"I just wanted to make a short, little five-minute YouTube video at first," 11-year-old documentary filmmaker Zachary Maxwell tells me, sipping a hot chocolate (with whipped cream) with his dad, CJ, in Washington Square Park. "I never expected it to grow popular."
We’re talking about Yuck, Maxwell’s investigative foray into New York City’s elementary school lunches. Nearly two years ago, Maxwell launched an eight-month project to expose the disparities between the Department of Education’s online menu and what it served in school. After arguing with his parents about the quality and convenience of the free lunch at P.S. 130 and wanting to bring his own bagged lunch instead, Maxwell decided to prove his parents wrong.
Tucking a Panasonic flip cam into his pocket, employing secondary operators, and hiring lookouts to make sure no one caught him filming a handful of ashen-looking cheese sticks advertised as "golden, crispy cheesy mozzarella sticks with marinara sauce and fresh braised collards," Maxwell says he probably got busted by the lunch lady in the end, because his lookout crew was too busy looking at girls. Still, with the help of his dad's editing skills, Yuck went on to win a couple short film awards. And now, Maxwell has launched his own production company.
"I mean, pretty much everybody loved it. Except maybe some DOE people," Maxwell says. After the film started getting attention, his school announced a rule that no one was allowed to film on the premises without permission. The DOE then paid a visit to P.S. 130, meeting with Maxwell to get his take on what the agency could do to make school lunches better.
Since Yuck aired in the fall, Maxwell has gone to a flurry of screenings, film festivals, and grueling question and answer sessions (he says that when activist audience members ask him about farm politics it goes right over his head). Though his schedule is winding down, he does have another appearance at the Apple Store in Soho this Saturday for a youth filmmaker showcase series.
Maxwell actually spends a lot of time at that particular Apple Store already—he and his dad have been going to filmmaker talks at the store for years, and in 2012, Maxwell attended a free, week-long program for budding movie creators. That's where Maxwell met his filmmaking idol, Morgan Spurlock, the director of Super Size Me.
"He said, 'you don’t need fancy equipment or fancy cameras. As long as you have a good story in your mind and a little camera, you can make a great film,' Maxwell recalls. He also once met director Ron Howard, who told him, "Keep your head screwed on straight. Don’t die."
"Like through drugs and stuff," Maxwell explains.
Maxwell already is onto his next venture: a production company to raise money for his next feature, a documentary about "adolescence, puberty, and what middle school girls think of guys with braces," Maxwell says, smiling bashfully through his own buck teeth. "Because I’m gonna be going through this really awkward phase where I grow body hair and start to smell, and then I start liking girls," he says.
Maxwell made a film before Yuck, too. Called Blockbusters, it was an exploration of how to "not be a mindless consumer of content," Maxwell explains.
"I would always tell him you can make your own stuff, too. Here's a camera, go do something," Maxwell's father CJ, an attorney and film buff, says.
Maxwell Productions already has its first client—a doctor who asked the young filmmaker to work on a short YouTube series about ADHD. It’s all practice, Maxwell says, for when he grows up to be a big-shot filmmaker or producer. "I don’t want to make Disney movies. I want to be Disney," he says. And as for kids who want to be filmmakers but don’t think they have the right tools, Maxwell repeats Spurlock’s advice, adding that anyone can make a movie on an iPhone or iPad.