Watching a master at his craft has long been a tantalizing sight, in Greek amphitheaters long ago and seen from living rooms today. Reality television has continued the tradition, albeit crudely, with shows like Top Chef, Survivor, and Amazing Race. So has documentary film, in favorites like Spellbound and Mad Hot Ballroom. Yet those flicks largely won us over with cute kids. Kings of Pastry, the latest film from the celebrated and prolific film-making pair of Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (The War Room, Don’t Look Back), documents not young prodigies but adult masters of craft. There’s no contrived drama here—-just the raw focus and determination of highly skilled pastry chefs competing for coveted honors in the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition, acknowledged by a tri-colored chef’s collar. The relentless verite documenting from the husband-and-wife team yields frequent gasps—-as when delicately crafted sculptures shatter to pieces at the slightest touch. Whimsical French accordian music chimes in to remind us that these men are crafting wedding cakes and sugar sculptures, not diffusing bombs. I had a chance to chat with Hegedus and Pennebacker (whom the former warmly refers to as “Penny”) before their film opens at the West End Cinema tonight.
You have quite a diverse repertoire of films. Politics, music, now pastry? Do you see any underlying thematic thread that connects these films?
Chris Hegedus: I think a lot of our films are about people who are very passionate about what they do, whether they are musicians or politicians and I think this is not different in that way—-someone who knows how to do something well and is trying to take a risk in their life.
What led you to document the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France competition?
CH: I have a lot of pastry in my background. I have a grandfather who like a lot of the chefs in the film apprenticed when he was very young to a baker and then he came to the United States and he opened up two very high-end pastry shops in New York making his own signature chocolates and ice cream. I felt sort of a kinship to the subject matter but we heard of the topic from a friend of ours who decided to change careers and went to the French pastry school in Chicago and she told me about her teacher and the founder of the school Jacquy Pfeiffer who was going to compete in this very prestigious grueling three-day pastry contest to become the best pastry chef in France and it just sounded like an interesting idea for a film. So we decided to fly out to Chicago to meet Chef Pfeiffer and his partner Sebastien Canonne and we met them and it just seemed like an interesting film. First of all, if you win this competition you get to wear this tri-colored collar that signifies that you’re the best and Sebastian had the color and Sebastian didn’t. Initially we saw it a bit like a buddy story, kind of like the War Room with James Carville and George Stephanopoulos or even this film Startup.com which I did of these two internet entrepreneurs, although in the end of the film, it didn’t progress in the buddy story way but it was our initial inspiration.
Competition as a narrative thread has been used frequently in documentaries of late. Fllicks like Mad Hot Ballroom, Spellbound, Racing Dreams come first to mind. What are the advantages of documenting a competition in non-fiction film?
D.A. Pennebaker: If you could hire a bunch of actors and do what these guys could did you’d probably be crazy not to. It gives you control over the plot and the story and everything else. Our aim is not to have that kind of a story. In fact, what I find interesting is documenting something which it isn’t a competition but when you expect everything to turn out a certain way and you’re not sure it will. To watch what happens when aspects of fate enter in. The whole concept of theater is generally based on everything working out, the script being placed out. So everybody knows what’s going to happen before. In the case of documenting, you have no idea what’s going to happen, and that makes the uncertainty of it makes it real for the filmmakers as well as for the people involved. That’s an interesting aspect of documentary that the fiction film can almost never duplicate.
What’s it like working on a film as husband and wife? What is your work flow like? Is it just the two of you, with one on camera and the other on sound? Do you have delineated roles or do they fluctuate?
DAP: It’s just like cooking a long meal. The outcome is the thing. It doesn’t matter how much you work. If nobody wants to eat it, you’re back to the drawing board. And it’s kind of the same. You share what you know how to do. And I think you try to make it as pleasant as possible because you like the person you’re doing it with. And if you didn’t, you probably wouldn’t want to do it with them. It seems such an absolutely irresistible thing to do with somebody is to make something that’s hard to make and have it come out. What could be a more marvelous thing. It’s like giving them a diamond ring. It’s fantastic!
CH: I think its wonderful to have a partner and share it with them. You spend so much of your life making these films and it’s such an intense thing, it’s great to share. The hard part usually comes during the editing process because that’s a lot more subjective. We tend to get divorced during that aspect of it a couple times. Usually we figure it out in the end, and I have to say Pennebaker is very patient and kind of giving in to me. But during the process, and we’ve done it different ways through the years, we both shoot and in the past if we were shooting a concert or something, we would both shoot. Many times, I would take sound and Penny would shoot because he used to be not a good sound recordist. On this film, I probably shot the majority of this film. But it was still great to have a partner. And then when we shot the competition, a collaborator that we’ve done a lot of films with, came along and shot in the kitchen.
DAP: The thing is you don’t need a lot of people to make a film. You can have a lot of people. If someone puts a lot of money onto you, they’ll also hire a lot of people, I don’t know why. The fact is that a lot of the films we’ve made have been made with only three of us making it. You don’t need a lot of people and I think its easier in some ways to make a hard film the fewer people you have. You know that’s not an idea that gets a lot of encouragement in the business.
Do either of you speak French?
CH: No, neither of us speak French although we can read a bit of French. We brought with us our friend Flora Lazar who was our original connection to the film and she spoke some French and we all made our way. Luckily, most of the competition, they are focused and not talking. That kind of was a blessing for people who don’t speak French. I found the editing process to be very difficult. I know a lot of filmmakers make films in other countries without speaking the language and I found it to be a huge challenge to edit it. It created another couple of months of time that I wouldn’t have otherwise had on the film.
You’ve been making documentaries for 35-plus years. What has changed about non-fiction film-making over the years?
DAP: Technically of course it’s gone from the horse to the airplane. When I started, there was no camera. We had to build our own camera so you could sync sound and have the camera become quiet. That was beginning way back in the bullrushes. The making of the film, the conceptual aspects of the theatrics haven’t really changed much. We’re still after the same sort of thing. You have a stage and you’re going to put some people on it that nobody else has seen before. So you have to make them knowable and rememberable so that throughout the film, people will know who’s who and you won’t have to put a label on them. You want them to talk to each other. You want the action driven by dialogue. You don’t want to have to have it narrated by someone to tell you what’s happening. You want what you see on the stage in a good play. A story that has a beginning middle and end that tells you something about the world or life or whatever. It’s hard to find in reality. People don’t live lives of desperation and drama endlessly so you have to find a story that’s about to happen because you want to witness the story. You don’t want to be told about it. You want to see it happen in front of you. So you depend a lot on luck and chance. You’re lucky sometimes and sometimes you’re not.
CH: I can’t even remember the question, you’ve gone so far…..
DAP: I know (laughs). She wants to know what’s changed.
CH: Ah. I think what you were saying about the equipment was a major change for me. I had no idea how a woman could direct films when I started. There were so few role models that I really think of it as a career. I was making initially art films because there were some women artists that were doing that type of thing and I started in that way and luckily I came of age when some of the early 16mm equipment was just being professionally manufactured, so people were looking to rent it and get their hands on it. It was all very exclusive and expensive, so you really look to collaborate with people. That’s really how I started with Penny. The technology has really changed and it’s put the art form in the hands of the masses. You know, people and cultures that always had white men talking to them can really make their own stories and it’s always about telling stories and this has made it a more universal medium.
The feelings of watching a sugary sculpture shatter to pieces was heart wrenching as a viewer. What was it like being there and knowing the characters? Is it difficult to stay behind the camera and not run over and give them a big hug?
CH: I was the person who shot that scene and it’s hard because when things happen to your characters that you don’t like and beyond things breaking for them, it’s whether they win or lose, you tend to want to just put down your camera and just hug them but at the same time you’re making a film. And when you have drama in a film, it’s a gift for a filmmaker so it crosses both ways. So you’re there with a very complicated mix of emotions but you have your job in front of you. But actually at that moment, you could see all the chefs in the kitchen—-this is what I was shocked about — looked up for one second and then went back to it because they were all just rushing the clock; they had seconds left and they had to take advantage of it.
Tell me about the sweets. In the field, did you get a chance to taste them and if so, describe your absolute favorite.
CH: Of all of our favorites was the initial domed chocolate wedding cake.
DAP: The cake that got thrown away!
CH: I think if we knew him better we would have gone in the garbage and pulled it out. It was just wonderful. Every bite was a different texture and sugary and creaminess and butter! You really learned how to taste things when you’re in French Pastry School and it’s a lot like wine tasting except that you’re tasting really exquisite pastries and chocolates and getting every sensation.
Tell me about a serendipitous moment in making this film, when the film gods were upon you. Tell me about a time when everything you planned went wrong.
CH: It goes completely wrong all the time but it’s a little like childbirth where you try to forget those moments. I’m sure there were plenty of instances in that particular competition where we missed different things; certainly nothing as dramatic as that moment. It’s a process of luck and working really hard so that you’re there when things happen.
DAP: It’s kind of like a horse race. You have a sense of how it will turn out because you know all the people involved but the element of chance is so strong in any kind of competition and in life itself in fact. He’s a character that’s coming in and making everything more dramatic but you can’t depend on when he’ll come or even if he’ll come. The idea that chance is also a character is kind of unusual. Fiction films don’t usually do that.
CH: We were pretty devastated after the competition ended, but if you give it time, life fills in the gaps and things make their own way and I think in the end that’s what happened in this film.
Is it these moments where you just don’t know what happens that keeps you going over 30 years?
CH: I would say that gets you gray hair.
DAP: It gives you a sense that you’re competing yourself in a real world; that you’re not in the world of writing a script and having people do what you want them to. You’re in a world where people do what they want to do and that’s the one you have to deal with. You can’t turn away from it or change it. It reinforces your determination if you can go through and do it this way. It’s not a place for weak hearts.
CH: I’m not sure if it’s what keeps us going through the years not knowing what happens but I think it’s that risk of not knowing what happens that bonds you with the people you’re filming because they can see that it’s a risk for us as well and I think that a lot of times that shows them that we’re really serious. You’re sharing something and I think that’s one of the keys to making these films and getting access. People really understand and feel that people really respect what you’re doing.
DAP: It’s the idea of that you don’t just rush into people’s lives and film it and then run off with it. The film belongs as well to them as it does to you. It’s not a thing that you run away with. If they understand that, then they are happy for it to be a part of their lives. And they don’t feel misused. And that’s an important aspect of it. I think the attitude contributes a lot to the way people view these films from within.
Do you still stay in touch with the characters that you’ve documented?
CH: On and off we are. You tend to kind of be in the circle of the latest film. Right now we tend to be in the culinary circle and we’ve seen Jacquy Pfeiffer. We had a funny thing happen where we were on the Good Morning America show with George Stephanopolous. We had the meeting of our two subjects there which was kind of an interesting moment. Jacquy made a huge five foot sculpture in a film theme, so he made all film reels of sprocketed film. It was just a beautiful structure made all out of sugar.