‘I Am Greta’ Director Nathan Grossman on Capturing the Important Journey and Message of Greta Thunberg

At the mere age of 15, Greta Thunberg began a solo strike in front of the Swedish parliament to protest inaction on climate change. It was August 2018 and Swedish director Nathan Grossman was there to document it with his cameras. Neither Thunberg nor Grossman could imagine at the time just how massive Thunberg’s small protest would grow. By 2019 Greta was making headlines around the world, speaking at the United Nations Climate Action Summit and condemning political leaders and corporations for standing by while her generation comes under increasing threat from the consequences of ecological disaster. 

Grossman’s resulting documentary for Hulu, “I Am Greta,” is a chronicle of Greta’s journey from a concerned teenager to environmental activist icon. Grossman is there for the big moments where she meets with world leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron, Pope Francis and celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But Grossman also captures the more intimate moments where we see the toll of a hectic schedule and public scrutiny can take on such a young person. With her dad tagging along Greta impacts both her followers, including other youth inspired to become climate activists, and detractors in right-wing media and beyond. Even her Asperger’s syndrome becomes a target. Yet there is little doubt about her impressive personality. Grossman spoke with Entertainment Voice about the making of “I Am Greta.”

“I Am Greta” is an absorbing portrait of a young personality suddenly becoming a worldwide activist icon. How did you come to cross paths with Greta Thunberg?

Like many documentary projects it started with a tip. A friend of mine knew Greta’s family a little bit and told me she was going to do a small manifestation outside of the Swedish parliament. This was before the Swedish elections. Me and my producer wondered if we should go down there and give it one or two days and see if she was an interesting character. So I took the camera and took a friend who is a sound engineer and found her in this tiny, cold street where she was sitting alone and asked if we could spend a day with her and see where it goes. We said, “do your activism, let me put a microphone on you but don’t get your hopes up that I’m going to stay here.” From there we started filming and as we all know now, it became something that went far from that small street in Sweden.

That must be quite something to start with one angle on this one subject and then it blows up into this international story and movement. As a documentary filmmaker, how did you adjust to that? How do you go from doing a portrait to then sitting with Macron or filming the Pope and what does that do to your personal life?

(Laughs) That’s a great question. Your personal life just crashes down because you have to work so much. That’s the short answer. But as a documentary filmmaker you’re constantly changing paths. So in this case it changed paths to become such a big story. But I don’t think it’s very unusual to feel that where you start to film something in a certain way. It might not say anything, but then other things develop and you find a new way to tell it. This is why documentaries take so long to make. I must say that at the beginning you can see in the film that I had an idea of making something more “artsy” and I used more tripods and fixed angles, just completely different framing. But, of course, after a few days I just said, “Jesus, this is becoming impossible work. She’s becoming a real activist. We need to be more fluid, I need to put the camera on my shoulder and shoot it myself to a large degree.” That was the only way to get into these rooms when you’re talking about the highest political levels. I changed quickly to a more flexible shooting style, which I feel is connected to the eventual intimacy of the movie.

There are those amazing close-ups of Greta and her father when they’re riding in a train or a car and all of a sudden the news figure becomes a regular kid. Her dad tries to get her to eat something or they have little father/daughter arguments in a corner amid some huge event.  Her strong personality comes across well. What kind of relationship did you as the director develop with Greta, how did you two get along?

In a way working with Greta is very easy and very hard at the same time in the sense that if you want to get her to do something it’s very hard (laughs). She just wants to do things her way. But that’s also nice as a filmmaker because you choose a style that’s more about just following her along. I don’t have that style of arranging meetings or moments. It’s about keeping up with her. That’s how the intimacy of the movie is achieved. There’s a lot of “dead time” in this film where Greta is riding on airplanes, electric cars and we had a lot of time to talk, laugh about different matters and become close. It was easier then to blend in because you become someone she knows and trusts. As a filmmaker it lets you access places you might have not been able to see before.

The documentary also hints at the darker side of celebrity and the darker side of the whole world suddenly knowing who you are. There are moments you sense the stress it causes in Greta. 

Definitely. It’s easy to think of her now as a celebrity but this was all so quick that during one emotional year she went from being totally unknown to being probably the most famous Swede on the planet. That’s also what the film wants to do, to bring the viewers into those situations so you can feel yourself what that all felt like. It can feel like you’re tumbling around and other times it can be funny. I tried to make a three-dimensional human portrayal that says a lot about how it was being Greta in that year. And it is about being a celebrity, as you say, because a lot of [celebrities] tend never to show the gloomier, heavier side of the experience. But those gloomier days are there and you can see that here, like when Greta openly questions why she’s doing this, and you feel the burden of this very big climate issue gets piled onto her and the other young activists in this movement. These young activists wanted to be an alarm to make political leaders pay attention but they weren’t meant to carry the whole burden of climate change. The idea is adults like you and me should pick up the burden. 

I keep thinking of that moment where Greta takes off her interpreter headphones at an international conference and another activist does the same, and they just look at each other with a hopeless expression. But how do you hope “I Am Greta” speaks to audiences watching in this tumultuous year?

What Greta has said so many times is the importance of thinking long term. Greta is focused on how we need to solve the climate issue on a long term basis. The pandemic is a very important crisis but it is a short-term crisis in comparison to the climate crisis. Right now when we’re at home, quarantined, and the world is still spinning we should look up towards the horizon and look long into the future. We need to wonder, “what kind of world do we want to create and what kind of sustainable world that can be.” 

I Am Greta” begins streaming Nov. 13 on Hulu.