Cinematographer-Director Vishal Solanki talks about the making of his first documentary feature "CAFFEINATED"
*photo by Oliver Carnay
an exclusive interview by Oliver Carnay
I first watched this beautiful and very informative film at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival in late January where I first met director Vishal Solanki and his team.
In the new documentary feature film "CAFFEINATED," Solanki and his crew traveled different continents to share you the history of how coffee started to market around the world and the detailed process of preparing the bags of coffee until it gets sold and served by your favorite baristas, and finally sipping from your coffee cup for breakfast. It starts from picking the coffee cherries sold by the weight in bags, to depulping, drying by density and dried fermenting from 27 to 72 hours to release the mucilage. Every bean has different density so it goes through chemical reaction once it’s roasted with gas pressures. In Guatemala, the good ones get to be exported to U.S. but the bad ones gets to be sold in the market.
Here's an in-depth interview with cinematorgrapher turned director Vishal Solanki in his debut feature film "Caffeinated" .. please read on:
HOLLYWOODFLIP: Most cinematographers have transitioned their career into being a good director. Has it been your desire and when did you realize the idea to become a successful feature film director? Was it your first intention to direct a documentary film rather than a straight feature film, maybe a romcom, a thriller, or a horror film? Are you planning to do more documentary film or switch to other genre? What type of film genre are your favorites to watch?
VS: "Directing was always going to be a possibility. I had completed my BFA in Applied Arts and Photography, and then I studied cinematography and directing in film school. It was a gradual and organic option which took shape over a decade. I won't call it a 'transition' because that would be saying I'm transitioning from one thing to another and won't be doing cinematography anymore. I like to keep my options open. What I pick is generally only driven by my liking for the subject matter. It wasn't my first intention to do a documentary about coffee. As you know, “Caffeinated” is a joint effort between my co-director Hanh Nguyen and I; it was she who had the idea of making a movie about coffee and we partnered up immediately. I am not planning to do a long form documentary any time soon. Drama is my favorite genre but I also like themes of surrealism, thriller and fantasy. I would like to work on a couple of shorts next. As far as what I like to watch, I love dramas and thrillers, but typically my decisions are more director-driven than genre-driven. For example, if it's a Michael Haneke film, or Wong Kar Wai, or say, Wim Wenders, then I will watch it irrespective of any genre. In general I don't watch television, and I opt to watch more European films as opposed to American ones."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: When and where did the idea to create a documentary about the coffee process and its history come from?
VS: "In 2010 Hanh had came to the restaurant I worked at and mentioned it. At that point, the film was about the comparative coffee culture within some big cities of America such as Seattle, Portland, New York, etc. We had named the film 'Coffee Culture' earlier."
"We didn't know at that time that we would be discussing the coffee process and the history of coffee. It is just something that we discovered during our research and interviews."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: What's the closest experience you have working in the coffee trading business? Have you had the chance of being a barista in your life? Are you a coffee or espresso lover? Any favorite brand and flavor
VS: "The closest experience I have had working in the coffee business is co-directing this movie with Hanh. I have never been a barista or worked in a coffee shop. Hanh has done a barista/bar back position before. When you ask for “coffee” or “espresso”, in a way it's one and the same thing, because espresso is also coffee. I am assuming you are asking “drip” or “espresso”. I like both, I have everything from drip to milk-based espresso beverages like lattes and machiattos or straight shots of espresso. It all depends upon various factors, but most importantly mood. For flavors I never add any syrups, because that is like adding a mask to what could have been a potentially and naturally beautiful face. Coffees from the Yirgacheffe region in Ethiopia and the Tarrazu region from Costa Rica are closer to my tongue and heart."
HOLLYWOOFLIP: How did you layout the plan on which locations to use and include in your documentary? What resources did you use?
"We knew which American cities we wanted to shoot in and began our many interviews there. Aside from that, we never had a specific plan. For locations abroad, we had worked closely and traveled along with coffee shops such as Intelligentsia, since Geoff Watts, one of our key narrators, was going there for work anyways. This meant we had a guide who had been there for many years and knew both the families and methods of farmers to their entirety. We went to smaller countries that needed exposure in the coffee business, which worked in our favor as well, since we could navigate from one coffee region to another very quickly without spending a lot of time and money on traveling. For example, you can see most of El Salvador or Nicaragua's coffee regions in a couple of days, but doing such in Brazil or Colombia is not possible due to distance between different coffee growing regions. Apart from distance, as you see in the film, you also have to allocate additional time for the ascent to these coffee farms, because the best coffee grows at high altitudes."
"There were not very many resources, it was pretty much Hanh and myself, and Geoff, of course. In Honduras we went with Cup of Excellence, which was being managed by Susie Splindler at the time. She introduced us to IHCAFE, and then IHCAFE helped us out with some local logistics. For Italy we were helped by Nuova Simonelli, an espresso manufacturer. They believed in the project when it was a complete gamble. Every now and then, a coffee company would help us out with some favors, with me on the camera and Hanh doing sound. The rest of the resources came out of pocket, or via friends and family. Travel was organized by Vinay Gandhi, who is one of the executive producers and owns a travel agency in Hollywood as well. That allowed us to focus on the interviews and other important parts of production like translations, and other filmmaking logistics."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: Was there anything outlined in your plan you were not able to produce or fulfill in regards to creating the film? Was there anything you would have liked to include that wasn't in the film?
VS: "We did not have a strong outline because documentary, as a format, functions very different from fiction. That being said, we always wanted to go to Ethiopia, Kenya or Rwanda to shoot, so we could have some Africa in the film, however things did not line up money wise. We also shot a lot in Paris, but nothing landed up in the final cut of the film because it was not helping the story. To answer your question, there is nothing we would have liked to include that is not already in the film. We went to Honduras and Nicaragua once, and then we needed more pick ups for Nicaragua, since we had extensive voice-over but not enough visuals to show the growth of Las Hermanas. I had to make a short, three-day trip to get that coverage, and we were satisfied with what we got."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: How long did it take you to produce this film, from pre-production to the finished product? You also executive produce this film. Did you have any investor and how did you get them? Did you have a hard time about getting any financial support? Have you thought about using crowd funding?
VS: "It took us a little over 4.5 years from start to finish. There is a handful of executive producers in addition to me, and they are mostly friends I have made over time during my stay in Los Angeles. It was difficult getting financial help; at the same time, I must confess that our executive producers really believed in us and what we were doing. Not to mention, the crew consisted of people whom either Hanh or I had previously worked with, so they were flexible in regards to their payments. We set up contracts and paid, but it was never a do-or-die situation. We tried Kickstarter/Indiegogo back in the day, but things did not work out in our favor."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: What were some of the greatest challenges you have encountered in producing or during the shooting of your film "Caffeinated"?
VS: "It's tough to say one from another. Sometimes we had money issues, sometimes we had travel issues. For example, I remember once when we were going to Honduras, the lady working for the airline said, “Sir, this passport won't work, can you please get a new one?” My passport was 10 years old and some plastic on the edge had worn out, so we had to dance all over the place contacting authorities in Honduras to allow us to fly 10 hours later to San Pedro, Sula (which is, again, well known as a crime capital). I mean, just the way things went down was a Dramedy. Here Hanh and I are, sitting with our luggage at a Korean barbecue place in Koreatown, Los Angeles, and I am taking photos of my green card on the side walk, emailing them to Honduras immigration in order to get us on the plane..."
"Once I was returning to Los Angeles from Nicaragua and the farmer said there was a hotel close by that I could crash at. We later find out all hotels close to the airport were full. The option was to go thirty to forty minutes away in an unknown neighborhood at midnight, and find a cab at 3 AM to come back. Instead, I just chained my hand and suitcase to some metal chairs on the airport floor and laid down. It felt like the safest option. Same thing with money. Every trip would dig a hole financially and would take Hanh and I another couple of months to get back on our feet. Not paying rent on time had become a habit, and still continues to be so, for me at least." ..
"I remember going to my landlord's office in Beverly Hills, after the Santa Barbara International Film Festival had selected us. I requested him that I was going to be late on rent since we needed money for the DCP and traveling, and he was okay with the idea and let me loose. I would say that the biggest challenge in a documentary is not knowing where you really stand. The number of re-edits the movie has to go through, and the journey to the final cut itself is the most challenging part. You always edit thinking that you know what you are doing-- however once you do so, you realize that what you did can be improved, and then it's just a constant circle until you are genuinely pleased with the final work."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: From the countries or cities you've been to, which coffee you liked most? Which place do you prefer: Starbucks, Coffee Bean, Peet's, or any other popular coffee shop?
VS: "I do have a strong liking for Intelligentsia in Los Angeles and Vivace in Seattle. Cafe Dulce in Los Angeles has a certain warmth and hospitality to it. Stumptown in Seattle is also great. I like Peet's a lot because there is something about the coffee and their atmosphere. They are not too crowded, they have high ceilings in many locations, and there is something meditative in terms of the atmosphere. I like Starbucks, because of convenience also. I mean so much goes into liking something; on a specific day a lot of dynamics have to fall into place for the perfect experience so I would not like to generalize any one coffee shop. It is not only about the taste of coffee, but also about the set and setting, and that is a huge variable on a daily basis. Your coffee may taste great but if the barista, was hostile for some reason, or having a bad day, that could be a game changer for the entire experience."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: Can you give me an update about the Las Hermanas Sisters? From the time they were able to put their products at Peet's and working with Sustainable Harvest, how are they doing now?
VS: "Most of those topics are discussed in detail in the film and I would not like to disclose that story here before people get to see the film."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: Have the relationships between growers and roasters have improved? How are the farmers' living condition? How do farmers are being recruited these days?
VS: "I think its still the beginning of a long journey. Some roasters have worked very hard over the last decade in building stronger bonds with farmers, but compared to the number of coffee companies that exist, it is still a small proportion. That being said, roasters alone should not be held responsible for these relationships. It is a long chain of people involved, and it leads us ultimately to a coffee consumer. Each one of us has to take responsibility for the choices we make during purchasing food and realize our role in sustainable agriculture."
"To generalize living conditions of all farmers would be unfair. What we do know is farmers who are working for specialty coffee, are trying hard to grow the best coffee they can with limited financial and human resources. Of course, there are issues like hunger, awareness, education, training, climate change, migration for better jobs in most farming industries."
"In terms of recruitment, for most farmers, farming is a family tradition where they inherit a farm or land from their ancestors or they know someone else who owns a farm, and they can work for them. It is something you are born into sometimes or it could be their cultural tradition . Let's say someone is born in tea plantations very high in the hills in southern India or in coffee plantations in the mountains of Nicaragua. At that point, it is just something you grow into and not necessarily a deliberate career choice. You do what everybody else is doing so you can feed and get fed."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: What do you think is the future of coffee trading as well as coffee houses and shops in the next ten or 20 years?
VS: "I keep myself away from trading and stock market in general. It has never fascinated me. I am concerned that coffee production may decrease since more and more people from different countries have started drinking coffee but the amount of land growing coffee still remains the same. This will hike up the prices of coffee and it will be a strongly sought after commodity in the next decade or two."
"More specialty coffee shops are opening up every day which is a good thing. On the down side, many cafes have lost their essence because what was supposed to be a meeting place for people to have a conversation and interact, now looks like an office with people on laptops and ear phones. You see people on dates, and they are busy looking at their phones than at each other. To answer your question, some coffee shops will remain “cafes” preserving the idea and soul of a cafe. The others may slowly resemble cubicles where people are working, totally disconnected from human interaction, thereby defeating the purpose of a cafe."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: What do you want your audience to take with them by watching your film "Caffeinated"?
VS: "Explore coffee and all its wonderful nuances. Go deeper, and ask yourself, what's behind the coffee you like ? Who grew it? Where did it come from? How is that land different from yours? How is that culture different from yours? Inspite of all the differences certain commonalities are universal. How do you relate to the growers once you understand those commonalities? How can we co-exist? The film does not answer a singular question, but instead, its singular purpose is to ask many questions, and leave the audience to go on a quest on whatever it is, that intrigues them about coffee."
HOLLYWOODFLIP: Have you found a distributor for "Caffeinated"? Are there going to be a theatrical release?
VS: "Filmbuff owns world wide rights to the film. The film will have a limited theatrical release in Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle and Portland. In Europe it has already released theatrically in Amsterdam and Berlin. It is also up for pre-order in English speaking countries on iTunes and Hulu Plus and will release in North America on 14th July with a screening in Chicago.
HOLLYWOODFLIP: What will be your next film about?
VS: "I am developing a short drama in India, which will be in Hindi for the most part except for some English. The title is tentatively called “Painted” and there is not much to expose at this point. Not sure if that will be the next project per say, but its something I am working on with a couple of Indian writers who live in Los Angeles and I am also trying to put something in development in Europe ... Let's see what happens.
"CAFFEINATED" is now available on iTunes, Amazon, googleplay, Xbox, vudu and all major cable providers including Time Warner, Comcast, directv and more. It will open in Laemmle theaters in Los Angeles starting August 3, 2015 -- see other listings at your nearest theaters.
CAFFEINATED directors Hanh Nguyen and Vishal Solanki will participate in Q&A's after all screenings at the following dates and theater venues:
Noho 7, August 3, 2015, after the 7:30 screening North Hollywood, CA
Laemmle's Playhouse, Tuesday, August 4th, 2015 Pasadena, CA
Laemmle's Royal, Wednesday, August 5th, 2015 Los Angeles, CA
Laemmle's Claremont, Thursday, August 6th, 2015 Claremont, CA