Filmmaking through Toxic Soup

A few years back, while flying aboard a loud propeller driven airplane somewhere over the snow capped mountains of Colorado, I heard the guy in front of me talking to his girlfriend about an idea for a movie. Since I had just finished production on my second feature, I felt compelled to chime in. And when I heard his movie pitch, I just had to help. . .

Fast forward to today and filmmaker Rory Delaney is getting a ton of buzz on the film festival circuit for his feature documentary, Toxic Soup. The movie exposes corporate carelessness and profiles everyday people afflicted by the Toxic Soup dumped in their back yards. (And yes, I am one of the producers of this movie. After you see it, you’ll understand why this story can’t be ignored.)

Jason Brubaker
Where did you get the idea for “Toxic Soup”?

Rory Delaney
I got the idea for “Toxic Soup” when I met West Virginian Kyle Stratton Crace in Los Angeles. Being in LA we got to talking about movies of course. I told Kyle that I was from Kentucky and had edited a documentary “Method in the Mountains,” which was shot in West Virginia. In turn, Kyle talked about growing up in Charleston, WV, in what is known as the Chemical Valley.

Jason Brubaker
Chemical Valley? Sounds like a horror movie. Why do they call it that?

Rory Delaney
At one time West Virginia had the heaviest concentration of chemical plants in the world. After Kyle spoke about the health effects that his family and friends had experienced as a result of their residence in the area, I thought it had the makings of a great documentary. Additional research affirmed my suspicions, and then an early test shoot erased all remaining doubts.

Jason Brubaker
As a filmmaker, often the idea you start with grows into something much bigger and often, unexpected. Would you say that your original focus shifted?

Rory Delaney
Originally I thought the documentary was going to be about one specific case involving the water contamination of Parkersburg, West Virginia with the DuPont manufactured chemical C8 (also known as PFOA). I just couldn’t believe that the EPA had found C8 (PFOA) in the blood of 96% of Americans, and that Dupont had covered up the fact for decades, while the state government had turned a blind eye. However, during production we heard a lot of similar stories.

Jason Brubaker
Like what?

Rory Delaney
We heard about a series of explosions and leaks of MIC in Institute, West Virginia, at a Bayer chemical plant. MIC is the chemical that killed over 20,000 Indians in 1984 after a catastrophic leak at a the US run Union Carbide plant. Institute, West Virginia is the only place left in the world where MIC is still manufactured and stored in massive quantities far eclipsing that which caused the Bhopal tragedy, which Time Magazine dubbed the world’s worst industrial accident.

Jason Brubaker
These are deadly chemicals in people’s back yards.

Rory Delaney
Yes. We also learned about the pollution of a community’s well water in Mingo County, West Virginia by Massey Energy with coal slurry containing heavy metals like arsenic and lead. We even visited the radioactive oil fields abandoned by Ashland Oil in Red Bush, Kentucky where community members have been developing brain tumors at alarming rates and a cat was born with 2 heads, 6 legs, and 2 tails. But while the companies and toxins differ, there is a pattern connecting them. “Toxic Soup” was made to examine and question that pattern.

Jason Brubaker
A lot of documentary filmmakers are impacted and forever changed by their subjects. Would you say the work impacted you?

Rory Delaney
Toxic Soup work has definitely impacted me. For one, I’m an official Kentucky Colonel now. For real.

Jason Brubaker
Really? How do you prove that?

Rory Delaney
I got a certificate from Governor Steve Beshear and everything. How awesome is that? But kidding aside, on a practical level “Toxic Soup” has influenced my consumption patterns. I do my best to avoid products associated with different companies, ranging from gasoline. Marathon bought Ashland Oil. And pain killers made by Bayer as well as frying pans.

Jason Brubaker
Frying pans?

Rory Delaney
Frying pans with Teflon. C8 leaches into your food from the nonstick action.

Jason Brubaker
It sounds like Toxic Soup is everywhere.

Rory Delaney
I look at the ingredients in my personal care products. I don’t wear deodorants with phthalates in them also referred to as “Scent” or “Perfume.” That stuff is gnarly for you. Finally, I pay a lot closer attention to politics and corporate campaign donations. I was deeply troubled by the latest Supreme Court decision on that front.

Jason Brubaker
Along the way, you traveled across the country to  meet some very high ranking officials and interesting people. How were you able to plan your days?

Rory Delaney
I scheduled interviews, aerial flyovers and community meetings as far in advance as possible. On off days we shot b-roll and performed additional research and community outreach. We emailed and called countless lawyers, politicians, journalists, filmmakers, nonprofits, professors, activists, and celebrities in search of interviews, stories, and tips. A lot of these phone calls and emails paid big dividends.

Jason Brubaker
Many of the people you profiled have been living in “Toxic Soup” their entire lives. Why do those people choose to stay in polluted land. Why don’t they just move?

Rory Delaney
Polluted or not, where you are born is where you are born. It’s home. You don’t choose it. And most people have an acute sense of that bond. Often they have extended family and friends in the area. They have roots there. So leaving becomes difficult for emotional reasons. Also there are financial reasons. Some of these folks own property, but that property has been depreciated 80 to 90 percent of its value because of toxic contamination in some cases. As a result, many can’t move because they lack the resources to do so. It’s a vicious circle.

Jason Brubaker
What did you shoot on?

Rory Delaney
We shot the majority of footage on the Canon XHA1 at 24p 1080 HD. For three camera shoots we also utilized the Canon HV20, which also shoots in 1080 HD.

Jason Brubaker
How did you find your crew?

Rory Delaney
When I was getting my MFA in dramatic writing from NYU I met director Christina Voros when I wrote the short film “Rosy” with her. “Rosy” played at the 2008 Florida Film Festival and Nantucket Film Festival. In any event, I contacted Christina because she is also a very talented DP, and she recommended her friend Sergei Krasikau who is a sound recorder and still photographer. Later, I met Lisa Bragg and Curtis Baskerville while shooting in West Virginia. Lisa and Curtis are local filmmakers who proved to be invaluable as they could film stuff when the rest of us were out of town. It just kind of came together like everything else.

Jason Brubaker
I know some of your locations did not permit a video crew or a camera. How were you able to capture footage there?

Rory Delaney
For a couple hundred bucks we also picked up a cheap spy camera at the Spy Museum in Washington DC, which we used to film the DuPont annual shareholders meeting in Wilmington, Delaware, where our camera crew had been banned.

Jason Brubaker
How did you get big names like Bill Clinton and Morgan Spurlock in your documentary?

Rory Delaney
Despite being a first-time director, we had a lot of success getting celebrity cameos in our documentary. As we all know, we live in the age of celebrity, and the truth is that you are more likely to get into bigger festivals and achieve wider distribution if you have “names” attached to your project. Although we had difficulty pursuing celebrities through official channels (Many had a protective wall of handlers and assistants), we opted to cut out the middlemen and personally pitch our documentary.

Jason Brubaker
And how were you able to get within talking distance?

Rory Delaney
To do this, we researched their public appearance schedules before turning up with our camera crew in tow. This is how we got an interview with Bill Clinton and Morgan Spurlock. The same strategy worked for cameos by Jim Carrey, Jenny McCarthy and RFK Jr.

Jason Brubaker
Is Morgan Spurlock supportive of Toxic Soup?

Rory Delaney
We believe that Morgan is supportive of “Toxic Soup”. We approached him months ago with a fine cut of the documentary and welcomed his input and advice. However, he is super busy with his FX show “30 Days” and also judging at film festivals like Sundance, so we haven’t had a chance to really connect with him. As we build up more grassroots support for the documentary, I am cofident that Morgan will resurface and assist the movement.

Jason Brubaker
What advice do you have for filmmakers pursuing controversial topics?

Rory Delaney
Talk with a lawyer and possibly form a legal entity. Also get a business card. Other than that make sure the topic is something that you’re passionate about because people are going to flake on you when you start rocking the boat. In other words, if you’re doing it just to be controversial, you aren’t going to have the stamina to finish the project and get it out there for people to see.

Jason Brubaker
You’re taking about genuine passion.

Rory Delaney
Yes. Despite all the obstacles we faced in production and post, I was driven to get “Toxic Soup” made after meeting all the inspirational people fighting for environmental justice in their communities. I also felt like they were depending on me to get their stories and voices heard, so I just put my head down and did it.

Jason Brubaker
Any film festival advice?

Rory Delaney
Initially when submitting “Toxic Soup” to film festivals, I applied more or less blindly through withoutabox with mixed results. After consulting with Toxic Soup DP Christina Voros – She’s an amazing director who was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s 20 new faces in independent film -  Anyway, after chatting with her I revised my strategy.

Jason Brubaker
If you don’t mind sharing, could you describe your secret film festival strategy?

Rory Delaney
Christina explained that with her previous films she had had a lot of success writing in advance to festival programmers and requesting fee waivers. I utilized Christina’s idea and approached festivals with a brief pitch of “Toxic Soup” and a plea for fee waiver, explaining that any funds we could save would help us to attend the screening and promote the documentary.

Jason Brubaker
That’s an awesome idea. What was the response from festivals?

Rory Delaney
The majority of the festivals responded positively and granted “Toxic Soup” either full fee waivers or at half-price. Now some folks wrote back and said no, but hey, festivals are like the lottery. You can’t win if you don’t play. But the real brilliance behind Christina’s strategy isn’t the money that you save; it’s that your DVD is no longer anonymous DVD #10-HFX3004, which arrived in the mail one day and is sitting under a stack of a other anonymous DVDs.

Jason Brubaker
Right. It’s like you initiated the first steps to a personal relationship with the festival programmer.

Rory Delaney
Yes. Now you have corresponded with the programmer. They now have knowledge of your project and who you are, and they are waiting to watch your film, giving you an immediate edge over a good 80 percent of the other submissions.

Jason Brubaker
Are you still playing the festivsals?

Rory Delaney
We are still playing the festival circuit. We just sent off to fifteen or twenty festivals who granted us waivers. We even got a call from a festival in Buenos Aires, Argentina, interested in including “Toxic Soup” in their program. So keep checking back to (The Official Toxic Soup Movie Website) for updates on that front. We are also screening at universities. We just played at West Virginia State University in Institute, WV, and at the University of Maryland School of Law.

Jason Brubaker
How is the response thus far?

Rory Delaney
The response has been encouraging. The university screenings as well as our world premiere at the Atlanta Film Festival were well attended, and the Questions and Answers afterward were lively. People really want to do know what they can do to protect themselves and their communities from pollution. Basically, folks are outraged by the inability of our government to protect Americans and regulate corporations hell-bent on profits over people.

Jason Brubaker
What have you learned about the world of distribution?

Rory Delaney
I have learned that nothing happens overnight. There is no fairy godmother, glass slipper, or pumpkin coach. You’ve got to push your movie / documentary into the world yourself, and the more you do to publicize and build a grassroots following, the greater your chances will be of attracting a distributor. Also I’ve learned that when you are presented with deals, don’t jump on the first thing that comes along. The last thing you want to do is sign a three year contract with a lackluster sales agent, and then a year in, find your hands tied after a more recognizable name decides to take on your project.

Jason Brubaker
Where can folks find out more about Toxic Soup?

Rory Delaney
On the official Toxic Soup Movie  Website, you can follow our blog, connect with nonprofits and research what’s in your backyard. You can also join us on facebook, twitter, and YouTube as well as watch clips from the movie.

- Here is the trailer for Toxic Soup -

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