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Interview with Joe Cross, writer, director and star of Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead

Over the last decade or so I’ve interviewed countless writers, actors and directors, many of them terrifically talented artists whose work I greatly admire. But prior to meeting and interviewing Joe “the Juicer” Cross — who is, in the spectrum of film practitioners, much closer to an average Joe (pardon the pun) than a Scorsese — I felt a strange kind of eagerness I couldn’t remember feeling before. It took me some time to realise why.

There is no doubting the remarkable work film artists do in enhancing our lives, whisking us away to alternate universes and challenging us to view our own world through different eyes. But how many of them can claim to have dramatically improved the health and wellbeing of tens of thousands people, if not more, and maybe even saved some lives?

Joe Cross can, but he’s not the kind of guy who would have the hubris to boast about it. Cross’ debut documentary Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead details how he took a self-serving exercise — getting healthy, essentially — and used it to inspire others to do the same. Before filming Cross weighed 140 kilograms, suffered from a rare auto autoimmune disease and swallowed half a bucket of pills a day to dull the pain. He travelled to America and — while driving across the country, juicer always within arm’s reach — went on a juice only diet for two months while extolling the virtues of healthy eating to those who crossed his path. The transformation is remarkable (nowadays he is thin, athletic and completely cured of his disease) and he wasn’t the only person captured in the film to transform from the proverbial caterpillar to butterfly.

Shortly before Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead was officially released — it is now available to buy in Australia at Woolworths super markets or through the official website — I had a chat with Joe, and didn’t eat a cheeseburger for a fortnight.

I wrote in my review that it was obvious watching Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead that while you weren’t a seasoned film expert, you managed to spin that naturalness into a virtue. Do you feel the same way — that your inexperience as a filmmaker actually helped you in the long run?

I think you’re dead right. At the beginning I didn’t know how to make a movie at all. I had no idea. People like yourself who understand the movie business can see the way I was in front of the camera at the beginning of the movie versus how comfortable I was at the end, because I went through the school of hard knocks of filmmaking where I was on the run doing it. I had to just roll with it.

The original idea we had versus what we ended up doing was completely different. The movie was originally called Death By Fat. Then it became Faster, and then we had this idea that I would be in three American cities for 20 days each. We had all these different ideas but by the time we go there (to the US) things changed. I had to let go a guy who was a nice guy, he meant well, had a heart of gold but politely oversold his abilities.

It wasn’t the most ideal way of launching into the film world. When we started looking at who to get on board, I went to the Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock teams. I thought I’ve gotta get good people. It’s amazing how many people will line up and take an interview with you when they know you’re fully fianced for a movie in New York City. I discovered that in the film world nobody has a job and everything wants to work. I learnt a hell of a lot. Making this film is the hardest thing I’ve ever done — taking it from an idea, to filming it, even to just confronting random people on the street. It’s the rejection you have to take, and of course you don’t see the rejections in the film. Men in suits particularly didn’t what to talk to us. They didn’t seem to be interested in their health, basically, so we had to go to places that men hang out — truck stops, restaurants, bars. Then much later we had to deal with other things, like categorising and editing 500 hours of footage.

Beforehand, if I’d realised how big the job was going to be, I probably wouldn’t have done it. So it was a blessing that I didn’t realise how tough it was going to be.

You seem to have deliberately avoiding making this a finger pointing film. It’s not political in ways perhaps it could have been. Were you tempted to make a more didactic, political film?

When I started interviewing people they were saying great, let’s go after Big Farmer! Let’s go after the food corporation! Let’s go after takeaway! Let’s go after the government! I said wow wow, listen — that’s not my film. I think people are sick and tired of having the problems pointed out. Everybody knows what the problems are and it’s very easy to make a movie just pointing them out. It’s much harder to come up with a solution. It’s not the solution, but a solution. So I was quick to say to everybody: we’re not going to go out there and preach. We’re not going to put anybody down. This is my story about me trying to get well and who knows — this may not work. I may be punching shadows but let’s try, because in terms of my health I’d tried everything else and nothing had worked. What I was doing previously, everything was going wrong with my health. So I thought, if I flipped everything around and did the opposite of what I was doing, would my body react in an opposite way?

Were you always fixated on the idea of consuming nothing but juice? What did you originally envision yourself doing?

The original conceit was: go and put yourself under the gun and only consume plant food. That is first tier sun food — things made by the sun, untouched by human hands. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, funguses like mushrooms, etcetera. Things that grow. Things that use nitrogen and oxygen and hydrogen and the energy of the sun and the minerals in the ground. Only live on that and pretend all you’ve got is a bottle or saucepan of water, and fire. They’re your rules. I didn’t know how long I’d be doing it. If it took two years, I was going to do two years. If that didn’t work I would accept the fact that my sickness was in the 30 percent category where this was genetic. That I was stuck with it for life. As you hear in the movie, 70% of all disease is caused by lifestyle choices. I got excited when I heard that because I thought maybe just maybe I might be lucky enough to be in that 70% category and I can actually heal myself. I thought that two years — given I’d just done 25 years of murdering myself, death by a thousand bites — would be enough to unwind 25 years of damage.

I’m looking and listening to you now and I see somebody who’s very healthy, very energetic, well spoken and passionate. Who were you five years ago ?

I was the same bloke but I had my priorities out of whack. I was focused on other things and not my health. I reckon you can put your life into five buckets: family and friends, love, career, health and self. What we all do, every single human being, is a juggler. We juggle those things through life. Sometimes the family and friends clash with the love, sometime the self gets left out, sometimes career takes it. What I said is: it’s easier juggling four buckets then five, so I took health out of it.

I thought I could have ignored the biological laws of cause and effect — I won’t get sick! — but of course I was wrong. I was an idiot. I was the man who thinks they’re invincible, when it’s an illusion. It’s madness. I was that guy. I was very ego-driven from a material point of view, of collecting and owning things and having material possessions. My health was bankrupt. When I turned 40, that was like my Oprah uh-huh! moment. I thought boy oh boy, somebody put me in a time machine from when I was lean, fit and playing footy. Because it’s only just yesterday that I was 25. It goes quick.

So was there a moment when you knew you had to send your life on a different direction? Did you look in the mirror one day or was it a slow festering feeling that you had to change?

I’ve spoken to tens of thousands of fat people and you know what — none of them need to be told they’re fat. I’ve never met anyone who needs me to say hey guess what, you’re fat! Everyone who is overweight knows they are overweight. What they do is try. Often they get up every morning and think “I’m going to be good today” and by ten o clock all hell has broken loose. Stress has occurred, there are habitual issues, emotional issues, cravings and so forth. There is no one glove fits all, it is a very unique situation. I can explain scientifically what is happening but on an emotional level it’s very different from person to person.

I tried to lose weight, and I’d be good. I’d do a diet, do calorie restrictions and try and get to the gym. But when I was sick my sickness inhibited my ability to work out. Then it’s a Catch 22. You don’t want to go to the gym because you’re the fat guy. When the pressure hits and there’s stress in your life the last thing you want to do is chop up a broccoli salad. You want to order a large pizza, you want two of them, you want a bottle of coke and to turn off the light and watch TV. Sugar, fat and salt, because they’re the comfort. Your best friends. If I went to dinner with you I’d have a salad, then I’d go home and order two pizzas when nobody’s looking.

There’s an interesting scene in the film in which you talk to a very fat man who is sitting at a table at a restaurant eating. He says something very close to ‘I might be around for five years but you know what, if I’m going to live for five years I’m going to eat whatever the hell I want.’ What in your opinion is wrong with that way of thinking?

I don’t think it’s my right to tell anybody the way they think is wrong. What people think is their point of view, and who am I to say they’re wrong? What I would question, and what I tried to do in that interview, is ask whether he wanted to accept the fact that that’s where he was. I think there was a little bravado in his response. I think if I really broke him down, got him down to a base level and got under what was causing that facade of “I’m the tough guy, I don’t mind” that he probably would want to live longer than that. I say to people: how old do you want to live to? They might say “I’d be happy with 80.” I say “really? If you were 79 and a half, would you still say that?”

It’s also the quality of life, and that’s a big issue. It’s not just about when you die, it’s also about what you were doing the day you die. Were you in a hospice with a tube, people cleaning your bowels out, people standing around crying, and you’d been there for five years and hadn’t been able to stand for three years? Or were you playing single’s tennis that day, and you had a great day — you had a prawn salad, a beer, whatever — and you drop dead that night? It’s a different way about thinking about quality of life. I think I’m going to live until I’m 120, 125. I really believe that and I think you can too. The technology that is coming in the next 25, 30 years is going to be revolutionary. Just like if I’d sat down with you in 1990 and told you about this internet that was coming, you’d look at me and think I was mad. But 20 years later, it’s changed and revolutionised the whole world.

One thing you didn’t touch upon in the documentary is the cost of these juice diets. Are they affordable for everybody?

I don’t like calling it a juice diet, because I like to think of diet as what we eat for the rest of our life. They’re why I call it a Reboot, because you can’t live on just juice alone. Think about it as your time to remember your heritage — that you are a homosapien, and you’re fortunate enough to be living in this amazing world where we’ve done so many amazing things. Let’s remember our heritage of who we are by having times where we go without, and taking everything from the earth. Let’s take a moment out to only consume juice, which in mind I call freebasing mother nature, liquid sunshine and a garden in a cup. It’s effectively capturing sunlight.

Now the question of affordability. In America when we had Phil juicing it was $420 American dollars for the produce for a whole month. That’s 30 days of drinking juice. Non organic conventional produce. If you take $420 and divide it by 30, that’s about 15 bucks a day. You can get six juices a day for that kind of coin. That works out at about 3 bucks a juice.

One of my colleagues wanted me to absolutely clarify that fermented grapes are definitely not part of the diet?

Not part of the diet. Sorry!

He’s going to be very disappointed with that answer. 

He can have juice grapes, fresh, but unfortunately when it’s fermented the beautiful alcoholic effect the fruit has on the body over time turns into an acidic effect on the body. But that’s the thing — I hate talking about whether this food is good or bad for me. I think that’s a really dumb way to look at food. I think you have to look at food much more broadly, in what you’ve consumed in a period of a rolling seven or ten days. So if you think about a ten day period of what you’ve consumed, that’s like 30 meals. So in 30 meals over ten days, if 5 or 6 have been pizza, burgers, whatever, that’s fantastic. Enjoy them.

You must be proud of your achievements. Getting your life back on track and inspiring other people to do the same. After watching the film there’s no doubting its positive impact. 

It’s not like I was this genius. What I did everybody can do. I don’t see what I did as anything out of the ordinary. I believe that everybody can do this, but most people don’t have the road map. They are down in the jungle, down in the valley. I’ve got the road map to let them go to the top of the mountain so they can see the view. And because they do it themselves, they start liking themselves, even loving themselves. They experience what I call Human 2.0. They get to know what it is like to be human. You’re supposed to be able to smell things. You’re supposed to be able to feel level-headed during the day, to concentrate. You’re supposed to wake up refreshed, not tired.

The film steps up a notch when it captures the plight of Phil Staples. He talks very lucidly, very honestly and openly. He speaks about his family, about how they asked what kind of coffin he wants to be buried in, all that stuff. Was he just a naturally trusting person or did you have to win his trust?

Oh, we had to win his trust. One of the disadvantages I had was that when I was shooting the movie, the number one box office hit at the US box office at the time was Borat. So here’s Borat running around with a film crew, taking the piss out of Americans, and now suddenly here’s an Australian with a film crew. They genuinely thought that I was trying to take the mickey out of them. So much so that Phil’s mother was totally against Phil being involved in the movie. I had to get Seonne, a woman from Ioha, who’d already done the reboot, to ring Phil’s mother and tell her hey, these guys are the real deal. I think that a lot of, let’s call them intellectual people, tend to think of masses of people, of crowds, as being dumb. I don’t. I think that it’s interesting how the average ordinary person has an innate ability to work out the bullshit. To see things with a bullshit monitor. So if you’re real and honest and have authenticity I think that can get through to anybody.

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