It was almost Thanksgiving, but Cameron Yates and Laura Coxson were so nervous they could hardly eat. This hadn’t been a problem in the previous few years as Yates trailed the cooking prodigy Flynn McGarry around the country for their film “Chef Flynn,” as the teenager became a culinary sensation, first prodding his mom to open up their home in Los Angeles to serve tasting menus featuring such playful plates as Beet Wellington to eventually running his own kitchen at the pop-up Eureka at Kava in New York, serving up kombu-cured scallops. However, the filmmakers were awaiting word from Sundance whether they’d make it into the festival.
“We had a big markerboard where we put our fantasy wishlist and we had hoped for Sundance, but we’re trying really hard to prepare for a situation where we didn’t get in,” says Coxson, who in spite of being a producer on such strong films as “No Man’s Land” and “Iris,” had yet set foot in Park City in January with a film at the fest.
“We found out the night before Thanksgiving and I don’t think we’ve had a moment of calm since,” laughs Yates, who had volunteered at the festival, but his directorial debut “The Canal Street Madam” premiered at SXSW. “But it’s been an incredible ride.”
The same could be said of “Chef Flynn,” which delivers a story as delectable as any dish its young star plates in capturing the unique relationship between McGarry and his mother Meg, a free-spirited visual artist who can take cues from her son’s discipline and invests herself fully in making his dreams come true when she’s unclear of what her own are. Recognizing his determination to become a chef, Meg fills Flynn’s bedroom with industrial-quality cooking equipment and takes him out of school, per his wishes, to create a supper club they open up to friends in Studio City, but eventually word spreads, making the makeshift restaurant a full-on occupation for both, testing a relationship that’s been fragile ever since Meg and Flynn’s father separated. Meg often used her own camera as a way of connecting with her son, who’s both reserved and fiercely singled-minded, allowing audiences to see just how Flynn’s passion for cooking took root and how Meg sees her son’s pursuit of a career before he can drive. However, Yates steps in to witness the moment that the two start moving in opposite directions as Flynn’s career takes off, enabling him to stand on his own while Meg has let her identity get subsumed into his, essentially seeing the parent-child dynamic reverse.
Yates’ timing also seems fortuitous in what Flynn’s rise as a chef says about the culinary world as a whole, where his age turns heads as much as his cooking, but only needs to go on Twitter to see some dismissing him as a novelty as others share his meticulously curated plates on Instagram. Naturally, “Chef Flynn” has an immediacy about it to reflect the moment, but like Flynn’s dishes, it is the deeply satisfying result of intense preparation and impressive skill. As Yates and Coxson made their way to Park City for the world premiere of “Chef Flynn,” they spoke about doing justice to such a complex relationship as the one Flynn has with his mother, how Yates’ own culinary know-how made the production a little bit easier and telling the story as much with sound as with strong imagery.
Laura Coxson: Cameron and I knew each other through friends and we had a fun dinner date and we really clicked. He had already been filming and building the relationship with Flynn and Meg, which he’s incredible at doing, and I got started about a year-and-a-half ago when we were beginning the editing phase. He took me to one of Flynn’s pop-ups and I was extremely dazzled.
Cameron Yates: Yeah, I’d been working on this for a few years before and had met Flynn and his mother Meg and [his sister] Paris in L.A. just after reading a small Talk of the Town piece in the New Yorker. I reached out to them and it took a while to get them warmed up to the whole idea of doing a documentary, almost a year-long process of developing a friendship with them over meals in LA and NY before they allowed me to start filming.
Laura Coxson: Thankfully, Cameron’s a very charming dinner date.
It seems that way – I’ve heard Cameron’s initial meeting with the family was a dinner. What was it like sizing up what kind of subjects they might be?
Cameron Yates: Yeah, I happened to be in L.A. for “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” which I did behind the scenes footage for, and they took us to Son of a Gun at Flynn’s recommendation. I’m really interested in stories of nontraditional families and family dynamics and for me, the fact that the whole family showed up for the meal was incredible. I had already been fascinated by Flynn and his cooking [from] the little footage that I had seen of him online, but it was really meeting him with his mother and seeing their dynamic and also his sister’s as well [that made me] want to make the film. It took them some convincing because I think he was still a little self-conscious of his mother and didn’t really think of her as being part of the story, but I knew right away that that was the story I wanted to tell.
Given the amount of personal material Meg had already amassed, had she ever thought about making a film herself? What was it like to find out about that incredible archive?
Cameron Yates: That’s also funny. After I read the article about him, I went online and tried to find as much footage as I could and [Meg] had this YouTube channel called “Dining with Flynn.” She had been filming with him for many years, creating these short videos that she was posting online and for the most part, they were done almost like music videos, some were like homemade cooking shows. I just had the impression that there must be a lot of footage that she didn’t include, and I also wanted to see their interaction on camera and there was some of that in that footage.
We immediately talked about that and that was a long process to sit down with her and actually go through all of her footage and discuss what she had filmed and what she was comfortable with. Finally, she decided after almost two years into the process that she’d turn over her footage for us to use in the film.
Laura Coxson: And I think it helped because she’s so close to it, but her own filmmaking style tends not to be documentary. It’s more like fiction and these fantasy stories that are amazing in their own right, but they’re not documentary.
You establish that Flynn has a complicated relationship with cameras because of this – his mother’s way of interacting with him was often filming him and of course, you’re meeting him at a time when there’s an explosion of attention from the media. So what’s it like for you to bring a camera into that situation?
Cameron Yates: For me, it was really important when I first started filming to focus on his cooking and focus on the kitchen. The first thing I filmed was this pop-up that [Flynn] did at this restaurant in Beverly Hills and it was all focused on his preparation from the days ahead leading up to the dinners. And when I requested to put a microphone on his mother, there was definitely a little bit of like a “Ooh, why is my mom getting mic’d up for this dinner too?” And I [said], “Well, she’s the manager of the pop-up and she’s hosting the dinner.” But it was interesting. Every trip I went back I got a little more access to film at their home and to film different things, but it was really important to get the focus on the food first and foremost and then just develop that relationship over the years.
Was it difficult to shoot in the tight space of a kitchen, whether it’s in a home kitchen or in a restaurant?
Cameron Yates: Yes, it’s quite difficult. Luckily, the kitchen we ended up doing most of the filming in New York was a bit bigger than some. We actually experimented around with trying to use GoPros and other cameras that we put in different places around the kitchen to film dishes, but here’s one restaurant specifically in L.A. where there was a foot behind him and the chef’s counter [at all times], so it was quite the challenge. Our [cinematographer] Paul Yee, who we worked with in New York really figured out ways to get around that – to not be in the way of the action, but also to have [Flynn] forget that you were there. That’s the one thing I’ll say about Flynn is that when he is in the kitchen and he’s focusing, everything else fades away and you get to be a kind of fly on the wall.
Laura Coxson: It also helped that Cameron and Paul are good chefs themselves and understand cooking a little bit. When Cameron was filming [Flynn] in his pop-up in New York, it was so dark and loud – not optimal conditions – but he managed to still get some really good footage.
One of the very cool things about the film is how much of it you tell through sound – there’s voiceover from Meg and Flynn, but you also suggest the frenzy around Flynn with all these interviews you hear but don’t see. How did that evolve as the style for the film?
Laura Coxson: It really was an evolution. Cameron knew he didn’t want a straight-up talking heads kind of a situation, but with the [visual] material we had and the interviews we had, it paired really nicely. It was something we worked on with Hannah [Buck], our editor, to get right, figuring out how to make the voiceover work and feel natural and also not have talking heads interviews taking you out of it. We also had the wonderful opportunity to work with Leslie Shatz, who just did an incredible job with the sound mix and design. Everything came alive [there] and it was exciting for us to watch our final DCP and hear what he had done so clearly.
Cameron Yates: At a certain point, we did have talking head interviews with both Meg and Flynn and it was pulling us out. We didn’t think we could tell the whole film solely through Meg’s footage and our footage, but we wanted them to be guiding us through the story, so it was just finding that balance and our editor definitely deserves the credit for that.
Was there always balance between the mother or son, or did the film ever tilt more towards one of their perspectives?
Laura Coxson: It’s been really interesting for us. We really just wanted the film to capture the way their relationship really is and for some reason, we were struggling through trying to get something that closely mirrored that. We did quite a few rough cut screenings, and from the get-go, I have been a huge Meg fan, but it was interesting seeing how people were reacting to her throughout it. People with kids tended to be much more sympathetic to her whereas I felt like a lot of people who weren’t parents were oddly not clicking with her.
Cameron Yates: I think it his people in different ways when they hear she took him out of school and allowed him to [concentrate on cooking while being homeschooled]. It’s a very nontraditional way of raising him, allowing him to create a test kitchen in his bedroom and really go to work at a young age. It’s obviously their decisions and their life, and I think we found a balance in the film.
This also speaks to a larger cultural theme of the time in which you caught Flynn when he seems to exemplify foodie culture – his rise comes as chefs have become celebrities and people take pictures of their plates to share on social media. Did you have idea what you were getting into on that front?
Cameron Yates: I definitely didn’t anticipate that when I first met them. I did realize he came up in a different age than I did, so as far as he was able to learn quite a bit through the internet [about] how to sous vide and all of these techniques he was able to use. He also already had a social media presence when I came in, but it really wasn’t until these articles started coming out on him and there was this debate about whether you’re a cook or a chef [that I realized] how big a part of the story that would end up being.
Laura Coxson: I would say the same. For a long time there’s been a real excitement about chefs and celebrity chefs and their personalities and who they are, but it’s interesting to me how one shakes that off and just consistently tries to get to the root of it – and in a way [Flynn] has. But we struggled with the best way to talk about that in the film as far as the kickback he got. He was getting a lot of chefs who worked the line for 10 years and count on that being the way that you do things [to run your own kitchen as a chef] and I really admire Flynn for pushing against that, still working really hard, but doing it differently. He also seems eager to maybe not be labeled and have his food speak for itself.