HISCOX FILMMAKER Q&A: AN ACQUIRED TASTE
What inspired you to come up with the idea for the film? Why did you want to tell this story?
An Acquired Taste started when the eight urban teens I was following — in what was then a documentary on reconnecting with nature — all decided they wanted to hunt. Schools are now screening the documentary Food. Inc, by Robert Kenner, as part of science classes, so the kids were not only educated on factory farming, but ready to “carve out” their own lifestyle. Their hunger to go beyond wilderness skills, to actually find a humane way to kill and eat healthy meat, was scary, confusing, daring and very new for this liberal crowd. I had wondered how many foodies were following Michael Pollan’s path, venturing out of the city for boar hunts, as he describes in his book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma. ” But I hadn’t suspected a trend. Two months into production, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, posted that he would only eat what he killed. A new breed of hunters was shaping from a progressive, educated, and young urban population, and I wanted to understand why. I grew up in a non-hunting family in France. We didn’t own guns. But I felt the need to explore why we, as a domesticated species of the 21st century, still needed to hunt. There was something real and authentic that went beyond ecological and economic incentives. What were these ‘tweens’ seeking ? What could hunting teach them? I was intrigued to find out whether hunting connected us more to the natural world, to our food and to ourselves. Would hunting make them more ” human” or less?
How do you relate to your characters or subjects?
I reached out to wilderness skills instructors in the San Francisco Bay Area and in Colorado. They helped me identify urban and suburban teens signed up for wilderness camps. After obtaining a green light from parents, I started filming quietly in the background. Very quickly some profiles stood out, Ashlie, Nick, Alex, Izzy and Bubba all aged between 12 and 14 years. From the moment they made the decision to attend a hunting camp and take their Hunter Education course, I could see it would be a tough journey for them, physically, emotionally and perhaps spiritually. Coming from non-hunting families like mine, I suspected they would face the same obstacles I would and that eventually the whole rite of passage would lead to character change. At first the teens enjoyed having a camera follow them but they grew quickly bored of it over the two years of filming! And now they are thrilled with the result.
What aspect of the story changed the most during writing and production?
I had set off to portray three independent parallel stories of unrelated characters in different locations. Although I had planned to interweave the stories in post-production, it never occurred to me that these characters could possibly meet during production. A call from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife changed everything. I had been trying to raise funds with them, so they knew of the production. They were holding a hunt for youth and wanted to invite the teens featuring in my film. They sent invitations to the families and low and behold all parents signed their kids up. I suddenly had a third act where all characters would meet and hunt together. I couldn’t have dreamed it better.
What was the most courageous decision you or your crew made during production?
We did some rough cut screenings to fellow filmmakers in the Bay Area and to a group of Californian hunters. This helped me gauge which parts of the film weren’t working, where we needed tightening, and what wasn’t coming through. The audiences were concurrent. I had to cut out two of my favorite characters. These were African-American brothers from Oakland. Their story didn’t work with the overall arc. I was heartbroken. And then my father passed. I was devastated and a mess. It took me six months before I had the courage to get back into the editing room, remove Izzy and Bubba from the story and start working in a back character into a main protagonist. Thankfully, there was just enough material to make it happen. In the end, this character became the soul of the film, something I never could have imagined in pre-production or production.
Were there any risks that you faced during production and how did you find a way to embrace them?
The characters and crew survived hypothermia and a historic night storm in the Santa Cruz mountains during which a redwood crashed a few feet away from their soggy debris hut. We ran out of gas in the middle of a Mojave desert canyon, sent the Assistant Producer hitch-hiking under a 100F blazing sun, and were saved just as we drank our last drop of water, by 80 year-old farmer who hated our Toyota Pruis. To follow and understand the teens featured in this documentary, I learned to smell scat, track, hunt, film while sitting on cacti, resting among snakes, walking for days with heavy slider in deep snow, and most importantly, open my heart and mind to a new way of thinking.
What influenced the visual style of the film?
I decided to not take a typical investigative journalism approach as I wished to explore the human dimensions of hunting through the emotional journey of the characters. To film this character-driven story, I tried a fly-on-the-wall style, avoiding interaction with the characters when possible, and only used a few interviews to carry the thoughts of the teens in narration.
What risks did you take to tell your story?
I took the risk of making the film as experiential as possible and not supply the audience with pro-hunting or anti-hunting conclusions. I discovered over the course of production that hunting is a very personal experience, which meant I had to provide enough room for the audience to explore concepts and feelings new to them, to find common ground as fellow human beings with the teens and their universal rite of passage. The documentary still remains my subjective vision of the teens’ reality, but with reflection space for a smart urban foodie audience.
How would you encourage others to tell their story or manage through the process of screenwriting or film producing?
Documentary filmmaking requires endurance, tenacity and a hint of folly. My suggestions are:
- Be ready to commit a big chunk of your life on an emotional roller-coaster.
- If you are a Director, find a Producer. Having two minds, even conflicting, to bounce ideas off each other makes things move faster and allows you to gain perspective.
- Establish trust and empathy with your characters and be ready for sleepless nights debating their ethical representation.
- Be brave enough to screen rough cuts to different audiences and listen to their feedback before diving back into the editing room.
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