A diner shouldn’t be a scary place, where plates of fried chicken threaten and provoke.
A grocery store shouldn’t induce panic attacks worthy of ominous underscoring. A shudder shouldn’t run down your spine when someone picks up a bag of Lays. A rural family farm shouldn’t be the perfect setting for a thriller.
But in Consumed, a new film by writer/director/producer Daryl Wein and writer/actress/producer Zoe Lister-Jones (out nationally December 9th), the boogeyman threatening a small-town Iowa community is unearthed in all of those places. More specifically, the danger stems from GMOs – the genetically modified organisms created in the laboratories of the fictional corporation, Clonestra, that then make their way into nearby farms and processed foods that blanket the country.
This sounds like potential Hollywood elitist propaganda, right?
There’s a corrupt scientist squelching evidence, violent car chases in the night, that creepy underscoring, and a potential mental collapse constantly threatening our hero Sophie [Lister-Jones], a single mother who will do anything to find the source of her son’s mysterious illness.
But there’s also sympathy towards the corporate CEO who’s producing the GMO-laden foods unaware of the studies his underlings are burying. There is love for both people and food. There are facts represented, and then questions left dangling without opinion in this fictionalized world. The film is a dramatic thriller where anyone can be seen as the villain or the hero, depending on where your personal beliefs fall.
Most embedded in the food world fall already on the anti-GMO side of the political debate, obviously. Many chefs I’ve worked with have been outspoken about their concerns for a long while now; over 700 signed a petition supporting GMO labeling back in 2014. Tom Colicchio, a huge proponent of GMO labeling, has thrown his muscle behind the production in praise. As a food writer with a chronic illness who’s been on organics and off of processed food since childhood, I wanted to like the film before I even saw it (I liked it afterward, too).
But do food politics make for good filmmaking? Wein and Lister-Jones hope so.
An interview with
Writer/Director: Daryl Wein and Writer/Actress: Zoe Lister-Jones
What’s the origin story of the film?
DW: It started about seven years ago. We didn’t know anything about GMOs at the time; I don’t think many people did. One of the first things we read was that 80% of the food we eat contains genetically modified ingredients, but we don’t know it because of labeling issues. And then we were seeing what was happening with farmers becoming embroiled in lawsuits with big biotech companies over patent infringement on their seeds, and there was spying on and bullying farmers; just all of the elements of a dramatic thriller. It was fascinating and felt really important because there hadn’t yet been a movie that’s explored it in a narrative sense. And so we thought that there is an entertaining, suspenseful story that we could put on the screen that would be accessible to people but also at the same time be incredibly entertaining.
How, as artists, do you do translate a political situation in a personal way that’s not intimidating?
DW: I think you do it by creating a story with characters that people can relate to, rooted in emotional situations. Creating storylines about an organic farmer (played by Danny Glover) or a mother (played by Zoe Lister-Jones) allows people to identify and relate their own personal struggle with the struggles represented on the screen.
ZLJ: And I think it was important for us to not vilify Big Ag, too; to try and present a balanced view and to give a voice to both sides so that audience members could leave making their own conclusions. There have been no long-term studies and there are many regulatory loopholes. So I think without either side being able to make claims regarding safety, the biggest thing we can do is to start asking more questions.
DW: Don’t get us wrong. The film, while fictional, is heavily researched and supported by people like Michael Hansen, the senior scientist at Consumer’s Union, Erin Brockovich, Gary Hirshberg at Just Label It, Food Democracy Now and the Organic Consumer’s Organization. We wanted to make people aware that we are very responsible and thoughtful filmmakers who are putting ourselves out there with a message that’s touching on real-world issues based in a lot of truth.
You have a really stacked cast behind you, and your trailer is a “call to action” with many of them speaking out about GMOs. Was there anything different for you on site with this energetically?
ZLJ: The film did have a really different energy because we were working with something that impacts all of us, and the stakes felt incredibly high. We were also making it in the belly of the beast: we were shooting in the Heartland on people’s farms who were dealing with these issues in their every day lives. For the whole cast, myself included, that energy was so palpable. The story we were telling was not only imperative to tell, but we were telling it utilizing the voices of the people who were being impacted in such a real way.
DW: I think we were the only film who’s ever done this, too, but we had only organic and non-GMO food on the set for people to eat, supported by amazing local farms and local catering companies.
Why focus your film around a single working-class mother?
ZLJ: I think a thing a lot of people who question GMOs or promote organic lifestyle are often dismissed because of this idea that it’s a bourgeois issue. Something that needs to be discussed on a larger scale is what our government is subsidizing. If our government subsidized farms rather than these cash crops like corn and soy, which are going into bio-feeds, cattle farms or processed foods – none of which are promoting health in our population – than organics would be much more accessible to the lower and middle classes. It doesn’t have to be an elitist issue.
DW: For people who have less financial flexibility to buy organics, I have two things to say: First, if you can, try to do it. You’re saving yourself in the long run. Do you want to spend a little more money up front on organic fruits and vegetables and proteins and save yourself the headache and pain and financial setbacks of going to doctors later on if you’re just raised on processed foods? That, I think, is the way to look at it right out of the gate as a short-term/long-term situation.
For people who don’t have access at all – if you’re in a rural area or food desert – try to access this amazing new online organizing called Thrive Market, which allows people who are struggling financially to get access to healthy, organic food. They deliver to anyone, anywhere. And memberships are actually really affordable. So that’s a great way to save that little bit extra money that you would normally spend on the food, accessed easily.
Did you learn anything along that economic/political line that truly shocked you or uplifted you during the process?
DW: So much has changed. Right now what people are calling the “Deny the Right to Know” act – the DARK Act – is making its way through congress…
ZLJ: It passed through the House of Representatives and now is going to the Senate.
DW: Right. Hopefully, it will not be voted on in the Senate, because it would eliminate the states’ rights to be able to make mandates on labeling genetically modified foods. It would take away laws in states who have already passed laws, like Vermont and Connecticut, and preempt them from being to create their own labeling initiatives and laws. They’re pushing the first genetically modified salmon onto the market through Aqua Bounty. There are constantly so many issues…
ZLJ: A huge game changer was the World Health Organization’s announcement that Glyphosate, which is a major part of the main chemical in herbicides for crops, is carcinogenic. Those are all kind of depressing. But on a hopeful note, I think that consumer demand for organics and non-GMOs have grown exponentially since we started this project. And part of our mission with this movie is to spark a larger conversation among consumers, because consumers have so much power in this market to demand labeling, if that’s what they so choose. So I think we’re seeing a groundswell in that realm, and that’s quite exciting.
You’re releasing the film through Gathr Films. Why?
DW: To release a movie traditionally is always hard when you’re an independent film with no big movie studio or big marketing budget behind you. It’s hard to have your movie come out in a few cities opposite, like, The Hunger Games. So we thought it was smarter to partner with Gathr because their theatrical-on-demand catalog allows us to tap into an audience of people that care about these issues. Anyone can request or host a screening, or go to our website and sign up for a screening that’s already happening. We have over 140 screenings in December all across the country, completely driven by community outreach, grassroots support and consumer demand.
ZLJ: I think, too, the paradigm has shifted so much regarding how people watch movies. Going to the theatre is becoming more and more antiquated. To go to an event screening that’s one night only, where you’re surrounded by people who are going to be a part of a larger discussion that can galvanize around maybe a political call to action, is an exciting new way to experience cinema.
You mentioned that you both cook. Has the physical action of cooking and your emotional relationship with food changed?
DW: If anything, now we think more about exactly what the ingredients are in our meals and try to go to farmer’s markets and source our vegetables and meats from organic purveyors to be more mindful of what we’re cooking. But it’s always a joy to cook at home. You feel like you’ve earned the meal, and you appreciate the food so much more when you’re making it by yourself with your own hands.
ZLJ: Daryl makes a mean roast chicken.
DW: We love to cook an organic chicken and veggies. And now and again we’ll get a nice organic fish from the farmer’s market or wherever we can find it.
When this film is out in the world on digital platforms, what will you be most proud of, and what will you be ready to let go of?
ZLJ: The biggest thing for me is the coalition building that’s been really exciting around this film, where we have been able to work with people who have devoted so much of their lives to food and food safety in this country. It’s such an immense undertaking that I feel proud to be a part of that movement.
DW: For me, a door will never close. We’ll never have it out and not look back. We’re going to continue to measure everything that’s going on and raise awareness of these issues through the power of film. But, yeah, as filmmakers it’s nice to be able to make other things. So I’m excited to sink my teeth into another story, while still keeping this present.
CONSUMED is incredible. Worthy of seeing in the theatre, important to share, and a really beautiful project on the whole I’m thankful was made. For more, please visit www.consumedthemovie.com.