Fisher Stevens originally thought Leonardo DiCaprio just wanted to have lunch.
When the world-renowned actor asked to meet him at a racetrack in Brooklyn, Stevens began to laugh.
“I said, ‘Dude, there’s no racetrack in Brooklyn,’ ” said Stevens, a producer, director and actor who just had finished “Before the Flood,” a 2016 documentary about climate change, with DiCaprio. “And he goes, ‘Um, yeah, there is. There’s this Formula E race.’ ”
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So Stevens took a short ride on his Vespa to Formula E’s U.S. course, which was located on the west side of Brooklyn near the ferry, shipping yards and warehouses of the Red Hook neighborhood.
“There was a racetrack, and I had never heard of it,” Stevens said with a laugh. “And I live 7 minutes away in Brooklyn.”
That’s the unlikely origin story for “And We Go Green.”
The documentary, which premiered on Hulu earlier this month, tracks the 2017-18 season in Formula E, which served as a backdrop for DiCaprio’s latest sustainability-focused project. The fully electric circuit is in the middle of its sixth season, which will resume in August after a delay for the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
Racing on metropolitan street circuits, Formula E has attracted several high-profile manufacturers (such as BMW, Nissan, Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, Porsche and Audi). It’s the brainchild of Alejandro Agag, who founded the series as a pathway for automakers to road-test new electric vehicle components and technology.
It was Agag’s friendship with DiCaprio that led to the involvement of Stevens (who also was executive producer with DiCaprio on a Ulysses S. Grant documentary for the History Channel).
“I get to the race, and Leo was with this crazy Spaniard, Alejandro Agag, and he’s like, ‘Fisher, nice to meet you, I love ‘Before the Flood,’” Stevens said. “Leo takes me around the paddock, and these cars are really amazing and electric and quiet, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I’d heard of Lewis Hamilton, but I know nothing about racing.
“I thought Leo was just inviting me to lunch, and then he said, ‘Hey, man, let’s do a documentary about this. It’ll be great; we can do another environmental film through sport.’ ”
Stevens, whose primary passion is Premier League soccer, was skeptical until he called Malcolm Venville, a Formula One and car enthusiast who is an accomplished commercial director. After a trip to Europe to meet with drivers and explore the series, Venville and Stevens agreed to co-direct the movie with DiCaprio as a producer.
“I was concerned about making a sport about privileged white men, really, in a time like this,” Stevens said. “That was like literally my first thought. There’s no women. There’s no Black people. There’s no people of color. These are spoiled white guys. Rich guys, most of them.
“I went around and interviewed everybody, and including some team owners, and I realized quickly that there are three or four of these guys that are absolutely fascinating that I think I can crack and open up like you’ve never seen in a sports film.”
Some of the principal characters/drivers in “And We Go Green” are two-time Formula E champion Jean-Eric Vergne (whose first title was in 2017-18) and rookie teammate Andre Lotterer.
The movie also features 2016-17 champion Lucas di Grassi and 2014-15 champion Nelson Piquet Jr., the son of a three-time Formula One champion who also has driven in F1 and NASCAR.
“Malcolm and I both can say it was one of the most incredible experiences of our lives; we had an amazing time making it,” Stevens said. “It was not easy. We never knew who to film at what time, but we did key on Jean and Andre right at the top, which was lucky, and Nelson because he was a Piquet, and Malcolm had told me his Formula One story, so we knew we had to have him. And then we knew Alejandro was going to be an open book.”
Agag also allowed Stevens and Venville unfettered access.
“We told him you cannot ever tell us what to film or what we can keep and what we can’t,” Stevens said. “We have full reign. And that was an agreement with Leo. That’s when his muscle stepped up and said, ‘Fisher and Malcolm have final cut,’ and that was it. We were literally off to the races.”
Here’s what else Stevens had to say about the movie during a recent interview with NBCSports.com.
Q: Looking at the traditionally large carbon footprint of motorsports through the internal combustion engine, climate change activism in racing seems unconventional. Did you have your doubts that it can be used as a platform for being environmentally conscious?
A: “Yes. Yeah, I was completely skeptical of that. But here’s the difference is a guy like me, who’s never watched a motorsport in person in his life. I saw people in Paris, in Rome, in Hong Kong – young kids who don’t know Formula One – they were so into this thing. And I knew it was the future because this sport comes to the people. It’s not like they drive out to a racetrack and spend all this money to watch these cars. This sport is bringing motorsports to the cities, and you can play it on a video game as well. And I just felt young people are going to relate to this much more than Formula One, which is why Formula One is dying.
“So I saw an opportunity. Part of the point of this movie is we watch sports because we love the players. We know the players. People love Formula One because they knew Senna, they knew Hamilton. I was trying to make the drivers celebrities because that’s why we watch. I remember being a little kid and watching A.J. Foyt and Richard Petty.
“But I think once you realize this is the future. And we made a big point of showing that Formula One transformed the cars we drove yesterday, and Formula E is transforming the cars we drive today. That was another theme of the movie, and that’s what made me feel like this is relevant to what’s going on. And the planet is burning, so obviously, that was an issue. I purposely didn’t pay attention to motorsports before because it seemed about spewing carbon in the air. As soon as I was aware of climate change and Al Gore, it was over for all motorsports for me. It was like, ‘What are we doing?’ ”
Q: Do you think the Formula E drivers understand the overall purpose of what Agag and Formula E are trying to do in raising awareness?
A: “Not all of them. For sure, no. No way. A lot of them are there just because they need a gig. And then some of them are way into it.
Like di Grassi, that guy’s like a professor. He can explain everything from climate change to being into making his own series with autonomous electric cars. In the time I filmed (Jean-Eric Vergne) to now, (Vergne) completely has dug in deep about climate change. He’s learning all about it. To a certain extent, he’s changed a bit of his lifestyle. It all depends on the person. And also a lot of these guys are Europeans and are very aware of what’s going on. But then there’s others, who are just like, ‘Oh man, I don’t care. I just need a job. I want to drive. I want to win.’
“I really wanted to get some well-known person to talk shit about electric cars and Formula E. And I really went out there, man. I couldn’t get anyone who would speak on camera. I’d read an article and a famous driver would say, ‘Oh, it’s bullshit. Blah, blah blah.’ And then I’d call their people and try to get them to talk on camera. No one would talk. They are politically correct. Like the drivers in that Formula One documentary. Yeah, it’s beautiful, but you don’t get to know those guys. There’s no real.”
Q: You produced the Academy Award-winning documentary “The Cove”, which race car driver Leilani Munter helped promote in a Daytona paint scheme. Did that have any connection to your involvement with “And We Go Green”?
A: “No, and I was in two movies with Leilani. She was in another movie I produced called ‘Racing Extinction.’ I know Leilani really well. She’s wonderful. I actually called Alejandro and said, ‘Why don’t you give this girl a tryout?’ And I think they did? I don’t know. Listen, it’s really hard to get a seat in Formula E. But that actually had nothing to do with it. It was a different formula altogether. The one thing I can say about Leilani using sports to promote environmentalism is we have the same goal, for sure.”
Q: With Leonardo DiCaprio being instrumental in spearheading the project, was it his relationship to Alejandro Agag what drove a lot of this?
A: “Yeah. Leo is into anything that’s electric or solar or using non-fossil fuels, whether or not it’s racing. I directed Leo in a commercial for Allbirds in China. Leo loved Allbirds because it’s the most sustainable shoes. That’s really what he looks for and wants to invest in, and he wanted to promote this series. Because literally every year, it’s the lowest carbon footprint sporting event since it’s been in existence. So he knew Alejandro socially and got to be friends, and he’s like, ‘This would be a cool movie.’ And then he called me.”