Move over Morgan Spurlock – we have our own documentary filmmaker on a mission involving food. Although this filmmaker’s mission is more in reverse.
Sydney-born entrepreneur and professional investor Joe Cross had always been financially successful in life however he was “physically bankrupt”. A rare auto-immune disease forced him to take prescription medication and he soon realised, at 142kg, that he was about 50kg overweight.
He decided to instead, for 60 days, only consume “plant food” – fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans and seeds – in liquid form. The idea for the doco, entitled Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead, came when he turned 40 – in 2006 – and it took about a year to prepare and get the cameras rolling.
Speaking from Seattle, Washington late-last month, Cross said he documented the immensely-personal experience because he knew he had to make changes in his life and he knew others had to do the same.
“I had worked very hard up to the age of 40, focusing on wealth – ignoring health,” Cross told IF before a two-hour audience discussion on his film.
“I thought by putting a camera on myself, it really helped me stick to it and… you don’t need to be Einstein to have a look around and see that I wasn’t the only person that was ‘fat, sick and nearly dead’.”
The film was actually something completely different initially – it was originally going to be about six average Americans who do 10 days each. Cross put an advertisement up on Craigslist and said he was bombarded by about 300 applicants in about eight hours. Six were chosen.
The production was running smoothly. It was on-time and on-budget and Cross was happy with it, however he then received a phone call out of the blue from truck driver Phil Staples, who he had met six months earlier.
“That was out of left field. I meet him on the road and six months later he gives me a call and asks for help,” Cross says of Staples who tipped the scales at 190kg.
“Then I thought – this is the movie now, this is the real movie, this is the Forrest Gump moment.
“And so therefore, I offered him help and I couldn’t refuse him so I went back to America and shot him and obviously, you see what happens with him is nothing short of extraordinary, so we had to then throw the first movie out and start again and [figure out] how we integrate the two stories of Joe and Phil.”
Part-road trip, part self-help manifesto, the film defies the traditional documentary format to present an unconventional and uplifting story of two men from different worlds who each realise that the only person who can save them is themselves.
Cross, whose mother and father, brother and sister were all either doctors or nurses, said he was never tempted to eat junk food such as McDonalds during his journey.
“For me I was at the end of my line,” he admits. “Eight years on pills and being sick and the greater goal here was I was desperate. This was a real last ditch attempt for me to get well.”
While Michael Moore’s documentaries – such as Sicko – targeted government, Cross was adamant not to go down that line. He also didn’t want to go after fast food chains. Instead he wanted to find a solution, rather than the Solution, and hoped to “inspire, educate and entertain” along the way.
“I think it’s very easy to point out the problems in society – I think it’s harder coming up with the solutions,” says Cross, who now lives between powerhouse cities Los Angeles, New York and Sydney.
“The most important thing for me is that – if I can do it and the truck driver Phil can do it, then you the audience can do this. The power is within us to effect change in our own lives.
“All we really need is to see it, to see the change happen in somebody else. If people can walk away out of this movie and be inspired – to eat more fruits and vegetables in their life – then I think I’ve done a good job.”
After filming across the country, he had 500 hours of footage, captured on a CineAlta and a Sony P2, to work with. In the end, he produced 97 minutes.
Cross, like many, believes “editing is where the film really comes together”.
However he enlisted some of the best – Chris Seward and Kurt Engfehr, who both worked on Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. Seward was hired to co-direct with Cross, while Engfehr edited the film.
“I presided over every cut and it was a painstaking process of leaving so much good quality content on the cutting room floor but that’s where you learn you have to be vigilant,” Cross indicates.
Cross, who financed the majority of the film, is now planning on making another documentary in 2013 but isn’t sure on what yet.
What advice does he have for aspiring documentary makers? He said it depended on what the goal was.
“For most filmmakers it’s about getting as many people to see the film as possible right? If that’s what your goal is, you’ve gotta choose a subject that’s relevant for lots of people.
“When you talk about things like health, it’s a subject that really is relevant. And you’ll see now that the documentaries in the food and health area – Food Matters, Food Inc, my film and others, they really have got a big following now.”
Cross' doco has indeed had a big following in the US. More than one million people have watched it in the US just in the past three months.
It’s won awards including Best Documentary Feature at the 2010 Iowa Independent Film Festival. He has also had big success through online distribution. It’s now available through iTunes, Amazon video on demand, Sony Playstation, Blockbuster, among other outlets.
Cross said social media had been huge for the film. “The subject matter you’re choosing now as a documentary filmmaker, if it has a really broad appeal and you can be very specific in the way that you’re telling your story, you will get traction, whereas back in the old days – 5/6 years ago – it was really hard to get your movie seen unless the studio picked it up and helped amplify it,” Cross said.
“But today in the world of Twitter and Facebook – that’s what’s been the big thing. The big thing for my movie has definitely been the social web; it’s played a huge role – I cannot tell you how big a role it is.”
It’s now time to bring the film to Australian cinemas. Its local premiere will be held on Monday, November 28, at Dendy Opera Quays, Circular Quay, Sydney. Cross will tour the country in February, next year, doing screenings of the film and Q+A sessions.
Also, the filmmaker is teaming up with Woolworths for DVD distribution – from November 28, it will be available nationwide in every Woolworths store. Digital rights (for streaming) will be organised in a few months’ time.
For more information about the film, click here.