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Interview: Documentary Filmmaker Mark Mathis

May 13, 2016

I’ve been doing magazine work for a little while now. For the most part, it’s far removed from the world of pop culture, but I did recently get to interview a filmmaker. His name is Mark Mathis, and he has two provocative oil-and-gas-related documentaries under his belt. Since I haven’t posted here recently (sorry), I wanted to provide a short introduction to the Q&A I conducted (reproduced below), as well as a link to another profile I wrote.

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We are in an election year. Although this means we are treated to the daily sights and sounds of Presidential candidates saying terrible things about one another, we generally don’t get a lot of in-depth chatter about the issues we actually care about. Is it not counter-intuitive that candidates’ platforms become as vague as possible so not to alienate potential voters? Sure, voters are the name of the game, but it is frustrating when the system becomes more about winning than about advocacy. It’s not the best system in the world.

Anyway, here to give us a guided tour inside the proverbial sausage factory, is Mark Mathis. Mathis’s latest, Fractured, is a documentary in Errol Morris’s single-interview style, in which he addresses myths and broken language surrounding our energy industry. I say broken, Mathis might say “fractured,” but Mathis’s point is that the most common phrases we use when conversing about oil and gas are prejudicial and unfair to those in the industry.

With a premise like that, one would expect Mathis to be a great outspoken advocate for oil and gas production. He is. What is surprising, but ultimately telling, is that he does not have much support from the within the industry. This seems like a grave missed opportunity. As I have learned, people in energy are practical and engineering-minded above all, and not interested in engaging in controversy. Unfortunately for them, this behavior doesn’t endear them or their work to the public. If the major oil companies are ever to be undone, it will more likely stem from an unwillingness to play the media game than from Earth actually running out of oil.

The energy industry is like most international industries. Huge, possibly unstoppable, far from perfect, and governed by law. Judging by the stark politics surrounding oil and gas, those laws are likely much more suffocating than those governing other problematic industries. I don’t want to speak for Mathis, though I suspect he would agree that oil and gas production have allowed this country to become what is today. Not everyone is pleased with what our country has become (and some want to make it great “again”), but that doesn’t change the fact that a lot of us lead relatively comfortable existences. Sure, alternative sources of energy are likely to catch on in the future, but they have not done so yet. We would do well to stop trying to cripple the one industry that makes life easier and better for everyone, particularly the world’s poor. Gasoline is a playing field leveler.

Without further ado, here is what I wrote about Mark Mathis. He gave me a memorable, colorful interview and I hope his independent film gets seen. I have seen it twice now and can vouch that it is very compelling, and that it forced me to consider energy perspectives that had not previously occurred to me. I think his approach to this material is fascinating and has the potential to make people question even their most firmly-held beliefs about the oil and gas industry.

Click here to read the profile (Talkers And Doers). Read on for a reproduction of the Q&A.

From Permian Basin Oil & Gas Magazine (April 2016 issue):

“The Energy Thinker”

Filmmaker Mark Mathis made time for a Q-and-A session with PBOG discussing film, the Permian, and more.

Mathis and co-producer Kevin Miller.

Mathis and co-producer Kevin Miller.

Some movies are what you might call “thinkers.” For Mark Mathis, calling a movie a thinker is among the highest possible compliments. “Thinkers” are not content to let audiences passively sit back. They engage and provoke. The new documentary film, Fractured, analyzes the inherent flaws in common discussion of the energy industry. That such a challenging film came from Mathis, a man who esteems “thinkers,” is no surprise.

Thinkers come in all shapes and sizes. Bennett Miller’s Moneyball (2011) was a sports thinker showcasing the iconoclastic management style of Bille Beane. Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump (1994) was also a thinker, offering a historically-rich tapestry woven together by subtle unifying themes. While these films rate highly with Mathis, Fractured is something else entirely.

With Fractured, Mathis, a former television news reporter, turns the camera on himself for a single-interview style doc. This comes in stark contrast to spOILed, Mathis’ previous feature-length film.

“In spOILed, we interviewed some of the finest thinkers on energy in the world,” said Mathis, referring to his impressive roster of interviews including Robert Hirsch, Dan Kish, Robert Bryce, and U.S. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.). “That was very much a traditional documentary format. The reason I made something different with Fractured was mostly an economic decision. [Traveling and interviewing is] time-intensive and it’s expensive.”

About deciding on this more stripped-down approach, Mathis said, “There were three basic movies that I thought about and said, ‘this can work.'” His allusion was to The Fog Of War, The Unknown Known, two works by the legendary Errol Morris, and Chris Smith’s Collapse, a film that touches upon “peak oil” theory, among other topics.

Okay, Mark Mathis’ cinephile bona fides hold up. Read on for the remainder of our wide-ranging conversation.

PBOG: In terms of subject matter, how would you describe the path that led you from spOILed, to Fractured?

MM: I had been challenging terms such as “addicted to oil,” “alternative energy,” “environmentalist,” and “Mother Nature” for years. Then one day it hit me that I should look at all the energy terms we use and within about ten minutes I knew I had the basis for a new film.

PBOG: Regarding cinematic tastes, you’ve said you like “thinkers” above all, a label that most certainly applies to Fractured. It moves very quickly and gives viewers a lot of compelling content to chew on, yet delivers it in digestible chunks. What struggles did you face in figuring out the pacing, and how much you could throw at viewers?

MM: Pacing might be the single biggest challenge in putting a film like this together. People can only absorb information in small chunks, so it’s essential to use clips, graphics, and music to break everything up. In one of the early versions, the hydraulic fracturing section was about 11 minutes long. It was way too much, so we broke it into three sections and spread it out across the first hour of the film.

PBOG: How has making this film differed from your experience on spOILed?

MM: In spOILed, we traveled all over the country interviewing some of the smartest people on oil and energy in the world. That was a lot of fun and gave us some great footage. We didn’t have the funds to do that with Fractured, so I missed that part of the process.

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PBOG: For those who want to see Fractured, or find out how to support the film, what do they need to know?

MM: Our crowdfunding campaign began on February 25. People can go to http://www.FracturedTheMovie.com or http://www.Indiegogo.com/campaigns/FracturedTheMovie. They can pre-purchase the film there as well as get other perks. Another important thing we need people to do is to tell their network of friends and coworkers about the movie. Crowdfunding is only successful if you gather a big crowd that supports what you’re doing.

PBOG: You have been clear about being a curator of information rather than an oil shill. Has there been any enticement to cross that line into so-called “big oil,” or does your value as a filmmaker lie in your outsider status?

MM: I have been an independent producer of intellectual content since I left the TV news business 22 years ago. My hope is that I will be able to continue to do this for a long time to come. I like having the ability to shape films with no pressure or influence by anyone else and I’ve been fortunate in that regard. But I have to say, making independent films just keeps getting harder and harder. With a hat tip to Willie Nelson, “Mommas, don’t let your babies grow up to be filmmakers.” But, in light of how bad the oil and gas industry is getting hammered right now, I shouldn’t whine too loudly.

PBOG: What percentage of people who are unknowingly “spoiled” by oil do you think would be receptive to the linguistics and the myth debunking you provide in your films?

MM: Maybe I’m biased, but I think more than 90 percent of people who are misinformed would be receptive to Fractured’s language-based myth busting. All of us like to feel smart and it’s fun to challenge conventional thinking. People like to gossip because they [like knowing] something that other people don’t. This is the same thing except that it’s intellectual and not just drama.

PBOG: It is almost impossible to change someone’s political ideals. People really tend to dig in. For those still sitting on the fence, at least about energy, what is your appeal to these people?

MM: I don’t waste my time on people who are convinced that oil, gas, coal, and nuclear power are bad. Why would you bother talking to someone who stares at the sky and tells you it’s red with green and purple polka dots? And, oh, there goes a unicorn! For those who are simply misinformed and are open to seeing what’s real, I appeal to their sense of right and wrong. Nobody likes being duped and it’s even worse when a deception jeopardizes our economy and national security.

PBOG: You mentioned education, or a lack thereof, regarding how the energy industry works. If given the opportunity, would you choose to get involved in updating energy education at the elementary or middle school levels, be it through textbook rewrites or some other avenue?

MM: I would love to do that! The biggest problem in this battle is that children are brainwashed to hate the energy resources that make their lives possible from a young age. Sign me up!

PBOG: You take a pragmatic approach to this material. As a group, the people of the energy industry are also a pragmatic people, and certainly engineering minded. Do you see the parallels between their lives and your current journey as a filmmaker?

MM: It’s kind of a weird thing. I’ve made my living talking, first in the news business, then in talk radio, as an author, a speaker, and a filmmaker. Even though I mostly talk for a living, I greatly identify with the doers. I have some contempt for a lot of professional talkers, especially those who spend their time trying to tear things down. I loathe those who are professional deceivers, so you know how I feel about the anti-energy racket. You could vaporize half of the professional talkers in the country and the world wouldn’t much notice. But if we suddenly lost 10 percent of the doers, humanity would be brought to its knees. The doers deserve a lot more respect.

PBOG: There’s no doubt that the men and women of oil and gas have a rep for being media shy. As an energy outsider, how would you describe this disconnect between energy insiders and the media?

MM: Yes, this is a big problem. People in the energy sector are doers. They go to work and produce and solve problems. For the most part they aren’t talkers. And in fact it’s been my experience that industry people are so annoyed and even angry at a news media that is biased against them that they just want to shut it off and walk away. I get it. I feel that way too sometimes. But the media is so powerful in its ability to shape the views of an unsuspecting public that engaging the press is essential. That’s part of why I make films. I am presenting a view that counters anti-energy propaganda.

PBOG: In Fractured, you take aim at the environmental lobby’s “sue and settle” tactics. This hits home in a big way in the Permian Basin. On a positive note, the PBPA has emerged as a growing power bloc, especially after scoring a recent victory with regards to the conservation status of the Lesser Prairie Chicken. Is this the kind of development you can see leveling the playing field?

MM: Fighting the overreach of government is a different battle and certainly an important one. I congratulate the PBPA for winning its latest Prairie Chicken battle. Of course, the battle will never be over. As I think most people in the oil patch know, the professional anti-energy groups aren’t all that concerned about Prairie Chickens or salamanders or even polar bears. The “defense” of these species is simply a means to an end—shutting down energy production.

PBOG: Is WOTUS (Waters of the United States) simple government overreach, or is there legitimate, practical, common ground to be found on this issue?

MM: This is federal overreach in the extreme and it’s an example of why I am such a big proponent of strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution. The EPA has no business regulating any body of water that doesn’t cross state lines.

PBOG: With your unique perspective, what short and long-term effects do you expect to see stemming from the lifting of the export ban?

MM: Oil is a global commodity, so we never should have had an export ban in the first place. As far as what might happen in the future, I’ll have to take a pass. Every time I think I have a good line on what’s happening in global oil markets, something completely unexpected happens.

PBOG: Speaking of gasoline specifically, the thing no one can help but talk about right now is barrel prices for crude. Where is the bottom? What does recovery even look like at this point? Do you have a take?

MM: Again, I should resist even offering an opinion. Two years ago I would not have believed that oil prices would drop below $30 a barrel in 2016. There are so many factors in play. For example, how is Saudi Arabia still able to produce so much oil from those aging wells? Why would the Saudis continue to keep the price so low when they are hemorrhaging enormous sums of money every month? Yes, I know they are protecting market share, but at some point you have to stop the bleeding. And what do they think is going to happen when oil prices rise above $50 or $70 a barrel? The American oil industry is going to ramp up production big time. It just doesn’t make sense.

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