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This story originally appeared in the May 4 issue of The Hollywood Reporter.
America’s ballooning childhood obesity epidemic has become an urgent problem and a cause celebre for everyone from Michelle Obama to Ellen DeGeneres. Now Katie Couric and Laurie David – who produced Davis Guggenheim‘s 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth that galvanized the environmental movement – are partnering on a feature-length documentary to about the problem.
The Big Picture will examine the insidious causes and grave consequences (including health care costs) of obesity through the eyes of the children affected by it. For the past year, producer Stephanie Soechtig has been following 10 kids ages 11 through 17 who have been contributing personal video diaries about their struggles with weight, peer pressure and food choices.
Couric who mentors students at New York’s Harlem Village Academy, was struck by her own mentees’ lack of familiarity with fresh produce during an outing to the Union Square Farmers Market. “They had never had an asparagus or mushroom or different herbs,” she recalls. “Some of the kids had never eaten a raw carrot.”
Couric, who launches her talk show in September, likely will narrate. But she will not have an on-camera role. Couric and Soechtig met when Soechtig appeared on Couric’s CBS News web series to promote her 2009 documentary Tapped, about the bottled water industry. Soechtig, who worked in TV news before forming Atlas Films in 2008 with Michelle and Michael Walrath, has been a vegetarian since she was 15 years old. She grew up in a restaurant; her father, a German emigre, is a chef who owned a German-American restaurant – 1848 House – in Danbury, Conn.
“I would come to school with homemade liverwurst sandwiches on dark German bread,” she laughs. “I felt totally tortured.”
Today, her father teaches at the French Culinary Institute in Lower Manhattan. And Soechtig’s upbringing in a household where everything was homemade has given her a healthy respect for food and its origins. But she still had plenty to learn from her research for Big Picture.
“As women, we’re conditioned to want to lose weight, so we reach for nonfat foods,” she says. “But the amount of ingredients that go into something like nonfat cream cheese are probably far worse for you than if you ate the whole-fat version. So I look at processed foods completely differently now.”
Weight-loss shows have become a reality television staple with MTV’s I Used to Be Fat, ABC’s Extreme Makeover: Weight Loss Edition and NBC’s The Biggest Loser in its 13th cycle. But The Big Picture follows in the activist tradition of Tapped, Inconvenient Truth and Gas Land — the Oscar-nominated doc that cast a critical eye on the fracking industry.
“You will see the emotional and human toll in an authentic and nonexploitive way,” says Soechtig. “This is coming straight from the kids. There isn’t a reality crew following them around.”
The Big Picture also will examine the impact of government subsidies and corporate interests on what makes it into supermarkets. Couric and Soechtig approached David, explains Couric, because “we wanted this to be a tipping point in the consciousness about childhood obesity. We thought that An Inconvenient Truth was such a tipping point when it came to awareness of global warming.”
The film is still about a year away from completion. And Soechtig plans a multiplatform grass-roots distribution model employed with Tapped, with film festival placement — next year’s Tribeca fest is a goal for Soechtig — and locally sponsored community screenings. Couric and David will executive produce with Michelle and Michael Walrath. Soechtig will produce and direct.
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