Friday, July 9, 2010

The Mushroom Movie

That's what our friends are calling it. And I guess that's fair--but at the end of the day, we're hoping there's a bit more on screen than "mushroom porn".

I started researching the script that would evolve into Now, Forager about 5 years ago. I had read an out-of-print cookbook and memoir (A Basque Story Cookbook by Ann Rogers) about the Basque hotels of early 20th c. San Francisco and found a kinship in both the cooking and the culture. Those Basques were tough cookies, and they liked the same kinds of foods that I liked--peppers, tomatoes, ham, wild mushrooms, squid, salt-cod...what's not to love?

I quickly pored through about a dozen or so other books about Basque cooking, plus Mark Kurlansky's excellent The Basque History of the World. In the summer of 2005, I made a trip from my then-home in Austin, TX to San Francisco to interview Gerald Hirigoyen--heralded chef, author, and restaurateur. He graciously allowed me to spend about 9 hours observing and taking notes in his kitchens at Bocadillos and Piperade. An amazing experience for which I am still extremely grateful. (I'll write a separate post about this trip.)

Out of the research, a character started to take shape. A person with a very non-romantic, literal relationship to finding and preparing food. Someone so resistant to compromise that he had trouble holding down a job. A misfit, a misanthrope, a passionate but misguided soul...

My filmmaking partner (Julia Halperin) and I started discussing the nature of "the food movie." Is it a real genre? What films and narrative elements do we like? Which do we hate? What could we contribute that hasn't been said before? And what kind of aesthetic could we realistically achieve with the scrappy resources available to us?

And that's when the idea of foraging really came to the center of the story. For professional foragers, food is a very literal commodity. It's not a metaphor for something else, but rather an end to very primal basic needs. And it was something I already knew about...

I grew up cooking quite a lot. My family fished (salmon, trout, abalone, crabs, ling cod...), hunted (deer, wild pigs, ducks...), gardened (god bless real tomatoes), and foraged (huckleberries, blackberries, pine nuts...). Wild mushrooms, however, were verboten--my maternal grandfather survived a poisoning before I was born. So, as a good-and-proper rebellious teen, that was something I started exploring after leaving home.

I also did some time prepping and washing dishes in restaurants, and later washing kegs at a brewery. But in the professional food world, I'm admittedly an unabashed amateur--one with proper respect for the folks who bust their asses standing in a cramped swelter every night, keeping vampire hours.

I wrote a first draft of the script at a Centrum Institute residency in December of 2006, about a month before Julia and I moved to New York (Brooklyn, to be precise). Soon after, we both joined the New York Mycological Society (founded by John Cage), and quickly became indoctrinated into the obsessive ways of Northeastern fungi hunters. (I currently also serve as the club's newsletter editor.)

After we had some close calls getting a different, higher-budget project into production, we submitted Now, Forager for the Sundance-administered Sloan Foundation development grant. We made it to the last round of consideration, but sadly were not the sole selected project.

With a some budget already raised, Julia and I started casting the following Winter, and pre-production on Now, Forager switched into gear.

And that almost gets us up to speed, but I'll save more for another post...