It was a thrill to be invited onto Water Online’s Water We Talking About podcast to share the story of Brave Blue World with hosts Jim Lauria and Adam Tank

BlueTech Research CEO and Brave Blue World executive producer Paul O’Callaghan detailed the documentary’s journey from brainwave to Netflix and gave insights into how the art of storytelling can connect communities with the value of water.

Here, we present a transcript of the conversation, which can be heard on the podcast https://bit.ly/38GT9Gw

Adam Tank: This podcast is about how we tell stories about water. What you’ve done with Brave Blue World is fascinating, because, as far as I know, no one in the water industry has done something like this before. Why did you choose to create a documentary?

Paul O’Callaghan: Well, this is a water industry project in a sense. I do feel that, for all of us who are involved in the sector, there was a collective appetite to want to tell our stories, and a collective recognition that perhaps we don’t do a good enough job of telling our stories. That dawned on me, and I don’t think it was only me that it dawned upon, but you can’t go about your life in a sector without seeing incredible innovations, incredible solutions every day, every week. Then you look what you read in the newspapers, you hear on the TV or the news, and it’s a very one-sided side of the story. It’s a lot about droughts and wars. It’s quite apocalyptic, and doom and gloom, and alarmist. It can make people feel despondent that, “Oh, there’s not a lot we can do.”

The counterpoint to that is there are lots of things that we can do. I was particularly struck, in certain parts of the world, like Singapore, Israel, the Netherlands, that things really seem to click, and they could achieve tremendous things to overcome water challenges. Sometimes that was too much water, sometimes it’s too little water. The common denominator appeared to be that people really related to this, because we all know you need policy to drive technology adoption, to change regulations, to bring finance to bear. It all begins with people. You know what? Unpopular policies don’t make their way through, because they don’t get people elected.

So the light bulb was there, brainwave, I guess, and then I discussed this with some people with the Water Environment Federation on a retreat workshop we went on in San Francisco a few years back. We were discussing this issue of partnering for impact. I said, “I think a documentary could work really well, because I don’t think it’s been done before.” People warmed to the idea.

I started a business, and I built a business. I know the hard work that it took to make that happen, as an entrepreneur. But I can truly say that this project was entrepreneurial, but it seemed that from the get go, the project almost wanted to happen itself, because it felt like I was pushing on an open door. The appetite was there. Everybody said, “Yeah. That’s a great idea. We’d love to get involved. How can we …” I think WEF uniquely said, “Can we increase the sponsorship rate?” That has never happened. They said, “Can we double it?” I said, “Yeah. I think we can probably help out there. Yeah. Sure.”

Before I knew it, SUEZ came on board, and Xylem, and L’Oreal and DuPont. I had half a million dollars to produce a film. I’d never produced a film. That was the strange thing. So it was quite risky for everybody involved in the project. They were all taking a risk to allow creative freedom to tell the story and to support it.

That was the idea and the journey. Then as we went along, we were so fortunate that people like Matt Damon came on board and Jaden Smith. Liam Neeson graciously added his voice to the narration as well. Now, we’re at a different stage, where it’s doing what it was meant to do. It’s accessible to 200 million people in 29 languages. Yeah. It’s just a lovely moment to have reached. We’re humbled really about what we’ve achieved.

Jim Lauria: Well, we’re really happy about the collaboration. You’re very gracious in telling how the water industry collaborated to get this thing done, and to tell the water story. The fact that it started there, and it started with a bunch of water professionals, and then you brought in other people, is quite a good part of the story.

Paul O’Callaghan: Well, we all knew that we needed to probably get outside of our own heads, because we love talking about the technologies and the principles and processes. The reason for the documentary, you asked, as opposed to maybe something different, is it can build empathy, particularly if you focus on the human side of the stories. That was my big learning in this, because I did learn a lot, was you’ve got to access the human side of the story so that people will relate to it, and then they’ll really assimilate the message in the story. That was a part of the journey for me and the team, and one of the things I relied heavily upon the directors and the production team to help guide me on.

You mentioned that it’s now available to how many people in how many languages?

There’s 200 million Netflix subscribers. If you add that to homes, you could multiply that again. Then the 29 languages is beyond what we could have hoped for. We were originally going to do this in maybe half a dozen languages, so it’s exceeded our expectations.

There was a lot of buzz in the water industry about the movie but to get it on Netflix is just incredible.  How did you bring them on board?

We knocked on door. We were very fortunate to have a very good contact at the very top, so a classic case of somebody knew somebody. It was still a long journey after that, there were no foregone conclusions here. Everybody wants to get their content on Netflix.  I would say it began with three nos and then a yes but every time we would get a no, we’d ask why and get some feedback from them. They said, “Well, just keep in touch with us. It might not be right for us right now. We’ve got a project launching.”

We checked back in in a few months, and then it eventually got to the point where they said, “Look. We love it. We just … If you could help us by making pure calls to actions and helping the Netflix audience to follow the journey.” We said, “That’s good feedback. That’s constructive. We can work with that.” So we went back to the team. We sat down with the script writers and we said, “How can we solve this?” Because it was constructive, and we recognized the value in it.

We knew we had to get Liam Neeson back in studio again, which wasn’t going to be easy. We contacted him. We were in COVID-19 lockdown. He’s not going to studio in New York. He’s in his country home. He said, “Okay.” He was very willing and gracious. He said, “I’ll do it.” So we sent a team up to his house. Originally, a hurricane came, and his electricity went. It was a mad scramble It was a really funny few weeks. We kept working with Netflix. They turned out to be a tremendous partner. The huge value add, once we began to engage, was they said, Now we’ll put you in touch with our graphics agency.” This is one of the same agencies that did the graphic artwork for Frozen, the movie. Suddenly, you’re in this world where they’re working with their algorithms to determine what this person likes and that person likes. They’ve got six different visual treatments of the film based on imagery. They test this to present it in a way … They work with synopsis.

It was a very collaborative process with them, which led to a very good outcome. I think we would all recognize, who were involved with it, the film … It was a tremendous value add to work with Netflix on the final edits and production.

I know this was a passion project for you. It took a lot of time away from your regular job of running BlueTech Research. How has the film helped the company itself?

The team were fantastic in that they really stepped up, and they recognized this was a passion project. They covered bases and helped provide me some freedom to be able to travel extensively last year. I scarcely knew what continent I was in from week to week but the team really rallied. It turned out it was enriching for the BlueTech practice in ways that we could not have foreseen. For me, I hadn’t traveled as extensively in the developing world to study water. I traveled in the developing world, but not exclusively to see water and sanitation issues up close, firsthand. So, for me, it was a tremendous education. It made me fully appreciate things that I had only really read about before. It added value, and then somehow found its way back into our research work as we thought about atmospheric water capture, or we thought about the sanitation economy.

There was jeopardy in the project in that there was a risk to taking on the passion project. Thankfully, it’s worked out beyond our expectations. You got to the point where I had the freedom, and the backing and the trust of some people in the sector, to say, “We’ll trust you to be a conduit to lead it.” That was a tremendous honor and an opportunity, which I didn’t take lightly. I took it very seriously. It just required that intense focus, like a startup company does for that short period of time.

I felt the need to give something back. Genuinely, I’ve worked with Water Environment Federation for years. It’s a volunteer-led organization. It was a dream that I had to do this. It was rattling around in my head for a long, long time, so I figured I should just do it. We didn’t see any direct link to BlueTech but, as I say, it has been enriching, because you get a different global perspective.

If more people in the world understand the value of water, it’s going to make all our products and services more valuable, as water professionals.

To use a water analogy, a rising tide raises all boats. We all want to have an impact in the world from the work that we do. To the extent that we can just make people more aware that there is a water problem. One of the things the script writer said to me was he said, “Look. You got to assume that people haven’t thought about this before. They’re not on page four of the book, they’re on page one – that’s if they even have the book.” So we had to tell them, “There is a water crisis. It’s here. It’s going to get worse. It will affect you directly. The good news is we have solutions, and you’re part of those solutions.” That was the mission. When we launched it, I could see the grassroots movement swelling up as people were sharing it. We were trending on Netflix. That’s incredible. That was down to just people spreading the word.

What have you learned in production of a documentary that you will take back to BlueTech, from a storytelling perspective? What would make me a more effective storyteller?”

Well, the one thing about working in that medium was it is multi-dimensional. We were working in four dimensions. It’s not just language, language with images, languages with images and sound and music.

As time went on, we brought in a story editor, because we looked at the first cut, and it was good, but it could have been better, so we found a story editor from Toronto. She was flown into London, she sat in the studio for a fortnight, helped to provide some really creative ideas and structure. Then the script writer added his flourishes. Everybody did their little bit along the way, including the music.

A key thing that I learned was, when we started this project, people said, “You need to do your casting.” I said, “Casting?” I said, “It’s not … These people aren’t actors,” but they meant the characters. We were fortunate that we found warm, relatable characters. My key message was that people relate to people. People like people. They needed to, first of all, relate to the person and the positive impact that it had in their lives. The stories that we got the most positive response from would have been the lady in Kenya and the smile on her face because she had access to sanitation, or Beth Koigi, somebody who was driven to help provide water for children.

Humanizing what we do to understand its broader context in society of the work that we do, maybe that’s something that we can all think more and more about as we communicate.

The key message that we had to avoid was that there’s one solution. We didn’t want it to be that there’s a silver bullet here, and this person’s discovered it, and therefore, the problem’s solved. Because that’s not what it’s like. There’s no one silver bullet, but there are approaches and ideas. There’s a spirit of not wanting to give up. There’s a spirit of wanting to solve your problem locally. That applies whether you’re in Chicago or whether you’re in a children’s home in Kenya. And there’s more stories to be told.

That person-to-person aspect is so important. When we talk to utility leaders especially, many people get tied up in the day-to-day operations, the leaks, the pipe bursts, the water quality. All of that’s very important but when it comes to the person-to-person aspect, how do you suggest a water utility go about doing that?

Well, I think there are so many different mediums. Podcasts are fantastic. Those reach wide audiences with stories as well. Many utilities are embracing podcasts. Democratize it, I think. Let people feel that they have a story to tell. They might recognize with something, they might empathize or see something that’s in that film, for example, that they feel, “Wow. Well, we can do that here,” or, “We’re doing something. It’s not the same, but it’s aligned with it.”

I know when we met with Orange County, they said their biggest achievement was communications. They were told when they started, they said, “This is not an engineering project,” the Orange County water reclamation project, “It’s a communications project.” Singapore works on that for years and years with children. They really engage with children. It’s on the elementary school curriculum. So I guess engaging with your local community, be that a school or a university. That’s probably a very good place to start.

One of the best lines of the movie was Matt Damon saying, “How lucky are we to be the ones that solve this problem?” I think it’s incumbent upon every water professional to feel that sense of accomplishment, of being able to say, we’re doing important work out there.

That’s what drives us as a sector. It’s a very collegial industry to work with. Even though many people will be competitors, but when you get together at different events, like WEFTEC, you don’t really feel that. You just feel like there’s that collective. You’re sharing information. You’re describing what you saw on this project. There’s that drive to bring it forward. I was reminded about something I learned in an unlikely place. I went to a biosolids committee meeting at WEF one year at 7am. The people who show up at 7am, they’re pretty dedicated but the session opened up, and the chairman said, “I am a student of happiness.” He was talking about volunteering, and why people came together. He said, “Human beings derive happiness from working together collectively towards a common shared goal.” We actually are hardwired to do that. That’s why society functions. We actually like working together to achieve something together. That’s part of our main goal.

I think, as an industry of water professionals, we definitely feel that, whether we recognize it consciously a lot of the time, but we do feel it. Yeah. If you can harness that … It’s lovely that people like Matt Damon somehow captured that spirit very succinctly in a few words. I think he’s also correct. I think it is solvable in our lifetime.

A final question for you. Imagine that you had an airplane with a banner flying behind. You get to fly this banner in front of every water professional in the world. What does that banner say?

We’re all in it together, and we can make a difference.