INTERVIEW: Filmmaker Seth Hancock on ‘Leftovers’ and the Seniors Food Crisis
An in-depth talk with documentarian about his latest film.
Seth Hancock is a documentary filmmaker whose recent film Leftovers is now available in wide release on VOD and iTunes. We had a chance to talk with him about the film and the crisis his movie examines.
Hello and thanks for talking with us. Let’s start with you. Who is Seth Hancock?
Hello. After graduating from Indiana University I immediately went to work for advertising agencies and was a brand manager for the oil company Valvoline. I left marketing and advertising in 2004 to pursue my passion of visual media. Here I created a couple of television shows and, ultimately, became a professional, working photographer. Each profession along the way was both challenging and rewarding but I am quite comfortable with my current role as an Editorial, Commercial and Portrait photographer and commercial videographer.
Your latest film is a documentary called Leftovers. Tell us about the film.
In America, over six million senior citizens go hungry every day in this the richest country on earth. This film looks at this very topic through the eyes of someone who has never gone hungry a day in his life and who rarely thinks about getting old (ME). During the course of the film we meet some really interesting people that we would have never suspected of going hungry or being lonely. Also, there’s a real story, an arc if you will, of me learning about our seniors, why they go hungry and what can be done to remedy this situation. Furthermore, we look at the way seniors in America are treated and try to determine how the issue of senior hunger and the way we treat seniors will affect all of us in one way or another in the years to come.
You traveled all around the country and in your film you document some extraordinary people. What was the process like in making contact and arranging interviews?
Surprisingly enough it was really quite easy to get people involved in the project. Once a number of organizations heard about me making this film they reached out and contacted me to be a part of the film. Most of those organizations were already going to be a part of the film but it was really nice to have the access to CEOs, volunteers, recipients and many others during the course of filming. The only organization not directly interview (but featured) was Feeding America. I did reach out to them on several occasions asking them to be a part of this film but they never returned calls or acted upon my requests for direct interviews. Fortunately some wonderful people from Meals on Wheels, AARP, National Council on Aging (NCOA) and several local organizations were more than happy to share their stories, struggles, hopes and goals with me so that this film could be made.
In the film, we get to know several people on both sides of the story, both in need of food and those preparing, packaging and delivering. What were some of the larger things you learned about the experience?
I think it’s important to understand that I knew nothing about senior hunger or, frankly, really cared about the plight and/or situation of the seniors in America. So I went into this entire filming with my eyes wide open not judging people and trying to empathize with the seniors by putting myself in their situation to think about how this may affect me or what I might do in this situation.
That being said, I learned that the issue of senior hunger is amazingly scary and real. As someone who knew nothing about this issue I was shocked, scared and, at times, disgusted with what I learned and saw. For instance, it’s appalling to me to think we throw away billions and billions of pounds of food yet we have these great seniors going hungry. Furthermore, I was completely surprised to learn that it costs a whole hell of a lot less to keep a senior in their home than it is to put a senior in a nursing home. I think the latter point also relates to how we treat our seniors as disposable … hence, the title of the documentary Leftovers.
I mentioned in my review how important you were in delivering this story, being on camera and allowing us to witness your reactions. Was this a conscious choice from the start to feature you as such?
I think this makes the documentary that much more interesting. So, I used to work in television and I created a couple of different regional television programs when I lived in Indianapolis (just before moving to LA). I was contacted by a couple of guys I know who knew my work in television, commercials and promotional videos. These two ended up being two of the Executive Producers of this documentary (Sean Cunat and Jim Collins). They contacted me in early 2011 and asked me if I would make this documentary. They really didn’t give me any other direction other than we want you to make a film about this subject matter. I asked them if I could have a couple of days to think about it since I would have to put my photography work on hold for a bit to do this. I was 99% certain I was going to say, “NO!” because of my lack of interest, knowledge and really not knowing what I could bring to the table. The night before I was schedule to contact Sean and Jim I was laying in bed, staring at the ceiling and not being able to sleep. I was thinking about the documentary and why I was going to turn it down and that’s when I thought, “Why don’t I care about this and if I don’t care about this then there have to be others who feel the same as me, right?” I knew that if I was going to say yes then it had to be from the perspective of someone who didn’t care or know anything about the subject matter. I knew if I made this like a traditional documentary (without my perspective and arc) then the film would really be more of a “mouth-piece” for organizations like Meals on Wheels, AARP and the National Council on Aging.
So, yes, it was a conscious and comfortable decision. In fact, it really was the only thing I was comfortable about at the beginning of this process.
You begin the film with an eye-opening man-on-the-street type of interview with many people. Their reactions to your questions linger over the film as we become face-to-face with the hard reality. I watched hoping they saw the film as well and had become more educated. Any reactions?
Honestly, I haven’t seen the finished copy. Once the film went to be scored it was out of my hands. The other producers and distributor haven’t sent me a final copy of the film. But I edited the final copy so I know the story. I am looking forward to seeing it with the new music.
That being said, the people in the opening haven’t contacted me or other people haven’t contacted me about the documentary. I am eagerly looking forward to what others say about this movie and how it has affected their lives. But, to your point, the people at the beginning are priceless. Those are genuine reactions and honest responses. There are a couple of people who didn’t make the cut but it’s only because they said something similar to what others had said. Even though I wasn’t sure how this film would come together or how the story would be told but I knew how the documentary would start. As you said, it was eye-opening to see and hear what they thought about seniors and the way seniors are treated in America.
We seem to be living in a cynical world sometimes. How has this experience re-shaped your worldview?
I’ve kind of always been a cynic and a skeptic about things in which I am invested or interested. But since I never really cared about this subject matter I think it’s safe to say I was really indifferent to senior hunger. But, during the course of filming, asking questions and letting the findings lead the documentary I was able to really get out of the way and not let thoughts or views dictate the overall direction of the film. If anything I think the entire process shaped my world view of what’s happening with our seniors, why we treat them differently or how we value (or de-value) them. There is no question I have more empathy and concern about seniors and our future than I ever have before and I think that’s a good thing. I don’t think I am cynical; I’m just really, really concerned.
The film took five years to get where it is. As an independent filmmaker, what were some of the larger hurdles in getting your film to a national audience?
Like any independent film regardless of genre, money and resources are always a premium and that was the case here as well. While the producers Sean and Jim provided me with the funds that covered traveling, hiring a great director of photography and making sure we had the tools we needed to tell an accurate story, the budget was tight and I ended up doing a lot of work on my own, on my own time and on my own dime. Yes, after a while I saw the merit in this film and actually used some of my own money on this project.
The biggest roadblock was running out of money before the film was completed. Sean and Jim ran out of money after the filming was completed so there was no money for post production, editing, audio mastering, scoring, rights and clearances, etc. I knew this film had the opportunity to get to a national audience so I took it upon myself to handle some of the responsibilities like rights and clearances some initial editing and the audio mastering.
After a couple of years one of the organizations featured in the film (Seniors First) contacted me to inform me that they have found the necessary funds to finish the film. I know all the parties and organizations involved in the film wanted to see this film completed because of the impact this film can have so I did keep in contact with most organizations. I would provide updates to them but I knew not to ask them for funds because the monies they raised or used were going to help take care of seniors and I never wanted to take away those funds from the seniors who desperately need them. When Seniors First contacted me and informed me that they had raised the necessary monies to finish this film I was ecstatic. After a year or so of filming and then waiting another two years to start post production it was time to finish this film and bring it to a national audience.
I think our biggest obstacle is simply this … A film from an outsider, unknown producer/director (me) that focuses on one of the more unsexy subjects around (seniors) doesn’t garner a tremendous amount of monetary interest. Again, it goes back to the fact we live in a country and society that rewards and highlights youth and beauty while shunning and ignoring old and needy.
You give exposure to both the crisis and the efforts being made, both small and large, in trying to help. What do you say to people who feel a sense of helplessness about what to do with numbers in need so high?
I think a number of people are hopeful and optimistic. Like I have seen in the process of filming, there are a number of options and possibilities to take care of and feed the seniors we just need to prioritize those options and possibilities. For instance, when I was in Austin, TX, we see that a senior has to fill out an 18 page application to get a small amount of money for food stamps but the same person only needs to fill out a one page application to get a gun permit in the same state. It’s safe to say we have our priorities out of whack in some situations. So I do think there is an inherent optimism from the people working in the field of senior hunger but that can easily evaporate if things aren’t re-prioritized to take care of the real people in need.
Don’t get me wrong, many of the people working in this field are optimistic but they’re not unrealistic about their current restrictions and their job “burn out” is very, very real. A person working under these situations or circumstances can only take so much before experiencing the helplessness and hopelessness you talk about here. Let’s be honest, the number of seniors going hungry are only going to increase if things aren’t done differently and I think we can get more accomplished if we just take the time to take a look at what’s happening and easily it can be fixed. We have the ability to feed every senior in America and as former Meals on Wheels CEO, Enid Borden, says, “we just have to have the courage to do so.”
What’s next for you?
That’s a great question. I’m not sure at this point. I know I have some photography assignments coming up and I’m working on some new works and re-branding of my photography website. I just hope to also be able to let as many people know about this documentary and I hope the people who watch this are as moved as I was am want to get involved in making a difference in the lives of seniors.
Will you continue to make documentaries?
I would love to do so. Even though this process was a massive pain in the ass at times, the ability to tell a great story while impacting the lives of seniors makes it worth the headaches. I definitely know I wouldn’t put myself in the middle of the story again and would look for an opportunity to work with a bit of a larger budget. I have a really strong story in mind and one everyone can relate to so hopefully I can pursue that story if this documentary does well and shows that I can create and tell a strong, compelling story.
Thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us. Any last thoughts for our readers?
First off, thank you for your honest and thoughtful review of the documentary. It was great to read and I am incredibly appreciative of your words.
Secondly, I hope people reading this will go to iTunes or Video on Demand and rent or buy this film to see what is happening to our seniors and how this could easily be you or someone you love. Senior hunger is real and it’s frightening a documentary about this warranted being made.
Thanks for this opportunity. Again, thank you!