Why He’s On Our Radar: “Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” a visually stunning portrait of Jiro Ono, the chef of what is often called the greatest sushi restaurant on the planet, marks the feature film debut of director David Gelb. He worked alone for several weeks in Jiro’s kitchen with just a camera and a translator, capturing Jiro’s dedicated routine and artistry. The resulting film is an eloquent look at one of Japan’s living national treasures; a treat for food and film lovers alike.
What’s Next: “I’m working on a script right now with Matt Spicer, who is a great writer, and it’s a murder mystery set in contemporary New York,” Gelb told Indiewire. “I don’t think I’ll make another food documentary until I find somewhere I really want to hang out at for a whole month.”
How did the film come about? Was it from an interest in Japanese culture, or from a love of sushi?
It really comes from a love of sushi. I was watching the BBC documentary “Planet Earth” and I got to thinking that somebody should make a “Planet Sushi” using really cool cinematography to film sushi in an artistic way. Originally, I was going to make a film with a lot of different sushi chefs who all had different styles, but when I got to Jiro’s restaurant, I was not only amazed by how good the sushi was and how much greater it was than any other sushi restaurant I had ever been to, but I also found Jiro to be such a compelling character and such an interesting person. I was also fascinated by the story of his son, who is fifty-years-old, but still works for his father at the restaurant. So, I thought, “Here’s a story about a person living in his father’s shadow while his father is in a relentless pursuit of perfection.” It was the makings of a good feature film.
What’s your filmmaking background?
I did a lot of shorts in high school, goofing off with a camera and editing on iMovie. I went to college at USC, and that’s where I met the film’s editor. He was my freshman roommate. I was in the film program, so I did the film production track and did a lot of short films, and when I got out of school, I made a documentary on the rock band The Hold Steady and I went on the road with them with a friend from school. I’ve done a couple of making-of films and some other short documentaries, and I did an hour-long behind the scenes documentary on the film “Blindness” by Fernando Meirelles, who directed “City of God,” so I got to follow him around set and I learned a great deal from him. And his DP Cesar Charlone is one of the greatest cameramen in the world. I have the experience of working around all of these incredible, talented people who I admire so much, so through trial and error, I developed what I think is my own style.
When did you decide to move into documentary?
It was just practical. Making support pieces for these other movies was a way for me to develop my skills while still making a living and showing things to an audience. I don’t see myself as a documentary filmmaker, even though that’s what I’ve been doing. I want to make all kinds of movies. Documentary is unique because you don’t need a script supervisor or actors or make-up. There’s a lot more in a narrative. It’s much more risky. Since I’ve been working in documentary for a while, I figured I would make a feature documentary about subject matter that is popular and has a good human story that I could do with very little money. I went to Japan all by myself with all of my camera equipment. The crew was just me and a translator. I didn’t hire a DP or a sound recordist. I did everything myself. I was able to do something that felt bigger with almost no money. I gave myself as much creative control as possible, even in post-production.
And with just you there, it must have been easier to form a connection with your subjects.
Of course. And if I had gone with a crew, it would have been so annoying for them. The first few days I didn’t even bring a camera with me. I just went to the restaurant to observe. I stayed out of the way as much as possible.
When did you fall in love with sushi?
When I was two, my dad took me on a business trip to Japan with him. My dad was at work, and my mom is a food writer, so she loves to eat and she would take me along. And when she would eat sushi, they would feed me cucumber rolls with soy sauce. And then we went again when I was four, so I just got hooked on Japanese food.
So let’s talk about Jiro. He’s really fun to watch. What was your first impression of him?
He is such a fascinating person. The first impression was that there are two Jiros. He’s very stoic and austere behind the sushi bar. He doesn’t talk or make jokes. He’s just so focused on making the best sushi the way he wants to make it. After the service, when he’s able to take off his uniform and he has a moment to reflect and relax and talk to me, you realize that he’s got an incredible sense of humor. He’s such a generous guy and an absolute pleasure. And I learned so much about myself.
What did you learn about yourself from Jiro?
I learned a lot about how I want my work to be. I learned to honestly appraise the work that you’re doing and to have the courage to try to do it better and not be discouraged because something didn’t turn out exactly how I wanted it, and to keep making it better and better. And that’s what we tried to do in the editing process. If one day, the fish wasn’t marinated exactly right, he’d throw it out and make you start over again from scratch. And when we were making the film and something wasn’t working, we had to have the courage to throw out a bunch of work and restructure. Never be afraid to work for the highest level, even though it means taking a step back.
Have you had a hard time eating sushi after having Jiro’s?
Oh, yeah. Oh, definitely. Nothing’s the same. You notice the biggest difference in the rice. And the rice does so much, because it brings out the flavor of the fish, and it’s all about the balance between the fish and the rice. So many American restaurants overlook that. There are only a few restaurants that get the rice right. The balance they’re searching for is umami: the synthesis of the two flavors. The barrier of the conflicting flavors melts away and you have a combined flavor of purity and deliciousness. There are a few restaurants in New York that go for that, but they aren’t cheap. I go for sushi a lot less often, and so instead of going five times a month, I go once a month and pay five times as much.
How long was the editing process in total on the film?
Ten months. I shot for the month of January in 2010, and came back to do the editing. I went back to Japan in August with a much more focused and targeted shoot to get everything else I needed.
What has the festival experience been like for you?
The film premiered at the Berlin Film Festival, which was such an honor, and then the US premiere was at Tribeca last year. And Magnolia bought the film right before that. Since then, it’s played at about twenty film festivals all over the world. It’s been a great year. And audiences have really appreciated the movie. Even the people who don’t like sushi have found things to like about the film, which is the greatest compliment.
Where do you look for inspiration visually?
Well, if it wasn’t for Errol Morris, I probably wouldn’t even be making documentaries. Those movies showed that a documentary can feel beautiful. And I love the way that “The Fog of War,” for example, is mostly archive footage, but then they have all this great metaphorical B-roll footage. And the slow-motion photography and the Philip Glass music was a major inspiration for me. And, of course, I love Fernando Meirelles, so I think I was definitely inspired by them. I’m learning and trying to absorb whenever I see a movie. I know it when I see something I like and then I figure out how to do it.