Over the past few years, documentary filmmaker Douglas Tirola has brought us some of the most inspired documentary films in recent memory. His latest project is absolutely no exception. ‘Hey Bartender’ is the spellbinding tale of how the renaissance of the bartender comes to be in the era of the craft cocktail. The documentary focuses on two bartenders trying to achieve their dreams through bartending. After being injured, a former Marine (Steve Schneider) turns his goals to becoming a principal bartender at the best cocktail bar in New York City. A young man (Steve “Carpi” Carpentieri) leaves his white-collar job to buy the corner bar in his hometown. Years later, he struggles to keep it afloat in a community that no longer values a place where everyone knows your name. For the film, Tirola had unprecedented access to the most exclusive bars in New York City and around the country, with commentary from Graydon Carter, Danny Meyer, Frank Pellegrino (Rao’s) and Amy Sacco. The results are nothing short of a spectacular ride into the world of one of the world’s most intriguing and under-appreciated professions. Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently sat down with Douglas Tirola to discuss the origins of the film, the challenges involved in bringing it to the silver screen and what lies in store for him in the months to come!
Thanks for taking time out to talk to us today, Doug. We are big fans of your work!
Thanks for being so willing to do something to support the film. I really appreciate that!
First of all, I wanted to give our readers some background on you. What initially intrigued you about the world of filmmaking?
I have always enjoyed movies. I did not grow up running around with a camera in my backyard. I liked movies. My Mom always takes about a day when as a kid, it was rainy and I went to two movies in one day. Apparently, I was amazed and must have thought it was a law that you couldn’t see two movies in a day! [laughs] From then on, I went to a lot of movies! An opportunity, a total accident, came to me where I got to be a production assistant, when I was in school, on “When Harry Met Sally”. They were filming in New York and I just immediately fell in love with the whole idea of working on movies. I liked the process, the people who worked on the movie, the challenges and problem-solving that go into making movies, working with all of the different elements from visuals to sound, the people in front of the camera and all of the things that go on behind the camera that bring those moments to life. I really love the process! I like the entire process of making films! I think part of that has to when I started in the business on studio films, I think I worked around a great group of men and women who became mentors. I think that is part of my attraction to the subject matter in “Hey Bartender,” because the mentor/protegé relationship is so alive in that world and so important in that world. I think it is one of the things that it has in common with the film world. That is what I like about it.
You touched on your influences. Who were some of those people both visually as a director or even some of the mentors you eluded to?
I think the mentors might be not as well known because they are day-to-day producers, which are commonly referred to as line producers or people who have producer or co-producer credits. I would say Joe Hartwick, who is now the president of digital production at FOX, a guy named Robert Greenhut, who is probably best know for producing most of Woody Allen’s most beloved films. There is Michael Hausman, who produced many David Mamet movies but even more recently produced “Brokeback Mountain.” In terms of filmmakers, there are certainly older movies that I love and filmmakers I appreciate. For me, I think they are from a time when I first started to become obsessed or fell in love with film. It is like asking someone about their favorite music. Usually, it seems to stem from a time when they got their first stereo, up until the end of college. Most people don’t have a favorite band who they just found when they are forty! Or even thirty for that matter. I love Bob Fosse and “All That Jazz” is definitely the inspiration for a sequence in “Hey Bartender” where there is slow motion and where we heard the sound design of the slow motion of the shaker, stirring and all of that. I also love Hal Ashby. To say you love Francis Ford Coppola is not surprising anybody! [laughs] Just around the time when I first started to think maybe I could find a way to work on movies, I discovered my love the Jim Jarmusch movies. I know exactly what theater I saw “Strangers In Paradise” in! I loved the early Spike Lee movies. There is also a filmmaker that is often forgotten, Alex Cox. he made “Sid and Nancy” and “Repo Man”. “Sid and Nancy” is an incredible movie, just in terms of storytelling. I wouldn’t call myself a David Lynch fan but “Blue Velvet” was certainly a big influence on me and is a movie I probably saw ten times in the theater. Those were probably the people who mean a lot to me, along with another cliche — Woody Allen. His movies from “Annie Hall” to “Hannah and Her Sisters” in terms of dialog are incredible. It is like when someone asks you “What are your five favorite films?” You immediately want to say “Do you have room for thirty of them?” [laughs]
As we mentioned, your latest film is “Hey Bartender”. How did you cross paths with the resurgence of the craft cocktail and resurrection of the bartender?
It came on my radar because I had been a regular at a bar in New York called The Spring Lounge. I had a bartender, who I would visit on many of his nights, a guy named Aldo Dean. He ended up getting married and moving to Memphis to open a place called Bardog’s. At that point, I was roaming all around and didn’t have a home bar at that point. I was bar-less! Someone told me about Employee’s Only. It was a couple of blocks from where I lived. I taught a class at The New School in screenwriting for a couple years and I would always go out for a couple of drinks afterwards. Employees Only had been suggested to me because it had an old look and feel to it. I went and immediately loved it! I met a lot of people through the process. My process, coming from a writing background, is that I immediately want to go interview people and see if there is something there. By the time I got finished with the interviews with those interviews, I knew we had a movie. I knew this was a story that had not been told. I consider myself someone who knows about going out a lot, bars and nightlife. That being said, I wasn’t aware that it was such a growing thing. You are aware that someplace’s drinks are better than another’s but it is almost political in a sense where people really believed what they were doing was really changing the perception of bar-tending and the craft in general. You just know when you come across a good idea! It is like when people pitch you movie ideas and when you finally hear one that is good, you are like “That is a good idea!” You just know it! As soon as I was hearing what they had to say about their profession, I thought “This is a movie and if I haven’t heard about this story, there are probably a lot of people who haven’t and it is a great story to tell now.” I had an affection for bartending and bar culture in general, so that made it easier to decide to do but I had not heard the mythology to it. I think we caught it just at the right time. Certainly, it was already happening but one of the parameters I talk about is after we started filming near the holidays. I remember being at William & Sonoma, at the time, there was one shaker, some stirs and not really much in the bar area. Last year, I was back in there doing some holidays shopping and there is an entire wall of bar stuff! That says it right there! Not that I go to liquor stores often, I don’t drink at home that much, but when you do go to get something, the amount of brands of spirits, the categories of tequila, gins and whiskeys have grown by leaps in bounds in the past three years. I think we caught it at the right time.
Tell us a little about how you crossed paths with some of the people who ended up being the focal points of this film.
I think what happens when you do something like this, it is very much word of mouth. In other words, if somebody agrees to be interviewed, even if they have done the research and they say “Oh, this guy made a couple of other movies that other people think are ok.” I remember one of the bartenders came to a movie of ours that opened last year about poker, “All In: The Poker Movie,” and he really liked it. However, they know just because you have made one good movie, it doesn’t mean you are going to make another. It is purely a leap of faith. I think what happened is that when we would do these interviews, a lot of bartenders are used to being interviewed about drink-making. There is a cocktail media, so to speak and foodie media. I think they heard the questions we were asking and realized we were going for the bigger, more philosophical, more in-depth look at the world of bartending. What we happen was we would interview somebody and they would say “You have to go meet this person.” or “You have gone to talk to this person yet?” We would do the interviews, we would get to know them and identify who the stories were. It was a process of finding who’s personal story could really say what we wanted to say about the subject. Certainly as a filmmaker, in my mind, you are always trying to get to a place were you are talking about the subject so specifically and in such a pure manner that it transcends the subject and you start to reflect on things in society and culture at large. That is what my idea of when documentary filmmaking is at it’s best — when it transcends the significance of what you are talking about and starts to talk about bigger ideas. In this case, you just meet people, hear their stories and it starts to stick out to you. I think the idea of having Steve Carpentieri, “Carpi” as he is known in the movie, was a good decision. It was a good decision and certainly one we thought about a lot. We wanted to talk about the culture of the corner bar but there were times we weren’t sure if that was a side note or part of the main story. At one point, I remember, we showed the film to a group of people as a part of our process. I remember somebody saying, “What is the guy in the polo shirt who lives out in the suburbs doing in this movie with the rockstar bartenders from New York City?” So, we created a cut of the film without him in it. Even though someone I respect a lot had made that suggestion, it was just not the movie I wanted to make. I wanted to talk about all of bartending and all of bar culture. These worlds do really intersect and that is how the decision to have Steve in the movie came to be.
Is there something as a director that you hoped to accomplish technically or stylistically with this film which you might not have attempted in your earlier work? If so, what challenges were involved?
That is great question. I think the movie started out at one level to be a tipping point story. I like documentaries that talk about a thing that was happening — like New Wave or Punk Rock for example. Movies that show “There is this cool thing happening and you don’t know about it!” The film makes it look like it is so widespread and the most important thing happening in the word at that moment because the movie is focusing on it. That is what we started out to do initially but then I just realized this film really needed to be about bartending. For me, I think part of the challenge was combining the essay part of the movie where you are telling the history of bartending but in an engaging and entertaining way. You need that information because not everyone is going to show up with that information. Most people don’t know that professional bartending was well respected before prohibition and hasn’t fully revcovered in the seventy years following prohibition. Because the film was focusing on bartenders, most people have some experience with a bartender, so that meant we really needed to find a couple of characters. Typically you have a documentary that is a straight format with six talking heads with other footage is one of the mainstay formats or you are following a character, are invisible and not talking to them. I think trying to sweep those two ideas on documentary filmmaking into one, because more and more it is either one or the other, was challenging. For the story I wanted to tell, I thought this was the way to do it. You have two stories, one about each bartender who we are following around and talking to at times, and the other aspect was more interview based. I felt it lent itself to the subject of bartending. In general, I like to hear from a lot of voices. That is another stylistic touch that I like and think brings something extra to a movie. One of my favorite movies is “American Graffiti”. I remember reading at one point that it was the movie with the most speaking parts in it. I always wonder if that was the influence for the idea that I wanted to explore. Even if you only have someone in there for two or three lines, my belief is that having them in there tells the audience that we really did our homework. We went all over the place to get answers and get information for the audience, to seek out what the real truth about the subject. I like the idea of hearing these outside commentators when you are covering this sort of community or world. In “All In: The Poker Movie,” we had Doris Kearns Goodwin, Frank Deford and Matt Damon. Those three people are not professional poker players but they give a great background and commentary for that world. In this movie, even though they are not bartenders, Graydon Carter, Danny Meyer and award winning playwright A.R. Gurney bring their knowledge to the film. In leaving those voices in there was also a challenge. I think it is a challenge because you immediately wonder if people will say “What are these guys doing in there?” or “Why do they have to have these people in here just for a couple of thoughts?” To me, it brings some greater truth to the subject because it shows how all of these different people have a similar world view of restaurants, bartenders and the hospitality industry. Even though they are only in there for a little bit, I believe the audience feels their residue beyond those moments because they know the filmmakers spoke to these people and included their thoughts in there. The filmmakers were certainly informed, even by the conversations not on screen, with their ideas which helped them come up with the thesis for their movie. I think those are always challenging decisions because of the immediate reaction that occurs when you start to include a lot of people in a documentary. I like hearing from a lot of people, so maybe it is all “American Graffiti’s” fault! [laughs]
You have evolved quite a bit with each of your projects. Where do you see you work going next?
Right now, we are in the middle of our next documentary and that is about “National Lampoon”. It follows the story of “National Lampoon” from the founders who were members of “The Harvard Lampoon” in the late 60s, Douglas Kennedy and Henry Beard and how it became a successful and incredibly influential magazine. It also follows how the first cast and head writers of “Saturday Night Live” came from “National Lampoon.” “National Lampoon” became this entertainment juggernaut with “Animal House” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and how it eventually imploded. We were joking the other day and trying to figure out if there were any themes to these things. The only thing I could think of is that people who operate in a way and in a world that may be a little outside of the norm of society. Certainly the humor in what “National Lampoon” was doing at the time, even when you read it now, is pretty avante garde and outside the mainstream. Of course, those ideas became what mainstream comedy is today. One of the quotes we have about “Animal House” specifically is “What The Godfather did for dramas and Jaws did for action movies, Animal House did for comedy.” It is a really great story. That is our focus at the moment. We are also working on something that has to do with art house movie theaters and the people who run them. That is very interesting. You are always looking for good stories. For me, it isn’t can we find another good one but how will we find time to do all of these movies!
That is a good problem to have!
Thank you so much for your time today, sir. We look forward to spreading the word on all you have going on!
Thank you so much!
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.