Give your chops and upgrade and land the gig.
As Program Director of the Harold Ramis Film School, Jack C. Newell has to put his money where his mouth is. The award-winning filmmaker has done just that with his documentary “42 Grams,” the intensely personal and visually scrumptious story of chef Jake Bickelhaupt and Alexa Welsh’s journey from running an underground dining experience in their home to opening a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Newell’s passion for crafting stories is what fuels his commitment to mentoring the next generation of filmmakers at HRFS. “What I hope students will learn from seeing the work I put into this film is to always be curious and to follow that curiosity, because that is always going to be rewarding creatively,” the filmmaker says. “If you focus on work that is rewarding creatively and you pour* yourself into it, then all of the other stuff, like recognition and attention, will start to fall into place.”
How did you first cross paths with your story subjects?
JN: I won tickets to Sous Rising at Steppenwolf’s Red and White ball a few years ago and went to eat at the “underground” restaurant Jake and Alexa ran out of their home. I’d just finished shooting my improvised (but also food-based) movie OPEN TABLES and was looking for another project. I was struck by the unbelievable talent of this guy creating some of the best food I’ve ever eaten out of his apartment. So, I asked Jake if he’d be cool with me following him, and he agreed. At the time, they had no plans to open a “real” restaurant, and the idea of being a culinary celebrity was a far-away goal Jake had scribbled in a notebook he kept in a kitchen drawer.”
As a filmmaker, how did the storytelling aspect of this project evolve as you began the creative process?
JN: I actually filmed for a year or so without any semblance of a story emerging. There were a lot of different films that this film could have been. It could have been about underground dining in Chicago, but then it started to morph. I consider the film to be three things: realization of the American Dream, a documentary cookbook, and the portrait of an artist. I understand the process of filmmaking and was curious to explore what I could learn about creativity through the methods of a chef.
In making the film, it was important to us to not shy away from the nuances and specifics of cooking at this high level–and to make a film that when you watch it, you actually learn something about food and cooking. As I spent more time with Jake and Alexa, and as they got more comfortable with the camera, our conversations moved beyond the food on the plate and into their relationship, their struggles, and their hopes for the future.”
What do you want audiences to take away from Jake and Alexa’s story?
JN: I’ve always thought of this film as a “submarine movie.” At the beginning, you enter into the vessel and just go deeper and deeper and deeper. You’re trapped in this environment with these two people for over two years. Jake refers to the restaurant, which is in the same building they live in, as a “prison.” You feel the intensity of being in close quarters with this tortured genius. I want the audience to feel like they’re there the whole time – along for the ride. We suffer when they suffer, we feel invested in the hard work that they’ve put in, and we celebrate when the goal is achieved.
It was very important to me to try to take the audience on the journey of Jake and Alexa. Documentary film has an incredible ability to deliver empathy to audiences. At the end of “42 Grams,” you are pretty emotionally spent because you feel like you’ve been on that ride with them. By keeping the film so focused, it forces the audience to think about their own obsessions, the cost of ambition, what we sacrifice for those we love, and what happens when all of your dreams come true.
Professional chefs are typically trained by experienced pros and leaders in their industry who provide mentorship, knowledge, and hand-on opportunity to hone their craft. Does that sound like anything else to you….?
JN: Haha, interesting question. A lot of what kept me invested in that year when I said there was no story were the conversations that Jake and I were having about the creative process as it pertains to food versus film. In “42 Grams,” we just cut out my side of the conversation and see Jake talking about it. The food world is similar to the film world in a lot of ways. One of the biggest ways is that both art forms are passed down through an apprenticeship system. You learn from people who are doing it, and you learn by doing it. This is what we created at HRFS–putting students in relation with working professionals, learning from them how to make comedy and then having them create their own.
*Way to whip up a food pun there, Jack.
Tickets are on sale now for the Chicago premiere of ‘42 Grams’ at the Gene Siskel Film Center, with screenings Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. Jack Newell will hold audience discussions after each of the screenings.
Watch the film from anywhere on Netflix starting Feb. 1.
For more information on the Harold Ramis Film School, please visit ramisfilmschool.com.