Arts & Culture News

Chasing Coral Executive Producer Jill Ahrens Gets Climate Skeptics and Film Critics Buzzing

A camera crew captures underwater footage of Glover's Reef, a coral reef off the coast of Belize, for the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, produced in association with Fort Worth native and Argent Pictures co-founder Jill Ahrens.
A camera crew captures underwater footage of Glover's Reef, a coral reef off the coast of Belize, for the Netflix documentary Chasing Coral, produced in association with Fort Worth native and Argent Pictures co-founder Jill Ahrens. The Ocean Agency
While some politicians still — still — debate whether humans are contributing to climate change, Jill Ahrens, a Fort Worth native and executive producer of the highly acclaimed documentary Chasing Coral, says she and a team of filmmakers found the surest evidence lying at the bottom of the ocean.

"It was a huge surprise," Ahrens says. "I knew climate change is a huge topic, and it seemed within that topic that there were thousands of other topics. ... Not being a diver, I had no clue of the state of the ocean, and we were struggling with that reality of, 'How do you bring awareness to a complex topic?' And I think we did that beautifully but in an inspiring way."

click to enlarge Film producer Jill Ahrens - COURTESY ROGERS & COWEN
Film producer Jill Ahrens
courtesy Rogers & Cowen
Ahrens' production company, Argent Pictures, and director Jeff Orlowski, who also helmed the 2012 climate change documentary Chasing Ice, set off to film the natural beauty and rapid decay of the ocean's coral reefs in the hopes of raising awareness about the devastating effects of climate change. They tell the story of coral reefs through a team of divers, scientists and conservationists using both their knowledge and their unique stories. Among them is Richard Vevers, a retired advertising executive who devotes his skills to raising awareness about the oceans' decaying ecosystems because he feels the issue's biggest flaw in converting skeptics is "an advertising problem."

Ahrens says she wanted to convey these passionate pleas for help with her film in the same way they inspired her and her production team.

"In terms of the people who are involved, the filmmakers are just inspiring humans, and they make me want to be a better person and learn more about the team and those individuals," she says. "A lot of documentaries, they can be depressing and devastating, and that only gets you so far. When you watch Chasing Coral, it can be sad and you can be done with it, but we all have the ability to reverse and change it and eliminate the problem, and I think that's why we feel so strongly involved."

Ahrens says she and her Argent Pictures team decided to work on Chasing Coral while they were still on the heels of some major Hollywood hits, including the Oscar-nominated Hacksaw Ridge, starring Andrew Garfield, and American Made, starring Tom Cruise. She said they were inspired to work on Chasing Coral, the production company's first documentary, after their first meeting with Orlowski and producer Larrisa Rhodes.

"We wanted to support them after learning about the project and the need to reach as many people as we could," Ahrens says.

The film premiered at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival to wide acclaim and an Audience Award win. Netflix inked a deal during the festival to release the documentary on its digital platform. It's already being picked in critics' circles and the Hollywood rumor mill as one of the early favorites for Academy Award nominations in categories like Best Documentary and Best Original Song, thanks to a moving musical performance from Kristen Bell.

"I can tell you I never thought I'd see this coming," Ahrens says. "I'm definitely the more conservative of my partners. They take the risk, and I want to know how we're going to do it. We take risks on people and projects all the time, and it's all just about managing that and those expectations."

Ahrens says making a movie like Chasing Coral is about more than just Oscar buzz and critical acclaim.

"I hope it brings a dialogue," she says. "I hope that as many people see it, they talk about it in their schools and communities because at the end of the day, we're in control of these things and the more people who see it, the better."

Chasing Coral shows that people have a transformative power to bring awareness to a hot-button topic without being preachy. Ahrens says she's most pleased with her film when someone who she thought would never sit still long enough to watch a documentary about coral reefs comes away with the message that she and the filmmakers are trying to tell the world.

"The best is when you run across people who you don't expect to watch it," she says. "They come up with you, and it's a friend or an acquaintance who you don't think it will be in their wheelhouse, and they love it and that brings them into the conversation. That sometimes is the most rewarding moment, when the most unexpected audiences find it."
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Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.