I loved the film, found it hugely enjoyable and also sometimes quite disturbing. Do you consider that a good response? Is that what you want?
That sounds pretty successful to me.
Excellent! The film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. How was that?
It was great. The response was overwhelmingly positive, it was awesome.
Great. What hopes do you have for the wider release? Obviously you want as many people to see it as possible.
My hope is that the film can continue to go out and reach the audience that it’s meant for. I think we live in a time where so many of us still continue to take for granted where our food comes from and what it goes through to actually get it on your plate and I think this film does a great job of kind of dissecting that system and pulling the curtain back in a really fun way.
Absolutely. While watching it, I thought that corporate control and spin were the most apparent concerns of the film. Were those on your mind or were other areas also significant to you?
The corporatocracy and its influence over our food system is immense, and especially in the United States where these companies have so much power and so much money and so much control, literally from the minute that that egg is hatched until it gets into your house. And the number of people they take advantage of along the way, I think, is even more disturbing. Like what happens with the chicken farmers, and for me this is probably the most eye-opening part of the film, was when I went and kind of embedded myself and started working with the Buttrams and their family and you start to hear from all these chicken farmers who are essentially indentured servants. These guys are so on the hook for sometimes millions and millions of dollars with these companies that there’s no way out for them. They are basically stuck in a system that doesn’t appreciate them, that doesn’t compensate them and then at the end of the day is never going to take care of them.
It was very distressing at times which I’m sure was the point. The animation sequences were a really good encapsulation of the film’s balance of tones. They were simultaneously amusing and disturbing. Is that what you were going for?
Well, I think what you want to do is you want to have people enjoy the terribleness. One of the things that I’ve always tried to accomplish with my films is I want to give you spinach. I really want to give you mouthfuls and mouthfuls of spinach, but I want it to taste like cotton candy. So, I’m going to give you what you need, that’s good for you, but at the same time I want you to really enjoy it.
Great, yeah. Now, I wonder, is part of that to do with you often placing yourself very centrally in your work. One method of documentary filmmaking is to keep the filmmaker out of sight, but it’s not your approach. What do you hope to express by playing a major role the way you do?
I hope that when I go on this journey personally that I’m taking you along with me. I become your eyes, I become your ears, I become the person who can speak out for you in the middle of this situation and that when I learn something, you learn something. When I feel something, you feel something. It becomes this vicarious journey that we are kind of going on that becomes more personal. That’s my hope, my hope is that it takes you in a personal way where it gives you more of a connection to the characters in the story in a way that it may not have before.
Thinking of that, in this era we’re in right now of spin, fake news, media bias, do you think the role of documentaries such as yours has changed?
No, I think the role of documentaries and the role of non-fiction film is more important than ever. There are five media companies that control the majority of what we get to see, hear and read in the world today, and I think that the more that we can as independent filmmakers, independent storytellers, give you a lens that isn’t beholden to corporate interests, that isn’t beholden to some type of corporate review or some type of censorship that will come from the top down, I think the better it is for the consumer, and the better it is for the viewer. I think that we have a real responsibility now to kind of stand up, make more noise, shake more trees, plant more flags of, I think, anger, frustration and change than we ever have before.
Considering your experience, what sort of advice might you give to filmmakers wanting to make their own documentary?
I think the biggest piece of advice I’d give to any documentary filmmaker right now is get started. People always try and build barriers around why they can’t do things, like I don’t have the money, I don’t have the crew, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’ve never done this before. I tell everyone, first time filmmakers, you’ve never made a movie until you have, so you should just dive in. You should just dive in, you should start shooting what you can, people will work with you for free, you can borrow equipment, there’s a million ways to make a movie and they’re all different. Once you start, you realize you have what it takes. You have the passion and the biggest thing that drives documentary filmmaking is you have to want to tell that story, so if you’re passionate about something, if you believe in it, then you should just dive in feet first and swim away.
I’m going to take that advice, I want to make a documentary myself.
Well, there you go, you should dive in.
Totally. You’ve had some awards attention, most obviously “Super Size Me” was Oscar-nominated for Best Documentary. What does that kind of award attention mean to you?
I think that getting the recognition of your peers is always something that I find personally rewarding. For me, I think that I’ve felt very fortunate just to continue to get to tell stories and make movies for the last fifteen years. That’s the greatest success that I think you can have. Golden knick-knacks and things like that are awesome and I’ve got a bunch of different ones, but I think that for me the most important thing is to be able to get up every day and get to do what I love. I think that so long as you get to do that everything else will work itself out. You shouldn’t be diving into making a movie because you feel like you’re going to win an award, you’re going to win an Oscar or an Emmy or whatever else, or a BAFTA. You should be diving in to do these things because it’s what you’re most passionate about, because it’s your life. If you don’t tell this story you’re going to die, you’re going to explode, you don’t know what you’re going to do with yourself if you don’t make this. I think that’s where the artform really defines itself is by the people who get up every day and do the work just because they have to.
In terms of the distribution, the film is being distributed on iTunes. With so much more material going onto streaming, do you think that this is a particularly helpful method of distribution, rather than theatrically?
I think that there’s so many more films being made today, and to be able to get into the hands of people as quickly as possible, digital and streaming distribution is a real blessing. I think that we have the ability now to reach millions of people really quickly. I’ve had movies come out in theaters where I’m getting all of this national press, but people can only see it in ten cities. If you don’t live in Chicago or New York or Los Angeles, it’ll be months before you ever get to see it. So, I think that to be able to create a groundswell and attention around a movie, to create a conversation and make sure that everybody has the ability to participate in that conversation, is where streaming really succeeds.
Right, makes sense, because of the accessibility. Looking particularly at the craft of the film, I thought a lot of the message came across through the editing. Do you storyboard or was a lot of the final form decided in the editing room?
Whenever we start a film, I always write a road map for myself. If the world was filled with rainbows and unicorns and I could basically have everything I wanted, and the movie ended up perfectly the way that I envisioned it from the beginning, here’s the road map, here’s what will happen during the film. Now, granted, once you start shooting, none of that happens. You’ve been able to, in your mind, envision what you would like to see, and then that helps you when you get into the edit of understanding where things can marry, where thoughts and ideas can be pieced together. But all of that is figured out in post. I believe in editing from the minute you start shooting. And so we’re shooting and editing in real time so that I know where holes are, I know what works, I know what doesn’t, I know where things could be better, I know where there’s missing scenes or there’s missing elements that will make things more impactful or we just need more kind of gravitas around something. And I was really blessed by having who I believe to be one of the greatest editors in the world today, Pierre Takal, cut this movie. I have worked with Pierre on a few different projects and there is no editor better than that guy.
And with that in mind, in terms of shooting and editing, are there any scenes that were particularly memorable for you, either from when you were shooting or in the finished film?
I love everything that we shot with the farmers, everything that we shot at the chicken farm with Jonathan and his son Zack, I just think is really powerful. I think that it gives you a sign and a window into a world that we never get to see. There’s such a level of just raw honesty from them about what they face every day in this industry that takes advantage of them around every turn, so I found those scenes to be incredibly revealing and I found them to be really poignant and ultimately really powerful.
As writer-producer-director, you’ve guided this project throughout the whole production. What’s the journey been like from initial idea to completion?
It’s one of those things where now your baby’s going off and going to school and you’re watching it run out the door and you’re like “Be nice to my kid! Play well with others! Hope you have fun!” and now you gotta let it go off and grow up on its own. You can shepherd a film so far and then it’s up to the people and how they perceive it, how they receive it and so far it’s been awesome, the film has connected really well with audiences. I think that people love Jonathan Buttram and his family and the story of the chicken farmers. I think it’s a fun movie, and I think that when all’s said and done if I can make you laugh and I can make you listen, then I’ve done my job.
I’ll say. It certainly gets a positive review from me which will be posted next week. What can you tell us about your next project?
There’s a few things that I’m working on but right now the thing that’s taking up the lion’s share is, after we opened the pop-up in the film, we were approached by a bunch of folks to turn it into a full bore restaurant so now we are in the process of closing with financiers. We did a pop-up in New York when the film opened here in September, and so now we are going down the path of turning these into real chicken restaurants and helping more chicken farmers and if I can create 1% more independent chicken farmers in the United States then I can’t imagine anything better.
It’s funny, out of all the things in the film that were shocking and astonishing, I think the bit that made my jaw drop the furthest was oh wow! Holy Chicken!, your restaurant, was actually so successful with the public that it is being franchised! That’s fantastic for the incredible transparency and honesty that you put forwards there. I guess I was cynical and thought, oh yeah, people going to buy that and, oh my God, they did! It was incredible.
[Laughs] Well, I think that we had a delicious chicken sandwich helped an awful lot too, so we’ll see moving forward what happens.
I hope that next time I visit the US I get a chance to try one of your Holy Chickens.
I hope so too, that would be the greatest thing ever.
Well, thank you so much for talking with us, Morgan, and I wish you all the best of luck with the film. I really liked it and I hope other people do as well.
Well thank you very much and I wish you good luck with your documentary. Go and knock it out of the park!