Interview SXSW TV & Film

SXSW 2018: Interview With “Brewmaster” Director Douglas Tirola

The 2018 SXSW Film Festival had so much great content, including new feature documentaries covering a variety of topics. “Brewmaster,” which had its world premiere at SXSW on March 9, was among these documentary films. The movie follows the growth of the craft beer industry, with a focus on a New York law clerk who wants to start his own brewery and a Milwaukee beer educator trying to pass the Master Cicerone exam.

Director Douglas Tirola | Photo by Jackie Ruth

We spoke with writer/director Douglas Tirola, who is full of personality: he began the interview by sound-checking the recorder with, “This is Douglas Tirola, AKA Dougie Fresh, King of the Beats.”

In 2013, you had a documentary called “Hey Bartender,” about bar tending and cocktails. Did you have interest in making “Brewmaster” before making that one, or is that what piqued your interest in the alcohol industry?

Douglas: You nailed it. “Hey Bartender,” in a sense, took us into this world of the cocktail renaissance or the cocktail resurgence and that movement was really driven by bartenders; that’s why that movie sort of ended up being about bartenders and the cocktail world is kind of in the background. One of the characters in that movie who has a bar in Connecticut, who I’m friendly with, said, “It’s all about beer now. People just want beer – different types of beer. Beer is our biggest seller.” And that started me thinking about this.

What I realized is that the beer movement – and it really is a movement, I think, because it’s somewhere in between believing in a political cause and being a huge sports fan, in terms of how I think people relate to it – it’s really driven by brewers: home brewers, people working at breweries, people who want to be master brewers. So once I started to look into that, I could see that there was an in for me into the movie, and that in was people who are really passionate about something that are looking to make their job, or what they do for a living, have something to do with that passion. And that is in some ways what “Hey Bartender” was. There’s another movie I made in between called “Drunk, Stoned, Brilliant, Dead,” which, even though it has “drunk” in the title, is not about drinking, other than maybe some of the characters drank too much. But it’s the same thing: people who have careers or jobs where people might go ‘No really, when are you going to get a real job?’ or ‘That’s not a job.’

Much of the documentary is focused on two people, Drew Kostic and Brian Reed. How did you decide who to focus in on and how far into the process were you when that decision was made?

Douglas: There’s a great Old Hollywood quote, “when you cast your movie, you cast your fate,” so I didn’t know either of those gentlemen when we started and I did not go in with a thesis. I just went in looking to understand and explore that world. I love stories about subcultures where there’s something huge happening, but another part of the population has no idea that it is happening.

So my process is, I like to just go out and start shooting things. And for something like this, you’re almost doing research, but on-camera. I guess it’d be the equivalent of shooting a rehearsal in a scripted movie. We interviewed a number of people; some end up in the film a little bit and some not, but those initial conversations lead you to other people and other places and ideas.

On one of the very first shoots, we were in the Czech Republic at Pilsner Urquell, which is where [they made] the first beer that was golden and sort of changed the history of beer. There were these two guys who were sort of on a European beer road trip: Jason and Brian, who you see in the movie, and we just asked if we could interview them. We had no intention; these guys – beer educators – that doesn’t sound thrilling initially. But from those interviews, you realize people are super passionate about beer in a way that I don’t think a lot of people know or understand. There are millions of people taking beer super seriously.

So from those interviews, [I found that] Jason had passed this test called the Master Cicerone, which at the time only 11 people had ever passed, and Brian had taken it and failed it. So that stuck with me: ‘okay so he’s going to be taking a test,’ just in terms of a story structure, that’s something to keep in mind and work with. And then I really liked him, and in his interview there was one line that stuck with me, where he started to talk about his dad and his dad’s relationship to beer. It was Yuengling, which is a beer in western Pennsylvania…and the way that he sort of related to his dad through his dad’s love for this beer and that the beer stood for that part of the country he was proud to be from.

Then I started to want to look for someone – I’d read this statistic that in 1990 there were, like, 100 breweries, and now they’re reaching towards 7,000 or more breweries – so I was looking to find someone who was starting a brewery. One of my producers, Danielle Rosen, had a brother that went to Colgate University with a guy named Drew Kostic. Drew was a lawyer who had become a clerk for a judge so he could work less hours than he would at a crazy New York law firm, and he was starting a brewery in his apartment in Brooklyn. So we went and interviewed him, not thinking he’d be a character, but he was just so great right away. He had all this enthusiasm.

There was something inside each of them, though they’re very different, that remind me of people in our film community. So in many ways, you’re always looking – or at least I’m always looking – for a personal in to the story. How do you get the things that you want to say about the world into your movie without it being a lecture or about yourself? And both of these men had things that they were going through and the way that they expressed it that they reminded me of being in independent film.

Still from "Brewmaster" | Photo courtesy of 4th Row Films
Still from “Brewmaster” | Photo courtesy of 4th Row Films

As you mentioned, beer is a huge part of our culture and pop culture, with shows like “Cheers” and “The Simpsons” featuring characters constantly drinking beer, but the brewing process is still unknown to so many people. What do you hope viewers take away from your film?

Douglas: If it’s about beer, I think the craft brewery movement is in an interesting place because understandably, most people’s touchstone are these things that are much more fun and jovial, or not serious. You know, one of my favorite beer scenes in a movie is when Chevy Chase and Anthony Michael Hall share a beer when they’re going across the country [in “National Lampoon’s Vacation”] – I think the car runs out of gas or something and they sit, and they just have a talk but don’t really say much, but he is sharing a beer: ‘Good talk, son.’ If you look at beer’s portrayal in most movies, it’s used to accentuate something fun or too much fun or something mischievous.

Telling this story, you realize that beer is very serious for a lot of people. It’s incredibly hard to make, it takes tons of patience. I can draw all these similarities to making films because you put all these ingredients together and you don’t know what you’re going to get until much later, so there’s a real parallel to that. I want people to realize that, you know, every beer has a great story and I think, just like food in a sense, different beers taste better when you know their story. And I hope that encourages people in the beer community to tell their stories because they’re awesome. And I want other people to realize that there’s a big community around beer. I don’t think a movie can tell someone to drink beer, but it can certainly make you think about beer in a way where you go, ‘I want to be part of that. I want to know how these different things are made.’

And I think the biggest theme in the movie is about, like I said, I want people to walk away and think about the process of what they do maybe more than the byproduct. What’s clear from our characters in the movie, the ones who’ve already had huge success like Jim Koch from Sam Adams and Sam Calagione from Dogfish and Garrett Oliver from Brooklyn Brewery and John Kimmich from The Alchemist – all massively successful but different byproducts of success. But they love the process. And I hope that when people watch the film, they go, ‘These people are super happy not just because they have success but because they love what they do,’ and to try and find something that you are passionate about. I feel extremely lucky to make movies – I love it! I hope the movie inspires people to try to do something that they love. That would be the message in the movie.

And that beer is good, especially when it’s cold.

Did you face any difficulties filming in the breweries, in terms of permissions or logistics?

Douglas: That’s a great question. Breweries are operating…they’re live. And most of them are working around the clock, so you can’t go into a brewery and say, ‘Can you shut these things off?’ People that work in breweries are super busy.

When you’re trying to get that one foundational interview with your characters where you sort of get almost their own narration of their story, but you want it to be in a place that visually enhances the story that you’re telling, in this case it had to be breweries or, in one case I think, a bar. It’s live and so it is challenging to work around those things. What I did find, though, is the places that gave us access, they want people to see that process and to see the work involved in it. I think for a lot of people they think of brewing probably as like making moonshine or something, something mysterious, or as something industrial. At these more intimate breweries it’s sort of a combination of both and even though there are similarities in terms of the look of some of the machinery, they all have their own vibe. They all have a personality to the whole space and to the workspace. We wanted to capture that, but it did mean that while we got access, it wasn’t like ‘Stop working so these guys can film,’ and I think that’s just about being respectful to the place you are.

I also think it’s most effective when you take the time to explain what you’re trying to do. I think sometimes movie crews are like, ‘We’re making a movie, we’re the most important thing, get out of my way!’ And I think sometimes film crews assume that everyone should understand what their process is and they don’t necessarily do that. I remember one time saying, ‘Listen, just like you’re trying to make a new beer, it doesn’t always come out right the first time, and you do it again and you modify it. Just like you’re trying to get that beer to the perfection you want, we’re trying to get the shot to the perfection we want to tell your story or tell our collective story.’ And once you explain that to people, they get it. So luckily a few movies ago I was able to find that common language about just trying to get it right and people are usually pretty accommodating at that point.

You may have touched on this a little bit in a previous answer, but while a few of your documentary subjects were women, the vast majority were men. That seems to be reflective of the brewing community and industry as a whole. Based on your experience, why do you think men are so drawn to beer and the process of brewing?

Douglas: I think there’s definitely a history of men taking their sons for their first drink, or what they perceive to be their first drink. Fairly or not, women have other traditions that maybe moms look forward to doing with their daughters, or dads maybe – I’m sure there’s some awesomely cool dad who’s taken his daughters out for their first beer. If movies reflect society, I haven’t seen that scene yet, but I have seen the scene in “Vacation” where Chevy Chase is trying to connect with his son and he gives him a beer, even though he’s not of age, and they’re trying to connect in that way. So I think that might have something to do with it.

I think maybe there’s an unglamorous physical part. I remember working in movies – I started in Hollywood production on movies. It was very interesting to me: the office always had a lot of women and the set had more men. Now why is that? I don’t mean the director/producer positions, I just mean on the lower level, the working-class level of the film business. I worked both; when I worked in the office, most of my early mentors were women. They had jobs like production coordinator, sometimes production manager, and I remember talking with some of them, great filmmakers that really made these movies, and it was like, ‘yeah, well, I know how to type.’ All these stereotypical things where I don’t think anybody was saying ‘you can’t do this,’ it’s just saying ‘there’s going to be more physical labor over here, so you go do that and this is going to require someone smarter and maybe more patient, so we’ll have the women go do that.’

But I think, as that’s breaking down, you’re seeing more. Every woman we saw working in a brewery, like really [working], we filmed. When you watch the movie, you’ll see women hosing things down, carrying things, cause I have a daughter; I have an awesome mom, an awesome wife. It’s just important to have that portrayed anywhere. You don’t have to say anything; you just see somebody doing that and it makes an impression on somebody. In terms of the well-known brewers, they really come from one generation. We were following who people said their stories were influential, and at least in that era of the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, though I’m sure there were female brewers, there hadn’t been a story I guess that had affected people the way the Dogfish story has touched people, or Jim Koch’s story, or those stories. But hopefully that’s coming.

It all goes back to those first jobs I had, and I always felt that these women were awesome, but they were put on a track. It’s always been a thing for me and I think that’s why the one producer I’ve worked with for 15 years, Susan Bedusa, and Danielle Rosen I think I’ve worked with for 10. Early on, they started with me and I put them on a track.

You’ve been able to bring your films to other festivals like Tribeca and Sundance in the past. Do you think there’s anything about SXSW or Austin that makes “Brewmaster” a great fit to premiere here?

Douglas: I mean, yeah. We were hoping this is where we could premiere the movie because the beer community here is amazing. And I want to be clear: it’s not the beer industry, it’s the beer community. It’s the community of beer geeks who go hopping from tasting room to bar and they know when in the month they’re changing what beers they have. But the working community here of brewers, and the people that work in the breweries, is awesome and it’s close-knit and I think they share a lot. There’s also…I think they call it a lady brewer’s association, but it’s a strong female brewing community here, like really a thriving one.

In terms of the film festival, SXSW has – if you think of the tone of a movie, and let’s just say there’s such thing as the tone of a festival – the tone of our movie, which is reflecting the tone of the beer community, I think is pretty close to the tone of SXSW. It’s completely inviting of everybody, nobody is treated like an outcast, even if in some cases they want to be. There’s just a completely accepting community and it’s fun – it has a sense of humor.

Is there anything else you’re working on that you want to talk about?

Douglas: Yeah, I just finished producing a movie called “Bisbee ’17,” with a director named Robert Greene; I’ve produced all six of his films and we’re hoping that will come out later in the year as well.

I’m working on a movie called “Bloodroot” about two women – two radical feminists – who, I think about 40 years ago, each discovered second-wave feminism and ended up leaving their husbands and opening up a groundbreaking vegetarian restaurant that has a bookstore inside of it. It’s in a working-class city called Bridgeport, Connecticut, with a lot of immigrants, traditionally and now. It’s basically the story of these two women who try to run this business, which they ended up running for 40 years based on a philosophy of feminism. It’s a vegetarian restaurant because they felt that vegetarian food aligned with feminist beliefs in some way. There’s no wait staff because they thought that wait staff was a class system too. One’s in her mid-70s and the other is in her early 80s and I just loved that story. I know that doesn’t sound like a follow-up to a movie like “Brewmaster” or “Hey Bartender” or anything like that, but I’m sure somewhere in there are some common themes.

I’m also working on a movie that I’m co-directing with my daughter, who just turned 16, and that’s called “Charlotte So Far.” That’s about the middle school years and the transition to high school and it’s told initially in a traditional documentary way, and then we start the second act – something dramatic happens to her, something is put online about her, and that is the impetus for her to tell her story with her massive archive of videos and photos she’s taken. She tries to figure out who did this to her, did she have anything that contributed to it? I think anyone who went through high school – especially, from what I understand, any woman who went through high school in America – there’s some tricky years there. I’ll leave it at that. I’ll let her tell that story, but also trying to experiment with the filmmaking, like where do you get to the real truth? Imagine if everything you do is just based on because you think someone’s going to watch it, and where does that lead you, and then are you the person you are on camera or not on camera? So we’re trying to tell the movie in a way where it’s not about bullying and it’s not about social media because in her mind, there is no social media. It just is. And being harassed online is just something that exists; it’s not like ‘oh my god, someone’s going to make a movie.’ That’d be an after-school special years ago, now it just always happens.

Those are the two things of the many things we’re working on that are in the forefront right now. And a documentary on Leonard Bernstein that we’ve been working on for a while. I was thinking those other two movies could play at South By. But we’re doing one on Leonard Bernstein, the famous conductor, and his 100th birthday would’ve been this year. He’s just one of these people that lived an amazing life and his life mirrors what’s happening in culture from, like, the 1930s until he died in 1990. He had cancer, and his last concert was six weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and he put together an orchestra of international musicians that represent the Allied nations of WWII. They played Beethoven’s 9th on Christmas morning in East Berlin while you could still hear people chiseling at the wall, and I thought that was a great way to talk about things now. Here’s a guy who understood the symbolism of a Jewish-American conductor playing Beethoven in East Berlin after the Berlin Wall fell with people from all these countries that had fought Germany. And the movie really focuses on his social change – his work was always about social change.

We’d like to thank Douglas Tirola for speaking with us about “Brewmaster.” Be sure to check https://www.brewmasterfilm.com/ for updates on where to check out the film and stay tuned for more interviews, reviews and recaps from SXSW 2018 here

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