Interview: Doug Tirola (Director – ‘Hey Bartender’)

The only thing we love more than a great cocktail is a great film, and ‘Hey Bartender’ pours out a delicious mixture of both. What goes into a great cocktail aren’t just the ingredients, but the artist behind the bar mixing them together. ‘Hey Bartender‘ focuses on the booming bartender-as-artisan trend, where establishments in cities like New York and Los Angeles have re-energized the art of the cocktail and created a resurgence in the popularity of the well-made drink. The documentary focuses on two bartenders trying to achieve their dreams through the world of bartending.

After being injured a Marine turns his goals to becoming a rock star bartender at the best cocktail bar in the world. A former bank executive who bought the corner bar in his hometown struggles to keep it afloat in a community that no longer values a place where everyone knows your name.   Featuring the most famous bartenders in the world along with unprecedented access to the most exclusive bars in New York City and commentary from Graydon Carter, Danny Meyer and Amy Sacco.

We spoke with ‘Hey Bartender‘ Director Doug Tirola about the rise of cocktail culture and how it changes around the world, the bartenders place in culture, his own personal favorite bars and more.  ‘Hey Bartender‘ is now available on Demand across a wide array of platforms including iTunes, Hulu, Amazon Instant and more presented by FilmBuff.

Buy or Rent ‘Hey Bartender’ on iTunes, presented by FilmBuffHERE

I wanted to start off by asking you about the Westport, CT bar Dunville‘s featured in the film.  I am a native of Fairfield County, CT and am familiar with the bar as it was (mostly) a brunch spot for myself and friends.  In fact, I remember there Sunday Special well (Mimosa w/ a Stoli Orange floater).  How did you come to Dunville’s and why did you decide for it to play so prominently in the film?
I grew up in the area and now I am back since I have a family.  I really became familiar with Dunville’s because, in the mid-late 90’s, my grandfather lived in Westport.  I used to take him to the diner and places people go to when their in their early 80s.  One day he said “I’m sick of going to all these early bird places where old folks go!  Take me to a place I would go to when I was in New York as a young man“. Essentially he wanted me to take him to that corner bar; the home away from home, unofficial town hall.  I started taking him there and the way he (and I) were immediately accepted into that community is how I first came to know Dunville’s.  Over time it is a place to go when you come home for a holiday hoping to runturn into people you know.

I came from New York and, in fact, I still have a place in the village.  This is how I came across Employees Only, which is only a few blocks from my apartment.  I had been going to a place on Spring St & MacDougal (The Spring Lounge) as a regular since I moved to the city in the late 80s.  All of a sudden my bartender left and moved to Memphis so I was left barless.  That lead me to Employees Only and when I ran into the whole world of “Mixology“.  I saw that this thing was happening and it felt like it should fall more into the “foodie” category than the bar.  For someone who goes out to eat all the time and generally goes out a lot I was curious as to how come I had not heard of it.  From that point on I knew this was a story I wanted to film.

Around what year was it when you first got the impression that cocktail culture was a “thing” and something worth documenting?
That is an interesting question.  I came across this film, specifically, around 2009-2010 but from the early 2000’s I had my eye on this scene.

Hey Bartender

How did you go about finding the other bars you wanted to showcase in the film?  Did this grow out of your own personal knowledge of the NYC cocktail scene or was there a fair amount of research that went into finding the specific bars?
When I came across Employees Only I was someone who was more into “regular” bars.  I met Steve Schneider and he introduced me to Dushan Zaric (owner) and that led me to Julie Reiner and Jim Meehan.  My process is to try and film things right away as opposed to a more traditional route of proposal, funding, production.  I approach it more as a writer.  I had written in Hollywood for many years so that is where my background is. My thing is to take the camera out and interview people or go into a bar and film; essentially to see if there is a movie even there.  Also, and most importantly, it helps me see if there is something I actually want to say about this world.  Immediately, after those three interviews I knew it was something I wanted to pursue.  I had not heard this story before.  I had not seen it anywhere.  You may have seen more spirits for sale at liquor stores or heard word of mouth about specific bars, but you had not heard how and why this is even happening in the first place.

What was your strategy in constructing (and maintaining) the narrative over the course of a feature length documentary?  For example, when I watch documentaries I notice whether or not there is a voice over narration or is the story told throughout the subject’ interviews exclusively.  This is a directorial decision.  In ‘Hey Bartender’ I see a balance between the interviews, the b-roll bar footage, as well as some more stylized aspects in regards to the act of tending bar.
I think the story I started with first, I would call the Malcolm Gladwell ‘Tipping Point‘.  I am interested in why 15 years ago the liquor store had 1 or 2 brands of tequila and now there are 20.  Why, when I was growing up, would there be 1 martini glass at a bar, specifically for the old timer that came in, and now the traditional martini is the most mundane thing on the menu.  Also, and most importantly, why is that people who clearly have other career options become bartenders.  Most people think about bartenders like the movie ‘Cocktail‘, essentially that something did not quite work out for these people along the way.  These are all people who clearly had a lot of options, they did not just want to be an actor in NYC or something similar.  Telling that story was fascinating to me.  I have always been interested in those moments in time like the Beat generation or the Algonquin Round Table or Brit Pop or New Wave movement or independent film in the 80s.  When you look at these stories you see that all these people were doing all these similar things, whether they were aware of each other or not, and all because something was happening in society at that moment for these scenes to strive.  That was the first story I wanted to tell.  That is why you have the focus on the five figures, Neil Degraw all the way to Jim Meehan.

We filmed in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Indianapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago, New Orleans, Boston, Portland (Maine) and all over the world.  I started to realize what is happening to the foodie version of the cocktail but, to me, this did not hold the interest of a full movie.  It was part of it but not a feature length film.  The big directorial choice was the focus on the two bartenders, an apprentice from New Jersey and the story of a guy who worked at a big company and had a dream to run the local tavern.  In his respect a number of things happened in the economy that greatly affected hospitality.  Seeing him try to bring his place back to everything it was while adapting to a new culture that, maybe, does not respect that continuity of a community and is more interested in what is next.

Even choosing the name of the movie was a decision.  We went through every verbal gymnastic we could to come up with something that did not have the word “cocktail” in it.  Again, the Tom Cruise movie still has such a far reaching influence we did not want to be pigeonholed as part of it.  This was a blessing, however, since it enabled us to call it ‘Hey Bartender‘ and make it wholly about the people.  To dig deeper into that language, in two words it also exemplifies the bartender/patron dynamic.  Even though many people may not want to be referred to as “Hey” we explain the subliminal relationship there.  The movie is about people, so the focus is on them with the story weaved around them.

Finally, two other things happened. The first being, last summer, we showed the movie to someone we respect who really liked it, but he asked what the guy with the shorts and polo shirt in the suburbs was doing around all these incredibly hip NYC bartenders.  Based on this we made a cut of the movie without Dunville’s and my feeling was, even though we had been told by someone we respected it did not quite work, that something was happening within the cocktail world that needed his story.  It was not just some sentimental inclusion of my home town bar.  When we started filming the movie it was the height of the “Mixology” movement.  Now, “Mixology” is a term that I am against, but it represents the belief that the science and artisanal aspect of the drink is the most important thing.  What we saw happen in the latter times of production was as if there had been some secret meeting amongst the unofficial board of trustees you see in the movie, Dale, Jim, Sasha, Dushan; it was like they made a point to focus on hospitality.  They shifted focus from the cocktail exclusively to the cocktail as being an aspect of the experience.  One of my favorite lines in the movie is when Sasha Petraske (Milk & Honey) says, “the guest is the star.  The bartender is the supporting cast.”  The younger generation who believed in this mantra started referring to themselves as bartenders and not mixologists.  What you see at Dunville’s and how that world intersects with the Employees Only world was the perfect symbolism of what is going in throughout cocktail culture right now.  It says that the local bar does not have to turn into some NYC, SF or LA speak easy but it can learn a few things from that world.  At the same time, these guys who would sneer at you for ordering a vodka drink can learn something from the guy who can tell his regulars from the smell of his drink.  That is why the movie begins with that, which is one of my favorite scenes.

What I notice about the most effective documentaries is that they have a multi dimensional narrative.  Meaning, there will be a primary arc revolving about the subject at a more superficial level and then there is a secondary arc where a more human/political factor relates the subject to the audience.  In Dunville’s case it is emblematic of an evolution of a culture.  It is not so black & white in the sense a neighborhood “dive” will always be that, or those swanky Manhattan cocktail bars will ever last longer than the initial fad.  Dunville’s inclusion in the film is where ‘Hey Bartender’ can utilize this secondary, relatable, arc…

.Hey Bartender

Moving forward though, what are some of the primary factors in the increased interest to cocktail culture.?  What factors lead to its existence and prevalence as we know it now?
I have a couple very specific reasons as to why.  Part of it is the food culture.  15 or 20 years ago people started to care more about what they put in their bodies.  I know it sounds odd when you are talking about alcohol, but it is part of it.  Part of it is that through food more people learned that there are more things to taste out there.

I also think that the final end of the big club era in NYC (Studio 54, Aria, Limelight, Palladium, Tunnel) saw its residue last all the way into around 2000, where you could hardly find a cavernous club in NYC.  Things go in cycles so people may have been looking for a more intimate setting.

I think the part of this that is talked about least  though, is the fact that culture has gotten so fast and non personal which plays a major factor. We live in a time where it is difficult to get someone on the phone for customer service questions, or even at the toll booth which are increasingly automated.  These cocktail bars are intimate.  The setting is intimate; the service is personal and the experience is one worth savoring.  Maybe partly because of price but also because of value.  So, when everyone around you is trying to get things done as quickly as possible here is something that is rooted in time based perfection.  One of he things I realized making this movie, and I always joke that I love the places that have the crumber, is if you go to a “nice” restaurant the protocol is all the same; someone seats you, someone else brings you bread and water, someone else takes your order, someone else makes the food (you hope its the chef), someone else brings it out and then you are gone.  Here is something where you step up to the bar, if you do not know what you want the great cocktail bartender will engage you and cater your order to your personality.  Maybe its on the menu or not, but they make it in front of you and its just for you.  When they ask you if you like it you get the impression they actually care if you like it because they made it right there in front of you.  I hear bartenders everywhere telling me how they always glance back when the patron takes that first sip.  They always want to know they made the best possible drink for you as a person.

In the film you document several cities, both nationally and internationally, which also have prominent establishments within cocktail culture.  In your travels, which cities rival New York in this specific aspect?
I love to travel and going to cities.  Every city I went to there is something I like about whether I was familiar with it or not.  But as they say in the show ‘Gypsy‘ , “New York is the center of the world, New York is the center of New York“.  Meaning, New York is the world.  I think Los Angeles has a very special cocktail scene with The Roger Room, The Varnish, The Spare Room, The Library at the Roosevelt and such. San Francisco has a great scene too. I do not see that as too big a surprise to most food people as it always is up there with the best hospitality establishments.  Indianapolis has a few great places, so does Portland, Maine.

Notably though, I would say Los Angeles, Boston, Portland and Miami all have great cocktail scenes.

Have you been out to Tokyo?
I have not but everyone talks about how its the next hub for cocktails.  Tokyo is kind of like The University of Chicago to Mixologists.  Maybe most people would think that the Ivy league is the best schools, but everyone knows the best colleges are actually like University of Chicago or Stanford.  Tokyo is one of those places where the people in the know can attest to how exciting it is.

Through my circle of friends, as well as my own experiences in Japan and Tokyo, specifically, I am constantly hearing about the diversity of influence in their cocktail culture.  I have heard that these cocktail bars are so expansive in their selections that you are almost ordering by way of geographic interest.  Meaning the cocktails are not only personalized, but personalized in a way that can appeal to virtually any international traveler.

Hey Bartender

Wrapping up though, I wanted to talk about your distribution strategy and how will you get ‘Hey Bartender’ out to as wide an audience as possible.  Obviously you have your association with VOD aggregator FilmBuff, but as a filmmaker how have you adapted your distribution strategy over the course of the films life to this point?
We were lucky that the movie premiered at SXSW.  We had always hoped the movie would have some kind of theatrical release but always expected that the larger audience would see the movie, as I think more and more people are seeing films, via Video on Demand, iTunes, digital downloading and streaming.  I feel that this is where the audience for a movie like this lies.  The importance of the theatrical release for independent films is that idea that it is in a theater.  Its almost as if theaters are curators for moviegoers.  In the same way a distributor looks to people who run film festivals to ask what films they should pick up for distribution.  When a film plays a theater run or as a special event someplace, it gives audiences the chance to pay more mind to the film.  Ultimately though, a movie like this opens in New York and that same night we were getting emails and nice comments who were watching at the same time with a nice cocktail in the comfort of their homes. One person said they watched it and then re watched it to focus more on specific sections.  In this case they focused on the 5 slow motion drinks so they had something to drink that directly went along with the narrative.  This could not necessarily be done in a theater.

– Interview Conducted, Edited & Transcribed by Steve Rickinson

Hey Bartender

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