If you have a good story with great characters, you can make great films for very cheap.
What motivates you to write, shoot, and edit?
This is actually the perfect time to write and edit because you’re stuck inside all the time. I have complete motivation to do that. It’s actually been quite wonderful and productive. I’ve been making TASTE, my international food documentary series, for the last 7 years. I’ve already had this momentum going for quite some time and I’ve already got some type of routine. In fact, before the pandemic, my life is pretty much the same as it’s been right now. I was sitting on my a** behind the computer, editing, emailing, and doing all the stuff you need to do to create a documentary series from scratch (minus traveling). I did most of the travel a few years ago for filming. Thankfully, I got a lot done before the pandemic hit.
My documentary series tells and reveals the undiscovered stories of some of the risk-takers that make our food from all around the world. This is actually a very personal project for me. To give you the story, in a nutshell, I’ve been making films ever since I was 8 years old. I’ve made everything from documentaries, stop motion legos movies, skate videos. dramas, comedies, music videos, and karate movies. You name it. But I was also really obese when I was a kid. My normal meal at McDonald’s would be large fries, large Coke, a McFlurry, 2 cheeseburgers, and a McChicken. Little gross [Kevin laughs]. I did not eat the best food. I would eat like half a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts in one sitting.
I was really obese when I was a kid and I was actually in the hospital. My nurse was looking at my body mass on her chart and looked up at me and said, “you know Kevin if you keep this up, you are going to get type 2 diabetes.” I just froze. I had this moment where I realized I would have to give myself insulin shots for the rest of my life. Every kid hates needles, right? Literally, the day after that, I put myself through a personal boot camp until butter, sweat, and Krispy Kreme grease is just seeping out of my pores. And I started learning more about my food the best way I knew how which was through filmmaking.
This was in middle school and my English teacher, Mr. Greene, assigned us to go see Super Size Me for an extra credit assignment. That movie not only made me realize that I needed to shape up but also, that documentaries can not only have an effect on me as a filmmaker but also it can have an effect on the world and the way people look at it. And so by the time I was in high school, I made my first feature-length food documentary. This is just a long way of me answering, I have been making food documentaries for a very long time. So it might be a very interesting case when it comes to working during the pandemic because I’ve been doing this for decades now [Kevin laughs] and that’s why I’m making TASTE.
How many countries have you been to?
I’ve been to around 40-ish countries in my life, but for TASTE I’ve filmed in 30 countries. There are 2 seasons I have filmed so far. The first is TASTE with Europe and the second is TASTE with Asia and I’ve filmed a bit in America as well. Season 3 will be TASTE with America.
Besides your own, what other documentaries inspire you?
Hmmm, there are so many. Well, I’ll just name one. Super Size Me definitely kick-started me into this genre of filmmaking. I’ve done a whole bunch of genres. I’ve done a lot of narrative films. There’s also a lot of personal narrative [documenatries] like Minding the Gap, which is about an Asian American documentary filmmaker who is also a skateboarder. It deals with three young people and their relationships with their parents and domestic violence and all three of them are skaters and I think it’s just a beautiful personal narrative. And of course all the Chef’s Table docuseries episodes. I love that. I also consider Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations to be a documentary series in itself. Even though there’s a host and it’s not your traditional documentary or cinéma vérité type film, but they tell real stories, and the host, he’s just a legend.
No one’s going to replace that man.
When making Dictionary of a Food Hero, what were some roadblocks you had to overcome?
Can you believe it? I actually made that documentary in one week, which is pretty tight. From the seeding of the idea to the final cut. I don’t. know how I did it, but I did. One of my roadblocks was being able to condense such a complex story into just 3.5 minutes. Thunder Zachary, the main character, has so many layers to his story. He grew up at Hunters Point, which is one of the last Black neighborhoods in San Francisco. Unfortunately, gentrification and social-economic realities of living in a Bay Area have pushed much of the Black community to this one neighborhood in San Francisco, and because of that, that really pushes communities in a not-so-great direction. And because of that Thunder sometimes resorted to robbery and other petty crimes. He had a bit of a track record ending up in jail. At one point he said, “I either go to jail or figure out my life,” and so he started cooking. One of the first places he got put into was a fine dining restaurant. One of the roadblocks to filming that story was being able to tell his story in a way that was engaging and entertaining, but not doing it in a way that short changes this story because I think his story is very representative of a lot of Black people's story, especially in the Bay Area. I actually think that if I were to re-do it again, I would go back and try to tell more of his story. This film was actually for a film contest. We had to make a story that was less than 4 minutes long. If I had more time to tell the story, I would have gone deeper into his story with his backstory in Hunters Point and why he was resorting to petty crime and robbery. Yeah, that was a big roadblock. Yeah, I’ll tell you, I made that film for less than $10. It was just a few Caltrain tickets. If you have a good story with great characters, you can make great films for very cheap.
I was able to chat with Kevin a little longer after the interview and he wanted to spread a message. Here’s what he had to say.
The people that are making our food are going through quite a bit right now especially because of the pandemic and all the shutdowns. I really hope if you can afford it, help support your local restaurants. Especially support your local independent restaurants that are black or minority-owned because I think 50%-60% of restaurants are at risk of closing permanently and disproportionally, it’s affecting people of color. [The local restaurants] are not only a source of income for people, they are a source of nourishment, celebration, and culture. If we lose this, then we lose something huge in our nation, in our culture. They’re not just a business, they are more than that. Support them with your money, support them with your taste buds. You can also call your local Congress Member and let them know you want to support the Restaurant Act, which will help give a financial stimulus to independent restaurants. The restaurant industry needs a relief package. You or any of your leaders can call 202–224–3121 and you’ll get to Congress and you can leave a message for your local representative. This is for any Congress member across the nation. This is the number to the U.S. Congress switchboard. You can say your zip code and you will be redirected to your local Congress member.
If you would like to learn more about TASTE with Kevin Longa, sign up for the email newsletter at tastewithkevin.com (first 2,000 people will get FREE access to the online premiere of TASTE), subscribe and turn on the notification bell to his YouTube channel, and follow Kevin on Instagram at @tastewithkevin.