Filmmaker Matt Mealer shares behind the scenes insight from his experience creating The Big Tell documentary ‘Not Just Any Restaurant’.
What was the filmmaking process like?
On a project of this nature and scale, at least the way I work, you begin and end on your own. No one else is going to go out and find a story, make connections and get ‘access’, write the grant application, and so on. You have to find it within yourself to go out and chase down your vision. When you do, you’re suddenly no longer a soloist. You build relationships with your subjects, (hopefully) earning their trust, as you simultaneously put together the crew required to realize that vision. What begins as a little more than daydreaming has by this point become a matter of marshaling the combined efforts of a team of three, four, half a dozen, nine, ten, maybe more, individuals — all in the hope, meticulously planned and budgeted, but still a hope, that something of meaning, of worth, will pass through your lens.
Just as quickly as it all comes together, or even more so, it all vanishes. You are once again alone but for that mountain of footage that demands to be gone through, a payment to the piper after the rush of set life. Others come and go at this point, giving you feedback, making recommendations, adding polish here and there according to their specialties — sound, color, music, whatever the case may be. But ultimately it’s just you and the space between your ears pitted against that awful blank timeline.
And when it’s all finally done, released into the world and no longer belonging only to you, but to all those who watch it, and you’ve enjoyed the benefits of having a platform for your work, receiving (hopefully) the congratulations of strangers and friends and relations…you’re once again back where you started. What’s next?
How did Sascha Brown Rice help you with the filmmaking process?
It’s incredibly valuable as a filmmaker to have a ‘neutral’ party available to give honest feedback on an edit: is this working? did this make sense? should I add such-and-such, or is it fine as is? Sascha is fantastic in that role. She has a great sense of nuance and eye for detail, and though her suggestions may be challenging (as they should), they never infringe on your own vision for your film. And her positivity and enthusiasm are always welcome. It’s easy to get discouraged in the midst of a longer-term creative project, but a quick call with Sascha lets you know you’re on the right track (or not…hasn’t happened yet, knock on wood).
What inspired you to create your film?
I first visited Wool Growers while working on the locally-produced TV series Dine Out Along The Road in 2018. I loved the food from the first bite, and that brief segment ended up being one of my favorites from the show’s multi-season run. Only later did I realize it was the same restaurant my late grandfather had spoken so fondly of visiting regularly with his hunting buddies decades ago.
When I started considering possible story concepts to pitch to The Big Tell in 2021, this century-old icon, a relic of the past led by women with a vision for the future, seemed like an obvious choice. My experience on Dine Out had left me with the strong — and, ultimately, correct — impression that there was much more story left to tell. This 5-minute film is just scratching the surface.
Why should people watch your film?
For most of my life, I thought of Los Banos as little more than a place you passed through on your way to other destinations. I knew nothing about Wool Growers or downtown Los Banos in general until work brought me there by chance a few years ago. This film is an invitation to those who, like myself in years past, haven’t yet dug deeper into the historical and cultural fabric of the Central Valley. When you look past the superficial, when you break out of the day-to-day routine of home, work, school, you realize that there’s so much out there worth finding. Wool Growers is just one example. Consider Not Just Any Restaurant a nudge in the right direction.
What is one thing you hope people take away after watching your film?
A sense of curiosity and an appreciation for places, people, businesses, organizations that make the Central Valley unique. We may not be LA, we may not be the Bay, but every once in a while, if you take the time to look around, you’ll come across something special that can only be found in the Valley.
The Basque culture and cuisine of Los Banos harken back to a much older time in Valley history, long before chain restaurants and big box stores began weathering away our communities’ individuality. When a place with a history like Wool Growers’ manages to survive that sea-change — and not just to survive but indeed to grow, improve, and thrive with each passing year — it’s probably worth a closer look. And if in the process you come across a stray picon punch or grilled lamb chop, so much the better.
Anything else you would like to share?
Many thanks to CVCF and the James B. McClatchy Foundation for supporting local filmmakers, not just financially, but with an incredible degree of artistic freedom to tell Valley stories as they see fit. The Big Tell represents a fantastic creative opportunity, one I’ll always be grateful to have been a part of.