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January 15, 2008

Q&A With Tom Naughton, Part Two

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back here, I introduced Tom Naughton's inventive, informative, and generally excellent diet-and-eating documentary "Fat Head." In that posting, I interviewed Tom about the film's subject matter. In today's posting, I talk to Tom about making the film -- which he did in total freedom, all by himself.


***


The 2Blowhards Q&A With Tom Naughton, Part Two


tomnaughton_headshot.jpg

2B: What was the impulse behind the movie? Was it more a matter of having a message you wanted to convey, or more of wanting to make a movie?

TN: It was a mix of things. As a writer, I felt the need to sink my teeth into a full-length project, no pun intended. I was actually starting to work on a humor piece about the ridiculous prejudice we have in our society against fat people, and I watched “Super Size Me” as part of my research. When I saw how much bologna [Morgan] Spurlock was serving up in a film that attracted so much attention, I felt the need to reply.

I don’t harbor any animus toward Morgan Spurlock. He took a simple idea and made an amusing film out of it, and I applaud him for that. He’s a talented entertainer. But I don’t agree with his point of view. In “Super Size Me,” he asked the question, “Where does personal responsibility end?” My answer is, it doesn’t. Ronald McDonald can’t make you eat anything.

2B: Have you always wanted to be a filmmaker?

TN: No, I never set out to be a filmmaker. My plan was to write scripts and pitch them to real producers.

But I was inspired by my sister-in-law, Susan Smiley, who made an acclaimed documentary about schizophrenia titled “Out of the Shadow.” Seeing her pick up a camera and make a film de-mystified the process for me. Suddenly it seemed possible to just produce my own work, instead of hoping someone else would. She also lent me her camera and her advice, which was a huge help.

2B: What was your budget? My wife and I took part in making a low-budget movie with a friend last year, and our budget was $8000. But to get the film done we've relied a lot on friends and buddies who aren't getting paid. Ah, the actual "economics" of low-budget filmmaking ...

TN: I didn’t really establish a budget. I bought what I needed when I needed it. My two biggest expenses were flying around the country to interview people and paying an After Effects artist to do the animations. I also bought a wireless microphone, lights, a new computer, software, stuff like that. I think I’ve spent about $30,000 so far.

2B: What was your physical-technical setup for putting the film together?

TN: I borrowed my sister-in-law’s Sony PD 150 camera, and I used Adobe’s Production Studio Pro for editing sound and video on a maxed-out PC that I bought just for the film.

My wife posted ads on Craig’s List for an animator and conducted the initial interviews via email. She sent links to my trailers to the candidates, and a couple of them replied that it would be immoral and unethical to work on a film that disputed “Super Size Me.”

2B: That’s great.

TN: We had some good laughs reading those emails.

We were lucky to find a young man named Kevin Ivers to do the animations. He was fresh out of film school, so he was looking for his first credit. He had the same reaction to “Super Size Me” that I did, so he genuinely liked the project. He also has a similar sense of humor, so he took my ideas and implemented them with very little direction from me, and often improved on them with his own suggestions.

He worked at our kitchen table on his Mac laptop, often with one of my girls attempting to pester him. We have a photo somewhere of him working on an animation while my two-year-old is sitting on her potty about five feet away.

I was also fortunate to have a friend named Tom Monahan who used to compose music for a CBS show, “The Magic Door,” and he graciously agreed to create original music tracks for me. I would explain in an email what kind of feel or mood I had in mind, and he’d have an MP3 sitting in my email inbox within a day or two.

2B: Congrats to your wife on her graphics, by the way. Little miracles of mischief, narration, and information. Is she a pro designer?

TN: She could be a pro designer and probably will be someday, but right now she’s a full-time mom. She designed the graphics and our web site after the girls were in bed. On crunch days, I’d take the girls to a park or play land so Mommy could focus.

2B: Who did you rely on for technical help?

TN: I knew a little about Adobe Premiere because I had used it to edit videos of my girls. When I bought the Production Studio Pro, I ordered the training DVDs produced by Total Training, which was an excellent investment. Their teachers and their presentations are outstanding.

2B: Making our own little movie, I was amazed by how much of "moviemaking" consists of mundane stuff like getting releases, setting up an S Corp., making sure batteries are re-charged and noses aren't shiney, etc

TN: I had my star interviewees sign releases. For the sidewalk interviews, I asked them to face the camera and answer yes to my release questions. So I’ve got their oral permission on tape.

I’m already an S Corp for my software consulting business, so I ran our expenses through the existing corporation.

2B: Is making a film a sensible thing to do? I mean, now that equipment and computers put filmmaking within a semi-bearable budget?

TN: No, making a film is not a sensible thing to do. Neither is going to dozens of amateur nights in comedy clubs to try to become a standup comedian, or taking on programming gigs after reading a few books, or spending days writing humor pieces in hopes of selling them. If I lived a sensible life, I’d be comfortable and very bored.

2B: Is filmmaking of this sort in the range of normal life, energywise and timewise?

TN: You don’t live anything like a normal life while trying to produce a film, especially with a four-person crew. I was performing on a cruise ship while writing the first complete draft of the script, and when I wasn’t on stage, I was pretty much holed up in my cabin or in the crew lounge, writing. I’d do a half-hour show, then go back to my room and return to the script.

While filming, I would put in a full day on a programming gig, then hop on a plane at night to go interview someone the next day, hop on a plane that night to return home, get up the next day and go back to programming. On weekends, I shot more footage, transcribed the interviews so I could refer to them without winding the tapes back and forth all day, shot still photos, and recorded voice-over tracks in my bedroom closet, using a wireless microphone.

To get the first cut done in time for a film-festival deadline, I pulled a 48-hour editing shift. I only stopped for one shower and three meals -- and didn’t make it into the festival anyway. While wrapping up the second cut in time for another festival deadline, my animator and I worked almost around the clock for a full weekend. He took naps on our living-room sofa, and I crashed for a few hours here and there in my bed. I drank enough coffee to send Juan Valdez’s kids to college.

It’s not normal at all. But it is exhilarating.

2B: In terms of distribution, what possibilities have come up, and what are you looking into?

TN: A few people I know with connections in Hollywood are looking at the film. I can’t say much more than that for now. I’ve also entered the film in a dozen or so film festivals, but the selections won’t be announced for several weeks.

2B: What are your plans for another film?

TN: I don’t have any solid plans right now. I have ideas for films and at least one idea for a TV series that would be akin to this film in style, but for now, I’m focused on getting this distributed.

2B: What did you wish you'd known before starting the film in terms of filmmaking?

TN: I wish I’d known more about lighting. I was a one-man crew for the interviews, and while I did the best I could with a cheap lighting set and my limited knowledge, I’m fully aware that a professional crew would’ve produced brighter, cleaner footage.

2B: If someone said to you, Hey, great job, I'd like to go do something similar, would you urge him to do so?

TN: I’d tell him what I always tell people: if you feel the urge to create something, then go for it. You’ll kick yourself later if you don’t. Just be ready to work harder than you ever thought you could.

2B: What one tip would you offer him?

TN: Let the story develop. Don’t decide ahead of time exactly what you’re going to say, or you’ll risk overlooking discoveries in your research that pull the story in a new and ultimately better direction.


***

Many thanks once again to Tom Naughton.

Please visit and explore the website that Tom has created for "Fat Head." It's a fun, generous, and informative resource in its own right, with trailers, clips, and stories on offer, as well as links to many of his sources. Jimmy Moore interviewed Tom Naughton here. Here's Tom Naughton's personal website.

Start your reading about the carb-and-cholesterol con with this succinct article about how badly the low-fat hypothesis has failed to pan out. Key bit: "Four large trials between 1980 and 1984 comparing disease rates and diet 'showed no evidence that men who ate less fat lived longer or had fewer heart attacks'."

I'll to sure to let you know about it when "Fat Head" becomes publicly available.

Best,

Michael

posted by Michael at January 15, 2008




Comments

Thanks to both of you for putting this up! The web really rocks, doesn't it! I'm looking forward to checking out your documentary. I'm a performer myself and I've always found it hard to get other people to produce my shows. I really like the way Tom has been proactive! You've got me thinking that maybe I need to take charge of my own fate. As well a lose my fear of eating fat:-)

A question: do you feel that your stand-up experience helped you become a better interviewer?

Posted by: ShannonH on January 15, 2008 8:49 AM



The Jeremy Burne article you linked to claims that corn syrup is almost pure fructose. Actually HFCS55 is 55% fructose and 45% glucose.

As a person of South Asian descent, and a vegetarian, I am at increased risk of diabetes and am interested in averting it, to say the least. So I am interested in what these guys are saying. I am reading Gary Taubes' book right now and pondering about how to apply it to my life.

Posted by: JM on January 16, 2008 6:35 PM



Sorry for the slow reply. I didn't realize people would be leaving comments.

Shannon, the answer is yes, doing standup makes you a sharper performer in all kinds of ways. Acting is fine, but you can perform in, say, a drama and have little idea how well you connected with the audience. With standup, there's no doubt. They laugh or they don't. If they don't, you adjust.

Posted by: Tom Naughton on February 11, 2008 10:46 AM






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