Nearly a decade before he even began thinking about his directorial debut “That Sugar Film,” Damon Gameau headed to the Australian outback at the invitation of his co-star in “The Tracker,” the legendary Aboriginal actor David Gulpilil. Aware of the long, proud cultural history of the community living off the natural resources available to them in Gulpilil’s native Arnhem Land, he was surprised to see how quickly they had taken to the popular tastes of urban culture.
“I was just completely stunned by the amount of Coca-Cola they were drinking, putting it into babies’ bottles,” he recalls. “It was disturbing to see, so when [“That Sugar Film”] came up, [I thought], is this still happening?”
The answer is a bit complicated, though it often is when it comes to sugar as Gameau finds throughout “That Sugar Film,” a labor of love that begins with the impending birth of his first child with wife Zoe Tuckwell-Smith. Like Morgan Spurlock’s “Super Size Me,” Gameau thrusts himself into an endurance test of eating 40 teaspoonfuls of sugar a day, the average amount consumed in his native Australia, but gives it a different spin, limiting himself to the types of processed foods that are advertised as being healthy, such as whole-grain cereals and yogurt. While he may become dismayed with his more frequent changes in mood and the damage he’s told by doctors that his new diet is doing to his liver, he has an opportunity to work off the pounds by traveling all across Australia and eventually the United States, learning all about the economic and technological changes that have made it a staple of eating habits whether people know it or not.
Taking full advantage of all the inviting qualities of the main subject, “That Sugar Film” feels like a candy-coated rush of adrenaline, but has plenty underneath the surface, showing just how the Aboriginal community became addicted to sugar and their valiant attempt to regulate the sale of soft drinks and the cultivation of fructose addicts at a young age here and abroad, uncovering a dentist in Kentucky giving dentures to kids suffering from “Mountain Dew Mouth.” Gameau further sweetens things up by inviting famous friends such as Hugh Jackman, Brenton Thwaites and Stephen Fry to help illustrate the science and history of the carbohydrate. Shortly before the film arrives in the country deemed “ground zero” in the film, Gameau spoke about how he first started looking into what he was eating, whether he reached a point when he wanted to give up, and how he’ll never be able to leave the experience behind entirely.
How you start down this path for a film?
Really, I had no idea when we started what was going to happen. In Australia, there’s a lot of conjecture about what are the effects of sugar – is it really dangerous or not? I thought the only way to actually find out and cut through all these mixed messages was to do an experiment on my own body and see what happens. We had no money at the start of filming and the experiment was the first thing we did, just to see if there was actually even film in it. My girlfriend would film me at home. Friends would come up on the weekends and shoot a bit. It was very much, let’s just see what happens, but once my liver turning to fat only after 18 days, that really started just to escalate the whole process. I could see that this was real and that took the film to a whole new level.
Nothing was planned, and even sitting here now and all the things that have happening around the world with parliamentary screenings and study guides, it’s just been one of those beautiful things that the timing’s right. People are ready for the message. The science now supports it and it has this runaway-train aspect to it.
The film’s energy and pacing feels very much like a sugar rush. How much did you want the subject to inform the style?
That was deliberate in the sense that it was using all the tricks that the food industry use, but subverting the message, so that teenagers and kids, especially, [would be receptive] because they’re so used to getting information in that way. It’s slightly heightened and in their faces and that’s probably been the most heartening thing for me, is that kids love it. We’ve done so many screenings now for school groups, and they just get it. They’re not bored. Their attention spans are so short these days, and they’re watching this content online so quickly, that the film had to be almost like an MTV clip that you have to have really different styles and tone going on just to keep it in the zone.
From seeing your homemade gym in the film, where a barbell is constructed from a pole with some weighted jugs on the end of it, is it fair to say you’re a do-it-yourself kind of guy?
Yeah, that is me, but the point is that I’m not some guy that goes to the gym all the time. You can do all these changes without exercising your guts out. I think there’s a belief that you can eat whatever you like as long you just run 10 hours a week. A lot of people don’t have time to do that, and I don’t think we’re designed to do that. What we need to realize is that exercise is very important for a host of reasons, but your nutrition – what you eat – is 80% what matters.
The impetus for this change in your life is the impending birth of your child, which is also what drove Morgan Spurlock in “Super Size Me.” But like that film, I wondered is your wife okay with you running off to do a project like this when she’s pregnant?
She was great. It was just one of those lovely things, and so many people [have said], “Oh, the scenes of your wife are so touching and add such an element of pathos to it.” That was never planned. I thought I would film a couple of Skypes on the way, and they ended up all being in the film. It really anchors the journey in a sense and says, well, this is real. This is going to affect our lives as a family unit, just like it will affect other families who watch the film.
She was very supportive. I think she always knew that the motives were right for my doing it, that I was hoping to find out [about the effects of sugar] and that it wasn’t just about me and my ego trying to make a film. It was like, no, we’ve got to get this message out there.
You actually don’t build it around yourself as much as these types of films usually do. How did you decide to bring in all the people you did?
It was that mainly that there are just so many people that have been trying to get this message out for about 20 years, but they’ve been up against the political lobbying of the mighty food industry, so I felt my role was amplifying their message and try to make it fun and accessible. As you know, a lot of science speak can be very dense and people just switch off. So how do you translate that to the people that need to see it? We need this [film] to go in Kentucky, to the Aboriginal people [in Australia], and it was interesting, because part of my ego was like, oh yeah, I’d really like to make it a typical documentary and have it go to Cannes, Sundance, and get all applause. But I thought, no one’s going to watch that film. It might be good for me and my career, but it doesn’t matter. Those people don’t need to see it. This needs to be a broad and commercial.
That’s when I was like, well, can you get Hugh Jackman? Can you get Stephen Fry for the U.K.? These are big names for someone who’s never seen a documentary, so they might go, “Well, Hugh’s in it. I might watch it.” And that’s what’s happening. People in Australia look and say, “What is this? Is it a film? A doc?” Because their version of what a doc is very serious – which has its place – we were trying to fight against that convention, and the aesthetic of sugar lends itself to that. You can get away with this bright, neon, playful, madhouse spectrum of colors.
How do you even find that dentist in Kentucky that’s in the film?
I have this theory that when you make a documentary, you just trust that the story’s going to reveal itself. That’s what happened with this film. People would just come in from random places and go, “Oh, have you heard about Mountain Dew mouth?” And the next minute you’re ringing a dentist, and he goes, “Yeah, come on next week.” It just happened like that.
That story was probably one of the hardest days of the whole film, sitting in that trailer with Ken, who was such a lovely kid and really wanted to share his story. The tragedy is that he was probably the oldest kid that that [dentist] works on. Normally, he does 12- and 13-year-olds, three or four a day. Again, these guys need to know what’s going on because they don’t have a clue.
Since this was a physical challenge, we’re there points where you wanted to give up?
It was a weird, sadistic thing where I couldn’t. Even though I felt horrible, I always knew that I was not going to get to a point where it was too dangerous, because I was getting regular blood tests. I was very close, but another part of me is thinking, “Well, this is great. None of us expected this dramatic result.” People need to see that this is what it does in a very short amount of time. If you think of those people that have had a lifetime of eating these types of foods, is it any wonder that more and more people are on medication up in their thirties now? We’ve got kids getting Type 2 diabetes that are having these kind of foods early on. So I think it really helped to drive the message home to people that this is what it does to your body.
Certainly towards the end, I was feeling guilty that I’d be over here in America, a bit fat and grumpy and kind of tired, making this bloody film and there’s my beautiful wife having a child. So I did [think of giving up]. Plus, I knew what type of person I was when I was eating real healthy foods, and I missed that. I think a lot of people who have eaten processed foods since they were children don’t have that reference. They actually don’t know what it’s like to feel clear-headed and healthy when you’re eating fresh fruits and vegetables. That’s a real tragedy, so [I felt], I need to eat some good food and feel good again.
Of course, editing the film means you had to watch your physical deterioration over and over. Was that an interesting experience?
Yeah, I struggled with that. The editor was just a fantastic woman, and she was so good at that objectivity. Because I’m an actor, I’ve spent years watching myself, so you get used to yourself, but when you’re cutting yourself and editing yourself, it’s a whole different [thing]. I don’t watch the film very often, but there were a couple things even now [where] I’ll think, gee, that was a tough day. But it’s lovely to have a film like this as a memory, especially to show our daughter as she gets older, to go, this is what we were like at that age. It’s a nice little snapshot, if nothing else, of our life at this time, which is a lovely thing to think of.
You call America ground zero in the film. What’s it been like to bring it to the States?
We’ve had such an overwhelming response around the world, but I’m fascinated to see what happens here, because I think your level of food industry politics is the most complex in the whole world. There are people that are paid to shut down messages like this and disseminate ambiguity in the public space, so it’s going to be a tougher process, but there’s enough science now and enough awareness. If it came out maybe four years ago, it might have got shut down as a bit of a fad, but there’s so much media interest in sugar as a topic that it’s probably got a better chance of cutting through.
Usually, the detractors are the people that haven’t seen it yet, and they think it’s just going to be this anti-sugar, dogmatic kind of film, and they’re often shocked [to find out] “Aw, so we can still eat sugar? Just got to be careful.” No one knows that sugar is in low-fat yogurts. We know it’s in Coke and doughnuts, but the point is there’s just as much in your granola bar. That’s what we’re saying. Have chocolate if you want to, but maybe don’t have the apple juice and the low-fat yogurt the same day, because that’s what’s getting your sugar count so high.
For you personally, has the film been life-changing?
Yeah, it’s overtaken our lives along the way. The passion that’s there now is something we never expected. We’ve got study guides at a thousand schools now in Australia. We just had a group in U.K. that want to put it into 12,000 schools. There’s Parliamentary screenings. Hospitals are screening it. Prisons. None of us expected that. It’s had a life of itself well beyond cinema, so it has meant that I’m still very firmly hooked into it, but there’s another part of me that’s excited to make the next film, which has nothing to do with nutrition, because I learned so much on this one as my first.
But I’ll always have a foot in the door with all that [sugar] stuff, and my heart’s in it now. You make a film like this, and you just get sent all these weird e-mails from people and information that you never would get if you didn’t make a film like this, so you almost know too much, and there’s a responsibility of making sure that you continue.
“That Sugar Film” opens in limited release on July 31st. A full list of theaters and dates is here. It will also be available on iTunes.