Roving reporter Louise Wallis attends the press screening of ‘Carnage’, Simon Amstell’s vegan comedy film
“Ultimately, it’s going to be really awkward to keep eating other animals,” says Simon Amstell. “At the moment you can do it and society says it’s fine, but at some point I think there’s going to be a shift, probably over the next five years maybe because there’s so much information out there and you know it’s out there. You can’t then be putting milk in your tea without knowing milk from a cow means a baby was taken from her. You just know that now. I’m sorry.”
Carnage, a mockumentary set in 2067, takes place after this shift has happened. It shows a utopian vision of the future, where almost everyone is vegan, and most people are disgusted with their grandparents for ever eating meat. Combining archive footage with Simon’s fiction footage, the movie uses the narrative device to highlight the absurdity of eating animals. According to writer and director Simon Amstell, the most important bit is the comedy.
“I went vegan after watching a film called Earthings,” he says. “It was so upsetting that whenever I recommended it to anyone, when they asked ‘why are you vegan?’ I said ‘this film Earthlings, you must watch it’, and they would say ‘I will not watch it’. So I thought it would be a good idea to make something funny and watchable so that the message could be put across in a way that didn’t traumatise people. And it was hard – really hard – to do it. I mean – vegans can be preachy and really annoying. I mean it’s just really hard. We had loads of great footage of vegan celebrities, that we found, and it was too sincere to work in this film. There were things people said that made total sense and were heartfelt, but for this film you were going ‘urgh, I can’t listen to that person who’s right’.
“And it just had to be funny otherwise the whole thing would stink. The problem with everything vegan you ever hear is that it’s a bit preachy and annoying, and there’s a superiority to it, so the intention was to make something kind of self-deprecating and funny enough that you didn’t mind when a new bit of information was presented. You wouldn’t mind too much when we told you that male chicks get gassed or shredded.”
His own journey to veganism was an unusual one. He says: “I was a vegetarian beforehand. I was in Thailand when I was about 23, and I felt calm for maybe the first time ever, and I thought maybe it’s the Buddhism, and then I saw a monk on the plane home and he looked calm. And I read a book called Taming the Monkey Mind, a beginner’s guide to Buddhism, and it said that Buddhists don’t tend to drink, or eat animals and I thought I don’t think I can be bothered to become a Buddhist but I will do those things. So that was the beginning. And then I became a vegan about five years ago. Maybe I was born a vegan, and my parents didn’t know.”
So just how did the comedian and writer convince the BBC to commission a film that ruthlessly mocks the consumption of animal products? According to Simon: “They actually came to me. A producer called Janet Lee asked if I had any ideas that would be peculiar enough to work on the iPlayer exclusively. A few years ago I did stand up when I positioned myself in the future looking back at this stuff so I could talk about all the things I find annoying. One of the bits was do you remember when people got so upset when their pets died and when other animals died they ate them. So I thought that could be a film. About a week before the BBC asked me if I had any ideas, one of the sketches that’s now in the film popped into my mind, so when she asked I told her about it. She said she loved it, and asked me to write a pitch document.”
The cast has been described as ‘astonishing’, featuring stalwarts of British drama like Joanna Lumley, as well as fresh talent. How did Simon manage to get them on board?
“A few people I’ve worked with before,” he says “For example Sam Spiro who plays the singing cow. When I decided there should be a singing cow in it, I thought Sam Spiro would be good. I worked with her on a sitcom I did called Grandma’s House. I already knew James Smith who plays the looney blogger guy who’s trying to put meat back into British plates. The first person who came on board was Joanna Lumley. The producer had her email address and said ‘just email her’.
“This was right at the beginning, the script was at an early draft. I’d kind of been commissioned but I still wasn’t sure whether it would actually happen and then Joanne Lumley wrote back saying ‘of course, I’ll absolutely do it darling’. She was much more charming that that, it was the most charming email….and she sent another email about why she couldn’t come here tonight, and it was just very charming. As soon as she agreed to take part, it became quite real.”
So much of the feedback to Carnage has been positive – is he proud of what he’s created? “I think I am proud of it. I think I’m proud that we did it,” he says. “There were so many moments where I just thought what is this? It was a very ambitious project, lots of special effects on this BBC budget – quite tricky – and just buying costumes for everyone was an incredible achievement. There were just moments where I thought oh no.
“More specifically, I like all the acting. I think it’s really hard to do fake talking heads and interviews. When you fake a TV show it can look wonky and you just know. And I feel like when we’ve recreated TV shows like The Lorraine Show, it feels real to me. It all feels real. When Sam sung the cow’s song it actually made me cry and I wasn’t sure if I was crying for the cow. Then during the edit when we watched it for the last time I shed another little tear. God that’s so pathetic.”
Was he trying to convince anyone to convert to veganism? Did any of the film crew decide to give it a go?
“No, I wasn’t trying to convince anyone. The singular skill was trying to convince the young people of 2067 to forgive the former generation. Our heads were there most of the time, but we were aware we might be creating something that’s convincing. It was more about is it funny? It was more that, only later in the edit did I think if you were a vegetarian you would go vegan at that bit.
“I’m not an activist, I’m a clown, I’m going for funny.
“We’re still in the middle of the shift I suppose, and we did our best. You know, the catering that was made for us was vegan, and we did things like that, but I just wanted to make something really funny that people could watch, and so it didn’t really matter. If Martin Freeman was going to say yes I will do this, I wasn’t going to say but you mustn’t eat pork.”
He never felt the topic was too serious to approach in a light hearted way. He says: “I wouldn’t avoid doing something because I thought it was too sensitive. I’d avoid it because I didn’t know anything about it, or if I couldn’t find a funny angle on it at that time. Everything is ridiculous. Making light of something isn’t a problem. I think it’s a good thing to make light of something. Things can be too heavy and it’s good to have humour.”
Simon feels positive about the future of veganism, saying: “This revolution is going to happen now, whether anyone likes it or not. This is happening anyway. For the animals it has to happen, and for our own health.”
He’s also positive about the increasing range of plant-based foods available, particularly cheese: “Violife is a good one,” he says. “You can get it sliced. That’s very good on nachos. The big news is that Sainsburys has brought out a range of cheeses. Luckily there are also many plant milks out there and also I think that’s the thing, I think the next thing is just making things really easy, there’s the cheeses, hummus and I think at some point a vegan cookery show just has to exist in the world.”
And what about his own future? Does he have many plans in the pipeline? He says: “I want to direct another film. There are a few things – there’s a stand up tour coming up and there’s a book. I was asked to put a book together which is compiled from my stand up plus other thoughts and feelings. Then I’d like to do another film – maybe more of a basic fiction thing, feature length with no archive. Not pretending to be a documentary like this one – just a movie like all other films.”
Carnage is available to watch on iPlayer.