Moment of Truth: DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus Talk Kings of Pastry

Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline's spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. Today we hear from DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus about Kings of Pastry, which opens this week in New York.

The husband-wife filmmaking team of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have been on hand to witness more than a few historic dramas over the years, perhaps none more famous than that of the charismatic Clinton campaign engineers profiled in their Oscar-nominated 1993 documentary The War Room. Scale that intensity and those stakes down to one guy in a kitchen, however, and you wind up with something like their new film Kings of Pastry, about chef Jacquy Pfeiffer's pursuit of one of France's most hallowed culinary distinctions: that of M.O.F., or Best Craftsman in France.

Pfeiffer's grueling three-day journey through the M.O.F. contest -- a competition of will, precision and a devastating amount of butter -- is chronicled both in and out of the kitchen, the culmination of a lifelong dream that literally haunts his sleep. Movieline caught up with the duo at their office in New York, where we spoke about the pinnacle of pastry, standing out from the glut of competition docs and the epistemological milestone that is nonfiction cinema.

I read that you knew as soon as you met your subject Jacquy, you knew you wanted to make a film about him. How did you know?

CH: I think the thing that really tipped us over was that we went to the school, which was really such an exquisite, fascinating school filled with beautiful pastries and sculptures and things. But the thing that hooked us was when we went out to lunch with him that day, and then he started describing to us that scene that's in the film -- how his girlfriend woke him up every night to tell him that the competition was going to be canceled, so he wouldn't have nightmares and dream about it. We just realized the stress this guy is going through and how much this competition means to him. It's really important.

That's kind of what you look for in a film: somebody who's really, really passionate and caught up in what they do, and they're going to take some really high risks for themselves. That seemed like what Jacquy was up to. It's kind of the same for a lot of our films; for The War Room, it was people trying to elect the president. It's a big moment in people's lives.

DP: You want someone about to turn a corner and go into the woods, which is where most of our films are made -- in the woods.

And the idea of them taking a risk is kind of compounded by their letting you tag along with them.

DP: We're taking a risk! It's an unsalable film at that point. Who's going to buy a film where you don't even have a script or anything describing what you want to do? "I think this is a good story." There are a million good stories! Why would anybody pay you to do that?

You had no deal or financing in place for this before you went to shoot?

DP: All our films are like that.

So how do you get yourself out of the woods?

DP: That's what the filming is about -- to try to find your way out of those woods, the "woods" being a lot of stories. You get out of it by finding a good story, which you don't do until you start editing what you've seen. You don't find it when you're filming because you hardly know what to film. You're just watching, but you've made a couple important decisions. One is on your main character, and it's hard to say why. But it's like James Carville [in The War Room]. We didn't know who he was, even, but he was a our main character.

CH: He was no more famous than Jacquy is within his world.

DP: It's the same with most people. It was the same with Dylan, when I finally met Dylan. We sat in a bar downtown, and I knew he was a good character to film. I don't know why, exactly. It's like who you marry. I mean... why?

Chris, don't you have pastry chefs in your family?

CH: I have pastry chefs in my family background in that my grandfather, kind of like these chefs, apprenticed in Europe and then came to the United States and opened these two high-end pastry stores in New York City. But he died before I was born. His shops were there, but I never got to know him as a person. My real big influence was my grandmother, who was this amazing Hungarian chef who would cook in a way that -- when I grew up in the '50s and '60s -- didn't happen much anymore. I grew up in the fast-food generation: TV dinners, cakes out of boxes, that whole thing. So to still have this European tradition of fine cooking was something that I really cherish. I always thought it was strange that I would get these amazing cakes and everybody else would have these things out of a box. I never really thought about it until later, but that was my reality.

DP: And your grandmother had that marvelous store.

CH: My other grandmother did.

DP: A chocolate store, which you hardly see anymore. But I kind of remember them from my early days in the Midwest, when you could still get phosphates at the drugstore counter.

CH: There were still a few in the '60s and '70s -- these very fancy bakery/sandwich/pastry shops. It was very beautiful. There was marble and etched glass, very pretty.

What kind of advantage is that as a filmmaker? That background or experience?

DP: You like doing it!

CH: I don't think its any advantage other than I appreciated fine pastry! I think what you're really looking is an interesting character and story -- and holding on to it. I mean, this story had a lot of twists and turns, and that makes it very difficult. You want your film to go one way with your characters, and then life intervenes and you have to go another way. You have to decide to kind of hold on and keep filming and hope that you get a story out of real life. Fortunately this one had twists and turns that worked to its advantage.

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