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Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | “Hot Coffee” Director Susan Saladoff

Meet the 2011 Sundance Filmmakers | "Hot Coffee" Director Susan Saladoff

For many Americans, the famous McDonald’s coffee case has become emblematic of the frivolous lawsuits that clog our courts and stall our justice system. Or is that exactly what McDonald’s wants us to think? Enter intrepid filmmaker Susan Saladoff. Using the now-infamous legal battle over a spilled cup of coffee as a springboard into investigating our civil-justice system, Saladoff exposes the way corporations have spent millions distorting this case to promote tort reform. Big business has brewed an insidious concoction of manipulation and lies to protect its interests, and media lapdogs have stirred the cup.

Following four people whose lives have been devastated by their inability to access the courts, this searing documentary unearths the sad truth that most of our beliefs about the civil-justice system have been shaped or bought by corporate America. Informative, entertaining, and a stirring call to action, “Hot Coffee” will make your blood boil. [Synopsis courtesy of the Sundance Institute]

“Hot Coffee”
U.S. Documentary Competition
Director: Susan Saladoff
Producer: Carly Hugo, Alan Oxman, Susan Saladoff
Composer: Michael Mollura
Cinematographer: Martina Radwan
Editor: Cindy Lee
Coproducer: Rebecca Saladoff
Researchers: Prudence Arndt, Reniqua Allen

Responses courtesy of “Hot Coffee” director Susan Saladoff.

A legal approach to the filmmaking process…

I practiced law for over 20 years before becoming a filmmaker. In 2001, I represented a woman with severe short-term memory from a brain injury, and I knew that the defense counsel would not fully comprehend the extent of my client’s injury simply by meeting her. I decided to spend three days with her with a camera, found old footage, interviewed her family and made a 46-minute film that I used to help resolve the case. From that experience, I learned how effective stories could be told through film. I also loved the filmmaking process, and was hooked.

McDonald’s, coffee, and your constitutional rights…

I represented injured people in the civil courts as a trial lawyer for many years. I wanted to help people who were wrongly harmed by no fault of their own. For most of those years, it was difficult to find an unbiased jury. Many believed that there were too many frivolous lawsuits and that injured people were trying to cash in on so-called “jackpot justice.” What most people used as the basis for their beliefs was the case of a woman who spilled coffee on her lap, sued McDonald’s, and got a big verdict. The McDonald’s coffee case is the most famous case in the world, and yet almost everyone has it wrong. Why is that, and who has profited from that belief system? I made “Hot Coffee” to try to open people’s minds about the importance of our legal system, which is a fundamental right that we have. The movie not only challenges people’s long held beliefs about the McDonald’s coffee case, but also how people are giving up their Constitutional rights every day without even knowing it.

Telling the story…

I made this film in a similar way to the way that I would try a case. Instead of a client, however, I found fascinating people whose stories illustrated the points that I wanted to convey in the film. I started by writing an outline of what I wanted the movie to look like. I knew that the film had to start with the truth of the McDonald’s coffee case. I was able to secure the transcript of the trial, and then went to Albuquerque where the case was tried, located the family, the lawyers, jurors, the doctor, and started talking to as many people as possible who would talk to me. I determined who would be the best “witnesses” to tell the story. I brought a camera and sound crew and started filming, first the infamous drive-thru at McDonald’s and then the memories of the people involved. For each of the four cases presented in the film, I used verité footage of each “character,” along with expert opinions, and archival footage to tell each story, not unlike how I would present evidence to a jury at trial.

A learning process…

Although I had made a few shorts for legal cases, I really didn’t have any idea how to go about making a feature film. I didn’t even know the language.What is a DP, verité, what does a producer do versus the director? It was literally a learning process at every step. I made an extended trailer and traveled throughout the country from house party to house party showing the trailer and raising money. It has been a challenge but a lot of fun, and I have met so many great people along the way who have supported this project and me.

A valuable umbrella…

I went to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to interview people at an annual summit for “tort reform.” I asked to film inside the meeting, but was denied, so I told them I would be outside trying to talk to people as they were going in or coming out. It was raining that morning when we arrived. Soon after we started, someone from the Chamber was kind enough to give us an umbrella. What we didn’t realize was that the umbrella said “U.S. Chamber of Commerce” on it. All morning in the rain, people were talking to us. By the afternoon, however, it had stopped raining so we didn’t have the umbrella up any more and people stopped talking to us. I did not realize until later that the people talking to us in the morning probably thought that we were with the Chamber because of the umbrella.

“Hot Coffee” director Susan Saladoff. Image courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

A film that inspires dialogue…

When people see this film, I hope they will be mesmerized because their long held and strong beliefs about our court system will be challenged. I think they will laugh, cry and get angry, and I hope they will want to take action. I think people will come out of this film wanting to debate each other and will be talking about this film for hours if not days. They will also be better-informed consumers of the media and of issues that they will be asked to vote on in years to come.

Joining the ranks of recent documentaries…

I have been inspired by the many documentaries in the last several years that have taken an important issue in our lives, and presented it in a way that was entertaining and informative. Some that come to mind are “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Sicko,” “Food Inc.,” “Who Killed the Electric Car,” “Enron..” just to name a few. I hope “Hot Coffee” will join that kind of list in the future.

Another legal doc…

In my travels promoting and raising money for this film, I have come across fascinating people with inspirational stories. While on a panel along the way, I heard a story that I hope will be my next film. It also involves the legal system but in a very different way from Hot Coffee. Can’t say much more now.

[indieWIRE invited directors with films in the Sundance U.S. Dramatic & Documentary Competitions as well as the World Dramatic & Documentary Competitions and NEXT section to submit responses in their own words about their films. These profiles are being published through the beginning of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. To prompt the discussion, iW asked the filmmakers about what inspired their films, the challenges they faced and other general questions. They were also free to add additional comments related to their projects.]

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