Whether you’re sipping on a custom cocktail in New York’s finest mixology bar or relaxing with beers at your nightly hangout around the corner, the dim lights of the establishment are sure to eschew your eye to what’s hiding behind the curtain—or in this case, behind the bar. The woman who served up the fancy drink you’re enjoying or the man who pours your favorite pint every night, or whoever’s doling out your alcoholic pleasures, is sure to have a story of their own. And as the renaissance of the bartender only becomes more prevalent, the more we find ourselves asking: just who are these people that float in and out of our nights?
So with filmmaker Douglas Tirola’s new documentary Hey Bartender, he takes us behind the bar and inside the world of a set of bartenders navigating their way through cocktail culture. Focusing on two subjects: Steve Schneider, former Marine and principal bartender at New York’s Employee’s Only and Steve "Carpi" Carpentieri, owner and bartender at Dunville’s in Wesport, CT, we’re made privy to the intricate details of a bartenders life—both the highs and excitement that surrounds the profession, as well as the struggles that come with it.
Having both big-budget Hollywood features and more independent festival features under his belt, Tirola decided to dive head first into the world of his subjects, hoping telling their own personal stories would reflect something about the time we’re living in. A few weeks ago, I got to chat with Tirola about the process of making Hey Bartender, what attracts him to this community, and creating a film that’s universally engaging.
What sparked your desire to make a documentary about this subject? Have you always been interested in nightlife culture?
I’m someone who really likes bars. I’m someone who, if I’m eating by myself, I’ll eat at the bar. When I was a kid my parents took me to a lot of bars or bar restaurants to eat and I was just in that environment a lot. The impetus for making this is that I had some exposure in a very short amount of time to a couple of the high-level cocktail bars and bartenders in New York—one being at Employees Only and the other being at PDT. That really told me that there was a story out there that I didn’t know existed, and I go to bars a lot. So I saw that and I knew that it could be a movie and had the potential to be something engaging and insightful. I hoped telling that story would tell something about the time we live in and the world we live in.
How did you begin the process of making it?
We began by focusing more on the world of corner bars—that sort of Cheers bar. I love that world and I love those communities and the bartenders there that are like the unofficial mayors of those communities, but I couldn’t imagine the movie when we were filming that—if you think of a writer taking notes, we were doing that with a camera. But then I got exposed to Employees Only and then also to a place in LA called Library Bar, and learned about the whole world of mixology and this throwback to classic cocktails, and that there were events where thousands of bartenders gather for, what most people would probably call a bartenders convention, but it’s much more than that. And at that moment, I thought this was a story that’s happening now, this is a story that hasn’t been told, and I love these characters in that world and have an idea of the movie I wanted to tell. And then of course getting to know some of these people better is what led us to the main characters.
How did you select who you wanted to focus on and what were you looking for?
Initially the story that I wanted to tell was of how bar tending—which pretty much from prohibition on was a profession that was looked down upon and seen as a working class job in not great setting where people got drunk and got in fights and a not great job that doesn’t requite much talent and was for people that maybe had a plan and it didn’t work out and they fell into this and never got out. It was just not something people thought about, and when being exposed to this world, you realize these are people from all walks of life, most of them with college educations who’ve decide I want to be a bartender—that was news to me. I really wanted tell the story of how this happened. I’m fascinated with stories in which there’s this moment in time when people come together, usually not planned, and they’re all doing the same thing at the same time and suddenly something which is on the outskirts of our culture becomes the mainstay of our culture. So that’s really what I started out wanting to do. But I also wanted to get a feel for the process of bar tending and what that lifestyle is like. I wanted to be close enough to the action, where the audience’s hand actually feels wet from all the stuff the bartender’s are doing, just like you would when you see a regular Hollywood movie where that’s the coolest party I’ve ever been to and these are the coolest people. But that’s also what this lifestyle is like in a realistic way and I wanted to tell that even down to the cutting of lemons and limes and when the bar’s so crowded you can barely get the drinks out and then walking home at the end of the night alone.
Is filmmaking something you were always passionate about?
My road into movies is a little bit different. I’m just someone who loves movies, I like going to movies—I still like going to movies in movie theaters—and basically, I got very lucky and was able to get a production assistant job on When Harry Met Sally when I was still in school. So I still feel like I was a guy who said: okay I really want to play baseball for the Yankees but I’ll never get a chance to do that, so if I can be the bat boy, that would be great. And that’s how I fell into that and I worked on a bunch of bigger studio pictures and then had the opportunity to make a documentary. So I decided to do that and surround myself with a couple people that I’ve worked with now for many years. And that film got into Tribeca and did well. And as I’ve gotten into it, I’ve realized that what I’ve done before in production and as a writer in Hollywood, that my background really prepared me to work in documentaries and really fulfilled at the same time what I like about being a writer and what I liked about working in production. Now at this point I feel like this is something my background trained me to do better than I could have if I set out to do it from the start.
Were you concerned at all about drawing in an audience who was not familiar with this sort of world or engaging people who wouldn’t usually be interested in this subject?
As a director of a film, I had to think about who is the audience for this and how do people that don’t go to bars—or don’t even drink—going to get into this movie and are they going to enjoy it? That is something we were constantly challenging ourselves about, to make sure it wasn’t something just for people who understand this community. I think ultimately a movie is for movie-goers, the sort of people like myself who get the paper on Friday and look what’s opening, and so the movie has to work for movie-goers. That means taking the time to explain what this world is and explain these characters just like you would if it was a scripted movie and then give the audience something to root for and people to be invested in. And because its a documentary, giving them an insight into this world that they usually wouldn’t be able to see on their own or just don’t have the time to get the insights out of these people. But I always get frustrated when people talk about scripted movies as real movies and documentaries as some alien species. When go to a movie or even if you’re at home watching a movie, it’s still a movie and the movie has to do certain things or you’re not going to like it. It has to tell us with something we don’t know and leave us with a cathartic moment—whether it’s a happy one or sad one. So for me, when people see this, I hope they say that they really like this as a movie that just so happened to be a documentary.
I’ve spoken about this with other filmmakers but what I find fascinating about the making of a doc is that you can go in with one idea and by the end have an entirely different film than you set out to make because it’s so dependent on the subjects and characters.
I think that’s very insightful what you’re saying and what’s great about making documentaries is that you can start out one place and end up some place else—that’s also the thing that’s scary about it. When you work in the studio system, they’ve gone over that script and revised that script 20 times before you even start filming, and it’s still risky. But with a documentary, you start out with some information but you actually hope that while filming it leads to some place you had no idea it was going to go, and that’s usually when things turn out to be the most exciting and the best movies. As opposed to: here’s my thesis and I’m just setting out to prove it. But that becomes a much more risky and scary proposition because you might have wanted to make the movie for one reason and in the middle of it you’re like gosh, everything I thought I knew about this is completely wrong and I’ve got to regroup. In this case, getting to know the bartenders and this world fulfilled all the things we were hoping to see and then took us to these things that we didn’t even know existed.
Did you have an inspirations or touchstones while making this?
There were a bunch of movies in little pieces that inspired me during this. I’m a big believer that if you’re making movies, you’re watching movies and that’s the process. I really reviewed what bar tenders were in film history—everything from Tom Cruise in Cocktail to the character Lloyd in The Shining, even watching a couple episodes of Cheers. There are bartenders all throughout film history, so we were really aware of who the other bartenders were to the extent that we knew the preconception audiences had when they would come to watch the movie. So that was one part of it, but the other part was just learning how bars looked in movies because we were filming so much in dark settings. If you’re in a bar, you want it to feel and look like a bar—something sexy and exciting and dangerous about setting and we wanted to make sure we weren’t ruining that. There’s a scene in All that Jazz where they do a table read of the musical they’re going to do and all the sound gets muted and you only hear what he’s hearing in his head or responsible for, and I thought it was responsible to get into the bar tenders head and go: what are these men and these women thinking about when they make these drinks and how can we get that across? So that’s how we got to these slow motion sequences with muted sound.
Back to what you were saying about documentaries having the same validity as fiction features, where do you think Hey Bartender falls along the scope of modern docs?
Now in documentaries there’s like two camps: you’re either telling stories like Inside Job, which is like talking heads, or you’re telling a movie where you’re following someone and there’s no interviews and you’re just a fly on the wall. I’ve produced both kinds of movies and I like both kinds of movies but in this case, we see something that delivers the best of both of those. There are things we hear from the bartenders in these interviews that you would never usually get insight to and commentary about the world if we didn’t and there are things that wouldn’t be on screen if you didn’t sit back and let the action unfold in front of you.
Do you have a favorite cocktail of your own?
I know about ten good jokes to answer that question, but my favorite spirit is tequila. And the tequila I found while making this movie is called Melagro—I really like that. I’m usually someone that when they go out to eat, I go to a certain restaurant and I get the same meal every time—other than to be polite, I really don’t want to hear what the specials are. But what I have found through the process of making this movie, now when it comes to cocktails, I’m the opposite of that. If I go to a cocktail bar I want to know what their specialties are or what the bar tender’s making that day. My favorite cocktail is what the bartender wants to make for you. I usually love what they make because they’re good as deciphering from a little bit of information what you’re actually going to like, but I also the whole process that they’re making that cocktail especially for you.
Is there a favorite place you like to drink in New York?