Co-directors Les Blank and Gina Leibrecht have collaborated on the documentary “All In This Tea.” The film follows David Lee Hoffman, a man more passionate about tea than any other. Travelling with him to the most remote regions of China, Blank and Leibrecht detail Hoffman’s search for the best handmade teas in the world. The film had its world premiere Berlin International Film Festival last year. “Tea” opens on Friday, June 27 at Cinema Village in New York.
Please discuss how the idea for “All in This Tea” came about.
Les Blank: I met David Lee Hoffman at the Himalayan Fair in Berkeley. He had set up his Tibetan tea tent and was serving his teas and telling stories of his travels. I had never had tea of this quality before and became enthralled by it and the tales he had to tell. Hoffman was somewhat familiar with my films, so he asked me if I’d like to come to China with him. I then went on two separate trips to China, about three weeks each, and followed him everywhere with my Sony VX1000.
Gina Leibrecht: (I’ll pick up where Les leaves off.) A few days after Les came back from his second trip to China, he handed me about 85 hours of footage that he had shot there and asked me to log it. Since this was his first digital film, he wasn’t set up to deal with the material, but I was. So after spending about a year and a half just looking at the footage, taking notes and discussing it with Les, I began to slowly piece it together.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
GL: Of course my partner on the film, Les Blank, has been a huge influence on me, and an inspiration, along with the team of filmmakers who did the first handheld docs in the early 60s, like Leacock, Pennebaker, the Maysles Brothers. So, in editing the film, I wanted to honor Les’s sensitivity to his subject and the details that are happening around him. He really uses the camera as a tool to search for something revealing in a simple moment. I also wanted it to be purely a verite style film; I wanted it to be experiential for the audience, as opposed to teachy or didactic. And I wanted to create the feeling of being on a journey, traveling along with Hoffman to these places where westerners have never been, and feeling the payoff in the end when he finally finds the “really good stuff”. I wanted the viewer to end up feeling like they’d been someplace exotic and seen things they’d never seen before. I think the film achieves this, but since most westerners really know nothing about tea, we ended up having to include some teachy elements, otherwise we found that the audience was left with too many questions. So, not wanting to alienate the viewers, the film now weaves in and out of the experiential parts, and I think it works.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in making the film, including finding distribution?
GL: As far as developing the project… Les and I just chipped away at it for ten years. We didn’t have much of a budget, and it took us a few years to figure out what the film was about (we’re slow). In the beginning, we thought it would be a film about David Lee Hoffman –his travels, his run-ins with the FBI, his inventions, and his great passion for environmentally sustainable living– and tea would just be part of it. But it turned out that his journeys to China were the most captivating and something around which we could actually construct a story.
Distribution? What distribution. Well… we’ve had plenty of offers, but we wanted to do as much on our own as we could before we hand it to someone else. It was kind of an experiment for me to see how much I could accomplish using the internet. I found that in the blogosphere, word actually spread pretty quickly with little extra effort on our part.
How did the financing for the film come together?
GL: We got a few small grants, including one from the National Endowment For The Arts, but still only managed to raise a fraction of the budget. So I edited the film between other editing jobs (another reason it took ten years to finish). This got us to a fine cut, and then we sold the film to Sundance Channel and Swedish TV, which paid for the online, music and image rights, and pressing the DVDs.
What is your next project?
GL: I’m in preproduction on a documentary about India tea, which is the other side of the story of tea. Like “All In This Tea,” it will be a character-driven journey into the world of India tea. Les is working on a film about the co-founder of American cinema verite, Ricky Leacock, and a film about the Alabama outsider artist, Butch Anthony. He’d like to make a film about Durian (the fruit).
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
GL: Just keep working. Stay true to yourself, and work from the heart.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
GL: I am proud of all of my work, but “All In This Tea” is by far my biggest accomplishment. I spent a quarter of my life working on this, and every cut was done with love.
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