Jiro Dreams of Sushi: David Gelb Learns From a Master

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No matter where you fall on the nature vs. nurture debate, it’s hard not to conclude that the director of Jiro Dreams of Sushi had his path determined at a very early age. David Gelb’s father Peter is the General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera, and his grandfather Arthur is a former Managing Editor of The New York Times.

“My Dad was obsessed with Japan, so I loved Japan,” remembers Gelb. “My dad was always shooting with a videocamera, and I think that’s why I love videocameras so much. And I was watching great movies as a kid, and my grandfather was taking me to the theater. So I think it’s natural that I was drawn to this.”

The indoctrination didn’t end there. “My dad took me to Japan on his business trips from the time I was two years old,” he continues, “and they fed me cucumber rolls in my stroller. I’ve loved sushi ever since I was a little kid.”

Being surrounded by great art and equally great sushi set the ingredients for a great documentary on a low simmer, but it took a BBC powerhouse to bring the mixture to a boil. “I was at film school at USC watching Planet Earth,” Gelb says, “and I had this idea that there could be a sushi documentary shot cinematically and beautifully, like Planet Earth was. I had never really seen a food documentary that was shot with that kind of care—with good lenses and a real sense of aesthetic.”

Gelb allows that his intentions weren’t completely selfless, however: “Well, I thought it would be fun to make—and I’d get to eat a lot of really good sushi. So I started to film some shorts about some sushi chefs. And they all said that I had to film Jiro Ono. So I went out to Japan.”

His first visit to the 86-year-old sushi master’s tiny restaurant was all it took. “When I ate there I was blown away by how good the sushi was, of course, and especially how delicious the rice was,” Gelb says. “But I was also blown away by what an interesting and inspiring figure Jiro himself was. And that was what my film needed. A great documentary is about a great character. It’s about a subject, too, but through the perspective of a character. That’s why I love The Fog of War—it says so much about war and politics, but it comes from the perspective of someone who’s really been in the middle of those things. So in meeting Jiro, I realized everything I wanted to examine about sushi, I could examine through his eyes, and then so much more.”

The newfound focus on the legendary Jiro even affected the shooting style of the film in places. “I really love how Darren Aronofsky shot The Wrestler,” he explains, “especially the shots where you’re following behind Mickey Rourke’s character and his head is dead center in the middle of the frame. It really kind of forces you into that character’s perspective. So in my film when we’re walking into the fish market, I was trying to stay tight with him, like Aronofsky did.”

Despite his legendary status, though, Jiro is too humble to see himself as an artist, Gelb says: “He seems himself as a craftsman aspiring to be an artist, I think. If you asked him about his inspiration, or asked him questions about the artistic subtleties of his work, he’ll tell you he just does it to make it taste good. It’s very simple. Someone asks him, ‘When is the perfect time to eat sushi?’ and he says ‘When you’re hungry.’”

He also is aware of how much he depends on others for the whole operation to work. “It’s all about relationships, Gelb explains. “He doesn’t do it on his own. Everyone thinks he’s this solitary master. But he has this whole team of vendors, and they are the best vendors in the entire market. They save their best stuff for him. That’s purely out of respect, and from a relationship he’s built with them over decades. And he also worked with all their fathers. These are multi-generational relationships, between Jiro and his fishmongers. And each of them specializes in a very specific thing—tuna, octopus, shrimp. Each guy only works on one single ingredient, and so Jiro has this team of the best people all sourcing his ingredients.”

Jiro’s personality, voice, and philosophy permeated not only the film, but the actual filmmaking process itself. “I had my longtime friend and editor, Brandon Driscoll-Luttinger, come in and edit the movie for me,” says Gelb. “And basically the two of us just copied whatever Jiro said. Jiro said you build a team, and so that’s what we did. Jiro said you have to repeat it over and over again until it’s right. And Brandon made all different kinds of cuts of the movie, passing them in front of audiences, and then starting over again. Just trying to find the best way.”

It’s clear that Jiro has had a major impact on Gelb, as a filmmaker and as a person. “Jiro’s philosophy applies to everything,” he says. “There’s always room for improvement. It’s kind of maddening, but also inspiring. He can also be considered a bit of a masochist, because he’s never satisfied with his own work. And as I watch my work in the theater, I still see slight errors. I could keep working on the movie forever, trying to perfect it.”

And of course, one of the reasons all of that resounded so deeply with Gelb in the first place was that early family influence. “I think one of the reasons I was so interested by the character of Jiro is that he reminded me of my grandfather,” he admits. “My grandfather is 86 years old, and he’s writing a book with my grandmother on Eugene O’Neill. They’re still working. So I see my grandfather in Jiro, I think. And I’m incredibly inspired by that longevity. I love that about Sidney Lumet, too, how he was still making great movies in his eighties. I love that idea that you never quit. It’s something my family has done, and I’m moved by them.”

Jiro Dreams of Sushi will be released on DVD on July 24 but is still playing in New York’s IFC Center. And if you’re a filmmaker, you can employ the Jiro Dreams of Sushi team to do your film’s trailers and posters at CityRoomCreative.com.

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