With most diners having previous interacting with bartenders, and movie and television audiences being bombarded by images of bars from past films and shows, many people feel they possess a preconceived notion of who bartenders are. But in the new documentary ‘Hey Bartender,’ director Douglas Tirola aims to uncover what drives an individual to become a bartender, what their job technically entails and how they really fit into communities. The film sets out to also show bartenders’ dreams and aspirations, and create the understanding that having a working-class job such as bartending shouldn’t be something to be ashamed about.
‘Hey Bartender’ follows several bartenders working around the world, who try to achieve their dreams through bartending, and prove that serving cocktails can be a fulfilling career. The documentary is the story of the rebirth of the bartender and the comeback of the cocktail. The movie features the world’s most renowned bartenders and access tot he most exclusive bars in New York. Some of the bartenders in the film include Steve Schneider, an ex-Marien turned mixologist. His passion for the mixology movement landed him a position as an Apprentice Bartender at the world-famous cocktail bar, Employees Only. Steve Carpentieri, a former VP of Citi Group, opened Dunville’s, a corner restaurant and bar in Westport, Connecticut. His goal is to serve the working class and the white-collar communities. Dale DeGroff is the founding father of modern mixology, and is a master mixologist who developed his techniques at several notable establishments.
Tirola generously sat down for a roundtable interview in a New York City hotel recently to talk about filming ‘Hey Bartender.’ Among other things, the director discussed how exploring the mixology renaissance and the classic cocktail led him to come up with the name of the film; how bartenders and mixologists can be on the same level at certain establishments, but are on different levels of serving their customers at other bars; and how the film industry is currently in a golden age of documentaries, as more audiences are interested in exploring new subjects.
Question (Q): Why did you decide to name the film ‘Hey Bartender?’
Douglas Tirola (DT): The reason that we chose ‘Hey Bartender’ is because we wanted to say it’s about bartenders. When you go see the movie, it has characters, even though it does also explore why there’s this whole mixology renaissance and the classic cocktail. At its core, it’s about bartenders as people.
In terms of the bartenders and mixtology, I think we got very lucky when we were filming. A couple months into filming, we hit the whole pentacle of mixology. There are bartenders that you meet that are more like Steve Carpentieri (nicknamed Carpi), and then there are mixologists like Steve Schneider and Jim Meehan and Dale DeGroff.
I think what’s great for the bartending community, and what worked out for our film, is that those two (bartending and mixology) have become closer. What we saw were the guys everyone’s looking up to. If you hear from bartenders in Milwaukee or if you’re going to Manhattan cocktail parties, you might not assume they have respect for someone like Carpi. What we saw was that they did have ultimate respect for these bartenders.
They were trying to preach to people that you can’t lose sight that people go out to have fun and be a part of the community. They want to go to a place where they’re recognized as a regular, where they can bring a date, where they can drown their sorrows, where they can celebrate and mourn. I think we’ve seen the community start to embrace that, even if people got into mixology from a more scientific place.
If I were to explain bartending and mixology in simpler terms, I would say mixologists have more of a graduate degree in drink making. A bartender is more of that tent pole in the community that surrounds that bar. But I think they both have to have similar skills.
Q: Would you say bartenders and mixologists are on the same level?
DT: I think it depends on the place. I think cocktail festivals are almost like film festivals 15 years ago, as they’re popping up everywhere. Food and wine places have embraced the cocktail. What I think is great is that these brands are giving almost like graduate degree seminars in all these spirits. You see wine cocktails now.
You see younger guys in other communities who say, “I know everything, I don’t want to learn anything.” This is one of the communities where the younger guys actually say, “Guys like Dale DeGroff actually know more than me.” The younger guys actually want to learn.
To an extent, you do see a pride in bartenders. You can ask a question, and they give this incredible answer that goes all the way back through the history. You think, how do they know that?
I started to ask a question in the movie-does a drink taste better if you know its story? I would say it absolutely does. So if knowing the history of knowing that wine, I think it tastes better. On a date, you certainly look better if you know it. (laughs)
Q: How did you find the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally and intellectually in this documentary?
DT: That’s the key to all documentaries, and the balance of this movie. We think about that, now that we’re putting it out. I think when you do a movie about a specific subculture, which to a certain extent this is, you get lost in it.
When you’re making a film like this, there’s always a cameraman who says, “So-and-so is going to love this, and this bartender back in Dayton, Ohio is going to love this.” It’s like, who is this movie for?
The movie first and foremost has to be for moviegoers. People who like cocktails are going out, but they might not be necessarily be going to the theater. They’re out drinking, and bartenders are working. So I think movies have to work for moviegoers. Then you hope that someone who has a specific love for that subject may decide to do something different with their day.
There are people like myself who on Friday, open up all the papers and see what’s playing, and what times they’re playing. They want to leave work and get to that first movie, because they love movies. On Sundays, they get that ‘New York Times,’ and they look at all those ads, and they think, this is great. That’s who the movie has to be engaging, even with someone who doesn’t drink at all.
But you fall in love with the guys in it. You think, how is this happening right around the corner from me, and I don’t even know it’s happening? But you have to decide what works in the movie, and what doesn’t.
But you hope that the people who trusted you with their story like the film. But no one in the film ever said, even jokingly, “Are you making me look good?” I think they really believe in the story of the cocktail and the bartender, and they want it to be told fairly. We do hope that when they see the movie, they like it. Jim Meehan has recently seen it, and he said, “You got it. You told the story.”
Q: Do you feel like we’re in a golden age of documentaries?
DT: I do think we’re in a golden age of documentaries. But I may that for different reasons than other documentary filmmakers. I think technology is part of it; since everyone has cameras, everyone is more comfortable being filmed.
Just like with indie film narratives in the ’90s, and with ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape,’ people realized, we can make a lot of money. But what you realize as filmmakers is that people are willing to watch it. People are willing to watch documentaries who weren’t five or six years ago. Now you hear people you would never think you had anything in common with say, “I love documentaries.”
So I think that gives us a great opportunity. But these films have to be engaging for the people watching them. People are used to scripted movies and non-scripted TV. So it’s not enough just to stick a camera in a bar, and see what happens. You really have to pick your characters and who you’re going to film, and make an effort to tell the story in an engaging way. So I think we are in a golden age, but people still want to watch an engaging movie.
Q: You don’t show much of how to actually make the cocktails. Was that a conscious decision?
DT: I think I did that so it wouldn’t be like a food TV show. Also, the internet has thousands of people looking at a camera, telling you how to make a drink. So I wanted to show something different. What I wanted to show was people making drinks, but not savoring the process. That’s where the concept of us introducing the bartenders.
We put them making drinks in slow motion, and cranked up the sound, so you would hear the fruit and vegetables in there. You want to see that and savor it. But in terms of them explaining how to make it, to me that’s more of a recipe thing.
What I was interested in was them telling what they’re thinking about when they make the drinks. So you hear Jim Meehan saying, “I’m thinking about everything-the music, and if the bathrooms are clean.” He’s thinking about everything, as he’s an owner as well.
The idea of using sound in that way and the slow motion came from a movie that has nothing to do with cocktails. It’s the Bob Fosse movie, ‘All That Jazz.’ There’s a scene in that movie where things start to spiral out of control for the lead character early on. He’s at a table reading for a play, which he can care less about. Everything he hears is muted, and the only sounds he can hear are the sounds of his own hands. So our idea was to use the sounds to make it seem as though we were in the bartenders’ heads, and hearing what he’s thinking about.
There are so many cocktails and variations. One of the things we learned is that unlike the kitchen, there are no bartending secrets. They all share their recipes.
Q: Are there any films or filmmakers you have influenced your shooting style?
DT: I think most of the bartending you’ve seen on screen is more about flair bartending, which is more of the throwing of the bottles, like juggling. Even though there are bartenders in Las Vegas who do flair bartending, some people would say it’s dead. But I would say flair bartending isn’t dead, it’s just changed.
When you see in our film they’re twirling and shaking, that’s all flair. So is all the things you see when they’re throwing the bottles in ‘Cocktail’ and ‘Coyote Ugly.’ But I looked at two food movies-’Babette’s Feast’ and ‘Big Night’-that informed me more, and I scoured all the way back to older movies that look at bartending. With ‘Big Night,’ I think people would say, “I see what you’re doing with that.” I think they were both done by people who loved restaurants and food culture.
Written by: Karen Benardello