Humanitarian 2009

Indie film social justice

The IndieFEST Grants 2009 Annual Humanitarian Award goes to Chris Taylor for his documentary, Food Fight

Food Fight documentaryEach year the Indie Fest grants a Humanitarian Award to one filmmaker for dedicated service to social justice, humanitarian causes or environmental issues. This year the award goes to Chris Taylor in recognition of his documentary, Food Fight, which raises awareness among the public about the importance of high-quality food, sustainable agriculture and health-related issues. Of special merit is his focus with children and young adults.

By Debbie L. Sklar

Do you know what you’re eating?

Independent LA filmmaker, Chris Taylor, sure gives thanks to his documentary called Food Fight; a film that took him almost 3 years to complete.

Food Fight Food Fight is a fascinating 84-minute look at how American agricultural policy and food culture developed in the 20th century; and how the California food movement has created a counter-revolution against big agri-business.

There’s everything from interviews with government officials to the founder of Chez Panisse, Alice Waters, to an interview with famed Chef Wolfgang Puck. So, be sure to eat before you watch the film because it will definitely make you hungry.

No stranger to the industry, from 1975 through 1986, Taylor, 54, worked as a touring lighting designer and production manager for musical groups such as the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, Earth, Wind & Fire, John Fogarty, ELO, and Simon and Garfunkel. *After attending the American Film Institute in 1988, Taylor worked as a DP with such talented filmmakers as Gary Oldman, Johnny Depp, Tim Burton, Michael Lehmann, and others. During this time he photographed six features, six MOWs, short films, TV pilots, and episodic television.

Beginning in 1998, Taylor began working full time as a director, first for the Fox Network, where he directed 26 episodes of the series, Beyond Belief and later for CBS where he directed eight episodes of The District,’ for three seasons, ending in 2004.

Food Fight documentaryIn 2005, Taylor formed Positively 25th Street, a production company dedicated to creating original documentary programming with social, political, and cultural significance. The company’s first project, Food Fight, has been invited to screen at AFI FEST Los Angeles. It will be the film’s North American Premiere, and Taylor and his team are more than excited. AFI FEST has a line-up of many artistic films in addition to Steven Soderbergh and Benecio Del Toro, who will be receiving awards. Their film Che, is also premiering at the festival.

IndieFEST recently interviewed Taylor about Food Fight, how it feels to be showing at AFI and how the research changed his own eating patterns.

Q: Did you feel that the message came through in your film? By the way what was the message?

A: Yes, I feel that the message does come through, because the comment I get from viewers, without exception, is ‘I did not know that about food,’ or ‘I just went to the farmer’s market today.’ Most people do not know where their food comes from, and when they see what industrial farming does to the food supply, they invariably head right to their nearest farmer’s market. The message of the film for me is that our food choices do matter, and that we have power in the selection of healthy, nutritious, and delicious food for our family. The amazing thing about this is that by doing the right thing, for the farmer, for the land, for our families, we also get to have a great dinner.

Q: What do you want moviegoers to take away from the film?

A: I want people to think about their food choices, to realize that the government is not necessarily working in favor of the consumer in this area, that most food advertising is blatantly false, and that big agriculture is about growing dollars, not healthy delicious food. And that an alternative exists that embodies an ethos that is good for people, good for their communities, and good for the planet.

Q: So, Food Fight is your first film?

Food Fight documentaryA: Yes, this is the first film that I have directed. It came out of wanting to do something else after ten straight years of working in television. I really wanted to do something that had to do with socially progressive issues, something that I cared about and something that I would be proud of.

Q: Where did the food idea come from?

A: I love food and in Los Angeles. We are surrounded by great food, in the fields and in the restaurants. Some of the best restaurants in the world are here in Los Angeles and in San Francisco. California grows most of the produce for the rest of the country. So, when a friend of mine gave me a book about the California food revolution, I was immediately interested. At that time, I didn’t know anything about the culinary history of California, but as I started to research, I found out that some very interesting and talented people were involved in starting a culinary tradition, or, more accurately, rediscovering a culinary tradition that had an enormous impact on the way food is grown nationwide. This is what is called California Cuisine, and in starting to tell a sensual story about taste and flavor, I also discovered a political story that is still unfolding.

Q: How long did it take you to make? Cost?

A: The first interview for the film was almost two years ago, and that was preceded by eight or nine months of research and pre-production. As far as cost goes, we are a real garage band. When we shot in Spago, I asked the sound man and the one electrician to dress nicely, so we could shoot them having lunch as b-roll. I don’t think it’s possible to make money in documentaries unless you can contain your costs.

Q: Are you the narrator on the film?

Justin Kirk 2A: The film is narrated by Justin Kirk, a very talented and Emmy– and Golden Globe-winning actor who is currently on Weeds on Showtime. He has a wonderful quality in his performance that brings out the irony in this story, and yet he does it in an inclusive way. We were very lucky to get Justin to do the voice-over.

Q: Did you find people receptive to being on camera in terms of government people?

A: Yes, in fact we had more congressmen willing to be on camera than we could use in the final film. Go figure.

Q: What was the most difficult aspect of making the documentary?

A: Well, figuring out the whole story was a challenge. It didn’t really come together until *we were about half way through editorial. We finally found all the pieces, and after a couple of ‘work-in-progress’ screenings, we are pretty happy with the end result. The other daunting part of this is that this film is self-financed. So, I am working without a net, in terms of getting my money back. That is also a little scary.

Q: How does it feel to be honored by AFI?

A: That is certainly a great payback for all the effort we (all the participants in this project) have put into the film. The AFI FEST is one of the top film festivals in the world, and to be a part of this festival is an incredible honor, especially when you see the other films that are in the Fest—films like Steven Soderbergh’s Che, John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt and Ed Zwick’s film, Defiance. I am really grateful to be a part of this event.

Q: What is your overall feeling about AFI?

Food Fight documentaryA: I am a big fan of AFI as a cultural institution. I am an AFI graduate. I had a great experience in the Conservatory, and some of the most important people in my life were fellow students I met there in 1988 and 1989. So, it is especially rewarding to have my first film premiere at the AFI FEST. It is definitely a homecoming for me.

Q: What about words of wisdom to future filmmakers?

A: The most important thing to me about filmmaking is that it is collaborative. So, hire the best people you can, and listen to their advice. During Food Fight I had some great creative partners, and I am very grateful to them for their contributions. I also like Roger Corman’s advice about wearing comfortable shoes.

Q: Are you interested in making films other than documentaries?

A: I would absolutely be interested in narrative feature films as well, if the right script came along. One thing I miss about documentaries is working with actors.

Q: What is your next project?

Food Fight documentaryA: I have already shot about 20 hours of material on my father-in-law, Gene Di Novi, who is an incredible Jazz pianist. He just did three days of concerts in Canada that celebrated his 80th birthday. The music was incredible, and the fact that he still plays so beautifully is really impressive. Earlier in his career he was the music director for Peggy Lee, Lena Horne, and Tony Bennett. Gene played with Charlie Parker when he was 16 in New York City, and he played with Benny Goodman right after that. So, I am excited about getting that finished.

Q: What do you think about the overall documentary genre today? Do you think filmmakers are getting their points clear to the general public?

A: I think the number of talented filmmakers working in documentaries has never been greater, in numbers and in depth of talent. It is awe inspiring to see the work of other documentarians at film festivals, to realize the great stories they are telling with sometimes only a handy cam. So, the public is being treated to a cultural phenomenon that is relatively unique from my perspective. And I have to say that the storytelling is more adventurous than ever, with examples like Protagonist and The Trial of the Chicago 7.

The other question for me is how is the general public going to have access to this body of work in the near future, as theatrical outlets are becoming almost non-existent if your film does not have Michael Moore in it. I expect that we will see different exhibition choices in the future, but I am not sure what they will be, but I hope that YouTube is not the major distribution outlet for Food Fight.

Q: Who is your mentor/hero?

A: My hero is Billy Wilder. His writing and directing are without equal in my view. It seems like he was always peeling away false pretenses in his movies to get at a deeper truth, and that he used humor to do it. I think you can always get a better response to your message through humor, and that’s what I tried to do in Food Fight.

Q: Did you change your eating habits after making the film?

A: Yes, I did and it impacted my health in a very positive way. I go to the farmer’s market in Santa Monica once and sometimes twice a week. I know some of the farmers now, two of them are in the film. I know the woman in charge of the market, and I see friends down there. So, it is a social experience, as well as a food-shopping experience. I like that the food growing and buying is a transparent exchange. I can see the farmer, I can ask him what is good this week, he can tell me which potatoes are good for baking or roasting. This beats the supermarket any day.

Q: What was it like filming Chef Wolfgang Puck and working with him?

A: There is a reason why Wolfgang is so successful, and that is that he has a great personality. He is fun to be around, he enjoys life, he has a great sense of humor, and he makes incredible food. So, filming at Spago was one of the best days of the whole project. We got into the kitchen, we watched his pasta chef hand-roll the agnolotti that were on the lunch menu that day, and we watched Wolfgang make the ‘pizza that launched an empire,’ the smoked salmon and caviar pizza that was the hallmark of the original Spago. After shooting all this great material, Wolfgang said, ‘Now sit, I’ll make lunch for you.’ So, he fed us the agnolotti that we saw earlier, and three other courses, and then said, ‘no money for the lunch, I am grateful that you are doing this project. That was a great day.

Q: What’s the biggest thing wrong with today’s films?

A: The whole economic model of filmmaking is a problem. It costs so much to make and market a film, that there is not much room for unique, out-of-the-mainstream voices. The film has to fill ‘all four quadrants’ in marketing terms (young, old, and male, female), so the really wonderful smaller boutique films just don’t get made. In the long run, that is not good for the culture.