A Conversation with Les Blank

In his new film All In This Tea, director Les Blank operates at the far extremes of technology, using digital video to explore an old-world subject matter: artisan, handmade tea. Blank, who is best known for Burden of Dreams, Garlic is as Good as Good Mothers, and Chulas Fronteras, saw digital video as a way for him to take his trademark fly-on-the-wall approach even further. The film presents an intimate glimpse of tea expert David Lee Hoffman as he travels to remote regions of China where the tea craft dates back centuries, despite encroaching forces of mass production. I recently attended the Woods Hole Film Festival on Cape Cod where I had a chance to see All In This Tea and to talk with Les Blank his experiences with Werner Herzog, why he self distributes, and which of his films he considers his favorite.

What got you started on this particular project? Did you know David Lee Hoffman before you started making the film?

I had gone to the Himalayan Fair in Berkeley, California, held in May, right around the time I needed to thin my apple tree, and I went down this particular year and noticed David outside of a white tent with images of Tibetan Buddhism, and other exotic images sewn on the tent and he was dispensing tea samples in little tea cups and talking about all kinds of Chinese tea, white tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, black tea, and talking of his adventures.

How did David become interested in artisan tea?

David left the U.S. when John Kennedy was killed and spent ten years traveling around the world, living in monasteries in Asia, where he met the Dalai Lama, and became one of his tutors and a friend. He developed a taste for tea, because the monks in the monasteries drink tea, and so from one monastery to another he would drink their tea and ask them where they got it and he realized the best tea was the tea that the Dalai Lama drank, and he wanted to find out where that came from. He traveled to the source and looked around for tea like the Dalai Lama drank. He [also bought] artwork and then placed it in museums, and because a lot of the artwork was textiles, and in danger of falling apart, he started learning how to clean them without damaging the textiles [and] became a world authority on cleaning ancient textiles, and along with that he became an authority on Chinese tea and started to bring back tea and selling it to people, and eventually places like Whole Foods who would buy his special high grade tea.

How did meeting David eventually lead to shooting All In This Tea?

While we were taking he invited me out to his house in Lagunitas, which is halfway between San Rafael and the Pacific Ocean, near a redwood forest and rather remote, and he had an odd lifestyle. He tore out all of the indoor plumbing and installed Asian style squat toilets with compost pits below, and recruited worms to live down there to eat the shit and make compost to put in his garden. All of his grey water from his bath and sink would run through the worm bed, they would take the nutrients they wanted and it would go into a holding tank to serve as watering source for his garden during the dry season. He would not use detergent, he invented his own detergent out of oyster shells and wood ash, which effectively cleaned any kind of grease or grime you could imagine, and he cooked over a fire pit, fueled by wood. He seemed like an interesting guy.

How did you propose the film?

He liked a film I did on Werner Herzog, Burden of Dreams, and when I told him I thought it might be interesting to follow him to China, and teach myself digital filmmaking, he was all for it. He welcomed me to come along, I had to pay for my own plane ticket, hotel room, and food, but he tolerated me hanging around. We also made a deal by which he would have access to what I had shot, to make his own little promotional film about his business.

What was it about this project that led you to make that transition to digital filmmaking as opposed to other projects? What was it about this film, and this point in time for you, that finally triggered the transition from 16mm film to digital video?

Well, I had nothing to lose, he was not hiring me, he was not paying my way, so if I fucked up, there was no skin off his ass, as they say. It was a learning experience for me. Plus, he had a friend, Tom Valens, a professional cinematographer and editor, and he was very knowledgeable about digital video. He was glad to help me learn how to do it, and I went out and bought the same kind of camera he had—the Sony VX-1000.

DT:So this must have been quite some time ago?

Ten years.

Are you still shooting with the VX-1000?

Unfortunately, yes. It has its quirks.

Not to make this interview about the transition from film to digital video, but I’m curious, prior to this, your more recent films were shot with the Aaton, a beautifully balanced and designed 16mm camera with a wonderful viewfinder. With it, you can see what you’re doing, and it’s about as quiet as a film camera will ever get. When you started shooting with the VX-1000, what were some of the things that struck you as qualitatively different about shooting documentary with digital video versus shooting with the Aaton?

Well, the VX-1000 did not have a flip-out screen, so I had to stick my eye up to the little hole, and the quality of the image I saw in there was pure shit. It just was not inspiring at all. When I looked through the Aaton, I could compose. I could feel that if I found something beautiful, I could maybe catch it and record it. There’s none of that with the digital video camera. It was like viewing a toy, and I never had a feeling that anything I shot was going to look any good, it was just a record keeping device.

You must have eventually gotten used to the video camera though. Or do you still miss the Aaton?

Yes. With the subsequent cameras I’ve used like the Panasonic DVX100, I can look through that viewfinder and feel we’re getting somewhere, maybe something will look good. But I did not have that feeling with the VX-1000.

But it’s still not as good compared to looking through an optical viewfinder. I do wonder if we’ll ever see a digital video camera with a real optical viewfinder like still photographers have with D-SLRs. Anyways, were there some aspects of the video camera that you took delight in?

I could take it anywhere I went, like when I’d go to dinner or lunch, I could stick it under the table, and if things got interesting, I’d just whip it out and turn it on.

So you went to China with David, and at the time he was trading in these teas.

He was looking for tea, and then arranging to bring it back.

So where is your film right now in the distribution cycle? It’s gone to several festivals. It was screened here at the Woods Hole Film Festival to a very enthusiastic audience.

It’s been in several important festivals, like Amsterdam, IDFA, Toronto, HotDocs, Berlin, San Francisco, and then little festivals like Ashland, here, and some others, and people pop up and want to help with the distribution. We just haven’t made any decisions yet. We’re talking right now about getting some theaters to show it theatrically in the Bay Area. A couple are interested and we’re hoping to get three lined up: Landmark, Rafael Film Center, and the Roxy.

Given the subject matter, I take it this is a film, that in addition to a successful theatrical run, will do very well on DVD, and maybe even at point-of-sale in places like Peets, Tealuxe, Whole Foods, and places like that.

I hope so, Peets is one of the contributors and they like the film, I’ve noticed that Starbucks sells lots of stuff on their counter these days.

I wonder if Peets would sell your film in their shops?

I would not be surprised.

How did Peets get involved? And how was it like having a corporate sponsor involved in a documentary?

Peets goes back to 1984 when a young man approached me who was keenly interested in an artist known as The Maestro in Albany, California, an artist who refuses to sell his art, and he puts on an art show once a year, and this guy wanted me to do a film on him, I said, OK, if you can raise some money, I’ll help you with the film, or you can help me with the film, and he came back and said I’ve got five thousand dollars from Peets, and I said, “you what?” so he had me, I had to start making the film.

Did you complete the film about The Maestro?

Yep, but no one else put any money in, I had to pull it out of my retirement savings, in order to have it ready for release, when I finished “Sworn to the Drum” the film on Francisco Aguabella, the Afro-Cuban conga drummer, it was only 37 minutes long, and since the The Maestro film came close to an hour, the two would possibly play together as a package for film festivals and maybe some theatrical showings. I had grants from the NEA for that film, so I saw that one coming to being finished and I thought I should finish off The Maestro film and pay my own money if I had to just to get it out of my hair and into the marketplace, I took a pretty big hit on that, but Peets was happy and when the tea film came along it was natural to ask Peets for some money.

Gina Leibrecht taught herself editing during the film and taught herself grant writing and how to approach Peets and ask for money and she got a couple of grants from them.

Did you get money from other sources?

The NEA and a couple of private foundations, not enough to cover our finishing costs, we’re ten thousand in hock for music and image rights, and we still don’t have a decent sound mix, or color correction, which is probably another ten thousand and we have not paid for packaging the DVD or mastering, or making DVDs.

So now your in the phase where you’re arranging for theatrical distribution and thinking about selling the DVD, you’ve pretty much done your own distribution for a long, long time.

Pretty much.

What led you to pursue a path of self distribution? And what keeps you on that path?

Well, that’s a good question. I started because regular distributors were not paying off, they would take the films, sit on them, and if they got some money they would often not share it with me. If they did share it, I would have to pry it out of them, it was hard to get my negatives out of them when we concluded our deal, it just became easier to do it myself, that way when money came in, I got to keep it all.

At first you made your films available on VHS, now they are available on DVD, where is it going, so all of your films are available on your web site, and we can place an order, I remember when I was in graduate school and I called Flower Films to order some films for the school and I was surprised to get you directly on the other end of the phone … do you think being your own distributor has been a good thing?

I was doing it again, I would look harder for an honest distributor, it really takes up too much time and energy to go around selling the film It also gives me too easy an out, for a procrastinator like me, I go into the office and look at my e-mail and I’ll bargain with someone who wants to give me $75 instead of $100 for my film because they are a small non-profit organization and can’t afford it, why can’t I spend that time making my next film, and avoid that piece? dealing with the nitty gritty nonsense, I feel irritated by it sometimes.

Besides the occasional irritation, has it been a good deal for you?

I don’t know about that, it brings money in, and by the time my lawyer manipulates the figures, I end up getting by for the year, and it’s certainly more than I would get from a distributor. [I like the] personal contact, hearing how they like the film, I would rather have someone who could do all this and I could just do it from time to time as I felt like it, but I don’t have enough business to really justify hiring a full time person, I have a part-time person who comes in one day a week for a half a day, but she is not always there and I got to scramble to find someone to do it for me or even do it myself.

So lets go back to the films, I was very much reminded when I watched All In This Tea, and it’s a characteristic of all your films, they have a very gentle touch, I feel like I’m there but I’m not intruding, the people in front of the camera are extremely comfortable with your presence, so the question I have and I’m sure a lot of people have is, how do you do it, how do you accomplish this perspective in your films?

Well, it’s one of the things I hope to happen in the film, whatever I can do to promote that or facilitate it I will do it, like just keeping out of the way, and not bossing people around, not making them feel self conscious, I myself am extremely self conscious and anything I can do to help others, the subjects to not be self conscious I will try and do that, not pressure them to perform for the camera just sort of be a fly on the wall as they say, and if it’s not happening, I may not start shooting, if I do shoot people looking uncomfortable, I won’t use it in the film, I cut it out.

Have any of your subjects every gotten tired of you and kicked you out? Is there a challenging moment as a filmmaker dealing with people that stands out for you?

I was so eager to finally start making The Blues According to Lightin’ Hopkins, that I all I could think of was getting my subject shot and recorded and I hung around him, and everything he did and everything is said I had a microphone, recorder, camera, running and I was not really paying attention to how he might be reacting to this, I just wanted to get my film made, and at the end of the day he was very tied, and said, “I’ve filmed ten songs, that’s all that I ever do for an LP recording, and that’s all you need for your film, and I think my job is done and I’d like you to pay me the money that you promised.” We’d given him like five hundred up front and five hundred half-way through the film and five hundred when we finished and wrapped and he wanted everything now, he felt he was done, did’nt want to see us again, and we couldn’t argue with him to prolong it, to give us a break, we kept trying to say a film is different from a recording, you have to get a lot of incidental material to make a movie he did not want to hear about it, he said, “get out of here, don’t come back, and give me my money,”

Clearly you finished the film, how did you manage to continue after that?

So on the way out the door, with our packed equipment, I noticed he was playing this card game with his buddies, and they were gambling for money and he was having a lot of fun, and being a card player myself, from long ago, I said, “hey, what kind of game is that,” and he said, “it’s called Pitty Pair, want me to teach you how to play?” and I was desperate to do anything that to get back into his good graces, I said, “sure,” and he said, “put your money out,” so I got all the money that I had in my wallet with was sixty bucks or so, a lot of money in those days and he said, “let’s play,” and we started playing and he taught me the rules of the game, it was very simple, like Go Fish, you try to ask you opponent for a card that might make a match in your own hand, the first person to go out wins, sort of like Gin, and he always knew what cards to ask for from me and I could not figure out how he knew, but he did, and he took my money. I go really upset, cause here I lost the film and I did not have enough footage to make a whole film, and I was being thrown out. I got real depressed, for losing the money, and this made him happy, and he was so delighted that he said, “come back tomorrow, borrow some money and come back and and I’ll play you again”

So you played him again?

When I came back he cleaned me out, again I got depressed and irritated but he got delighted and happy, and stimulated and said, “that was fun, why don’t you come back again tomorrow, even bring your camera and make this movie you want to make,” that’s how we continued, from this I learned an important lesson, which was to not press the subject, always think about the subject’s feelings and how my filming impacts that person and so it taught me to keep tuned into what’s happening with the subject, like with Werner Herzog in Burden of Dreams, I was very careful not to press him, or crowd him, and try to wait for an opportune moment, to speak to him, or try to get him to speak to me.

How did you first meet Werner Herzog?

I was at the University of California Pacific Film Archive shortly after I had moved to Berkeley in 1975 and Tom Luddy, the programmer of the Pacific Film Archive, had brought Werner in to show the The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser (Jeder für sich und Gott gegen alle) and he was a big supporter of my films and he liked to introduce the audience to people from abroad like Wim Wenders, Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, and an endless amount of people. He liked my work and showed it to Werner and he liked it and we became mutual admirers of each others work. He also invited both of us to the Telluride Film Festival, since he was the co-programer and co-founder.

And how is it that you ended up shooting one of my favorite short documentary films, Werner Herzong Eats His Shoe?

Well, when Werner decided to eats his shoe, Tom Luddy told me he was going to do it and suggested I might want to do a film and I did and Werner said it was OK, so when Werner arrived at the airport I was waiting with a camera.

One of my favorite casual interviews is that moment you shot with him in the taxi ride from the airport, where Werner Herzog says, “I’m quite convinced that cooking is the only alternative to filmmaking.”

Michael Goodwin was helping with that, he was the driver of the car and also the writer of the narration for Burden of Dreams, he was the original film reviewer for Rolling Stone magazine.

And did Werner invite you to shoot Burden of Dreams (about the making of Fitzcarraldo)?

He did, yes.

Did he have any idea what he was getting himself into with Fitzcarraldo?

He I guess he thought it would be a great adventure of some sort, he thought it could all be for nothing, the ship should be destroyed, he could be killed, and that’s one of the reasons he wanted the film made.

In case he got killed?

In case he got killed, in case the ship sank, the film was a bust, he [wanted to] have some record of what had happened, and also a Peuvian businessman who had helped him out making Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Aguirre, Der Zorn Gottes) navigating in Peru, getting through the customs and dealing with the government, and the indians, this businessman told him the germ of the idea of Fitzcarraldo, cause he had, among his many enterprises, he had a tourist camp that brought tourists into the jungle, and they lived in a jungle environment, and the ruins of the original Fitzcarraldo were on his property, and the 16 ton ship that had been cut into pieces was lying there rusting in the jungle, he showed that to Werner and Werner concocted the story of Fitzcarraldo, as an opera lover, rather than a rubber exporter, and because the man wanted to produce Fitzcarraldo, Wener wanted to not offend him.

I want this to be mostly about All in This Tea, your new film, but a lot of people know you for Burden of Dreams, and it is probably one of the greatest behind the scenes filmmaking films ever, I believe Derek Malcolm of the London Guardian ranked it as one of the hundred best films of the 20th century, how do you feel about that?

It feels OK, I like thinking other people like what I do, people who have critical respect.

So do you have any advice for the next generation of filmmakers? People who are picking up cameras and interested in documentary? I think there’s a strong interest in documentary these days, are there particular things emerging filmmakers should think about?

Well, I think they should make films that are interesting to people in the audience.

Are you saying subject matter is most important?

Not just subject matter, but now it’s handled, the whole thing is about keeping that person in the audience interested in what you’re doing, many filmmakers are wrapped up in themselves, some even don’t even want to show the film to an audience until the film is all finished and out of the lab and paid for, and failed, only by showing a film to test audiences can you see.

Do you show your films a lot before you finish editing them?

A lot, all I can.

So your advice is to screen early and often?


And how do you process that feedback? What do you do? What are you looking for from the feedback from your test screenings?

To see how often they squirm in their seats, and where they squirm, and if they ooh and ahh, and exclaim, things like the non-verbal, movements, or gestures, I look at it non-linearly, I sort of have let my feelings feel what is being felt and try to remember how it happened, where it happened, think of different ways to arrange the material, to make it happen more often.

Fascinating, you films are not always linear, but they certainly have a flow.

That’s what I try to do, yea, you need to get from one place to another, somehow, even if you don’t know where those places are you have to keep it moving along, keep people wanting to know what’s happening next.

Do you ask specific questions of the audience? Let’s say there’s a place you’re having difficulty with?

Yea, you can do a questionnaire, or ask the audience, say, is there anything in here that feels redundant, or it bothers you or you don’t like the way it’s done or it’s too long, or how do you feel about the characters, are they sympathetic? Do you hate them? Or do you see anything you think of to get them to tell you something.

I take it you don’t buy into the auteur theory, that you’re the single author of the film, in some ways you’re advocating a feedback process within the process of editing, almost editing the film with an audience?

Yes, with the audience, or the editor, or anyone who comes along, I like to make use of anyone and everyone.

So how can we learn more about your films and purchase DVDs?

You can visit Flower Films at www.LesBlank.com on the web.

How did you come up with the name Flower Films? When did you become Flower Films as far as distribution is concerned?

When I started shooting the Love Ins in Los Angeles, this was the period of the Flower Children, and I was impressed with these people, and my industrial film editing room and office was right on Sunset Boulevard and when I went out for lunch I would see these people hitchhiking up and down Sunset Boulevard giving out flowers and smiling, and not wearing shoes, and they were interesting and curious people, and I started going to their events and I started making the film and to train myself film I took a lot of still photos of flowers, I like flowers a lot and it became my an obvious title for a film on flower children and the blues and cajun cultures are like the flowering of a people, the beauty of it’s all the flowers condense kind of energy form that helps to bring about the passing on of the one generation to another like a flower enables that flower to keep itself going, to make a new generation, so all these things sort of came together as a nice concept for the name of a film company.

Of all the films you’ve made, which film would you say is your favorite?

Well, there’s about ten that I would say are my favorites.

But if you had to pick one, if you could only take one with you into the after life, which one would it be?

Probably the Lightin’ Hopkins film, I can watch it over and over.

That was my introduction to your work, it left quite an impression on me.

It still works.

For more information, visit www.lesblank.com.


About :

David Tamés is a producer, videographer, editor, and media technologist who advises clients on a range of topics including production planning, post-production work flow, and delivering video on the web. His film, co-directed with Alice Apley, Remembering John Marshall, is currently playing in festivals and his new film Smile Boston Project premiered at the 16th Woods Hole Film Festival where it won the Audience Award for Best Short Documentary. David blogs here on the technical aspects of filmmaking and at Kino-Eye.com.