The initial seed for LIVING THINGS was planted when I saw a friend of mine post a YouTube link on Facebook about how plants have feelings. I’ve been a vegetarian since 2002, and this is the one of the standard arguments used by meat-eaters who are interested in invalidating vegans or vegetarians. (There's actually some debate as to whether or not plants do have feelings, though Rhona in the film – who believes in oneness and the unity of all things – actually agrees that plants feel.) It was interesting to see that as the discussion under my friend's link unfolded, vegans and vegetarians were tagged as self-righteous and deluded, and the argument got very heated and vitriolic. You see this a lot online, underneath vegetarian/vegan articles or posts: The talk-backers shred the diet from all directions, and the anger is usually real intense.
So the inspiration for the film was that particular emotion. Up 'til LIVING THINGS, I'd done mostly horror and thriller fiction, and I like to pile on as much tension as possible. I was fascinated to see how furious people could get over something like food, and what their diets reflect about their values and priorities. I couldn't stop thinking about how strong the emotion was, and it was something I wanted to capture in dramatic form. Having the characters as in-laws helped to deepen the discomfort and awkwardness, but also make it playful and fun.
The two characters are inspired by a bunch of people I know. Rhona is like an alternate-dimension version of my wife and producing partner, Rhoda Jordan. Rhoda's far friendlier and chill than Rhona, who's wired a little more tightly (though we only see her in the company of her father-in-law, with whom she's not exactly relaxed). The Rhona character also draws on different women I've met in the New Age community. As for Leo, he's got some of my late Grandpa Abe in him – even though Abe was ultra-liberal and Leo's a conservative. Both of them are philosophical, and up for sporting debates. My lifelong friend Stu Panensky, a conservative attorney, also shows up in Leo at certain moments. Stu's a great debater, too. As the writing and preparation went on, though, the characters both reached a point where they became their own people. I fell in love with them both. Since raising money's always an issue in indie film, I felt the emotion of the conflict and the simplicity of having two people together for dinner – along with my passion about vegetarianism – made for an irresistible combo. There was nothing that could stop us from shooting it.
The shoot lasted for six days, with a single day of prep beforehand (and a ton of memorization and practice for the actors before that). As we had on our first film, RULE OF 3, we served the cast and crew vegan food at the craft services table, and made sure it was fun stuff – but ordered from places that had both veggie and meat options for the meals. Some of the meals would be purely vegan, though. We shot the vast majority of the movie in order so the actors' emotions could build and the cinematography could get more gonzo and expressionistic as the debate became more radical and emotional.
When a friend referred us to Lila Rose, who wrote HEART MACHINE, the song that bookends the film, it was a huge find. It's always tough to find inexpensive indie music that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. In this case, we were looking for a female-voiced anthem to complement the Rhona character. Then we learned that Lila's an impassioned vegan and animal rights advocate, and it seemed the energy was in alignment. The song gives us some more access to Rhona's inner world: she's big-hearted but also very exacting, and not without some anger. Once we put HEART MACHINE in the film, we felt the movie's soul come together.
We hope the movie stimulates reflection and dialogue among people about going vegan. It's engineered to stimulate a lot of emotion around the topic. In a documentary, we could have gone more factual and educational; with drama, though, it's a mistake to pile on too much info. There are so many wonderful documentaries about the diet, and we wanted to add a drama to the veggie-film library. Usually in fiction, vegans are presented as marginal figures – often for the sake of laughs. So there was something exciting about having a vegan front and center, stating her feelings and position without shame (on the part of her or the movie). It was almost surreal, because you don't see it in movies.
As far as the film's ending goes, one of the story's major themes was the idea that humans are animals. Rhona therefore sympathizes with other animals; Leo therefore feels comfortable with the fact that he eats other animals. The fact that they both become so deliriously angry and pull their gloves off goes hand-in-hand with the animal theme. That's also reflected earlier in the film, when Leo keeps apologizing for cursing. There's always tension between civility and savagery in human life. The pair in LIVING THINGS gets pretty savage with each other, but the movie's heart wants civility to prevail. – Eric Shapiro
Rhoda Shapiro on portraying "Rhona"
At the beginning of the process, the biggest challenge in taking on the role of Rhona was the memorization process. The film is essentially a feast of lively dialogue that simply does not let up. Eric’s writing is so rich; so full of depth and insight. And so I really wanted to do it justice. I really wanted to fully embody this character with everything that I had. Before I began memorizing the script, I asked myself: Can I really do this? I had just had a baby, and was also working on other projects at the time. But I committed myself to the process. Each day, when I was on the treadmill, I committed myself to memorizing several pages. And before I knew it, I had memorized every single word. Then I was ready to roll up my sleeves and really start to understand and go deeper with the character! It was an incredibly fulfilling process! Rhona is such a strong, verbal, opinionated, passionate, and smart woman. There aren’t too many roles like that out there for women, so I was beyond thrilled to play this character. – Rhoda Shapiro