In ‘Extrapolations,’ Scott Z. Burns Dramatizes Some Inconvenient Truths
The star-studded Apple TV+ series about climate change could have felt like a plea to eat your vegetables. But not if Burns could make it entertaining.
Years ago, when Scott Z. Burns was doing some uncredited script work on Steven Soderbergh’s escapist heist movie “Ocean’s Twelve” (2004), Burns made the mistake of cracking a joke about the popcorn movie they were making. Soderbergh quickly set him straight.
Movies and TV shows are a transaction, Soderbergh told him. Filmmakers and showrunners tell viewers a story, and viewers give that story their time.
“He told me that is a transaction that we, as storytellers, can’t afford to be cynical about,” Burns said in a recent video call. In other words, entertainment is the storyteller’s mandate.
The lesson came in handy as Burns was writing, producing and directing multiple episodes of “Extrapolations,” the new limited series he created for Apple TV+, which debuts on Friday. The series, which features a large, illustrious cast — top names include Edward Norton and Meryl Streep — conjures eight hours of drama, science fiction and some occasional comedy from the subject of global warming. As subjects go, it’s a tough sell; the series could easily have come across like an urgent plea to eat your vegetables.
But not if he could make it at least a little bit fun.
“I don’t believe I’m going to move people or change their attitude about anything unless first I entertain them” said Burns, best known for writing the research-heavy Soderbergh movies “Contagion,” “Side Effects” and “The Informant!” (and for writing and directing the 2019 political thriller “The Report”). “That, to me, is the fun part of the job: creating entertainment that maybe sticks with somebody.”
Make no mistake, it was a challenge. Telling multiple, sometimes interlocking stories that cover the years 2037 to 2070, “Extrapolations” is hugely ambitious, exploring climate change from religious, political, economic, technological and social perspectives. Each episode (with the exception of one two-parter) leaps ahead several years as the climate crisis worsens, traversing the globe from Alaska to India, much of it shot overseas. Fires rage, cities flood and famines spread but life continues, including all of the myopia, power-grabbing and need for deeper meaning that has always characterized human history.
It’s a series full of big ideas. But that is typical for Burns, said Matthew Rhys, who stars and has been friends with him for several years. (He also played a small but important role in “The Report.”
“He is forever posing the questions that would never even cross my stratosphere,” Rhys said in a video call. “He has this expanse to his thinking and to his questioning, and also this enormous humanity and incredible sensitivity.”
Born and raised just outside Minneapolis, Burns studied English literature at the University of Minnesota and originally wanted to be a journalist. His father worked in advertising, and Burns followed in his footsteps. He soon discovered that he was good at writing television commercials, which is how he met the actor and director Peter Berg. Berg was interested in directing ads in between his film and television projects. They became friends, and Berg hired Burns to write for the series “Wonderland” (2000), a drama set in a psychiatric facility modeled on Bellevue Hospital.
The series lasted only one season, but the experience taught Burns two things about himself: He had a talent for writing screenplays, and he loved doing research. He would spend hours at Bellevue, immersing himself in the atmosphere and the history.
“I think that’s where I became persuaded that research really is the solution to writer’s block,” he said. “That if you just continue to dig into your subject matter, it’s eventually going to reveal some cool story to you.”
He takes a hands-on approach to gathering information and context, engaging experts and throwing himself into his subjects. For “Contagion,” that meant global pandemics (the film was released in 2011, nearly a decade before the Covid-19 outbreak). For “Side Effects” (2013), it was the world of antidepressants. In writing “Extrapolations” Burns consulted with the climate change experts Elizabeth Kolbert and Bill McKibben.
He is also open to perspectives that diverge from his own. “I know that one of the reasons he brought me on is that he and I don’t see the world the same way,” Dorothy Fortenberry, an executive producer of “Extrapolations,” said in a video call. “We have very different lives and lifestyles. He’s agnostic, and I’m religious. We’re not a matched set, and I think he appreciated that.”
Burns traces his environmental awakening to the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, in which some 11 million gallons of crude oil were spilled into Prince William Sound, Alaska. Burns took a leave from his advertising job to help clean otters affected by the spill. He soon realized that the otter center where he worked was part of a carefully planned strategy to rehabilitate Exxon’s image.
“I think what I took from that was that a story, like a place that had been built to clean otters, wasn’t maybe what it looked like,” Burns said. “That was a big thing for me. I came back and I changed my relationship to advertising so I could do more work in the environmental space.”
Years later, he jumped at an opportunity to work on Davis Guggenheim’s 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” joining as a producer.
The film, which won an Oscar for best documentary, turned an Al Gore slide show into a visually compelling and morally persuasive argument for heeding the dire signs of global warming. Viewed widely as an important moment in raising public awareness of climate change, it even spawned a sequel, 2017’s “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” with Burns as an executive producer.
Gore, who has remained friends with Burns, was particularly impressed with how Burns handled the episodes of “Extrapolations” that are set in the distant future, and his ability to turn real-world crisis into compelling narrative.
“The farther into the future you extrapolate, the more difficult it is to find the most accurate projection of what might happen,” Gore said by phone. “But I think that he’s really done a terrific job.”
“There is kind of a cottage industry of books about how storytelling is the way we all best absorb information, so the importance of highly skilled storytellers has grown,” Gore added. “It’s great that Scott has applied that skill to this challenge.”
Compared to the “Inconvenient Truth” films, the flashy, effects-heavy “Extrapolations” feels like “Ocean’s Twelve,” with a similarly star-studded cast. It includes Marion Cotillard and Forest Whitaker, who play a married couple living a contentious, futuristic “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” existence; Sienna Miller, who plays a pregnant marine biologist wondering what the future holds for her unborn child; David Schwimmer, who plays a slippery lawyer willing to grease some wheels to preserve the temple where his family worships; and Kit Harington, who plays a powerful tech mogul lording over all he sees, Elon Musk style.
It makes for a lot of intellectual and artistic juggling. To that end, Rhys, who plays a craven casino mogul trying to make a fast buck in Alaska, praised Burns’s ability to “view the world from many different perspectives and approach them all with equal empathy.”
That enormous scope was a specific draw for Daveed Diggs (“Hamilton,” “Blindspotting”), who plays a rabbi trying to balance faith, social obligation and the reality of rapidly rising Miami sea levels in two early episodes.
“I just thought it was a really big swing, and I like things that are big swings,” he said in a video call. “I wasn’t sure how it was all going to work, but the world building was so smart to me. It is trying to create something that allows us to discuss the reality of climate change in the same way that we discuss other elements of popular culture.”
“Extrapolations” also fits neatly into a running Burns theme: The world is a scary place, and humans have devised all manner of ways to screw it up. But they also have the capability to fix it, and this gives him hope.
“People who know me would probably say I tend to be a little darker and drier than a lot of other humans,” he said. “But I know that we have all of the solutions to all of these problems. I also recognize that the amount of change that we have to engage in is massive, and human beings don’t tend to change very rapidly.”
Perhaps his latest endeavor can help push things along. And maybe even provide some entertainment along the way.