The Making Of
Filmmakers Aaron Woolf, Curt Ellis and Ian Cheney talk about how they eat differently since making KING CORN, meeting former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz and who's a better whiffle ball player.
What led you to make this film?
It felt embarrassing to be graduating from college without knowing anything about the food we were eating every day—I mean, have you ever seen a mono- and diglyceride? So we started getting interested in learning where our food came from, and what better way to do that than to learn by doing. Saved us from getting desk jobs, too. For Aaron, it was a chance to make a different kind of documentary—one where you get your hands dirty.
What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?
Documentaries cost money, and the money was hard to raise. We told people we were making a film about watching corn grow, and they said, “Wow! What’s the sequel? Watching paint dry?”
Has making this film changed your eating habits?
Very much so. We tried not eating any corn at all for a month, but that proved too hard. (We had to give up toothpaste! Sorbitol is corn, it turns out.) So we now just try to eat food that’s locally grown, from a farmer we can shake hands with. That means we don’t eat a lot of high-fructose corn syrup, we cook grass-fed beef now, and we eat carrots that look like carrots, instead of corn cobs in the shape of Pepsis. Aaron has even started a grocery store in Brooklyn called Urban Rustic, which focuses on local and organic food.
What didn’t get included in your film that you would have liked to show?
The environmental consequences of the way we were farming were pretty intense. The fertilizers and tractors and chemicals we used all took a lot of fossil fuel to make, and we watched them run off into the stream next to our acre right after we put them on. We’re working now on a companion film that will tell some of that story.
Tell us about a scene in the film that especially resonated with you.
Visiting Nixon’s agriculture secretary, Earl Butz, was intense. We went in to his nursing home really wanting to tell him how much we disagreed with his policies and show him all the damage industrial farms and industrial foods have done, but it turned out he had a good point. Cheap food is something we really take for granted in our generation, and it’s given us a lot of opportunities our great-grandfathers never had (Hello! Filmmaking!). But the challenge now is how do we make food that’s not just affordable, but good for us, too.
Were there any technical challenges you faced while shooting, and if so, how did you resolve them?
Yes. Making those stop-motion animations took years off our lives. Also, it didn’t help that Ian and Curt didn’t want to be on camera for the first six months of shooting.
What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?
We took the film back to Iowa in December, just when the presidential candidates were running around the state. The film got a great reception—especially in Greene—and we were really impressed with the number of people building real alternatives there. We met one young woman about our age who had started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) subscription farm, and several of her members were corn and soybean farmers who wanted access to fresher foods than they were growing.
The independent film business is a difficult one. What keeps you motivated?
It feels pretty lucky to be able to travel around and take pictures, then come back and show them to your friends. It’s like being on vacation all the time… except instead of taking pictures of a sunset on a beach, it’s a cattle feedlot. Also, there’s a real community of filmmakers who you get to know through ITVS and on the festival circuit. They’re a wonderful support network.
Why did you choose to present your film on public television?
It’s hard to imagine a better way to help a large audience see KING CORN, and the more people who see it, the more who might decide to do something differently in their own lives.
Is there anything else you’d like to share in this Q&A—interesting anecdotes regarding filming, a commonly asked question by audiences, etc.?
Yes, the honest truth is that Aaron’s a better whiffle ball player than either Ian or Curt.
What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?
For Aaron, it was the house he’s building in the Adirondacks. For Ian and Curt, it was our credit card bills.