It Burns: In Conversation with Marc Fennell
Cover Image: Isabella Meagher | @kovvu
Marc Fennell’s media career has spanned over a decade and traversed numerous mediums. You may know Fennell as a presenter on The Feed (SBS), or formerly as That Movie Guy on triple j. This year Fennell shares with the world a new type of project with, ‘It Burns: The Scandal-Plagued Race to Breed the World’s Hottest Chilli’ (an Audible Original). It Burns is an episodic podcast that travels across countries and takes us behind the scenes of competitive chilli eating and breeding. For a story about chilli you wouldn’t expect it to come with the intensity of international conflict, world records, and accusations of cheating, but It Burns tackles the drama at the heart of this subculture of society head on. The series goes far beyond the hottest chillies in the world and explores how people interact with pain and define themselves by online community.
For me, listening to the series was addicting as chilli is for the characters within it. I binged it in one sitting and was intrigued by this world into which Fennell had given us a peek. I had to know more. Preparing to interview someone who is a professional interviewer was daunting. However, as soon as our chat started, Marc put me at total ease. Naturally chatty, conversation flowed, and banter ensued. We discussed It Burns and delved into the motivations of the community that drove the creation of the podcast. We also spoke more broadly about Marc’s passion for storytelling and how It Burns has been a turning point in his ever-changing media career.
I wanted to ask you about where your passion for storytelling came from, and what drew you to this particular story?
So I had a bit unusual pathways into journalism at the best of times—like I was a film critic for over a decade. And my pathway into stories like this is actually through interviews. Because, over the last sort of six years most of my work—particularly on The Feed—has been about one-on-one interviews, so when I’m approaching stories it always comes down to characters. You don’t know what the story is until you find characters. I think a background in six or seven years worth of doing one-on-one interviews, and crafting a story through a conversation, which is ultimately what all TV and radio interview is. It’s: can it have a beginning, can it have a middle, can it have an end? Can it take you somewhere, can it make you feel something? And you do that in conversations. So my pathway into all stories is always through people. So if I can find a person who is themselves on an arc or on a journey then we can find the story.
This particular one was very fascinating though, because I had known that there had been some controversy around the World Records’ hottest chilli for a while because years and years ago on the first season of The Feed a friend of mine, Nick, did a story on the world’s hottest chilli and I’d sort of known it was there and been around, but I didn’t realise just how deep and how twisted it was.
Why do you think these chilli growers, or the fanatics who engage in the community, take it so seriously?
I think that’s a really good question. And, even after spending all this time covering it, I think the answer sort of varies from person to person. I think for some of them there’s a really legitimate financial benefit to it, so certainly Ed has built a business out of it. But even for him before it was it was a business, it seemed to be linked to a sense of personal salvation for him. But when it comes to other people I think there’s an element of nationalism. We all look to a handful of things to define ourselves, right? Some people it’ll be their job, for other people it will be their family, for some it will be a sport, or a team. We accept those things. We accept that, some people define themselves by a hobby or they’ve defined themselves by an obsession. All that separates this is that it was an unusual obsession. An obsession sort of wrapped up in some complications of pain, and also wrapped up in a very legitimate battle for the Guinness World Record. That what’s makes it strange. I think what I found fascinating about it is that it was an enormous amount of drama over something that seems, to an outsider, relatively inconsequential, and I think that was the lead-in point for me.
I think it’s really interesting what you’re touching on there about those personal motivations. In terms of the people who engage in these professional chilli-eating competitions, what is their line, do you think, between pain and pleasure?
I think for some people the high is an aspect of it. I will say that for an enormous number of people that compete in chilli-eating competitions it’s just good, old-fashioned peer pressure. Like their mate said, “I reckon you can’t do this,” and then like, “get out.” And then they regretted it. And there’s a lot of people that are like that. It’s the repeat offenders that are different. So, one guy was a multiple winner in Arizona at this particular chilli-eating competition I went to. And he and I were just talking on the side, and he explained that he’s got a very high tolerance for it, and he’s an old guy, he’s an army veteran, and for him it was just something he could do that others could not. And that was enough.
The thing that I took away from that is: in a world which is kind of cruel and not looking to give you a handout, if you have something, if you have anything that you can have a sense of ownership over, that you can feel like you are better than somebody else at people will gravitate towards it. It was just fascinating that it was wrapped up in an enormous amount of pain.
What about the monetary prize aspect of it?
There is not a lot of financial gain. I can’t remember exactly how much they were competing for but it was somewhere between $200 and $500. It’s not an enormous amount of money.
You weren’t going to send your kids to college on it.
No. Although there was one woman who I’ve referenced in an episode of the podcast, who was raising money for her sister that was going through breast cancer, and knowing what we know about the healthcare system in America, that’s helpful. Every bit helps, I’m sure.
Why do you think that it’s mostly a male community?
I think there’s a prevailing thought in masculinity—dare I say it, possibly even toxicness to a degree—that masculinity can be defined through pain. There’s phrases like, “No pain, no gain.” I think there is still an aspect of masculinity in 2019 that seeks to define men through their ability to sustain pain. I mean, it’s hard, we’re speaking in very big generalised terms, at risk of sounding hashtag not all men. I do think that there is still a strong, slightly boofhead, component to a lot of men out in the world and I think this speaks to that.
What I found particularly fascinating doing the series is actually actively seeking out women that compete in this area and asking them what they thought. One woman was saying often she would find men she was competing against kind of appealed to her sensitivity, and she’s an amazing woman but she was just like, “No! I’m here to win!”
With this community, how do you think it forms? Is it only possible in an online world where everyone’s connected, or have you seen other examples where these kind of communities have just naturally formed?
I think that’s a subtext to the whole series, that this is a community that was relatively benign until the internet became a part of it. And the internet, maybe both because of its speed and because it allows people to pick sides, I think that has made it easier for it to become toxic because people can throw things around at each other with very little consequence. Because in large part online discourse is all words. And I think that’s something that you wouldn’t have gotten in a pre-internet era, because it would have been harder. The barrier of entry for abuse would have been higher. I think that is an example of the way in which the speed and the ease of the internet has lubricated some of our worst impulses as human beings. I think this is a pretty good example of that in action.
I know that you’ve worked on a number of different projects, so what was different about creating It Burns in comparison to other projects you’ve worked on?
Great question. So often what I do is built with one person. It’s like, I am interviewing one person and it’s about how much focus can I build on that. And how much information can I build into that one interaction. But when you add up all the episodes, It Burns is the length of a feature film, and it covers three different countries. How it was made was sort of interesting in the sense that I was in Australia and then in the US, but the production team I was working with was primarily based in the UK. So I’m also doing these meetings sort of between 10pm and 1am, working through scripts and other interviews, so I was working with a chain in some ways.
With The Feed, it’s almost all me. I don’t shoot it, but definitely I produce it, I research it, I cut it, I do everything ’cause I’m a control freak that way. And even when I was at triple j, I would write it, produce it, mix it, and load it. I came up through community radio and so you get used to, and good at, doing everything yourself and I loved that flexibility. But what was great about working with this team that had people from quite different disciplines, from different countries, to craft a story. I had a really clear idea going into it about what I wanted it to sound like and the emotions that I wanted to convey, but having to work with a bigger team and convey what you want was a really good experience, because I had never done it before and I think in future I’m going to be doing more of that sort of stuff, so it was good in terms of teaching me how to convey ideas. And I was very lucky in the sense that I ended up working with a really talented group of people.
I think it taught me the value of trust. Because if you’re working with people, in order to delegate you actually just need to really trust a set of ears and a set of eyes outside your own. And if you don’t have that trust, it makes it quite toxic quite quickly. So I was lucky with this one having extremely good people that could point out when I was getting things wrong. I’ve worked on other projects with other people, and you’re like, “Oh, wow, there’s no trust there.” So I think it really taught me that the heart of all collaborations is finding people that don’t always just agree with you. You want somebody that you trust has great taste and great instincts, and you can sharpen each other, if that makes sense?
Yeah, totally. What was your main takeaway from the whole experience?
You know, that’s an interesting point. It taught me that I love telling stories where I have a small doorway into a big world, and I think that’s an area that took me a while to define what it was. This was a quirky, small, entryway, to some very big ideas about bodies, and the internet, and pain, all these big things, big ideas. And it had moments of broad insanity and sadness and whenever I’m working on something, I’m often looking for those emotions. I’m looking for laughter and I’m looking for tears and I’m looking for surprises and I’m looking for something that you don’t expect, those are the sorts of emotions that I most gravitate towards.
I just sort of was curious to know if I could tell a story that lasts a feature film length.
So it was interesting to see if that was a thing that I could do, and I’ve been really fascinated to read the feedback. And I’ve gotta tell you, being a film critic for a decade, reading reviews of your own work is terrifying.Because you know it’s an essential part of the process, you know you just have to take it, but at the same time it’s like “Oh, God! I am not ready for this.”
I’ve had a number of different careers in the media over the years, so I like challenging myself, I like trying new things, and some of it has worked and some of it hasn’t! And becoming okay with that is an important process ’cause if you end up in a media career, what you do will change every two or three years, that’s just how it goes now. Getting used to that elasticity and getting used to jumping headlong into something new and just seeing if it’s going to work, is an important thing to get comfortable with, so it was sort of scary in a sense, because it’s like, can it be done, is it going to be shit? I don’t know. But it seems to have landed okay.
Finally, can you describe eating the Carolina Reaper chilli in three words?
Never again, thank you. Does “thank you” count as one word?
After reading this you would be a total silly billy to not listen to It Burns, and uncover the full story in all its spicy glory. Download it here, free for a limited time.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.