on it and we’ll move on.

Personally I think the issue of global warming or climate change gets far too much press. Why are we devoting so much discussion about an issue that, No. 1, we are uncertain about? I think we have to concede that there is great uncertainty. But the biggest issue is that we have no standing to tell any other nation how they might industrialize. China, which is producing 40 percent more emissions than we are, is just now industrializing this giant nation which is what, five times our size? India has 1.52 billion people, and it’s just now industrializing. We’ve got nations in Malaysia, Africa — these nations are going to industrialize and use their resources. There isn’t anything meaningful that we can do to affect that. With that being my knowledge of the issue, I don’t see a lot of need to pursue it much further. Other people do; they’re consumed by it.

To me, it’s almost a nonissue, because there’s nothing you can do. There is one thing you can do, and I think people who are consumed by this issue miss this point. The only way we’re going to come up with methods to more efficiently and in a much cleaner way deal with our energy consumption is to run a technologically advanced society where we are continuing to have breakthroughs in becoming more efficient and cleaner. If we don’t run that kind of society, those breakthroughs aren’t happening.

TT: Did making this film make you buy a Prius back in New Mexico or anything like that?

Mathis: No. My associate producer drives a Prius. I wouldn’t drive one because I’m like most people: I’m concerned about the economics of a vehicle or a house, or whatever I can afford, what makes sense. The No. 1 reason why I wouldn’t buy a Prius is I’m 6'3". So it’s not a good vehicle for me at my height. I think the battery technology in those vehicles is not fully developed. I have concerns about the batteries. I don’t think at this point in time it’s a vehicle that is economic. It doesn’t make sense for me economically, so I wouldn’t buy one.

TT: But did you sort of change your habits in any way to address consumption issues on a personal basis?

Mathis: You know, I would say no because I’ve always been a very energy-conscious person before I ever came to study energy. I grew up in a very poor household. We had five kids and one parent, an uneducated woman who worked in a grocery store, was my mom. We did not leave lights on in the house. If you left a light on, my mom was all over you. So it was ingrained in me from a very young age that I’m an efficient person. I don’t want to drive if I don’t have to. 

TT: Could you talk a little bit more about the funding of your film? I noticed on your website that you were funded by a small group of investors. Who are those folks? Are they oil and gas people?

Mathis: Yes, we’re very upfront about this. This is an interesting part of the film and people’s scrutiny of it and what my motivations are and who’s behind it. Let me tell you, the person behind this film is me. I am the obsessive person. I am the curious person who has a message to bring to the country. I went out and said, “I’ve got to find the money to make this movie because I don’t have the money to make this movie myself. Where am I going to find that money?” I started knocking on doors. I raised money from independent small investors, some of whom have interests in small independent oil and gas companies. These people were willing to put forth money to get this movie made because these are frustrated people. They’re very frustrated. They feel like they are misportrayed. And they are misportrayed publicly — what they do. The general public gets all “Big Oil.” It’s not all Big Oil in this country. It certainly isn’t in the state of Texas; it is almost all Little Oil. Ten-, 20-, 25-employee companies that are struggling to run their operations and produce their product and deal with an enormous amount of regulation. I’m not anti-regulation. They need to follow regulation. But the environment continues to become more and more oppressive and very difficult to do business. I tell people I’m very upfront about that. ...

I told my potential investors, “Look, here’s the film I’m going to make. I’m going to tell the straight-up truth that I understand about the biggest issues where oil is concerned. You’re probably not going to like some of it. This is a warts-and-all story. If you want the truth out there, then you just have to have faith in me that I’m going to do what I’m going to tell you I’m going to do. And it won’t serve you. It won’t help the country if I produce a film that promotes you or soft-pedals anything. I’ve just got to tell the truth, and that’s what’s going to connect with an audience. So you’ll just have to be okay with that.” Some folks said, "Well, no I’m not interested in doing that." And they didn’t give me any money. And some folks, who are more enlightened how they see how things really work said, "Yeah. The straight-up truth is better than what we’ve got."

One last piece of that: I ask people, please explain to me if you think this is somehow a tainted view. How does someone who has interest in small and independent oil and gas companies benefit directly from a film like this? What do they get out of it? Other than simply, hey, someone else is telling a side that is fundamentally based on reality, which is good for them. Because the view that’s out there about them is inaccurate, in a negative way. ... Really the people who come out best in this film are, ironically, the people who wouldn’t touch this film with a thousand-foot pole. And that’s the majors. Exxon, Chevron, BP. They wouldn’t touch this film. They’re scared to death of this film. They think I’m dangerous, and they’re probably right. That’s the ironic thing. You come out and you go, “Wow, Exxon’s not killing me at the gas pump. That’s not really what’s happening here.” That’s helpful to Exxon. Believe me, Exxon’s nowhere near this [project]. So that’s the interesting piece of how you produce a film like this.

TT: These small investors, I guess you’re not going to name anyone.

Mathis: Yeah.

TT: Do they have as their main interests as oil and gas, or is it just one of their interests?

Mathis: It would run the gamut.

TT: Are you going to make another film?

Mathis: I intend on making many films. This is the first of many to come. What I’m deciding now is the next one is it going to deal with energy. Because I have other films that are not energy-based that I want to do. It’s a matter of figuring out which one I’m going to do and how I’m going to pay for it.

Anna Whitney transcribed this interview, which was conducted by Kate Galbraith.

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