When David Gelb looks back now at the home movies made by his father, he’s quick to notice that he always seemed to be reaching for the lens.
“I just wanted to play with the camera and I still feel that way,” says Gelb, for whom it was obviously only a matter of time before he would start shooting movies of his own.
Gelb’s first feature “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is the culmination of several lifelong pursuits. The son of the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager Peter Gelb, he can’t help but refer to the film as a “sushi concerto,” harmoniously marrying the elegant, intricate music of Philip Glass and Max Richter to the equally meticulous work of chef Jiro Ono, an octogenarian who elevates the practice of making mackerel and dried gourd rolls into an artform. Which is exactly how the director presents it using the high-definition RED One camera, inspired by the breathtaking cinematography of the BBC series “Planet Earth,” and luxuriates in the glistening sheen of every sliver of seafood that only a master like Jiro could attain.
However, it isn’t just the remarkable food that Gelb managed to capture on film, but the passion of the entire staff of the Sukiyabashi Jiro restaurant. There is as much accomplishment in “Jiro” the film as in Jiro the man with regard to how Gelb and editor Brandon Driscoll-Luttringer mold an all-encompassing look at how one of the world’s finest dining establishments operates from the purchasing of the top-grade tuna to the painstaking preparation that goes into every order.
Yet beyond the culinary delights “Jiro” has to offer, there’s also a very real understanding of Japanese culture, from the intense drive for perfection to the familial structure that favors the first son in terms of succession, which becomes one of the film’s most intriguing plotlines as Jiro’s children Yoshikazu, who works under his father, and Takashi, who opens his own restaurant, prepare to carry on their father’s legacy in different ways. Still, Jiro needs not to worry about that since at the very least, “Jiro Dreams of Sushi” has preserved his amazing gifts for all to see and its director recently spoke with me about the process of making his film that was as carefully crafted as one of Jiro’s Akagai roll.
How familiar with Japanese culture were you before making this?
I first went to Japan when I was two years old. My dad took me on business trips of his, so I went when I was two, I went again when I was four and then when I was nine and then I would try to go to Japan as often as I could because I love the food and I love the culture and I love the cinema. When I was a kid, I loved the Power Rangers and I took some Japanese language in high school, so I’m a bit familiar with the language as well. So I just loved the country and I loved the culture of specialization, and when I ate at Jiro’s, I immediately knew the film was going to be about him because he represents everything that I love about Japanese society in so many ways. What started as what was just going to be a film about sushi became about so much more just because of him and his son and what inspiring and compelling figures they are.
How did this film come about?
There are a few reasons why I thought this would be a good idea for me as a first-time filmmaker. Having done a lot of documentary semi-features and shorts in the past, I’ve learned how to interview, how to work a camera, how to record sound, so because I was able to do all this by myself, I figured that I’d be able to make this film at a low budget because I would only have to travel to Japan myself and I could get a translator on the ground who could assist me. With the idea of kind of making a very small film that would be about a lot of things, I packed up a bunch of my camera equipment and rented a bunch of other stuff and just headed to Japan to just see what I could get.
Given how humble Jiro appears, was the thought of a documentary something he accepted pretty quickly or did you have to give him the hard sell?
He’s incredibly open about what he does and he’s done quite a bit of press. He’s been interviewed by journalists from all over the world. He’s been featured on television documentaries in Japan and so he’s no stranger to the camera, but what was a little bit different was the fact that I was going to be there every day shooting a long term piece. I owe a great deal to the food writer Masahiro Yamamoto, who appears in the film as a narrator of sorts and he used his long relationship and friendship with Jiro to convince him that I would be the one to tell his story from his perspective as much as I could.
Before I started the project, I was originally going to make a film maybe about three or four different sushi chefs. And I spoke to the French chef Daniel Boulud from the Restaurant Daniel, of course, just asking him what are his feelings about sushi, what are his favorite sushi restaurants and he immediately said I had to include Jiro in the movie. He was very passionate about that. I took that to heart, but by the time I finally got to Jiro’s restaurant, I thought the whole movie that can be about him. Everything that I want to convey about sushi can be done best through his eyes.
You actually shot the film over the course of two separate months with eight months in between. What impact did that have on the finished product?
It gave us the kind of time and perspective to put the story together effectively. For the first month of shooting, I had a general idea that it was going to be about [Jiro’s] pursuit of perfection and about his son, but I didn’t know that much. I shot casting a very wide net — maybe 60 hours of footage of everything that I could — and came back to California to work with my editor. We got all the raw footage translated and we spent the next seven months trying to put the movie together and trying to find the story of the movie, trying to find the best way to reveal the information to take the audience on a journey through Jiro’s world. In the process of doing that, we discovered many things about the film, the foremost of which is how important [Jiro’s son] Yoshikazu is to the story, and how he actually in many ways is the protagonist of the film.
So I returned to Japan in August with the intention of filling in the blanks that we needed to tell the story with a very targeted shoot, but I ended up shooting another 60 hours of footage. My editor kind of rolled his eyes, but was also excited because he was very inspired by Jiro in himself in the process of editing and listening to him talk about striving to reach that higher level. Even though I had overshot on the second section of shooting, we realized this is actually an opportunity for us to make the movie even better.
You give glimpses of the sushi throughout, but the film really builds beautifully towards a climax which replicates the experience of actually having a full meal at Sukibayashi Jiro. Did that story structure come naturally?
That was not always the structure, but through a process of watching and rebuilding the movie over and over again, we reached that conclusion that that’s where this scene [of the meal] should be. In hindsight, there’s a number of reasons why it works and it’s really because after seeing all of the work that’s gone into all these different ingredients from the rice to the tuna to the shrimp and the octopus. When you’re actually able to see the entire meal play out, there’s a far more profound emotional connection with each piece because you’ve seen the amount of sweat and tears that have gone into the preparations of all these ingredients.
Then we follow that scene with the discussion of the scarcity of the fish because after we’ve shown the beauty of it, then we have to show what’s at stake here. By immediately following with these environmental issues, you can see that this beautiful thing that we’ve just witnessed is now at risk because of overfishing and because of greed.
On a far less serious note, there’s a great scene in the film where you see Jiro’s apprentices spend countless hours perfecting tamago (egg cooked with soy sauce, mirin and sugar) and failing. Were you ever perhaps a little greedy in sneaking a bite on the side?
No, there was no sneaking of bites because the kitchen is sacred. That’s their nightmare is the American filmmaker is in there eating all their ingredients and showing disrespect to the restaurant because that egg has been meticulously prepared for the customers who have been waiting a long time to come there. But after the service was over, if there were leftover pieces of sushi or there was leftover fish, the apprentices would then practice with that and they would make the sushi for each other, so we got to have some sushi then. Also, Jiro and Yoshikazu were very generous in letting me have a full tasting course both in the wintertime and the summertime because they really wanted me to understand why the sushi tasted good and what their sushi was all about. So I tried to portray that as best as I could.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” opens in New York on March 9th at the Lincoln Plaza Cinemas and the IFC Center and will open in Los Angeles at the NuArt Theater on March 16th before expanding into limited release on March 23rd. A full list of theaters and dates is here.