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Meet the 2015 SXSW Filmmakers #21: Follow a Chef’s Quest for Perfection in ‘For Grace’

Meet the 2015 SXSW Filmmakers #21: Follow a Chef's Quest for Perfection in 'For Grace'

Shot over the course of four years, “For Grace” follows acclaimed chef Curtis Duffy through the inception of his first restaurant, from cinderblocks all the way up to opening night for what quickly became one of the most sought-after restaurants in the world. “For Grace,” which was co-directed by first-time documentary filmmakers Kevin Pang (an award winning food writer for The Chicago Tribune) and Mark Helenowski (a Student Emmy winner and commercial director), explores the magnitude of sacrifice required in Duffy’s never-ending quest for perfection — and shows us a lot of delicious food along the way.

What’s your film about in 140 characters or less?

It’s about a chef’s journey from tragedy to redemption, and the sacrifice required to build one of America’s most acclaimed restaurants.

Now what’s it REALLY about?

Well, there’s really a number of themes happening concurrently. On the surface level, it’s about the building of a Chicago restaurant called Grace, from concrete box to its opening night. The film centers on its chef, Curtis Duffy, who as a teenager sought refuge in the kitchen to get away from his turbulent household. It’s about how Duffy survived an unimaginable family tragedy and double-downed on his resolve to become the best chef in the country. On another level, it’s about the price chefs pays in becoming the best. The hours away from home, the sacrifice, the broken relationships. Finally, it’s about Duffy’s relationship with his home economics teacher – a woman whom he credits turning his life around, a woman he now views as a surrogate mother – and how that teacher vowed to not miss Grace’s opening night for the world. So all those storylines and themes, wrapped in a 92-minute package. We hope it worked.

Tell us briefly about yourself.

I (Kevin) am a filmmaker, whose day job is the food writer at the Chicago Tribune. That’s how I met Curtis Duffy four years ago. Mark is also a filmmaker who was 20 when we began principal shooting. When we’re not shooting or hunched over my iMac editing this film, Mark does commercial work for companies such as Gatorade, Nike and United Way. We both live in Chicago.

Biggest challenge in completing this film?

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the biggest challenge was producing the film with a crew of two people. We did not have a team of two dozen, nor a production company who backed us with a million dollar budget. We paid in sweat equity, practically shooting every scene, color corrected, audio mixed and edited every frame. What probably could’ve taken two years to produce only took twice as long. But by God, we got into SXSW, so that’s a tribute to stumbling on a compelling story.

What do you want SXSW audience to take away from your film?

All our favorite films whisk us away to an unfamiliar world. We think people would be astonished by the attention to detail required in running a luxury fine dining restaurant, where dinner for two cost upward of $700. Every conceivable consideration is thought out – at one point there was even a table cushion for the diner’s cell phone. From a 30,000-feet perspective, we want viewers to see this as a food film that’s not really about food. It’s about the drive toward perfection, and to what lengths people go to attain the unattainable.

Any films inspire you?

“Jiro Dreams of Sushi,” obviously, and we’re lucky enough to have one of its producers, Kevin Iwashina, as our sales rep. The documentaries we love all tend to have narrative structure: There’s an arc of conflict and resolution, usually with a flawed character at its center. “Anvil!” was a damn fine piece of filmmaking in that sense, as was Ondi Timoner’s “We Live in Public.” And of course, a shout out to our hometown heroes, Kartemquin Films, whose staff was immeasurably helpful during the making of our documentary.

What’s next?

Here’s the thing: We had no expectations going into this project four years ago that we’d be typing these words and talking about premiering our film at SXSW. This isn’t just beyond our wildest dreams, it not’s even in the realm of dreams or hallucinations. So coming to Austin is yet another step in this great, totally unexpected, totally astonishing unknown. We’re approaching our futures with open minds, but we’ll say this much: Being able to share a stage with our filmmaking heroes at SXSW gives us the validation keep on pursuing filmmaking.

What cameras did you shoot on?

We shot the movie exclusively with Canon DSLRs, from the humble T2i to the brand-new (at the time!) 5D mkIII. We used our own equipment to capture virtually every sight and sound in the film – or begged and borrowed where that wasn’t possible.

Did you crowdfund? If so, via what platform. If not, why?

We DIY’d everything we possibly could, but there came a point after the film was accepted into SXSW that we needed the assistance of professionals (such as converting to the DCP film format). For that, we sought a private crowdfunding campaign via Indiegogo to our families and friends. We’re eternally grateful for their help.

Did you go to film school? If so, which one?

I attended Southern Cal, one of the top film schools in the country — but studied broadcast and print journalism. But learning about the tenets of reporting, writing and storytelling were integral skills that prepared me for this documentary. Mark studied film at Columbia College in downtown Chicago.

Indiewire invited SXSW Film Festival directors to tell us about their films, including what inspired them, the challenges they faced and what they’re doing next. For profiles go HERE.

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