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Interview with “42 Grams” Director Jack C. Newell

“42 Grams” is a documentary film written and directed by Jack C. Newell and screened at the 2017 Austin Film Festival.  “42 Grams” documents the evolution of two Michelin star chef Jake Bickelhaupt and the ups and downs of running a restaurant out of his own apartment in Chicago alongside his wife Alexis. We caught up with Newell to ask him how the film came about, the challenges and inspiration behind the film.

Jack C. Newell | Photo at Chicago International Film Festival

Can you talk a little bit about your journey into filmmaking? 

I really wish my journey into filmmaking was more interesting, but I’m afraid it’s rather boring. I have always loved movies, my parent’s got me a video camera in high school and the WORST video editing software that crashed every 4 minutes. From 18 – 26 I made short films that were bad and then made my first feature the completely improvised film, “Close Quarters” in 2012 and have been doing features ever since. Sometimes people told me when I was younger that I was so lucky I always knew what I wanted to do – perhaps it was just my own lack of imagination. It wasn’t a choice. I make comedies in addition to documentaries, and we say all the time that you don’t choose comedy, comedy chooses you. It’s a way of looking at the world. If I had other skills or an employable trait I might have given up and would be your CPA now, but I don’t and I’m not, so, there’s nothing to it, but to do it.

How did you hear about Jake’s story? 

The answer to this question is somewhat involved, and you’ll see how iterative my process is. I had just finished shooting my previous fictional narrative, “Open Tables,” a romantic comedy with Desmin Borges, Caroline Neff, Dave Pasquesi, Beth Lacke, Joel Murray, TJ Jagodowski and a bunch of other great actor/improvisers that used the foodie scene in Chicago and Paris, France as the backdrop. Because of that, I had found myself at a lot of Michelin starred or just very well regarded restaurants. Then my girlfriend (now wife) Rebecca and I were at a Steppenwolf fundraiser and saw this silent auction item for what was called an “underground dining experience” at a place called Sous Rising and at the time I was like, I just made a movie in the dining scene in Chicago and I hadn’t heard of this! So, I bid, and won it (for like ½ off!!!) and a few weeks later we go to this dinner.

So, when you see the film you’ll see it’s in Uptown, which is NOT where fancy dining is in Chicago and it’s in someone’s apartment so before hand, Rebecca and I are like – what are walking to here – dinner with strangers in someone’s apartment that is in sort of a crappy part of town (I love Uptown, just trying to paint a picture here). Long story short, the food is incredible, Jake was producing better food from his small kitchen and Alexa was doing a better job at being a hostess then at some of the best restaurants in the world. Afterwards Jake and Alexa are talking to everyone after the meal and I went up to Jake and asked if I could start filming him, and he said yes, and two weeks later I started showing up to film him and Mike at Sous Rising.

Chef Jake Bickelhaupt

What was the inspiration behind making this documentary?

“42 Grams” is my first documentary – I initially went into it as a sort of “film school” to teach myself how to shoot and construct a documentary film. I knew how to do that with fiction, but was curious how to make documentary and so that was really the inspiration at the top. Once filming was going, and I understood documentary better (still learning, but knew more) the conversations moved more into process – Jake’s approach and process as a chef and my approach and process as a filmmaker. Fast-forward to two-years later and I’ve captured something in the film (I don’t want to ruin the film, but there’s some great stuff we captured that you can see when you watch the film!) and I realized that I might have a movie here! Then the inspiration of the film shifted from learning on the fly to trying to accurately portray these two characters / subjects of Jake and Alexa and what they sacrificed for their shared dream. I wanted to make a film that was funny, sad, heartbreaking, triumphant, interesting, challenging, silly – essentially a very human movie that took the audience on this unbelievable ride. Documentary (maybe film more generally as well) has this incredible ability to transport audiences into someone else’s experience and let you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Roger Ebert said, “Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts.”  Documentary does this incredibly well. Whether you are a chef or the wife of a chef, you will watch this film and connect to it because what these two did in the film is something that everyone has done or wants to do.

What was the most challenging and rewarding part throughout the making of this film? 

Challenging is learning the lesson of patience – which is the least cool, least rock-star answer you’ve probably ever received to this question. Sometimes the best move is to do nothing and be patient. The most rewarding part was this THING that happens in the movie that I captured 18 months into filming. Up until that point I had been filming but didn’t have a movie, I had nothing really. But, I was able to capture something incredible on film and I remember leaving that day and while I was walking on the sidewalk I thought “wow – I just got the movie right there.” Of course, then I rushed home and backed up the footage like a million times so I didn’t lose it. But, my patience had paid off, and so those two are intertwined.

Dish by Jake Bickelhaupt

What do you hope people take away after watching this film or why they should see it? 

 What I was interested in making the film was not making a commercial for this restaurant. It was my intention to make a film that was as accurate to their experience as possible – the good and the bad, sickness and health – essentially what you say in your vows when you get married – I wanted all of that. So, it’s a very “real” and fairly intense story because you’re right there with them in their apartment or in their restaurant. You cannot escape.

Obviously, folks who have seen and loved any of these other films or shows about food will respond to this film. But, I would love for folks who maybe have seen some of these food movies and are turned off by them to check this out. When we were making it, I told my editor, David Burkart, that the proportions of the film are:

  • 1/3 of the film is pretty familiar food-doc territory of these people are going to open a restaurant and we’ve all seen that movie before.
  • 1/3 of the film is cookbook/portrait of an artist – to try and get a world-class chef artist to explain his food in a way that someone who isn’t a Michelin starred chef would understand without dumbing it down or shying away from the specifics of the form.
  • 1/3 of the film is American Dream. It’s about a couple who have a dream and you get to watch them grind it out for years to make it happen to stunning highs and crushing lows. Which is something that we all have experienced and can relate to.

What are you working on next? 

I am in post-production on a docuseries titled “How to Build a School in Haiti” which starts after the 2010 earthquake in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti. It tells the story of an American, Tim Myers, who tries to build a single elementary school in rural Haiti. We use this project to have a larger story about education, aid, and charity writ large. You can donate to the film here.

And, since I do comedy + documentary (totally natural pairing… right?) I am in pre-production on my next fiction film titled “Monuments” – a road trip movie of a man who is trying to scatter his wife’s ashes in a spot that was very special to them, but her family has other plans. It’s a caper road-trip film, comedy with a heart sort of movie.

“42 Grams” is being released by Gunpowder & Sky and is available on all major VOD platforms, including iTunes, Amazon Video, Google Play, Microsoft Movies & TV, Vimeo, and Vudu. You can keep up with Newell’s upcoming projects here. Follow Jake on Twitter to stay updated on all his latest food endeavors. 

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