James Wilks bought a used camera on Craigslist. Then, no big deal, Oscar winners James Cameron and Louie Psihoyos came on board to help him make "The Game Changers".
In addition to Cameron and Psihoyos, there’s also Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Chris Paul to name a few of the film's presenters. How do you get them to help you make your first film? For James Wilks, it began with him buying a camera and shooting footage of his own story.
Wilks is not a filmmaker by trade. He’s a British title-winning UFC fighter who trains Navy Seals. (So obviously, going to pick up a used camera from a seller on Craigslist is already less nerve-wracking.)
During a period of injury, Wilks became aware of how much eating plants was helping him recover. In fact, he was astonished. Wilks decided he had to tell the world and share the story about how the meat industry has brain-washed men into associating meat with masculinity–to their detriment. Who better to tell the story? This guy.
Wilks originally sat down with No Film School at the Sundance Film Festival to talk making The Game Changers, which is out in theaters today. Check out our interview about everything from writing for documentaries to why erections should be a key part of any good film. He asked only that readers keep in mind his British accent, which makes him sound smarter when reading our interview.
NFS: How did you and director Louie Psihoyos meet and decide to collaborate on this film? How did this project get started?
Wilks: It started first with me buying a used camera off of Craigslist. I went on YouTube, learned how to do this three-point light thing and bought this wireless Sennheiser mic. I never wanted to be a filmmaker. I just really wanted share my journey and my experience. I got injured, and I was searching for more information on recovery and performance. That’s when I discovered the relationship between plant-based and performance. I felt like I'd been lied to. I thought, "I've got to make a film about this."
I started with this used camera from Craigslist. Then I finally met Joseph Pace, who has some experienced screenwriting, and has been plant-based for 30 years. We joined forces and got a team going. But it wasn't the quality that we wanted. We realized we needed a bigger budget and a better team.
So in 2014, we short-listed some directors. A race-car driver that was in one of Joseph’s films invited us to this raceway event. Louis was there. We said, “We really want to help figure out a director.” He said, "Well, I can help you with that." For two weeks we didn't hear from him. We thought, what did he mean by he could help us? We called him and said, "What did you mean?" And he said, "Well, I can help you. I want to direct it." And we were like, "Oh, wow, okay!" Around that time, we've been put in touch with James Cameron, who was also really interested in the film. He's interested in plant-based for the environment, for health, and so forth.
We'd already been filming some preliminary filming. In 2014, we took the time to really build a really good team and just do a lot more research. We met Louis, and obviously he's very passionate about the subject. It sort of went from there. In 2015, we started filming again. And now we had this great team.
"I felt like I'd been lied to. I thought, 'I've got to make a film about this.'"
NFS: The film chronicles how the link between meat and manliness was established, and you use different athletes, most who don't eat meat at all, to tell that story. How did you know which characters would serve as the backbone of the story?
Wilks: A lot of people that we filmed that aren't in it, unfortunately. There were really great characters. But it wasn't necessarily about how good an athlete they were, or even if they have the best sound bites. If it didn't really fit in the story, then, unfortunately, we couldn't use them. We definitely overshot, which I think in a documentary, the story sort of unfolds. There were key parts in my story that we know would make it in. Then you meet people along the way. There are obviously all these topics that you see in the film, whether it's about protein or energy or B12.
NFS: Or nighttime erections.
Wilks: Erections. Obviously a key thing that should be in any film, really.
NFS: I just have to work that word into the article for our search engine optimization.
Wilks: Then definitely erections. Basically, we knew there were some key things that we wanted. We didn't actually know about the erections until later on. We did the experiment with the Miami dolphins regarding blood flow. And Dr. Robert Vogul, who is the co-chair of the cardiovascular community for the NFL, was explaining how a single meal can impact blood flow for two to eight hours, and can really inhibit your blood flow to all of your body and your muscles, particularly for athletes.
So when I met Dr. Aaron Spitz, who is a lead delegate for the American Medical Association, we thought, "Well, could this be really impacting?" This is being marketed to men, could it be affecting men's health? And it turns out the very foods we think of as the most masculine are actually killing and hurting men more than anything else. So we said, "Is there an experiment that we can do to sho this?" There's a device called the Rigiscan, which test rigidity and circumference and the duration of an erection. I think it's one of the most popular scenes in the film.
The key athletes, of course, Patrik Baboumian, four-time world-record-holding champion and organized a Guinness World Record for the heaviest weight ever carried by a human being. And Scott Jurek, who is Appalachian Trails is just epic. They became clear. There were other amazing outtakes that are really unfortunate not to be included. It's seeing which athletes are out there that are at the top of their game, who are breaking and smashing these myths. We just reached out to them and traveled to four continents filming. And the story presents itself.
"There's a device called the Rigiscan, which test rigidity and circumference and the duration of an erection. I think it's one of the most popular scenes in the film."
NFS: What was the process incorporating yourself in the story as the main storyteller?
Wilks: I actually didn't want to be in the film. Originally, I started filming athletes and experts and did not put myself in it. And then when I joined forces with Joseph Pace, he said, "So what is it you do?" And I said, "I train Navy SEALS and US Marshals." And he said, "Wait, and you won the Ultimate Fighter as well?" He said I would be a really good central character. But I didn't really want to be in it. I'm not a big fan of being in front of the camera. So we didn't write it in any sort of traditional way. We just went and filmed stuff, and it was literally just my journey. I was reaching out to these department chairs, and Harvard and Yale. And I was reaching out to these athletes anyway. So, we were just filming that natural story. We had a general one-pager for what I wanted the film to be about, and then we just documented the story as it happened.
NFS: Presumably, after production was complete, you could then think about your narration that would tie the story together?
Wilks: Exactly. We actually had about 5 or 600 hours of footage. And from there, obviously, you could make over 1000 completely different films with all that footage. Highlighting certain elements, including certain people, not including certain people. That is really when the writing stage comes in. And Mark Monroe, who is really well known as a documentary writer, that's when he came in. He started saying, "We should really talk about this, “ or “Let's see the gladiator's thing."
We did some feedback screenings, and that really helped shape the story. When we first screened it, it was very short. It didn't allow people to sit on it and think, so we extended that scene a little bit. I really like science, and we had some really great studies in there early on that went back as far as 1907 with [Fisher] out of Yale that showed that you could cycle up to three times longer if you only ate plants versus only meat.
We had all these great studies and I loved them, but I think it slowed the film down, the pacing and the audience weren't that keen on that much science. So we pulled it out and focused on the feeling of the pace, and what kept the interest. That's when we started writing some stuff on paper and then went from there.
NFS: With the science that you did leave in, was there a strategy to how you would use it in the film? Did you feel compelled to dispel a climate of skepticism or confusion?
Wilks: It's very difficult because the [meat] industry, which has billions of dollars, does a great job of confusing the public. But when you talk to leading experts, there's a general consensus. They might have different opinions on small parts of what we should be eating, but the general consensus amongst all the experts is that one’s diet, to be optimally healthy, should be predominantly plant-based. Of course, the industry is going to confuse that because of invested interest and continuing need to sell meat, milk, and eggs.
You see some of the parallels in the film between the tobacco industry. For example, the guy that played the Marlboro man went on to become the spokesperson for the meat industry. There are ads playing with the same guy in it with that cowboy hat on, riding the horse. They used the same companies and the same scientists. We could've honesty made a film about anthropology, or just the marketing, or just the connection between the tobacco industry.
Marlboro cigarettes were being smoked mainly by women, and they weren't getting much traction with men, so they created the Marlboro man to sell to them. And that's all they've done with the marketing of meat. They've made it appear masculine. It's actually the total opposite, increased rates of prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction. It's incredible just how opposite everything is.
NFS: What would be your advice to others with a journey to share or a story to tell?
Wilks: I think with anything, if you're not a real expert in the field, then you need to attract the right people who are – if you want to make something that's really groundbreaking and high quality. When I first did this, I had that used camera off of craigslist, I filmed it because I can do a little bit of anything, it's pretty easy. I thought I'd just put this out as a video on Youtube for free. But really what I hoped would happen is that no one would ever see this footage, and I'd use this footage to get other people interested.
So, I would say start researching and do thorough research so you're really putting out the facts. And then just start filming stuff. Then you can use that to get other people interested. You don't have to wait until you got the perfect team. If you always wait until you got a 10 out of 10, you'll never get there. Even if you strive for absolute perfection, it's better to strive for a 9 out of 10, I think, because it's more realistic.
But I just think: start shooting. Do sufficient research, start shooting on a shoestring budget if you don't have the funding. And then use that footage to get other people to get excited. Just be professional and present yourself to these other filmmakers and build a team.
Look at people who might have an interest in that subject, and then that's how you're going to look at funding. Funding is obviously a big issue. We were fortunate there are a lot of people that are passionate about plant-based eating, whether it's from a health perspective, or an environmental perspective, or even an animal welfare perspective. There are a lot of people who cross a lot of sections. You've got to find people who are passionate and find a good story and then tell it.
"If you're not a real expert in the field, then you need to attract the right people who are – if you want to make something that's really groundbreaking and high quality."
NFS: Is there anything else that you want to make sure people know about the film?
Wilks: Hopefully, when people watch the film, they're not going to feel that we're being preachy. We're just trying to share my journey, share the facts that we've come across in the interviews, and the science that we've read. With that, people can make an informed decision on what they should be eating.
We have the tips for people that do want to make the change on our website. It's not all about an all-or-nothing change. Any shift towards it, maybe just having meatless Mondays. Give it a try and you'll find that you'll start enjoying some of these plant-based meals and rather than feeling like its exclusion, it’s just about trying to incorporate more plant-based eating into a diet. And hopefully, push some of the other stuff out. That’s what I want people to come away with after this film.
Thank you, James!
You can watch The Game Changers nationwide in their one-night national opening tonight. After which, you can check it out during the New York and Los Angeles theatrical runs. Find out about tickets here.