How did you discover the issue of toxic flame retardants?
I first heard about the issue from Dr. Sarah Janssen, who works at UCSF [University of California, San Francisco]. It just got under my skin. I called her and said, "I want to know more about this." She said, "Go to this day-long symposium Dr. Arlene Blum is putting on in Berkeley." By by the end of that day I thought: These people are so incredible. There's a film here.
When you started the project, did you have any idea that this issue would get attention from the federal government?
Not at all. We experienced the same journey the audience does.
We thought that it was going to be a film about watching change happen in the California state legislature -- a simple story of one state and one chemical representing bigger things.
The Chicago Tribune hadn't published [its Playing With Fire series] yet. We were three months into shooting before that happened. Did we ever dream that Tony Stefani, our firefighter from Station 1 in San Francisco, was going to testify in Washington, D.C.? Never.
The film chronicles the turning points in the Chicago Tribune's investigation. Did you have your own "ah-ha” moment while making the documentary?
I think an “ah-ha” moment was when the Tribune published; we saw that all of the main characters they profiled were all of the people that we were interviewing. We knew the right characters were telling our story.
On our second day of shooting, California state senator Holly Mitchell from California dropped the bill that she'd sponsored. [Assembly Bill 2197 was co-authored by Mitchell and Leno in 2012, and proposed the reversal of TB 117 in California.] From that point forward, the focus shifted from trying to push the change through the legislative bodies to going directly to the governor. The technical bulletin is not a law, so it can be changed by administrative order. That's why [California] Governor Jerry Brown was able to make the difference. That was a big “ah-ha” moment; the fact that the lowest point was the genesis of victory.
How did you first meet Tony Stefani?
Tony was one of the incredible people who was presenting for the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation at Dr. Blum's symposium. He was just the most charismatic, honorable, selfless man. He's this amazing story of American heroism in some ways.