21 December 2011

Exclusive interview with Lee Fulkerson, writer and director of 'Forks Over Knives'

Lee Fulkerson looking at his blood test results with Dr. Lederman in 'Forks Over Knives'

Lee Fulkerson, writer and director of the groundbreaking documentary Forks Over Knives responds to topping This Dish is Veg's list of the Ten Most Influential People in Veganism.

TDIV: Congratulations on making TDIV’s list of the most influential people in veganism.

Lee Fulkerson: Thank you. I am tremendously honored and humbled to be on the list, especially with so many people I admire on the list - including President Clinton and Dr. T. Colin Campbell, who was in our film. It just really sort of blew me away.

TDIV: I understand you’d like to share the credit with some of your colleagues?

LF: As much as I’d like to take all the credit for the film, I really can’t. Our executive producer was also the creator of the film, Brian Wendel. It was his brainchild. It was his idea to do this movie from the get-go. He not only raised the financing himself, but he was involved in all the creative decisions. The buck really stopped with him.

He was much more than a financier-type... As a matter of fact, he was the one that was in the vegan lifestyle - eating plant-based and had been for ten years - and believed that there was a powerful story here to be told. I was not convinced of it until I met with Brian through John Corry. Brian gave me The China Study [by T. Colin Campbell, Ph.D.] and Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease [by Caldwell B. Esselstyn, M.D.] to read and I was convinced that there was a real case to be made for this kind of diet. I wasn’t planning to go on it, but as you see in the film, I ended up going on it, and I’m still going on it.

TDIV: You mentioned John Corry. What was his role in making the film?

LF: John was the producer. He managed things like setting up our trip to Beijing, and our travel all over the country. So he managed the physical production, but not only that, he had a lot of creative input into the film. For instance, he shot or supervised the shooting of a lot of our reality segments, and supervised the editing of those. He had a big creative impact on the film as well.

In the final analysis, the Big Kahuna was Brian Wendel. He deserves a tremendous amount of credit. I’ll tell you, the thing that’s really amazing about it was that he’d never done any kind of a film before; he was in the real estate business and just thought that there was a great story here. A new story that wasn’t being told, and it needed to get out to an audience in a way that couldn’t be interfered with by other people, by outside interests.

TDIV: Was it Brian Wendel who approached you about the idea?

LF: He approached John Corry. [They] met watching a football game at mutual friend’s house. It was John who recommended me for the job and told me about the possibility of doing it. I was skeptical at first.

I was skeptical, not just about the benefits of vegan nutrition, but about all nutritional information that you hear in the mainstream media. It seems to be so ephemeral and contradictory all the time. They’re finding one thing out one time, then you hear ‘no, that stuff is bad for you and you should be taking this.’ I had just decided that none of them knew what they were talking about and it was all up to genetics and I would eat the way I wanted. If genetics wanted to preserve me that was fine, and if not, that was my tough luck.

TDIV: So it sounds like making the movie was a transformative experience for you.

LF: A completely transformative experience for me. I went into this... a typical day for me would be pounding Red Bulls all day. I wouldn’t eat anything in the morning, no lunch, then I’d have one giant meal mid-afternoon, which would be like a Carl’s Jr. double cheeseburger, onion rings, and a chocolate shake.

TDIV: And what’s a typical meal like now?

LF: A typical meal right now - and I’ve got it waiting for me right now in the refrigerator, I can’t wait to get to it - is a bean and rice burrito with fresh salsa and a little avocado in it. It’s good. [Laughs.] And I’m the kind of guy who can eat the same thing over and over again every day for weeks and weeks in a row. So I’ve had this burrito for four or five days and I’ll probably have it for another four or five days before I switch to something else!

TDIV: In Roger Ebert’s review of Forks Over Knives, he said, “Bottom line: I am convinced this message is true.” To me, that seemed like the highest praise for a documentary filmmaker. What is the best thing that’s been said about the film, in your opinion?

LF: That it’s a film that can save your life. And that it will save your life. I think what Roger Ebert said, what you just quoted, has been echoed by others - and not just professional reviews. I occasionally will go to Amazon.com and read the user reviews of the people who bought the DVDs. They’re amazing. They’re just heartwarming to read, because people are always talking about how it has changed their lives for the better. That’s just a really amazing feeling as a filmmaker.

TDIV: Did you expect this kind of response when you were making the film?

LF: Absolutely not. I had no idea what to expect. I come from the cable documentary world. This is the first feature documentary I’ve made.

TDIV: You have extensive experience in TV documentaries; how does the experience of making Forks Over Knives compare for you?

LF: Oh, it was like night and day. First of all, you don’t have a network breathing down your neck. Second of all, you have more flexibility with your schedule and time. Although we still were working on a very tight budget and with a very tight schedule, so there was a lot of pressure. But it was pressure of a different kind, and it was pressure you were sharing with people that you knew were all on the same page and all pushing towards the same goal. It was much better in that regard. No calls from network executives saying ‘take out the anti-dairy stuff because that will hurt our advertising.’ That kind of thing.

TDIV: So you feel, in the end, it was true to the voice you were trying to make it with?

LF: There’s no question that it is. It’s absolutely as true as we could make it. And without any interference at all. Our only regret is that we had to leave so much out, because you really only have about 90 minutes before you lose the audience. We covered a lot of ground, I think, in the 93 minutes.

TDIV: How do you feel about the celebrities that have said the film has inspired them to go vegan, and what kind of impact do you feel that makes?

LF: I have been really happy about that. I think it will help spread the word. The more, the better is my feeling. The fact that these people have not been vegan before but have been convinced by the film to try a plant-based diet, I couldn’t be happier. I couldn’t be happier.

Kasey Minnis | Facebook
That rare and elusive species known as the native Floridian, Kasey is passionate about protecting other endangered creatures. She lives by the principle “compassion and crochet for all,” and enjoys teaching others – including her husband of 20 years and two beautiful children – the benefits of cruelty-free eating by feeding them tasty vegan treats from her kitchen. Contact Kasey at kasey@thisdishisveg.com or follow her on Facebook.

Photo credit: Forks Over Knives