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INTERVIEW | Lydia Tenaglia, director of “Jeremiah Tower: the last magnificent”

Film premiered at this year's Tribeca Festival
Lydia Tenaglia has worked with Anthony Bourdain on several different projects for television
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Who is Jeremiah Tower? Does anyone know? Jeremiah Tower is the first American celebrity chef, a culinary pioneer of American cuisine who started rising to fame in the seventies and has been recognized amongst foodies and culinary circles as the genius behind the style of cooking known as California cuisine. A solitary, outrageous and charismatic figure, Jeremiah Tower makes for a fascinating documentary subject and is an important figure of American gastronomical history.

Screen Comment caught up with Director Lydia Tenaglia to discuss the film she directed and co-produced about Tower, called “Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent.” No one should ever draw a blank at the mention of Jeremiah Tower’s name after watching this documentary.

There is a moment in the documentary “Jeremiah Tower: the last magnificent” where Anthony Bourdain says: ‘There is a locked room inside Jeremiah Tower.’ Would you say that you were able to unlock that room? Or at least get the door to open up a little?

I think I got into the locked room (laughs). Obviously for years and years Jeremiah [Tower] was very much a public figure, starting with his success at Chez Panisse and then during his heyday at Stars.

Most people describe him as the first celebrity chef because he was a very powerful curator of his [own] public image. He knew how to control it and knew what he wanted people to see, how they should see it, what they should hear, and everything else was off the table. I think that, coming into this project that was still very much his M.O. It really was a process for both of us: me trying to penetrate, and him allowing me through.

At one point I said to him: “Listen, you can give me every article on how great you are, every picture of how fantastic you look and every article that sings your praises but, ultimately, we’re making the film and this film cannot be just a piece about your life and your career. It needs to be about the man!” I think it was a process of figuring out how to trust each other. He needed to trust me enough to make himself vulnerable.

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Tower, in a still from the film

How did you first come in contact with Tower, and how did this project come about?

At the end of September 2013 Anthony Bourdain, whom I’ve worked with on many projects including the show “Parts Unknown,” (follow on Twitter) came to me having just read Jeremiah’s memoir California Dish (about to go into a reprint under a new title: Start the Fire [Harper Collins Publishers]). He thought it could potentially make for an interesting documentary subject.

We have a television series that we work on called “The mind of a Chef” that we thought Jeremiah might be an interesting subject for. But as Antony and I both dove deeper into the material we realized that maybe this would be an interesting subject for a film, instead, so we pitched the idea to CNN Films. They were intrigued but they hadn’t heard of Jeremiah, as most people hadn’t, so they said: “you need to go out and shoot an interview with him and we’ll see if there’s anything there.”

That was part one of the process and the turning point for me was where I just knew in my heart that there was a real film, a real story, here. It didn’t take long to convince CNN after they saw the original interview with Jeremiah.

How difficult was it to gain access to all the footage, home videos and testimonials?

It was definitely a process. We started having to interview eighty people but narrowing it down because logistically we knew we couldn’t get around to interviewing eighty people. We had to call it down and then divide the new list into regions. We knew there would be a San Francisco, New York and an LA contingent and then of course there was Jeremiah who at the time was in Mexico. I was in the midst of planning that shoot in Mexico when suddenly unbeknownst to me, because he didn’t tell me, Jeremiah takes on the job at Tavern on the Green. So he moved to New York and failed to tell me (laughs). It threw the whole production into a tail spin and the documentary took another four months of shooting.

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This documentary makes use of re-enactments, actors to recreate Jeremiah’s solitary childhood and does so in a very poetic way. Was that your intent?

There was no question from very early on that we needed to do re-creation to bring this kind of early childhood story to life. So much of what informed Jeremiah’s artistry and existence came from those early childhood experiences and memories. The audience had to understand that in a really powerful and visceral way, if not more so than in the way an archival photograph or news footage could do.

You needed to understand being the seven or eight year-old child alone in a gigantic hotel being emotionally abandoned by his parents but finding solace and joy and celebration in sitting at these big tables looking over menus. The cinematographer Morgan Fallon wanted to bring this to life: the romance and the luxury of it, the old-world feel of those places and those menus. That was imperative [to me]! That was a big part of the esthetic of the film.

Water makes for such telling imagery in the film and the moments of vulnerability go hand in hand with images of water. At the end of the documentary, as he leaves Tavern on the Green, the very first thing Tower packs in his bags is his tuba gear. He always seems to be getting back to the ocean.

Yes, definitely so. I’m proud of him actually because when he first saw the film for the first time four days ago, he was shocked at how vulnerable he allowed himself to become but he’s come to love the film because he understands how the vulnerability is what makes him human and ultimately people want to hear his story

Yes, it makes him less of a legend and more of a person because the fact is he was absent for a long time and people didn’t know who he was. The words he utters in the very beginning of the film :“I have to stay away from human beings because somehow I am not one” take on a whole other meaning by the end of the documentary.  If you don’t know anything about Jeremiah, which most people who will watch this documentary don’t, you might perceive those words as somewhat arrogant.

I’m glad you got that because ultimately the film may have started as an exploration of the story of a restaurateur who had an incredible impact on the culinary landscape of this country, but ultimately what audiences are going to connect with is the story of an artist and his journey.

Food just happened to be his canvas. An artist tries to tell you something about their soul through their medium and he did that throughout his whole career. It had to be the story of the man: where did he come from, what were his memories, his influences, what was painful for him, what was challenging about his childhood and where did he find solace. That is what will resonate with people.

By the end of the documentary, Jeremiah leaves Tavern on the Green because he needs to stay true to himself and is not going to forsake that at any cost, that which has been his philosophy in life from the very beginning.

I think he’s fashioned his life now so that he can pack it up in, like, two hours. He doesn’t have a true anchor anywhere. At the end of the screening he said “I’ve always been a sucker for the slim champ” (laughs). He may just endeavor to do something crazy somewhere else down the line. I don’t think he is someone who will ever stop trying to bring forth his vision of beauty.

This is Lydia Tenaglia’s second documentary film.

“Jeremiah Tower: the last of the magnificent” had its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Festival. After the first screening Tenaglia, Bourdain and Tower sat in on a talk moderated by Charlie Rose.

This is the third time Alix Becq covers the Tribeca Festival for Screen Comment. A New York-based writer and editor, Becq also contributes to Diabolique Magazine. Follow her here @alixbecq.

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