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Interview: Aimee Kuge, Writer & Director of Cannibal Mukbang

Cannibal Mukbang (2023), image courtesy of Aimee Kuge

No matter how neutral things seem in real life, the Internet makes everything personal. That could very well sum up the chemistry behind Cannibal Mukbang-the new film by Aimee Kuge.

Some of you who follow The Last Drive-In with Joe Bob Briggs on Shudder may have met her in person the same way I did. In 2021, Aimee was working with the crew at the first annual “Joe Bob’s Jamboree” at the Mahoning Drive-In. Being a busy venue, we only met in passing and didn’t get formally introduced until I visited the set in 2022. Little did I know, she was priming herself to flesh out a story she had since the beginning of the pandemic.

Cannibal Mukbang focuses its story on Mark (played by Nate Wise), a dopey guy working customer service for his brother Maverick (played by Clay von Carlowitz who played Eugene in Return to Nuke ‘em High Volumes 1 & 2). Maverick is the only family Mark has left since the accident that killed his parents and gave him a metal plate in his head. One night, Mark runs into Ash (April Consalo) or, more accurately, Ash runs into Mark with her car. Ash quickly tries to make amends and he learns that she is a professional mukbanger. “Mukbang” being a genre of online videos where people eat food for a live-streaming audience, sometimes (often) with horny overtones.

Ash does more than enter his physical life, but lives rent-free in his head. The time spent in her company alters his tastes in both food and people. As he starts to learn more about Ash’s past, he discovers the secret source of her online meals. At the end of it all, he’s confronted with a tough question: “How much will it take to satisfy your hunger for true love?”

Watching CM’s world premiere at the 2023 Brooklyn Horror Film Festival was a rare event that I never believed would happen. It took some persistence, but I sat in my front row seat looking up at a projection of a bloody movie romance and saw myself reflected back. Critics on this site and others zero in on April and Nate’s chemistry as being a rote “manic pixie dream girl” scenario seen in, say, forty years of romantic comedies. Being unfamiliar with rom-coms made me ignore those comparisons and be part of the event unfolding.

I am not afraid to admit that I recognized myself in the Mark character. Like him, I was showing up to this movie with some past baggage associated with my family. Aimee’s playing around with rom-com tropes gives her movie a “Rorschach test” vibe. It wasn’t until after the screening, when Aimee and her cast and crew did a Q&A, that I learned she modeled Mark mostly after herself.

Mark’s personal values about family and his relationship history were sampled from real experiences she had. Beyond that, her fascination and approach to the culinary arts were a major driver behind some of the most memorable set pieces in the film. I withheld some of my questions about the film until after the screening. During the festivities, we made plans to sit down and do the interview you are about to read.   

When Aimee made the time to answer my questions via Zoom, she was relaxing from a whirlwind festival tour. Her cat Oliver was drunkenly traipsing in and out of the frame of her webcam (her cat is named after Oliver Reed after all).

A promotional poster for the 2023 movie 'Cannibal Mukbang.' The poster features a highly stylized, provocative image with a horror theme. In the foreground, a woman with red hair is eating noodles, with a knife embedded in her shoulder and an eyeball among the noodles, implying cannibalism. Beneath her is the head of a man, looking up with a distressed expression, noodles draped over and around his face. The poster's colors are vivid, with a strong contrast between the bright reds of the blood and noodles and the pale tones of the characters' skin.
Cannibal Mukbang (2023) poster, image courtesy of Aimee Kuge

You began writing the screenplay in 2020. Were there any difficulties getting the movie you had in your head down on paper?

It flowed pretty easily, but it’s funny. When I first wrote the script, my first draft of it, I sent it to a lot of my friends, my writer friends, and they all said the same thing. They’re like, “Mark is so unlikable. Mark seems like a film asshole. I hate this guy. Why does she like him? Ash is so cool. Why does she like him?” And so a big thing that I changed in the script was making Mark more likable and making him more sweet and funny and goofy and kind of awkward, funny. Because Mark, I based that character off of myself. So I’m like, damn, they must think I’m unlikable!

This first pass of this character, nobody likes him. So, yeah, I wanted to make him more likable and more like that sweet boy next door that you just want to squeeze but shake because they’re doing something so stupid. I always had it in my head that I was going to make this very low budget and quickly.

So everything that I wrote, I wrote because I knew that I had friends, apartments that I could use, and I knew that I could shoot in New Jersey, and I could find cheaper places to shoot there and certain things like that. So a lot of the script, from my head just came out of practicality and me thinking about production and putting my producer brain on it, saying, okay, that’s going to be expensive.

Between Sweeney Todd and Texas Chain Saw Massacre there’s a long tradition of “food horror;” mostly all about cannibalism. How much of your artistic background involved culinary work?

Yeah, it played a huge role. I wish that I had some more time to make more dishes and do more things with the food.

That’s one of my biggest regrets, if I had more time, then I would have put more into some of those sequences. But, yeah, I was a food photographer in New York for three years, and it was my full-time job. It’s all I did when I first moved here for a vegan restaurant group and other restaurants were Chance Diners, Screamers’ Pizzeria, Haymaker’s Corner, Heartbreakers, and Terms of Endearment- which we shot a scene in.

So, yeah, food is a really important part of my creative practice. I’ve had food as a theme in everything I’ve made, probably from high school on. I’ve always had this interest in expressing human emotions and just complications through their eating choices and obsessions because I think that we all have to eat, right?

Right. I think that growing up with some disordered eating and some things that happened to me throughout my life pushed me to make Cannibal Mukbang and make the food its own kind of character in the film. And something important to me is that when Ash is eating her mukbangs, I want it to look like normal food.

I don’t want it to look like human meat, because her whole job is being a YouTuber-type person that eats food online. And if you watch mukbangs, they all look delicious. And that’s the goal. I wanted the food to look good, and I didn’t want it to look like human meat. I wanted it to be glam and slick, like a YouTuber. Like she’s eating actual food that you would want to eat.

I filmed a lot of her mukbangs before we even started principal photography on my own, on a regular Sony DSLR camera. So I wanted it to be normal looking when she’s eating that food, and I didn’t want it to feel like she was actually eating human. Yeah, I think the food photography sort of went with that. I wanted that food to look really yummy, like when she’s eating the spaghetti that Mark watches in bed.

It’s kind of gross because that happens right after he pukes. But that spaghetti was good. And it was vegan meatballs. I had a bite of it! It was delicious!

I’ve seen behind-the-scenes featurettes about how effects crews will make “movie food” that could be anywhere from mashed-up cardboard to wax sculptures of items like sushi. How much of the food used on screen was real and how much was “movie?”

A tense moment from a dark scene where a fearful man is looking up, his face partially obscured by a ledge. Above him, an ominous hand brandishes a bloody knife, suggesting imminent danger or a violent act. The lighting is low and the color palette
Cannibal Mukbang (2023), image courtesy of Aimee Kuge

A lot of it. In the montage sequence, there are a bunch of shots of April and Nate cheersing over a huge dinner table full of meat. And none of that was edible. That was all, like, really cheap meat that we got from the butcher nearby. And it was, like, disgusting. It smelled so bad.

It’s actually a behind-the-scenes video where we’re all taking turns smelling it and just be, like, almost throwing up so they couldn’t eat any of that. That was definitely, like, movie food. Even the drink that they cheers with. I have a blooper reel that I made where Nate accidentally drinks it!

I’m like: “You’re not supposed to drink that. None of this. Can’t eat any of this. This is purely for aesthetic!” But then a lot of the rest of the film, the food that they’re eating is actual food. I did also have April’s amazing mom. Her name’s Susan Consalo. She cooked a whole pot roast. And I shredded the pot roast up and put a bunch of fake blood in it.

And the fake blood was food dye and corn syrup. So it was, like, disgusting because it’s like a pot roast, but then super sweet. But April actually ate a lot of that, and I had a bowl next to her that she could spit in. So, yeah, I mean, most of the food is real.

There were only two scenes where it wasn’t real.

When you finally felt confident to start moving on the production, how long did it take to land your lead actors?

When I decided I was going to make the movie, I put out a casting call for Ash, Mark, and Maverick. God, I got hundreds and hundreds of people sending their headshots in through Actors’ Access!

My process was just finding people who stood out to me. And I didn’t have any ideas in my head for what I wanted them to look like, other than I wanted April to. I wanted Ash to look like she could be young. She could believably play someone who’s a teenager.

And then for Mark, I wanted him just to kind of look like the boy next door that you want to help and that you want to hang out. So I just kind of picked people that I felt a good vibe from. I narrowed it down and then sent out the first script read. So the first sides for April’s audition. And April just really nailed her audition. It’s the dismemberment scene. That was the first thing that I had them audition with. And her read just was so beautiful, but calculated and scary. And she just had this energy to her that was so. She seems like she has a lot of depth to her. And I was between her and a few others. My friend Emily Sweet, who acted in Castle Freak and Eight Eyes, auditioned, and I liked her audition too. But there was something about April that stood out to me.

Mark, funnily enough, Nate was the first video I saw out of the boys that I selected. And I was just like, “This guy is it!” This guy is so awkward. He’s so funny. He’s so cute. And charming and handsome, and he just had this mumblecore energy that I needed. So funny. I loved him, and I showed him to my boyfriend, and I showed him to my dad, and I showed him to my DP, Harrison Kraft. And they were all like, “He’s so mumbly. He’s so quiet. Are you sure you want him?” And I’m like, “That’s why he’s good. He’s good because he’s so mumbly and he’s so quiet.” And he’s like, I feel like that energy paired with April’s raw beauty, it just kind of clicks.

Any major deletions? If they were scripted scenes, then how concerned were you that it would affect the narrative?

I could tell you one of the big things that I cut was there’s a death that’s supposed to happen in the middle. I guess it’s like three-fourths of the movie through.

I had this idea that Ash would be killing this guy in a park, and he pushes her into a bush. And Mark helps her and pushes him off while they’re in the bush. And then a couple comes by, and the couple is like, what’s going on? Like, they can kind of hear what’s going on. They’re older, and Ash sees that. And so she’s like, Mark, just follow me. And so she begins to pretend to be intimate with Mark, just making really loud sounds, kind of like when Harry Met Sally so that the couple would be like, “Oh, it’s just people getting intimate in the bushes.” The husband’s kind of interested, but the wife is no, like, “You’re disgusting, get a room!”

And so I wanted them to pretend to be intimate on this guy Ash has already ripped his eyes out and he’s just bleeding. And I have the full scene of them fake boning on top of this dead body. And it’s really funny. It’s hilarious! But tonally, it would have shifted the mood of the movie during that time. And it also added another, like seven minutes.

But I didn’t think the film needed it. It’s an hour 40, and I didn’t want it to get closer to that two-hour mark. So, unfortunately, I had to cut it out. And a lot of people were disappointed that worked on the film because they were like, “That was my favorite scene of the movie!”

It was so funny. They enjoyed working on it. But I think that it’s better for the movie and for the tone of the film that was out of there because it is really funny, but it would have made it a little more ridiculous than I think it already is.

And I don’t think it needs to be more ridiculous.

From what I could tell at the premiere, you have a great rapport with your cast and crew. Were there ever moments during difficult days-scenes needed to be rescheduled or something wasn’t shaping up the way you hoped?

A man lounges on a plush red sofa, appearing lethargic or possibly asleep, with one arm resting on his forehead. A woman sits next to him, her body turned towards him, mid-gesture as if in conversation or making a point. She has long, reddish hair and is dressed in a casual, retro-style outfit. In front of them on a wooden tray is a disconcerting array of items, including a mug with a face design, a glass of red liquid, a skull, and an assortment of foods that seem to include meats and cheeses in a chaotic display. The room is dimly lit, with a window air conditioner in the background and a vintage lamp providing a soft glow to the scene.
Cannibal Mukbang (2023), image courtesy of Aimee Kuge

So the tent scene, the blanket Fort scene, that’s at the beginning of the film was shot during a pickup because we ran out of time. And I originally wrote that to be on a roof, so I wanted it to be on Ash’s roof, and I wanted it to be really creepy where he doesn’t know where she is, and then she’s like, “Hey, Mark!,” from the roof

, and he looks up and she’s like: “It’s me. God.” And so I wanted that to all be on a roof, but it’s kind of dangerous to shoot on a roof, and I couldn’t find one that would work, so I changed it to be a backyard. And I had a backyard set up that I was going to film in but the day that we filmed the pickups, it rained like crazy.

And so I saw it on the forecast the night before and was like, yeah, what am I going to do? What am I going to do? And so in my head, I’m like, okay, what would Ash do? And I kind of put myself in her shoes. Ash would do something really like, “Manic Pixie Dream Girl,” and she’d make a blanket fort. And I can film a blanket fort anywhere! So we decided to go with that, and I’m very lucky that that worked out. And funnily enough, April Consolo had the same idea separately from me because we’re just so in tune with Ash. She was like, Amy, I have an idea blanket for it.

So we just went with that. And it was so much cheaper than having to find a roof for her backyard because we just shot that in my friend Jimmy’s basement. And it’s one of the prettiest scenes in the movie.

I think it’s really gorgeous, and it’s such a treat for the viewer because I feel like you’re in this little world with them, and I don’t think that we would have achieved that if it was in a backyard.

Whether they be the couple or their victims, how do you direct your actors during lighter performances or moments where the actors have to act in scenes of violence? How do you make that a safe transition?

So I actually had a stunt coordinator advisor, and I also had an intimacy coordinator, and we rehearsed the stunts and also the intimacy a lot before we started filming, we had a separate day all for stunts, and we spent, like, 4 hours, I think, working through all the stunts.

And then we had a separate day for intimacy that was very small, and it was just me and Kennedy, Murray, my intimacy coordinator, April, and Nate, and we were all in my living room here. We’re recording right now, and I had them go through everything with me. I’m not saying, like, they got naked and they had to be intimate in front of, like, we just went through the motions and discussed what would happen with Kennedy there.

And she is so professional and incredible and made us all feel very safe, and I wanted them to feel very safe versus me just trying to do all, like, it was my first intimacy scene I’ve ever directed, so I wanted to make sure that they had someone that they could talk to if they were like, I actually don’t really want to do this that way.

Even if they said, I actually can’t do this scene, I would have been okay with it. And I think that they knew that, and I think that trust that if they didn’t want to do it, I would say, okay, we’re not going to do it. I think that that helped them be more comfortable and be okay with saying how they felt and realizing that it’s a collaboration. And it’s not like my twisted fantasy.

For these two actors to portray intimacy, it was very essential to the story, and they knew that. And we had walked through it so many times and talked about it so many times. They talked about it with Kennedy separately from me. They talked about it with me.

They talked about it with each other. We rehearsed. So by the time we were on set, we knew exactly what we were going to do. We had the positions we wanted them to get into. Kennedy had a little Pilates ball that she put between them, and they had these undergarments that were made specifically for intimacy coordination and for a screen so that you couldn’t really see them.

So there’s always surfaces between them. There was, like a yoga mat that we put in between them at one point. And, yeah, I think the most challenging aspect of that intimate scene was my choice to have it take place on a dissecting table rather than a bed. But that was my artistic vision when I wrote the script, I felt that the table, with its history of various uses, added a twisted element to the scene. And, yeah, I thought it would be kind of hot, but also kind of scary. And I think that comes across.

They felt very safe, and I felt very safe. I feel like everybody communicated so much with each other that if there was any moment that someone wasn’t feeling great, they would be more than willing to say it.

At the heart of the movie is a flashback sequence that I don’t want to spoil except that it appeared to be filmed in Super 8mm. How did the planning and filming of it go? Did your cinematographer Harrison Kraft or camera assistant Eliza Dumas help you achieve that?

We filmed that Florida sequence. It’s supposed to be Louisiana, but we shot it in Florida because April’s family has a property down there. We were able to shoot in the backyard, like, everything was just there already. The trailer was there, the pond was there, and the hog trap was there.

So we shot that in March of this year. And I had always had it in my head that I wanted to shoot on Super 8 because I just felt like it would have this super nostalgic, really beautiful feeling. It’s an emotional part of the film, and I feel like because it’s Ash’s perspective. The rest of the film was all from Mark’s perspective. So I wanted it to be very different feeling and look.

So it was important to me that we shot it on film, shot it on Super Eight, and Harrison shot it. I have a camera, like a new Super 8 camera. It’s called Pro 8 Millimeter. So we used the camera, and Harrison and I talked a lot about it. I storyboarded the hell out of that.

It was a really small crew. It was me, Harrison, Danny Renaldi, who’s our gaffer on the film, and Jared Thomas. And then it was just April, her sister, who was her real sister in real life, who was already down there, and me. So it was a very small crew, and I think that the intimate nature of that sequence

 showed or shined, because it was such an intimate, small crew, and we did it all in two days. And, yeah, it’s my favorite part of the movie. Honestly.

What thoughts and emotions can you share about taking your film on the festival circuit?

I’m so happy that Cannibal Mukbang is hitting theaters and I love just sharing it with people. I love getting reactions, whether positive or negative, hopefully positive, but I just want the movie to elicit some sort of reaction or get an emotion out of people. So it really is very fulfilling for me that it’s finally out there after I’ve had this idea since 2020.

And so getting it out there has been major for me and I just really can’t wait for more people to see it. And I’m really excited about the festival circuit. We’re in the middle of it. October was crazy, but November is going to be crazy too. We have another screening tomorrow in Kentucky at Fright Night Film Fest.

We have a screening after that back in Austin at Ethereal Horror Fest, and then we have another one at Soho Horror Fest, and then back in Jersey. And then we’re going to go back to London for this other festival called Horror on the Sea. And I’m still waiting to hear back from a bunch of festivals.

So yeah, the magical Mystery tour continues and I want it to continue for another few months. I want it to have a really solid festival run, and I want as many people to get their eyes on it as they can. 

How have you been processing all the feedback to your film (good, bad, or “mixed”)?

A dreamlike still from the movie 'Cannibal Mukbang (2023)' showing a softly lit room with diffused sunlight coming through the windows. The scene features four figures in a hazy, surreal atmosphere. A woman with red hair sits regally on a furry throne in the center, dressed in a dark corset and skirt, her expression enigmatic. Surrounding her are three people in motion, all adorned in golden accents, with one blowing a cloud of dust or smoke, adding to the ethereal quality of the scene.
Cannibal Mukbang (2023), image courtesy of Aimee Kuge

So the feedback so far has been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve had some people not understand it or say that they didn’t like it, which is totally fine. People don’t like The Godfather. It’s a great movie, and it’s a movie everyone’s entitled to their own opinion of. And I think that’s the beauty of film.

And I think that’s the beauty of going to the cinema, is walking in there not knowing what to expect with a group of friends. And half of you are going to hate it, and half of you are going to love it, and that’s fun. I really want to make films that spark conversation, and I think that if you’re not arguing and you’re not having a conversation after the film, then for me it’s not good. I want people to have a conversation. If everybody loved the movie, then I would feel like I did something wrong, to be honest with you. So I welcome feedback and I welcome people to share their opinions. I think that’s one of the best things about making art and films. 

Since premiering the movie at the Brooklyn Horror Film Fest, did you have to make any tweaks to the film?

Oh, yeah. I mean, I’m going to be tweaking this thing probably till the day die. There are things that I noticed in the screening of Brooklyn Horror in particular, with the sound mix. Like, I noticed there was some extra moaning during a scene of intimacy, and I was like, okay, that wasn’t supposed to.

Like, that weirdly, is out of sync. So I took that out and I think that some of the stuff could have been a little louder. So I brought up the gain and brought up the volume on certain things and updated that on all the deliverables that I need to send to festivals that it’s going to be at and updated my film freeway account.

So there’s things that I’ll probably notice until I die. Even I need to fix the credits because there are some things I noticed on there that weren’t like, I was missing a person that I really wanted to put in and just stuff like that.

It’s a piece of art, and I think that almost every artist I know can relate to this. You want something to be perfect, but it’s probably never going to be. It’s probably going to be something that you notice years down the line, like, oh, I wish I would have fixed that.

A piece of advice I heard regarding any kind of creative endeavor was when you feel like you’ve reached 80%, that’s the moment to stop. Don’t even go for 90 or 100%. Have you ever had that feeling when you were making a movie?

Yeah, well, I think that for some reason I felt in my heart that I needed to release it this year. I had talked to a lot of people. And honestly, the film has gone through so many cuts. It was two and a half hours when I first started editing the rough cut, like the assembly, I and my co-editor had edited the film separately.

We did 50% each, and then we put it together on an assembly in Premiere Pro, and it was two and a half hours long. So we had gone through a lot of editing and a lot of reviews, and I sent it to a lot of people I trusted. And so I had my sort of, like, test screenings in that way.

Not like a big studio would rent out a theater. I don’t have the money for that. More just me sending links out, private links to people, and then getting their feedback.

So, yeah, I think that with your original question or statement about it being like, when you get to 80%, that’s when you need to just really push for it, rather than going all the way to 100. I totally agree with that.

I think there are things I wish that I could have added in or I could have changed, but then it’d be another year until Mukbang came out, and I felt in my heart that this was the right time to release it. So I’m really happy that I did it. I think that it taught me a lot, and I’m so grateful for every lesson I learned while making the film and that I’m still learning now.

 

By the time this interview was underway, Cannibal Mukbang scored four jury award wins at the New Orleans Screamfest. Aimee and April would pick up three more awards at the Northeast Film Festival Horror Fest, plus a “Best Director” win at the Atlanta Horror Film Festival.

If you’re one of those few people who don’t buy into all the luster of awards any more than review meters, then I still encourage you to see Cannibal Mukbang for yourself. When I saw this opening night, my trip to New York had left me with a lot of thoughts that were beyond the movie itself. Once I settled down to watch it, Aimee’s movie took charge. Meeting the work face to face, on her terms, was like being invited into her sweetest and wettest nightmare yet.    

Cannibal Mukbang will be playing at Panic Fest from April 5th to the 14th; if you can’t physically make the screenings, you can stream the film online! It’s a feature that I’m certain will be conversed about for years to come.

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Written by Jeff Ford

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