Interview: David Gelb, Director

by Joshua Goldfond

David Gelb is a 29-year-old writer, director, and producer whose 2011 documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, has garnered broad critical and public acclaim. A New York City native and USC film school graduate, Gelb’s previous work has included music videos and narrative shorts that have allowed him to work with the likes of Ed Burns, Jeffrey Tambor, Henry Winkler, and Robert Downey Jr. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is his first feature-length project, and moves away from the world of entertainment and into that of  fine cuisine.

The subject of Gelb’s film is Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old Japanese master sushi chef considered to be among the finest in the world. Jiro’s legend comes from a lifetime of singular devotion to his craft; a devotion whose intensity and clarity are rare and atavistic in a modern era of fast food and mass production.  His unassuming restaurant, Sukiyabashi Jiro, holds a mere 10 seats and is located in a subway station in the Ginza district of Chuo, in Tokyo. And yet, at $300-a-plate and with a one month waiting list, it is one of the few eateries in Japan to earn the supremely prestigious Michelin “Three-Star Rating”. It has received high praise from chefs Anthony Bourdain and Joël Robuchon, and is a favored stop for celebrities and dignitaries the world over.

With this rich character as his subject, Gelb’s 81-minute film delivers a masterfully-executed, elegant meditation on craftsmanship, family, entrepreneurship, Japanese history, wholesale economics, and even environmentalism. It is an extremely promising outing for a first time feature director and will surely be a tough act to follow.

David Gelb spoke with me in late October of 2012.

 

What are some of the documentaries that have influenced your own filmmaking style? Were there any that specifically informed the production of Jiro Dreams of Sushi?  

I was very much inspired by the BBC miniseries Planet Earth, as well as the film Baraka by Ron Fricke and the films of Errol Morris.  I loved the cinematography and the way they used music.  I wanted to tell my story in a similar style.

I understand that Jiro Dreams of Sushi was made possible through the help of famed Japanese film critic Masuhiro Yamamoto; someone who is an old friend of Jiro’s and partial narrator for the film. How difficult was it for him to convince Jiro to participate? Although not overly secretive, the reserved master chef portrayed in the movie doesn’t necessarily seem like someone who would want to discuss his work and personal life so openly.

Jiro is no stranger to being interviewed or to being on TV, but having a foreign filmmaker follow him around for a couple of months was certainly different for him. With Yamamoto, I told Jiro that I wanted to tell his story from his perspective, that I had no personal editorial spin and that I just wanted to learn.  I approached it from the perspective of a student, and I think he appreciated that.  Jiro saw this as a way to convey his message to a large international audience. Also, politeness goes a long way in Japanese society, so I was very careful with my manners.

Although admittedly an aged man, Jiro’s stoic demeanor in the film certainly lacks the panache that Americans have come to expect in their celebrity chefs. Would you say that this is a reflection of cultural difference between the two nations, or is this just his own nature?  How comfortable is Jiro with his celebrity status?

Jiro just wants to make good sushi, and he wants to share his perspective on sushi with those who come to the restaurant.  Jiro feels his work speaks for itself, so he doesn’t need to do a song and dance in his presentation of it.  As long as the customers are polite he has no problem being a celebrity.  He wants the restaurant to continue to thrive after his sons take over, and his legacy is important to that end.

Have you spoken with the Jiro or his sons since the documentary aired? Have you gotten any feedback from him and his staff?

The restaurant has since been packed with foreign customers.  Business is booming and they are thrilled.

The film alludes to the various forces (climate change, over-fishing, overpopulation) which jeopardize the future of quality sushi in Japan. During your time researching and creating the documentary, did you get any sense that this was a topic being taken seriously as a national issue in Japan? Or, is it simply accepted as the cost of industrial progress?

These forces you mention are jeopardizing the future of delicious all over the world, not just Japan.  It’s a real issue that people do care about, but there is a large lobbying force in the fishing industry trying to suppress the issue.  Unsustainable fishing is unfortunately very profitable, so its an uphill battle.  Jiro feels very strongly that the desire for profit must not be so shortsighted, and that resources must be preserved for future generations.

Do you have any forthcoming projects that you’d care to mention? Are you looking to make any more documentaries, or do you wish to try your hand at a full-length narrative?

I’ve teamed up again with the editor and producers of Jiro Dreams of Sushi to start an entertainment marketing company called City Room Creative (www.cityroomcreative.com).  We make movie trailers and posters applying Jiro’s philosophy to our work.  We love movies and editing trailer is a blast.  We actually did the Jiro Dreams of Sushi trailer ourselves.  I also am looking at some interesting documentary projects and narrative films as well, but not sure what is next just yet.

 

David Gelb can be followed on twitter at: @ThisIsDavidGelb

The official website for ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ can be found here.

The official website for Sukiyabashi Jiro can be found here.