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Interview

Acclaimed filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker talk about what it was like to film the best French pastry chefs at work, whether they got to eat any of the pastries and the amount of work that it takes to create pastry at the MOF level.

POV: These men are the highest-ranking chefs in the world. What are they like?

D A Pennebaker: They’re serious in a way that’s interesting. And it isn’t just that they talk about how to make a perfect brownie. It’s that they’ve found something in their lives they can be the best at, and it gives them an assurance that makes them interesting to talk to about anything.

Chris Hegedus: What was incredibly apparent was the stress and the sacrifices being made by the chefs and their families. The competition for the MOF is a lifelong thing, something you have to start when you are young. The period of practicing for the MOF is probably a two-year commitment, and it’s very expensive, especially for Jacquy Pfeiffer, who came all the way from the United States.

POV: The MOF competition covers a wide variety of fields. Why did you choose the pastry competition as your focus?

Hegedus: The project came to us from a friend of ours, Flora Lazar, who became one of our producers for the film. She went to the French Pastry School and told us about Jacquy Pfeiffer competing in this contest. We met him and his partner, Sébastien Canonne, who was going to coach him during this competition. Right away, we noticed Sébastien was wearing the tricolor collar of the MOF. We knew that the stakes were going to be very high for Jacquy professionally. Additionally, I think I had pastry in my genes. My grandfather, like many of the chefs that are competing in this film, actually apprenticed to a baker when he was 15 in Europe. He then moved to the United States and opened up two very high-end confectionary stores in New York City, where he made his own signature ice creams and chocolates. On the other side of my family, my Hungarian grandmother was really an amazing chef. While growing up in the ‘50s and ‘60s when everybody was getting their Betty Crocker cake mix birthday cake, I would get a 10-layer dobos torte, a mocha cream-filled cake with a burnt sugar glaze on top. I was used to being around fine pastries.

POV: On the surface, the MOF competition looks like an all-boys club. Are there any female MOFs?

Hegedus: There haven't been any women to compete in the pastry competition. The year that we filmed, a woman won the collar in the hot food competition and it was a very big deal. Sarkozy and — we say the palace — made a very big deal about the first woman chef to become a MOF. I personally hope there will be more women to who compete in it.

Pennebaker: There was one man we visited who had a wonderful pastry store up in the north of France. He told us that he had two women working for him whom he was training for the pastry MOF.

POV: This is clearly a very competitive, almost sacred rite of passage for the top chefs in France. Is it a secretive process?

Pennebaker: I don't think people have even been allowed to watch it, much less film it. But I just assumed we could — you know, you get used to that when you have a camera. When I worked at LIFE Magazine they said, "You should never get a card allowing you to go someplace. You just go. If you need the card, you don't want to work here."

Hegedus: It was a trying process from the beginning. We met Jacquy in July and he said, "Okay, you can follow me during this process." Then in August, we tried to contact the MOF organization, but most people in France are on vacation in August, so we couldn't get in touch with them. Ever hopeful, we decided to go ahead and follow Jacquy in France. It wasn't until the day before the competition that we got the final okay from the MOF organization. They said, "You can come, but after each of the three days, we get to say whether or not you can come back, and you can't use any booms, radio mics, lights or other equipment." After the first day, they said, "Fine. The chefs liked you." The second day, they said, "Okay, you were very good, but tomorrow the chefs will be carrying their delicate sugar sculptures. If you accidentally hit somebody and break their sculpture, they'll kill you." They drew a little square box at the end of the table and said, "That's where you can stand to film." So, it was quite restricting. But as a filmmaker you have to deal with all sorts of problems and still try to make a film.

Pennebaker: It’s hard to explain how these films work for us. Filming is a witnessing process. You don’t try to control it, even though sometimes you wish you could because it can go really, really wrong for you. However, your role is to be a witness because you use a camera — a device that can’t lie. That's what you really want people to understand — that you're not lying to them. You’re showing them what happened. Then, you have to make theater out it, because that’s what people really want — storytelling, not just eye-witnessing.

POV: Do you think it’s possible to capture reality when there’s a camera in front of it?

Pennebaker: If you’re filming somebody doing something they really want to do, you’re probably not very high on their list of problems to deal with. You see James Carville on the phone — he's like that whether you have a camera or not. He isn't doing it just for you, and that's hard to explain.

Hegedus: During the competition you see in Kings of Pastry, the chefs were so focused on what they were doing that paying attention to us was something they simply didn't have time to do. It was shocking to me that when disasters occurred in the kitchen, the other chefs would glance over but then instantly go back to work, since they had such a limited time to prepare their buffet table.

POV: You mentioned moments during filming when things weren’t necessarily going the way you would want them to. Can you talk about specific instances in the editing room when you had to tease out the story from the limited footage you had?

Hegedus: There were all sorts of limitations while we were filming. For example, we couldn’t speak French, so it was difficult to speak with people and follow their stories in a way that could develop normally. Also, we were not allowed to use any microphones, booms or lights. It ended up being a question of how to tell the story, and I decided to do it more musically. We decided to use some of Django Reinhardt’s music to help tell the story in a more montage way than I would have in another circumstance.

Pennebaker: When you’re shooting an event like this, you’re not taking pictures of the ceiling or wonderful things to see. You’re taking pictures of what’s going on, and that’s all people expect to see. When you’re editing, you’re putting it together in a way that makes sense metaphysically. You’re not inventing it, but you’re finding the story that’s there. You’re making a play that’s eventually going to go on stage and present itself to an audience. You want to show what happened, not exactly what you have evidence of happening.

POV: What is the most important ethical concern for documentary filmmakers today? Has it changed since you began making films?

Pennebaker: When I made Dont Look Back with Dylan, we just shook hands. It was 50/50 and it has been ever since — we’re partners. I think that bond means you will be fair about money, but it also means you’re not making the film just for yourself. You’re making it for the subject because it’s all he'll ever have of that experience, and it should be as true for him as it is for you. There’s a sense of truth that people worry about in film — have you disguised this or changed this. Dylan has a notion of truth I've always liked — "true, like ice, like fire." That's a truth you can’t change, the kind of truth you should have in the back of your head when you make a film about something that matters to you.

POV: D A, you've been making documentary films since the 1950s. How has the process changed with the development of new technology?

Pennebaker: In the early days when I was working in film, we had silent cameras. Sound and dialogue were recorded separately — in Hollywood, they wrote the dialogue, people learned it and recorded in studios. To make theater out of real life, you need to catch dialogue when it happens. When I started out, I recorded on wire and tied the wire together when I wanted to splice it. It wasn’t until after the war that audio tape recording became feasible. Much of the other equipment needed for vérité filmmaking, like sync cameras, quiet cameras, microphones that could record sound from a distance, we had to make ourselves, or find people who could make them for us. That took time. The idea of cinéma vérité evolved, which was really Jean Rouch’s idea. They used a car as a way of moving a camera and they all pushed the car. It was ridiculous, but the idea of a camera you could take into the desert or the Metropolitan Opera and record people talking to each other was such an obvious thing and it didn’t exist. It’s what changed the whole nature of filmmaking. Of course, now you can buy something in B&H for a couple of hundred dollars that does that, but in those days it was really hard.

POV: What did you ultimately take away from this experience?

Hegedus: The film is about pushing for excellence in your life and in what you do. There is something that Sarkozy highlighted when he was giving the speech about the MOF which is to recognize the manual craft fields in a equal way to how we recognize academic excellence. Education in this country needs to be re-thought in terms of a lot of these types of vocational careers, especially when you see the type of work and excellence that goes into the culinary career. Pastry is the type of occupation and profession that's not just about cooking and taste. There is all sorts of chemistry, physics and design that go into the chefs' creations.

POV: As craftsmen yourselves in terms of being filmmakers, do you feel like you seek that same standard of excellence in your craft?

Pennebaker: I think you have to. I may not have envisioned it in the beginning. When I started making films, there weren’t a lot of people doing it. It didn’t look like a good career choice because there was nobody buying films from independents. The television didn’t need you and certainly theaters weren’t expecting you to walk in with a film. I was doing it because I wanted to give it the best shot I could.

Hegedus: In filmmaking, it’s not that you want to make a film. You must be passionate about a film. It takes that type of passion to get through the process, and I think it's the same for the MOF competition. These chefs couldn't do it halfhearted. Twelve years of their lives have been spent trying to get this MOF collar. The pursuit of excellence in your profession is a noble pursuit. A virtue I learned from watching these chefs, which is similarly found in our professions, is staying true to your vision. There are a lot of people who would give advice, on top of having coaches, and the chefs could easily get thrown off course. It's a very hard thing to only take the advice that remains true to what you want to do.

POV: Is there any advice you can give to emerging filmmakers?

Pennebaker: Don’t wait for the money. Steal the camera and don’t wait for the money. Also, you should always try to edit your own film. That's how you learn to shoot better. But people do think different ways. I don’t necessarily have the best way in my head. There’s an evolutionary aspect to filmmaking. You learn things from people who know more than you do, if you watch them enough and listen to them. So, the filmmaker gets a little smarter and maybe the audience gets a lot smarter, too.





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The second day, they said, 'Okay, you were very good, but tomorrow the chefs will be carrying their delicate sugar sculptures. If you accidentally hit somebody and break their sculpture, they'll kill you.'”

— Chris Hegedus, Filmmaker