Few things in this world are more universal than coffee, and this is why Caffeinated makes for such an interesting documentary. It not only explores the evolution of coffee’s cultural and culinary roles, but where it comes from. Let’s just say that there are quite a few steps before you are ordering it and seeing it be made in a Starbucks (or local place of your choosing).
Co-directors Vishal Solanki and Hanh Nguyen both answered questions for me. In turn, there is a lot covered beyond Caffeinated, such as how coffee factors into the lives of both directors, how IMDb can sometimes be off-point and how the film industries of the United States and India compare. Ultimately, these two directors can teach you a lot of things about a lot of things, even if they are not particularly knowledgeable about great coffee spots in New York!
Do you have a favorite place to grab coffee in New York?
Vishal Solanki: Whenever I have been in New York, it was for very hectic shooting assignments. I know Intelligentsia exists there, but I have always had Starbucks there because I was never too far from one and time was always a constraint. Well, that’s New York for you.
Hanh Nguyen: I’ve been to Brooklyn, NY a couple times for work and always seek out Cafe Grumpy. I like the vibe there, and of course the lattes are really good.
Do you have a preferred coffee blend? Or do you just go with what’s local or recommended?
V: If you are talking of a blend, my favorite one is the House Blend from Henry’s House of Coffee. It is a family run business in Chinatown in San Francisco and Henry himself roasts there. If I am traveling abroad, Illy makes a consistent blend for their espresso as well. Personally, I prefer single origin coffee more than blends because you can appreciate its origin, for its uniqueness and contribution to flavor that way. Blends are more about arriving at a desired flavor, whereas single origin are more about retaining the purity about what that geography and topography are contributing to the flavor of the coffee.
H: When I go to a coffee shop, I usually or a cappuccino or a latte because I can’t make those at home. At home, I do drip coffee from a Chemex of Aeropress, depending on the coffee.
How does coffee factor into your day? Do you need a cup with breakfast? Have a few during the workday?
V: It is not really a day without coffee. I am a workaholic and like to wake up early, generally with a small amount of incomplete sleep. I grind the beans, put them in my drip machine and run to the restroom to brush my teeth, so by the time I am done with my teeth, my coffee is waiting for me. That says a lot about my dependency, I guess. It is not about the caffeine necessarily, but it’s the change in the state of mind. It’s like covering your bases, in anticipation of a great day ahead. I try to have two [cups] a day, generally. One in the morning and one in the evening, at least, and then the rest depends upon the social engagements of the day.
H: I try to limit my in-take to two cups of coffee a day. Though to me, the morning cup is the most exciting one because it gets me on a good start, so that cup has to be good.
What do you think the biggest misconception is about coffee?
V: That dark roasted coffee is “stronger” coffee. The reality is that caffeine decreases in content with increase in roast degree. A light roast will have more caffeine than dark roast of the same coffee, but because it is roasted darker, the pores open up more, and that makes extraction of the solubles easier for water, so dark roast allows easier flow of water thereby more extraction of existing caffeine, but a lot of the caffeine content was lost upon roasting.
H: I don’t think many people know what it takes for coffee to get to their breakfast table. I think the process of what it took and how many hands have touched the coffee that you and I are drinking is fascinating and important to know.
Given that you spoke to people on several continents, what was the biggest challenge in making Caffeinated?
V: Though we were on several continents, these different cultures and people still had one thing in common, which was their passion for growing or consuming coffee. Now, the challenge was to make that connection coherent in the narrative structure of the film, because we are jumping from one place to another and one language to another all the time. We resolved this by keeping coffee as our main hero or protagonist in the film, and moving it in the foreground as a link between one person to another. The languages, cultures and geography of those continents, then found an organic position in the backdrop of the film, as if obeying all laws set by the beverage. They do come across strongly visually, but they never supersede coffee itself.
H: For me, the biggest challenge is in the editing process. We filmed extensively in each city and country that we’ve visited and grew attached to each story that it became very hard to decide which story to keep and which to cut out. We were clear on the vision of the film but it took us a while to figure out how to tell the right story.
Do you have any goals for Caffeinated? Are you hoping for it to change the way that people view coffee?
V: Of course. You, in fact, answered the question in the question itself. Coffee is something beautiful, which connects so many people together. It has been an inevitable part of our existence. We want people to stop for a moment, reflect on this tiny bean, which is not just a drug, but somewhat a driving force and inspiration in our everyday lives. When something becomes too much a part of our daily life, human tendency is to take its existence for granted, because it has never abandoned us, but it’s time we reflect and revere upon its contribution in our lives.
You moved to the United States to learn cinematography and directing, after years of being an apprentice and assistant in India. What are some of the differences between the film industry in India and the U.S.?
V: India makes a lot of films per year as opposed to the U.S. That being said, the majority of Indian cinema consists of poorly-written screenplays, which are very well executed by talented actors, cinematographers and production designers. A lot of our stories are tailor-made to appease an audience of a certain sensibility or lack of thereof. It is a formulaic structure of execution, for the most part. Think of a factory in China where you make a lot of repetitions of a prototype once you know the prototype is profitable. Partially that applies to America as well, but overall America is much more experimental, open-minded and it has always been a forerunner in creating content which other film industries try to emulate. A lot of the younger directors in India are doing some outstanding work in regional languages like Marathi, Bengali, etc. but overall, a lot of our narrative work consists of fantastical and unrealistic love stories which have very less room for any intellectual growth of our audiences. In India, movies are an escape from reality for the most part. America on the other hand, does have its share of sci-fi and fantasy movies, etc., but those movies are still relatable because they connect with you on a human level. I will be blunt here to say that good screenwriting is the biggest advantage the U.S. has over India. I am not too worried about the technical superiority of the American crew, because trust me, we have some brilliant technicians in India. What worries me is, that sometimes in India we are taking our audiences at a constant, which is not the case anymore. The younger audiences in India are highly-educated, with an evolving taste and very soon they will know the difference between good cinema and mediocrity. A lot of our films are making it at Sundance, Berlinale and other reputed festivals. I think the best of India is yet to come, [maybe] in the next decade or two.
Accordingly to IMDB, you have a number of upcoming projects as a Cinematographer. Do you prefer to do that kind of work rather than writing, producing or directing? Or do you have more projects ahead as a writer, director and/or producer?
V: I personally don’t go by somebody’s IMDB so strongly. Of course it is a somewhat realistic representation of their work, but I will give you an example. When people saw Caffeinated had made it at Santa Barbara International Film Festival, they pushed their year of production on IMDB to the next one, as if I had signed with them much after Caffeinated. There are some projects I started four years ago which show as 2015 and being in production though there is no real movement on their progress. The reality is that currently I have only one cinematography project which I am very passionate about, but it is still trying to raise money. It is a short film based in Turkey, somewhat with a visual style of Nuri Bilge Ceylan, who directed Once Upon A Time in Anatolia and Winter’s Sleep, both of which I feel are beautiful films. I am currently developing a screenplay called Painted, which I will also direct. It is a drama set in a small village in India and will be my first serious directorial foray into Indian realism using Hindi and some English. I don’t consider myself an innate writer. Images are my strength, and I am happy to collaborate with writers who are much more adept than me. My contribution to the screenwriting process is generally the minimizing of dialogue and its substitution with imagery.
Finally, Vishal, any last words for the kids?
V: Find what it is that you are really passionate about. It could be making a movie or knitting a sweater. Whatever you do, make sure passion is the biggest force behind it. Don’t try to compare yourself with others, because you are living your life and they are living theirs. Secondly, work hard constantly, but realize that patience has tremendous value and lessons. For me it’s always been the 3 P’s: Passion, Persistence and Patience. I hope the audience walks away with a better appreciation from not only coffee but to the things that they consume every day. It’s always nice to know where your foods come from and if you’re fortunate enough, to learn the story behind those foods.
Check out the trailer here:
-by Darren Paltrowitz