Anyone familiar with Daryl Wein and Zoe Lister Jones’ filmography knows there’s nothing more the couple loves than a good old fashioned, knock ’em drag-out war of words. After training their cameras on themselves for their first narrative feature together, “Breaking Upwards,” which had its crackling energy derived from the duo playing a version of themselves weighing the merits of an open relationship, their second, the Greta Gerwig-starring comedy “Lola Versus,” inspired a NY Times profile of the now-married couple that led that film’s producer Michael London to note, “They argue about everything, but they care that much more about resolving issues because it’s their relationship on the line.” Now happily betrothed, it’s only natural the time was right for the two to spark a debate far bigger than about relationship issues, turning their attention to the growing prevalence of genetically modified food and its potential hazardous effects.
Although “Consumed,” the end result which is making its debut at the Los Angeles Film Fest this evening, may seem like quite a transition for the pair after honing their skills on romantic comedies, it’s not as big a leap as one might think. Once again getting the most from an accomplished cast that includes the likes of Victor Garber, Danny Glover, Beth Grant, “Chicago Fire” star Taylor Kinney, Anthony Edwards and Kunal Nayyar, it tells the story of Sophie (Lister Jones), a single mother determined to learn what’s causing her son to be sick, first with nausea, then mysterious rashes, which she comes to believe is caused by the corporate food giant Clonestra, which uses nearby fields to test its genetically enhanced seed. With a little digging, Sophie uncovers far greater concerns than just her son’s health, spanning farmers, scientists and local law enforcement.
A paranoia-driven thriller with a distinctly contemporary feel, “Consumed” is informed by an obvious adherence to all the research Wein and Lister Jones did while translating those facts into something chilling at a human level. Never losing sight of the central struggle of a mother desperate to save her son, it grows to encapsulate the fears of an entire community in Iowa who can’t comprehend all the rapid changes to their way of life, starting with their source of sustenance. Yet despite showing the ill effects of evolution, “Consumed” testifies to the idea that change can be good as well in terms of Wein and Lister Jones doing something different and new and shortly before the film debuted, they spoke about switching gears, their growing strength as creative collaborators and how they got interested in tackling such a political hot potato.
How did this come about?
Daryl Wein: It has been a long journey. We read an article seven years ago about GMOs and just became instantly transfixed, though we didn’t really know anything about the topic before then. The fact that 80% of food has genetically modified ingredients in it yet nobody really knows because the food isn’t labeled stood out to us. We started to dig a little deeper and it just came became more and more fascinating. We discovered living organisms were patented in the 1980s by corporations for the first time in history and farmers across the country were embroiled in lawsuits and being threatened by the corporations for reusing and saving seeds as the corporations were promoting the benefits of these novel foods and how they can save the world. All of these different stories just seemed like they would make such an interesting backdrop for a dramatic thriller.
We hadn’t really seen any that had been made about these issues aside from a few documentaries and we thought trying to craft a narrative that first and foremost would be entertaining for viewers would be a perfect opportunity to delve into that subject matter and get people to talk about to talk about the issues.
Did you know from the start that Zoe would be playing the lead Sophie? If so, does that impact how you go about writing this?
Zoe Lister Jones: We did write it for me to star in, but I am not sure if that impacts the writing process. I don’t think it really does. For us, this is a bit of a shift in tone as filmmakers, so that was the most interesting part of the writing process was being able to explore a different genre as compared to our last two films.
Did that work some different creative muscles?
Daryl Wein: We were dying to work those different muscles. You know we made two relationship dramadies, which we had a great time writing and making, but we were really eager to play around with a different tone and frankly, just do something more dramatic. We have always been interested in stories that have an impact on the world. My first documentary, “Sex Positive” was political in nature, related to the AIDS epidemic. Zoe actually went to Cuba when she was in high school to protest the embargo. So throughout the years, we have had some interest in politics and this was a great first foray into that space [cinematically] for us.
Going back to “Sex Positive,” was the process of doing a documentary like that helpful in creating a narrative that was likely just as research intensive?
Daryl Wein: “Sex Positive” was equally as comprehensive and, dare I say, convoluted in trying to understand all the different positions. The process was slightly different because that was a documentary and I was learning more about it as I was interviewing people, then in kind of post-production, figuring exactly what angles to highlight and streamline. This was more done before we got into production. Over the years, we’d just read as much as we could, whether it be interviews, articles or books or watching interviews online, then trying to synthesize into a compelling narrative that wasn’t too overwhelming but that also didn’t water down the issues.
In particular, I was impressed by the CEO of the corporation Clonestra, played by Victor Garber. Ordinarily, he’d be demonized in a film like this, but you seem to go out of your way in this case and others to show a well-rounded person as opposed to someone defined by what job they have. Was that something shaped by the research?
Zoe Lister Jones: Yeah, in researching the film for so many years, we obviously came up with some of our own conclusions as individuals, but our desire in the film was to present both sides of the argument as best we could. Victor Garber, as you mentioned, plays the CEO of a biotech corporation and it was really important to us that he not be vilified in any way and was wrestling with lots of both personal and professional issues himself, so that we could see the humanity of both sides of this debate. Ultimately, we want the audience to come to their own conclusions.
You’re both from the coasts. Was shooting in Illinois interesting? There are a few shots of the sky that seemed to suggest you were pretty taken with the Midwest environment.
Daryl Wein: Yeah, it was amazing to be in the belly of the beast because we had been writing about it for so long. We actually went through the various drafts of the screenplay and had never really set foot in the middle of farm country. So it was just so great to get out of the city and out on to the land, which is what our movie is all about – meet the real people that are the center of the story, talk to real farmers who are going through a lot of the issues that we touch in the film with the issue of seed contamination with organic and GMO farms. A lot of people [there] also don’t have access to organic food the same way people do on the coast and they’re eating food unaware as some people are in the major cities about these issues. So it was really great for authenticity to be out there and also have a lot of great local actors a part of the production.
Was there a particularly crazy day of filming?
Daryl Wein: Every day. On an independent film, it is always a struggle and we shot this film in 23 days, which actually sounds more like a leisurely schedule for an indie, but every day was packed with a ton of scenes because we thought it would be a good idea to overshoot and overwrite so we have more material to work with in post-production, so in the original screenplay, we had a lot of dialogue, most of which we condensed and streamlined in the final picture.
We also had never made a movie in Illinois and it is always tough making independent film, but it’s even harder when you are doing it out of state. We didn’t know anybody in Illinois, so it was a big learning curve for us to go out there and find crew from Chicago. We actually partnered with a great local production company in Champaign-Urbana called Shatterglass Studios and they were instrumental in helping us on the ground there and connecting us with all of the local businesses that made our production happen.
When you make a film dealing with a political subject like this, do you welcome being ambassadors of sorts for the conversation that comes with it or do you feel you’ve done your part by making the movie?
Daryl Wein: First and foremost, we want people to enjoy the movie and our only real only after that is for people to talk about these issues because food is something that affects every single person. We just wanted to make a film that was thought-provoking and get people to ask these questions. Whereas some documentaries about these issues might be a little bit more activist-oriented or a call to arms, we really wanted to explore the issues as well as we could and introduce some of the questions that we were asking ourselves to the world.
You’ve now made four films together and only recently got married. Do you feel the creative collaboration is stronger now?
Daryl Wein: It is definitely stronger as the years go on. We have been together for 11 years now and it’s almost like we know what each other is thinking at every single moment, so it’s always great to collaborate with your partner because we just know each other so well. We have so many similar tastes and values. We trust each other creatively, but it is also extremely difficult too because we are trying to have a happy relationship and the intersection of art and business with our personal lives is always blurred when you are in a collaboration of this kind. We still struggle with when we get frustrated with something in work, not always trying to take it out on each other [elsewhere] and really try to figure out how to draw that line. It’s an ongoing challenge, but it’s a challenge I think we welcome because we’re just always trying to do better and keep making great films.