Mike Whalen, Director/Writer: THE FARMER AND THE CHEF

Mike Whalen is a local filmmaker bringing to Cinequest a documentary about the chef from Manresa Restaurant, and the partnership they have with Love Apple Farms.

1Q: Tell us a little about the origins of THE FARMER & THE CHEF, from concept to financing.

I first starting thinking about making a “green” television reality doc series. Back in 2009 I had been approached by a number of production companies that I used to work for and they were looking for documentary reality series with a green-environmental theme. It was the “hot” topic back then. As a result it got me thinking about ideas and one of them that came to mind was the amazing work that David Kinch was doing at Manresa. I’m a huge fan of his and any opportunity to work with him was a dream job. I emailed Chef Kinch and we set up a meeting. At that first meeting he made it crystal clear that if we were going to do anything it had to include Cynthia Sandberg and the partnership he has with her farm, Love Apple Farms. That sounded great to me so we set up another meeting at the farm. Now, at this time the farm was Cynthia’s backyard – about an acre and a half worth. She had a couple of apprentices working with her and a handful of volunteers. As I do on any film I started hanging around my subjects to get to know their daily routine and what makes them tick. A guest chef was coming in from Spain to cook with David at Manresa so I decided to shoot that event – from the guest chef and David walking the farm, choosing the veg for the weekend to the actual cooking of the meal. It was an incredible experience but I realized then that this wasn’t a TV show. David and Cynthia were too “normal.” This wasn’t “Hell’s Kitchen” so no network would really go for it. What I saw was the makings of a great documentary film. A chance to really explore the genius behind both of their artistry because that’s what they are…. artists. They create these amazing masterpieces with food.
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I decided it was worth to spend a year filming to capture the essence of their work, their collaboration and their passion. I have access to all the equipment I want at Santa Clara University (where I teach filmmaking) so I could do this for very little money. As is my experience with all documentary films, the story tends to take on a life of its own. After one year of filming Cynthia decided to buy a new, 20+ acre property and sell the old farm. The problem with the new property is that it would take 2 years to get it going at full production. At the same time David decided to remodel the restaurant. I realized then that my little side project was going to take another three years to make but I wasn’t about to stop now because I had a front row seat to an amazing show.
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In the end I have spent about $1500 on the entire film. I paid a little to have some aerials shot of the farm and the final music and other than that the expenses went to hiring sound people and the occasional second unit DP. I have shot and edited almost everything in the film.
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2Q: Cinequest is proud to host the World Premiere of THE FARMER & THE CHEF.  Explain to us how it feels to bring this film before audiences for the first time, and what do you think their reaction will be to your film?
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I love Cinequest and couldn’t be happier to be premiering the film in San Jose. It’s such an amazing group of people from Halfdan on down and they really embrace the independent filmmaking spirit.  I also love how the festival is so committed to empowerment – whether that be children, new filmmakers or social justice. It’s a perfect fit for the type of films that I make. I hope people enjoy my film, obviously, but I really want them to walk away with a new found respect for the commitment to their craft that both David and Cynthia have. These are two people who are going way out of their way to grow, cook and serve the best food you could possible think about. It’s so imaginative. It’s so precise. They really are artists working at the top of their field. I want people to be inspired by this. To be inspired to commit that much emotion and energy to something in their life. It’s not easy to do this. It means taking risks, but the rewards are amazing. Oh, and I hope they leave really hungry!
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3Q: What was your best and/or worst experience while making THE FARMER & THE CHEF?
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The best is easy… getting to know David, Cynthia and everyone they work with. That’s always the best part of being a documentary filmmaker – getting to know people you wouldn’t normally get to meet. They have become friends. David texts me about US soccer scores all the time and Cynthia constantly invites me and my wife up to farm for special occasions. Another aspect that was awesome was the food. I got to taste a lot of what was being cooked in the kitchen and all I can say is that it’s culinary heaven in there. The worst is the feeling that, as a filmmaker, I haven’t done the story justice. I always worry that I’ll let down my subjects and my film won’t honor their lives as strongly as it should. I hope I have, but until an audience sees it you never know.
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4Q: Festival audiences often have to make hard decisions about what to see, and the catalog descriptions sometimes run together. In your own words, why should people see your film?  
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People should see this film because it gives audiences a front row seat to watch two of the most talented people in the world work their magic. I’m talking one of kind stuff here. Nobody else is doing this in the world and this film lets you get inside the minds of these two geniuses. That and the amazing shots of food. It’s almost like eating at Manresa!!
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5Q: Time to pre-plan: You just won the Best Director Oscar for THE FARMER & THE CHEF.  Give us your acceptance speech.  
After picking myself up from the floor because the Academy actually honored non-fiction directing work I’d quickly thank David and Cynthia. We can’t make docs without amazing people letting us into their lives. It’s intrusive and I can’t thank them enough for graciously allowing me into their worlds. I also have to thank my wife – who grabbed a boom pole when I needed it, sat through three years of filming and editing and never let me settle. She pushes me creatively like only a loving spouse can.
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The music must be playing now.
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This interview originally published at http://popcornandvodka.com/2014/02/10/mike-whalen-directorwriter-the-farmer-and-the-chef/

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