Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent was originally conceived by Anthony Bourdain. Bourdain went with his idea of doing a documentary on the revolutionary chef (the first of the celebrity chefs) of California cuisine and the magnificent Stars restaurant to Lydia Tenaglia, trusted long time friend and Zero Point Zero co-executive producer of No Reservations and Emmy award-winning Parts Unknown. Lydia Tenaglia says of Anthony Bourdain, “Chris [Collins, her husband and fellow executive producer] and I have been married to Tony ever since we began working with him.”
It’s a match made in heaven as Tenaglia, Collins, Bourdain, and their team have created award winning shows and have continually been ahead of the curve blowing apart the conventionalism of mainstream TV, sometimes creating controversy and always remaining particular, unique, and edgy. I had the opportunity of conducting a phone interview with Lydia Tenaglia, director of Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent after its Tribeca Film Festival world premiere. The documentary also screened at the Hamptons International Film Festival. The Orchard picked up the documentary which will air on CNN after its release in theaters in early 2017.
I loved the film. (Thank you). It’s poetic, profound, highly visual. I loved the music, the serenity, the elegance of it, and that’s because the film evokes characteristics of Jeremiah Tower. (exactly) What has been the audience response to the film thus far?
We screened it three days at Tribeca with a full audience. It was lovely because I had never seen it with a full audience. To hear the energy in the room was great. I always thought there were some funny moments where Jeremiah had mischievous one liners throughout the film and you could hear audience laughter reacting to his one liners and hear people get quiet when things were getting intense. I enjoyed hearing and feeling that. I felt that the audience was on that ride and that they got it. The audiences were powerful and they had a lot of great questions. Jeremiah attended the screening with me and attended the Q and A afterward. He had them laughing and was very witty and charming during the Q and A.
You must have gotten close to Jeremiah as a result of the film.
I did. At the beginning of this whole process together, it was an interesting dance that we did. Jeremiah is someone who kept a very close guard on his public image. He certainly curated it and was very good at curating his public image and what he wanted people to see and know and did not want people to see and know. That was a very hard thing to get around. He came in and said, “You need to talk to these people. And here are the images.” There were a lot of photos from magazines and he looked at the top of his game. It was a bit of a process to come to an understanding of what the film was really about. I want to hug him repeatedly for allowing himself to be vulnerable, allowing himself to open up in a way that I think maybe even surprised him.
That’s because of who you are. You’re able to access individuals, because you are not going to harm them and individuals sense that. What is wonderful is how you tease out who he is and part of that is the chef as artist. Certainly, you recognized that about Jeremiah as did Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony’s motive for wanting to do the film is probably a little different than mine. He had in his mind an agenda to slap some wrists and set a historical bit of business straight. That was his motivation. It wasn’t necessarily to tell the story of Jeremiah the artist, it was to tell the story of Jeremiah’s influence in the culinary journey of the United States.
Jeremiah became an inconvenient man, an inconvenient truth to that narrative. He did piss a lot of people off. He did make his disgruntlement with Alice Waters of Chez Panisse apparent (Jeremiah’s culinary wizardry shined at Chez Panisse in the 1970s and he put the restaurant on the map, though he left after a few years). He was quite vocal about it. I think Tony’s motive was, it’s time for us to recognize what Jeremiah brought to the table and recognize what he has brought to all of our lives.
My motivation for the film transformed a third of the way through the process. First, I thought, OK. This will be an interesting story about the culinary journey of the country and a story about this restaurateur’s storied career. But I think once I got to know Jeremiah and where he came from, the beauty and his artistry and elegance, the wittiness and the charm and the mischievousness, the idea about the film changed. Frankly, what attracted me the most was his vulnerability. It is almost like that vulnerable child is still present in him. He tries to hide it, but it’s there. I think that was what I was attracted to…to try to tell the story of that man, that artist, with all of his tremendous triumphs and many of his flaws. And I thought if we could somehow access that person then we have a really interesting story to tell.
I thought you made that very clear and that is the film’s multi-layered vitality. You see one aspect about this man’s journey and the restaurant, but on another level you used as a backdrop cinematic poetic symbolism of the real Jeremiah. The opening sequence with the walls coming down in the midst of these ancient ruins…well, I’m a writer so I’m going to see the metaphor.
I love it because you’ve got it. In some ways he’s walking among these very ancient ruins. There is a tremendous amount of metaphor there to open with that. I’m glad you got that.
To open the film at that place was engaging and mysterious. Then the ending, he’s underwater following his passion scuba diving. Those were beautiful closing shots and as a conclusion about his growth as an individual; cinematically you leave it open to interpretation. Were you able to get everyone that you intended to interview for the film?
The main people from Stars who I thought could speak expertly to that experience, we definitely got, for example, one of the general managers. And we interviewed Mark Franz, who was Jeremiah’s right hand man in the kitchen, not only at Stars but for a couple of restaurants prior to Stars. Mark Franz gave us a great interview, as did Stephen Ranian, another chef. So the main players at Stars we were able to get. His college friends gave wonderful anchor interviews and were able to speak very poetically about Jeremiah as a young man.
At a screening someone asked the question why the Alice Waters’ interview is conspicuously absent from the film and did I attempt to interview her? And the answer to that is, “Yes.” In fact we had an interview that was set up with Alice that was going to be in the grouping of interviews that were taking place in San Francisco. At the penultimate moment, she canceled the interview and said she really didn’t want to participate. She and I had a conversation. We had a few text and email exchanges where I was really trying to impress upon her that the story was about Jeremiah’s life. It wasn’t meant to be an indictment of their time together, but she ultimately decided that she didn’t want to participate. So it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying.
That says more about who she is. And that’s fine. You are kind to everyone in the film.
I’m so glad you said that. I really didn’t want the film to devolve into some kind of gossipy mess about their relationship. There was a real personal story there. That’s probably been documented over and over again. I never wanted to get into that. I wanted to walk a fair line. This is what he brought to the table and let’s just acknowledge what he did there.
Conversely, he became very pissy about it, I think rightly so, and he became very, very vocal and that’s probably what pissed off a lot of people who were friends and supporters of Alice. I wanted to walk a line. It was a very hard and careful line to walk. I think we achieved it in the film. You get a sense of what he did and what he brought to the table and how important he was in that particular moment in history. He helped put that place on the map.
And the place is still operating and he acknowledges that and he doesn’t take anything away from that. I think that’s the greatness of who this man is. And maybe the pissy stuff needed to be pissy. He has high standards. Certainly, the film didn’t ruin the reputations of individuals. The part about Tavern on the Green added such an element to the film of who he is. It gave Anthony and other individuals the opportunity to say what needed to be said about his experience there.
Yeah. I think what was interesting was that I shot about three or three and one-half months’ worth of material at Tavern on the Green. It easily could have been a documentary on its own. The amount of interviews I did, Jeremiah and his apartment, and he was kind of complaining and pointing out every step of the way the incompetence that he was being faced with. I think it was a real surprise to him. It really could have been its own film.
I have one incredible scene where Jeremiah is getting a haircut with a barber and they’re having this conversation about the place. It could have been a whole other story. At that point having two-thirds of the film almost completed, I had to make a creative decision not to include these pieces.
The Tavern on the Green segment has a two-fold purpose. It gives the audience the opportunity to see this 72-year-old man still come back and still endeavor to bring beauty to the table, regardless. He still has it. He still has that vision, that impulse. He sees things clearly. He knows what needs to be done. Tavern also became in some ways an interesting delivery device to tell the ending of Stars and why it unraveled. There was a confluence of things: there was this beautiful vision that Jeremiah had created and there were forces that helped unravel it. I think to be able to tell those two stories concurrently, to be able to see Jeremiah present day still working, still pushing forward, still creating and to tell this ending of the story, I thought did work. It did ultimately interweave nicely.
That confluence emphasizes the title, and shows why Jeremiah is the last magnificent. His maverick vision of grace and elegance is in contrast to the whole corporate structure of mediocrity still embraced by a great proportion of the food and restaurant industry. We need that elegance to uplift us. I love that he made Stars almost democratic which was brought out in the interviews.
I was watching him at Tavern. It is such an interesting unfolding of events. As Tony Bourdain pointed out during the Q and A, there were ranks of critics out to get him from the get-go. Tony basically said that it was predestined. They were going to eviscerate him, regardless of what he did. He told me that three weeks into the time that Jeremiah was there.
I told him, “You’re wrong.” I said, “I’m watching him. He’s just making it happen there. He’s taking this very green kitchen and he’s turning it around. He’s putting forth beautiful, beautiful food. He knows immediately what needs to be done and how it needs to be done.”
And Tony said, “No. You just watch. They’re going to pounce on him and they’re going to pounce on him hard. It’s too good a story and the hubris of him coming back after hiding for 15 years. He’s trying to take on this big clunker of a restaurant in NYC with these two owners from out of town who are in way over their heads?” He said, “I’m sorry.” Tony said, “Lydia, that’s the trifecta of fun for the news world.”
Then the clincher happened at a lunch that Tony went to. I will not name names, but at that lunch, it was clearly vocalized that there was basically a hit out on Jeremiah. So he didn’t have a fighting chance which was unfortunate because I think that he, if given the time, could have brought some beautiful elegance back to that establishment.
Jeremiah Tower: The Last Magnificent will air on CNN after its release in theaters in early 2017. Look for this must-see documentary about the legendary chef you may never have heard of until now.