Filmmaker Douglas Tirola recently spoke with “Breakthrough Entertainment” about his new documentary “Hey Bartender.”
In “Hey Bartender,” which will screen 5:45 p.m. Sunday, June 30 and 7:30 p.m. Monday, July 1 exclusively at the FilmBar, Tirola explores the rebirth of the bartender and the comeback of the cocktail while featuring the world’s most renowned bartenders with access to the most exclusive bars in New York.
Q: What was the spark that initially lit up your interest in this subject?
A: I worked at a bar when I was younger. That experience … was a positive one for me and one I remember well. Originally I wanted to make a movie about corner bars and that whole community of corner bars. But what I found out when I started to research is that it is not a great time in the history of the life of the corner bar. People are more interested in what’s new than what’s being part of that “Cheers”-like community. I think that when you are growing up, you go to eat with your parents and see guys in the bar area and say, “Those guys seem like they are part of a community with the bartender.” And you strive to be part of something like that someday. But now, the people who see that when they were younger come back from college to their hometown and say, “These losers have been sitting here in the same spot for 10 years. Get a life!” So it wasn’t the right time to tell that story. So I fell upon a place in New York called “Employees Only” a few blocks from my apartment. It is arguably the world’s most successful cocktail bar. I walked in there and immediately knew, “This could be a movie! This is a story that people really don’t know in terms of the renaissance of the bartender and of the contemporary cocktail!”
Q: You begin your film with the following quote from journalist Pete Hamill: “The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards … above all the elusive promise of friendship and love.” Can you please describe the significance of said quote as it pertains to your movie?
A: A cocktail bar is a place where you go for refuge. You go to dream, you go to fall in love, you go to morne, you go to create moments. As much as this movie is about the art of the cocktail, it is also about this special place. It is also about the bartender – not just a mixologist, who makes drinks, but the bartender who provides all of these other hospitalities, services and friendships. When you go to a restaurant, somebody seats you, somebody else takes your order, somebody behind this wall who you cannot see makes your food, some other guy brings it out and then one of the people you met before brings you the check. Even when it is nice, it is still somewhat impersonal. I think that, in a world where things are increasingly less personal, this idea where you sit down at one of these cocktail bars and [the bartender] says, ‘So what do you like to drink?’ and … he makes it right there in front of you is a really intimate interaction. Not to sound like the cynical filmmaker, but … it is unbelievable how much you do not deal with people so much anymore. Everything is automated. So the idea of this thing happening right in front you with your bartender is a very special interaction today.
Q: So then, in your opinion, what are the qualities and characteristics of a good bartender?
A: Making a good drink is very important. But most people can be taught how to make a good drink. I think that what separates someone from being a good bartender in terms of the science and technical drink-making and being a bartender that everybody remembers … is the service. It is what they call being a Sage – a person who at any moment knows what everybody’s needs are at that bar. Whether they need to be spoken to, whether they need to be left alone, whether they are looking to be introduced to somebody. Somebody who understands that you walk into a bar for that special moment when the music is right, the atmosphere is right and the crowd is right. It is like you are walking onto the set of your own movie and everything there is there to support that moment for you. The bartender is not the star of the show but maybe he is the supporting character. There is something incredibly special about walking into a place where the bartender remembers your name, that you have been there before and your favorite drink. It is one of those small little bursts you get as you go through life that makes you feel good. And part of the reason that it makes you feel good is that there is this thought that, “This is somebody who deals with hundreds if not thousands of people a year. So if they remember me and treat me like I am a good guy then that must mean something because it goes against the unspoken judgment of all of the other people I deal with.”
Q: Finally, after having made this movie, would you say that bartenders are born or are they made?
A: I think that it is a little bit of both. I would equate it to being an athlete. There are some people who have a God-given talent to be great athletes. But the people who really become great athletes are those … who work on it, finds a mentor and is taught by them. That is a theme in the movie. There is a limit to the knowledge that is in cocktail recipe books. The rest of it is learned on the job or before the bar opens. It is passed down from bartender to bartender as a sort of tradition. It really comes down to how you treat people I think that there are people who are born to work in a situation where they interact with people. There are some people who gravitate to other jobs … where they do not have to deal with other people. Then there are people who work at the DMV. As a matter of fact, it would be great if bartenders worked at the DMV. It would probably be a really fun place to go.