Based on a personal essay about food addiction and depression, the writer-comedian Mark Phinney scripted and directed the unflinching feature Fat, which opens in Toronto on Oct. 30, with a video-on-demand date scheduled for Dec. 15. We got the skinny on Fat from the director, by phone from his home in Boston.
According to your biography, you once worked at Fenway Park in Boston, selling hot dogs. I occasionally go to baseball games there myself, and I swear to God I could eat 10 of those Fenway Franks. What makes them so eatable?
I did eat 10 of them. That's how I ended up getting fat. They're good, but eating them is part of the whole event as well.
The film is based on your life and an essay you published. Given that you're a comedian as well as a writer, why didn't you star in the film yourself?
The script I wrote was partly about my time in Los Angeles, but mostly it deals with depression and food addiction and weight and self-sabotage. I showed it to a friend, Melvin [actor Mel Rodriguez], and he related to the script. He said he wanted to do it. He came to Boston, slept in my basement and we made the movie.
There's a stereotype of the jolly overweight person. Why did you purposely stay away from that?
The film is dark. I didn't want to pull any punches. It's a representation of someone who is in a dark place. It's about food addiction and weight and depression because that's my experience, but it could be about anything that anybody's going through, whether it's booze or drugs or anything.
But the character makes a point of saying that overweight people don't want to be around other overweight people, and that they know each other's secrets. That's not really the case with other addictions. Alcoholics will drink with each other, for example. So food addiction is something much lonelier, right?
It's very lonely. I can't tell you how many McDonald's parking lots I've sat alone in at two in the morning, eating by myself. It's a shame thing. You don't want other people to see it.
Another difference is that there can be a sort of romanticism or poetic tragedy associated with a heroin addict or an alcoholic.
Yes. The shame element is missing, until the problem is magnified. They're having fun doing it. But I'm not having any fun eating. I'm beating myself up, with the eating used to fill something. And I'm ashamed.
It makes me think of the scene in the Mike Myers movie Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, where the Fat Bastard character has a breakdown, saying that he eats because he's unhappy and that he's unhappy because he eats.
Right. As silly and fun as Austin Powers was, I think Mike Myers was actually trying to get at something personal with that character, in that moment. I think everybody has some kind of a food issue. It can be a defence mechanism. It's a way to keep yourself protected from something that you may be able to love, or be loved for.
Who doesn't want to be loved?
It's not that you don't want it, but people with an addiction to food are messed up inside. You don't realize you're doing it, but you can't keep yourself away from it, whether it's food or drugs. You think you don't deserve so many things, so you keep piling it on.
In the film, the character keeps at it until he has a breakdown. He worries that he's going to die. Is that the turning point for him?
You hope. But I've been there a million times. The movie doesn't have a wrap-up typical ending. He goes through that, he wakes up the next morning, he makes his bed and he walks out the door. Maybe it's a symbol that he makes his bed. But who knows if he goes out that door to a McDonald's? Hopefully he won't, but that's what life is. I just wanted to make the most real film possible. Life goes on, and hopefully you make the decision that's right for you.
And what about you? What decision did you make?
We made the movie in 2012. We brought it to the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013. But it wasn't until September, 2014, that I officially started to lose weight. Since then I've lost 60 pounds. I've cut out the bad things in my life. I go to the gym. I feel better and hopefully look a little better. I have a girlfriend. But who knows? That can all change in a day. There are no guarantees.