‘Extrapolations’ Creator Scott Z. Burns Talks Turning Climate Change Into ‘Human-Size Stories’ Across Genres

“What does a love story look like in a world where sea level is changing?” Burns poses to TheWrap

Sienna Miller in "Extrapolations" (Apple TV+)

Years after “An Inconvenient Truth” rattled the world with the pressing reality of climate change, “Extrapolations” creator Scott Z. Burns chose to tackle the overwhelmingly large subject of climate through “human-size stories” in Apple TV+’s new drama series.

“It actually was sort of a revelation to realize that, instead of going big, you go small, and you try and identify the human-size stories where people encounter climate change,” Burns told TheWrap. “We thought about the big issues — like sea level rise, extreme heat [and] fires — and tried to drill down from those into a human story that could be entertaining and compelling … What does the love story look like in a world where sea level is changing? What does a thriller look like?”

“Extrapolations,” which premieres March 17 on Apple TV+, centers on the ongoing climate crisis as it escalates into hazardous conditions across the globe, with tech billionaire Nicholas Bilton (Kit Harington) continually at the head of large-scale decision making that keeps generating revenue for his company. Told through eight interconnected episodes, the series follows several recurring characters, including Daveed Diggs, Sienna Miller, Tahar Rahim and Meryl Streep, as the drama jumps from distinct moments of crisis across the years 2037, 2046, 2047, 2052, 2059, 2066, 2068 and 2070.

In later episodes, the series features vignettes with characters who are both unconnected to the recurring characters though inextricably tied to the climate crisis, including Tobey Maguire, Gemma Chan and Marion Cotillard, in several “Black Mirror”-esque episodes. “We wanted to make the show something other than a pure anthology, so we were looking for kind of connective tissue to help pull the audience through,” Burns said.

While investigations into climate change might overload readers with graphs that seem “cold” and “distant,” executive producer Dorothy Fortenberry says the series set out to make an engaging, “sexy show about people,” as it centers on human connection guided by emotion.

Similar to graphs that project the results of climate change across a number of years into the future, the series spotlights just over a 30 year spread as viewers feel the impact of choices made by characters in the pilot bleeding into other characters’ children or even grandchildren.

“We’re able to show this ongoing effect [that] the choices we make today have ramifications tomorrow, but in a really human way that we’re following characters … [and] their loves, their lives, their losses [and] their joy over time,” Fortenberry said.

While the series concludes in 2070, the first episode takes place in the near future in 2037 — a time frame Burns points out is the same distance in the future as “The Hangover” was in the past.

Consulting with scientists to set the time frame, the creators and executive producers learned escalations of the climate crisis that might be pushed to the distinct future by cynics or those less intimidated by the crisis are actually predicted to happen before 2100, and might even be happening now.

“Most of what we see in the pilot are things that you also see in the newspaper, we’re just amplifying them,” Burns said. “When you create an event horizon too far in the future, it’s very easy for people to say, ‘that’s not my lifetime, that’s not something I have to worry about.’ We wanted to bring the event horizon much closer to people … if you’re a younger person who gets involved in this show, you’ll outlive the show.”

“Extrapolations” Episodes 1-3 are now streaming on Apple TV+.