Hot Docs ’15: Secret ingredient adds spice to “For Grace”

Originally conceived as a web video about luxury dining for the Chicago Tribune, For Grace (pictured) evolved into a four-year, feature-length passion project for two directors thanks to a revelatory plot twist.
April 29, 2015

A movie that started its life as web content for a newspaper evolved into a four-year, feature-length passion project for two directors, thanks to that tried and true cinematic device: the plot twist.

Co-directed by the Chicago Tribune‘s dining reporter Kevin Pang and filmmaker Mark Helenowski, For Grace (pictured) is the latest in a string of documentaries to train a lens on a superstar chef.

The film follows Chicago’s Curtis Duffy as he prepares to open his restaurant Grace. Already a recipient of two stars from the Michelin Guide, Duffy worked for the city’s elite culinary minds before deciding to strike out on his own and up his star count to three.

News that he was setting up his own high-end eatery created a buzz across Chicago and the restaurant world, which is what partially led Pang to pitch his editors at the Tribune on a 15-minute video about the detail that goes into designing a luxury dining establishment, from blueprints and carpet tests to little pillows on the tables for diners’ cellphones.

“I’m lucky to work at a place where they give me a long leash to do this type of stuff,” the journalist-turned-director said in an interview with realscreen. “I’ll tell them I want to work on a documentary and they’ll say, go for it.”

Like many new restaurants, Grace soon ran into delays and Pang and Helenowski found themselves filming the same shots of blueprints, chairs and carpets over and over again. Bored, they asked Duffy about his family life. It turned out the chef’s high-pressure job and long-hours had contributed to the disintegration of his marriage.

Then, eight months into shooting, he shocked the directors by opening up about the tragic death of his parents, an event that ultimately fueled his desire to become the best chef in America.  Much like Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Kings of Pastry and David Gelb’s recently released Netflix series Chef’s Table, For Grace‘s culinary trappings quickly became as a springboard to tell a broader, emotional story.

“We lucked out,” says Pang. “We’re glad it wasn’t just a film about chairs and carpets.”

Although the pair managed to secure more funding from the Tribune, For Grace turned into a four-year enterprise with the two men shooting alone and doing post-production work on Pang’s iMac. When the film was accepted into the SXSW festival earlier this year, the filmmakers hit Kickstarter to crowdfund completion costs. They are now working with Jiro producer Kevin Iwashina to secure distribution deals while at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival this week.

Ahead of the film’s Canadian premiere in Toronto, co-director Kevin Pang spoke to realscreen about the bare bones production behind For Grace.

kevin pang mark helenowski

Directors Kevin Pang and Mark Helenowski.

How well known was Curtis Duffy’s back story among chefs in Chicago?
No one knew. None of his chefs knew. Besides his wife and a few other people, you can count on one hand how many people in Chicago knew about that story. Even his business partner didn’t know much about the details so the fact that he told us has to do with the trusting relationship between filmmaker and subject. The moment that he told us didn’t happen until eight months into filming. He told me it was therapeutic to tell people that for the first time. He talked about how he felt guilty about the whole situation even though this was no way his fault. He said by talking about it, it was a big monkey off his back. We were completely flabbergasted and blown away when he told us that news on camera.

What’s the trick in filming food?
Anyone can set good lighting, and have a nice dolly shot and sexy close-up shots of food but in the same way Million Dollar Baby isn’t really about boxing or Seabiscuit isn’t about horseracing, the secret of filming food is to make a movie that is not explicitly about food. Make it more on relatable terms. It’s not about the technical aspects of seeing a sizzling piece of steak. The secret of a food film or a baseball film is to make it beyond those things and to make it about people. Ultimately, a good film teaches lessons on how to live life.

Coming from the print journalism world to make a doc, what was the challenge in telling a visual story?
I wrote a story in the Chicago Tribune and the film grew out of that story, but the challenge was to not make a shot-for-shot recreation of that story. Writing is a two dimensional act. That’s a linear way of telling a story. With films, whether it’s shot selection or dealing with the idea of time, silence, or what music to use, there are a lot of considerations. It’s like the difference between thinking in two dimensions and four dimensions. My partner Mark has been a filmmaker all his life, and so he is much more the technical guru. Between his know-how and my background in storytelling, we were able to augment our strengths and cover for each other’s weaknesses.

How did you finance the film?
The Tribune financed it and gave me time to do this. Mostly it was sweat equity and paying with credit cards. Usually with a documentary, there might be 10-15 people working on it. This film was made by two people: Mark and myself. We shot everything. We edited on my iMac in my living room. We did color correction. Once we got accepted into SXSW, we hired a few people to remaster the audio. In terms of hard costs, it came out of our pocket. We’re talking about two people who worked on a movie for four years and poured every ounce of their being into a film. I don’t know how to quantify that.

So are you keen to do it again?
I’m keen to do it with a little more structure or with a production company and a crew. I’m glad we did this because it really shows that two people with a camera can make a documentary. I shot on a Canon T4i—a consumer-grade camera that I bought at Best Buy for $900. We edited on my iMac. For the film to have its Canadian premiere at Hot Docs is just mind boggling. Would I do it again? I would do it in a much more efficient and structured way.

  • For Grace screens at Hot Docs at Fox Theatre on Saturday, May 2 at 4:15 p.m. EST/PST. Click here for more info.
  • Watch the trailer below:

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