Why did you want to make this film?
[It's] a classic epic battle. How do a couple of hundred upstart animal rights activists fight the entirety of the human civilization?
I was very attracted to what I saw as PETA's David and Goliath struggle to advocate on behalf of animals. As an organization, they toe the hard line. They preach a vegan existence, which is using no animals for anything. And to me that's a classic epic battle. How do a couple of hundred upstart animal rights activists fight the entirety of the human civilization?
How did you manage to gain access to such a notoriously private person as PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk?
PETA's been around for twenty-seven years now, and I would say that most of the media coverage usually paints them in a pretty negative way. No one had ever approached them about making a feature film that would explore them fully, not in a hysterical or sensationalized way. They were interested in that as an idea, so after a couple of months they finally allowed me to sit down with Ingrid, and we hit it off instantly. She was very smart and very funny, and very soft- spoken, which is not what I imagined her to be at all.
When Ingrid finally gave me the access to her apartment I was amazed at what lay inside, which was basically nothing. And it was remarkable. This is the way she basically has lived most of her life. When she'd to tell me that she didn't believe in materialistic things, and that they meant absolutely nothing to her, as soon as I walked into her apartment I realized that she wasn't lying, that really is the way she lives. She spends every waking moment of her day advocating on behalf of animals, and she is basically the CEO of a corporation, and she works harder than anyone at PETA.
Ingrid's and PETA'S whole philosophy is that she equates human suffering and animal suffering. Therefore, by calling herself an animal she is saying that the interests of a rat, for example, should get equal consideration to her own interests.
Can you talk a little about the origins of PETA?
PETA started in 1980, and they were a pretty tried and true animal rights organization for a brief period. They realized very quickly that showing people images of animal abuse seemed to trigger a much more intense emotional response than just telling people that this abuse existed, so they would go inside slaughterhouses, factory farms, biomedical research facilities and document what they perceived to be animal abuse, or animal torture. Prior to PETA, no one had ever really brought these images to the world before.
In the late eighties, early nineties, they began to change their tactics to keep up with trends in the media; more sex, more violence, taking a more 'pop' presentation to what they were doing. They also started to rope in celebrities to be spokespeople for the organization. So in the early nineties, PETA started with the "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" campaigns-- which obviously caught the media's attention- -with stars being essentially naked in print and TV ads. That was very popular for awhile, and I think that started to change the public perception of PETA, and people started to look at them as a very savvy, bordering on offensive organization that seemed to stop at nothing to get their point across.
The film has such a provocative title.
I chose that for a number of different reasons. I think it hooks you, and you know instantly it's an animal movie. Ingrid's and PETA'S whole philosophy is that she equates human suffering and animal suffering. Therefore, by calling herself an animal she is saying that the interests of a rat, for example, should get equal consideration to her own interests. It also alludes to her aggressiveness when it comes to advocating, and it seemed appropriate for a portrait of her.
But by going to such an extreme in comparing a rat to the life of a human being, doesn't that undermine their cause?
Well, for PETA that is the cause. They toe the hard line, because they want to effect change. But it's a tricky argument. PETA certainly had a lot of success early on, convincing people that testing cosmetics on animals was unnecessary, and they gained a lot of traction that way, because it is unnecessary.
The argument gets a little trickier when you go into fields like biomedical research where most medications are tested on animals. And that seems to be the area of PETA's argument that gets the least amount of support from people because it's very tricky to convince people that a research animal is as important as say their closest relative.
There are aspects we explore which are not always flattering towards Ingrid and PETA, but it's not often that you find someone like Ingrid who's willing to put their money where their mouth is and truly try to change the world they live in.
What do you hope people take away from the film?
My hope is that people will look at PETA differently regardless of where they stand on the issue of animal rights. I feel like there's a real fight there and we'd like people to understand that there is some method to PETA's madness, however offensive they appear to be sometimes. Of course, it doesn't always work. I don't agree with everything they do. There are aspects we explore which are not always flattering towards Ingrid and PETA, but it's not often that you find someone like Ingrid who's willing to put their money where their mouth is and truly try to change the world they live in. And she has done that. She put animal rights on the map, and she will not stop until she is dead and gone, and even beyond that.
And I hope that people who are diametrically opposed to Ingrid as a woman and PETA's ideology might stop and think a little bit about what the main struggle is: it's not just PETA's tactics, but what they're trying to get at. And I think sometimes their tactics blur the real message, but I think the real message has a great deal of validity to it.