I rarely care about the man behind the camera when it comes to documentaries, but after seeingJiro Dreams of Sushi I needed to learn more about its director. And, so I did.
Jiro Dreams of Sushi is one of the most stylistically distinct and heartfelt documentaries I’ve ever seen. After speaking to director David Gelb, it all made sense why it turned out this way. Part of it is his life-long love and dedication to its subject: sushi. The other part is that he filmed the documentary in isolation, becoming entirely engrossed in its subjects’ lives. The end result is a film with the same artistic precision and inspiring soul that award-winning sushi chef Jiro Ono embodies.
Read on to hear details of Gelb’s life-long obsession and thoughts on Japanese culture.
How did you come across Jiro Ono?
I was planning on doing a film about a number of sushi chefs. In my research I visited a lot of sushi restaurants. Once I went to his place, I knew I wanted him to be the sole subject of the film because his reputation throughout the world. He’s known as a true legend of sushi. Also his sushi, presence, and personality is so powerful. I thought, “Oh, wow! This is the perfect subject for a feature!”
How was interacting with Jiro and his crew? Do you know Japanese?
I know a little from high school and college. I had a translator with me at all time. I owe a lot to Masuhiro Yamamoto, who is a food critic that appears in the film. He introduced me to Jiro and helped me convince him to be a part of the film. Once he agreed to do the film, he was incredibly open and kind.
I thought it was interesting that you never expose the world of sushi chefs beyond those who have an immediate connection to Jiro. Was this always the plan?
Originally it was going to be about a number of sushi chefs. I thought focusing on a single subject made it a much more powerful film so the movie is about Jiro.
Japanese are often thought of as being very shy about discussing their co-workers and job, yet Jiro and his cooks seemed very open in front of the camera. Did you have a difficult time having them open up at first?
Not really. My strategy is to start unobtrusively. I didn’t conduct any interviews until after a week of shooting. I just wanted to observe and follow them to the fish market even without a camera. I wanted them to feel comfortable with me. Then I started to shoot on a DSLR camera. I had no crew except my translator. Then I bought a Red camera and shot more as they got more comfortable with me. Once I had their trust, it all became very natural and they went out of their way to show me great things.
What was Jiro’s reaction to the film?
He has seen it. He’s not the type of guy who is going to give you a ton of compliments but just the fact that they approve of the movie is a seal of approval for the film. They have very high standards so just the fact that they accepted it was a huge compliment.
How much money worth of Jiro’s sushi did you think you ate during the film’s production?
No comment. Talent costs. When I photograph sushi we have to pay for it, so I have to get it to be absolutely perfect. I wanted them to present a tasting course and shoot from different angles. I was like, “Can we do the same sushi again?” “Absolutely not because the color and texture has changed!” So I had to eat it otherwise it would be rude.
My goal was always to eat the best sushi in the world. I love sushi. My dad used to take me on business trips as a kid and we’d eat sushi in Japan. Real choice sushi is a delicacy. It’s only mean to be eaten once in a couple months or so.
I’m a big fan of Max Richter and thought his music was wonderfully used in the film. It’s an odd pairing, considering how dreary and epic his music can sometimes be. What made you think to use it?
I wanted music in the same style of Philip Glass, and he was certainly influenced by Glass. I think the quality they share is they have a repetitive nature but they are still epically building and building. I think that is the perfect metaphor for Jiro’s work ethic. He’s doing the same routine everyday but he’s trying to improve on it.
Were there any difficulties that came with shooting in Japan that you didn’t foresee?
The biggest difficulty was dealing with isolation sometimes. I was alone in Tokyo and my translator was very kind but I wasn’t hanging out all the time. Being a foreigner in the country, I have a reasonable grasp of the language but it’s not perfect. You get these feelings of doubt sometimes, especially when working in a vacuum. Working alone in a foreign country. But, working with Jiro was probably the greatest film experience I’ve had.
It’s amazing the dedication people in Japan have for their job, no matter how menial. What do you think makes Japanese so different in this respect?
I’m not sure why that is. This amazing culture of specialists exists. I think through generations, kids have always been taught the value of good work. Jiro is viewed as a hero in Japan and young people look up to him. There is respect for artistry and mastering a simple thing. There is a passion for hard work. Even at Seven-Eleven they are passionate about giving you your change and serving you. It’s very appealing.
Do you know what you’ll do next?
I have a company that makes theatrical trailers that I’ve been working hard on developing. We’ve done some campaigns for upcoming films such as Rampart and some others. Apart from that, I’ve been working on a script with a good friend of mine that is a murder mystery.