Hot Docs 2018 Interview: The Joseph Pace Documentary, The Game Changers
Interview by Ian MacKenzie
The Game Changers, directed by Louie Psihoyos, Academy Award winning director of The Cove, and produced by fellow Academy Award winner James Cameron, is screening at the 2018 Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. This 88-minute sports-nutrition documentary, written and produced by Joseph Pace, stars James Wilks, an elite special forces trainer and winner of The Ultimate Fighter. Game Changers follows Wilks as he travels across multiple countries and investigates and exposes outdated and dangerous myths about protein, strength and masculinity. Meeting elite athletes, special ops soldiers, visionary scientists, and cultural icons such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, what Wilks discovers permanently changes his relationship with food and his definition of true strength. I learned that, along with Wilks, Joseph Pace is actually the one who conceived of making The Game Changers as a documentary film, and was with it from the very beginning. In this interview, Joseph Pace tells us about the challenges of making The Game Changers, the film’s journey to the doc festival circuit, and the responses from those who have seen it.
IM: How did you get involved in this project?
JP: James and I met about six years ago, right when he was getting started on the journey that we filmed. I had a background in diet-related matters and an interest in athletic nutrition. Within five minutes of talking to him, I knew I wanted to work on the project and follow his journey.
IM: What was James looking for with this film?
JP: What he wanted to do was figure out what he called “the truth,” to apply his mindset as a fighter — of learning what was useful and not useful in fighting — and apply that to nutrition. The original idea was to post some online videos, but we talked more and decided that his story was pretty interesting. We would film him reaching out to all these folks, working on a budget of $250,000. When we went through it and cut a trailer, we realized we had more than we previously thought; it was a compelling narrative, really interesting characters, and high profile experts in the field.
IM: You have some big names on board. How did they join the project?
JP: We decided we needed to hire a world-class team, and that started with Louis Psihoyos. When we met Louis, it was to ask him for advice on who we should hire to direct, and he offered to do it himself. He was sympathetic to the plant-based angle, he had an Oscar and that was pretty much a match made in Heaven for us.
One of our earlier producers is Rick Esselstyn, a firefighter and world-class triathlete. He was friends with James Cameron and told him about the project. When James found out we had hired Louis Psihoyos as a director, he joined us as an executive producer, helped us with funding and the use of his name. At that point fundraising got quite a bit easier.
IM: The film is quite visceral. How much of that came from director Louie Psihoyos?
JP: He is a visual storyteller. He was a National Geographic photographer, before making his first film The Cove, for which he won an Oscar. That’s why we brought him on board and why we used some specialized equipment like a Phantom Flex 4k, the kind of camera and lighting equipment you would use for a Nike commercial. In terms of production quality, we wanted to make a film that people would want to watch because it’s fun to watch.
IM: You premiered in Sundance earlier this year, how was that?
JP: We did some test screenings before Sundance — Dallas, Toronto, San Francisco… younger and older audiences, athletes, college students, artists. And we tweaked the film based on some of those responses. We made the science easier to follow, while some storylines we played up and others we played down. Once we hit the festival circuit, that was the best day of our journey. On our opening night at Sundance, we got a standing ovation and all of our screenings were sold out.
IM: What reactions or feedback has there been from audiences?
JP: The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We didn’t make the film to tell people what to eat. We were very careful about the way we framed it, but despite that our audiences have been overwhelming willing to change the way they eat. I’ve received hundreds of emails from people at screenings asking how they can change their diet; it’s blowing our minds. We didn’t set this up as a tool to motivate people.
IM: Are you surprised by this?
JP: We’ve been really surprised that audiences are so inspired by the film, to want to go run or lift weights. Physician and dieticians are writing us, even heads of some major networks who have an interest in distributing the film are making a switch to plant-based eating.
IM: What advice do you have for filmmakers starting off as you did?
JP: Stick to your vision no matter what anyone offers you or anyone tells you. We refused to compromise our vision due to lack of funding. If you’re broke or running out of money it’s very tempting, but I would say dream really big and make no compromises. Sometimes you won’t have any money, you won’t have the right crew yet, but over time if you really believe in what you are doing, make the sacrifices and keep going.