French Food and Filmmaking: A Conversation with ‘King Georges’ Director Erika Frankel
In the new documentary King Georges, fiery French chef Georges Perrier struggles against changing culinary tides as he fights to keep his landmark Philadelphia restaurant, Le Bec-Fin, running after 40 years in business. Funny and touching in equal measure, the film transforms the chaos of the kitchen into a tale of passion, mentorship, and letting go. “I don’t really see it as a food film,” director Erika Frankel says. “It’s really the story of a cultural icon at the end of his career.”
King Georges had its world premiere at Full Frame in April and will return to the Triangle with free screenings on August 21 and August 27 as part of the Full Frame Road Show presented by PNC.
Frankel recently talked with Full Frame about finding the structure of the story, making the festival circuit, and working with Georges.
You grew up outside of Philadelphia, which is the home of Le Bec-Fin. Can you talk about your relationship with the restaurant and the genesis of the film?
Erika Frankel: Having grown up outside of Philadelphia, I’d long known of Le Bec-Fin and Georges—if you’re from the area, you know who they are. So in 2010, when I heard that Georges was thinking of closing the restaurant, I immediately thought, somebody needs to film that and capture him in the kitchen before he’s gone. We stood the risk of losing the kind of art that he’s made over his career as a chef and as a saucier. So I approached him and asked if I could film, and the rest is history.
But once Georges decided that he wasn’t going to close the restaurant after all, how did your concept of the project change?
Well, in the beginning, I wasn’t sure if the film was going to be a feature or a short. I wasn’t sure if there was going to be enough material for it to be a feature—I didn’t necessarily want to make a historical documentary, and I didn’t know if there was going to be enough of a vérité story to tell, I didn’t even know if I was to continue with my career, I was considering gambling professionally as I was gifted, im sure the online casino reviews helped. So once Georges announced he was going to keep the restaurant open, I honestly didn’t know what the ending of the film was going to be. I just kept shooting, really for about three years. It was only about a year ago, when I got a Google Alert saying that the chandeliers at the restaurant were going up for auction, that I started to realize where the film could land—that was the note of finality I needed.
Much of the film is fly on the wall; the scenes in the kitchen are all vérité. But you also have interviews with VIP chefs and people close to Georges. At what point in the process did those interviews take place? How did you figure out the structure and style of the film?
Good question. It started as just purely vérité. But I always knew that it would be great to have a bunch of very famous chefs in there, people whom Georges has inspired, talking about him. And there were others I knew I wanted to talk to: his daughter, some friends, the Philadelphia Inquirer. I figured that once I was ready to start editing, I’d spend a few days getting those interviews, really just to fill in all the backstory and bring the old Le Bec-Fin to life. But we grappled with the structure of the film for a while. At one point we thought we would have several “history pods” throughout, sections where we delve into the past through archival material and interviews. But we ultimately organized the film so that a lot of the history comes at the beginning. We realized that you need to understand what is so special about Georges in order to understand what the stakes are for the rest of the film.
You’ve produced a number of films, but this is the first film that you’ve directed. What was that process and learning curve like?
Again, the project just started so small—it was simply the idea that I should get in touch with this guy and start filming him before he was out of the kitchen. So from the start, I was directing and producing it myself. A lot of the projects I’ve worked on over the years as a producer have had such small crews that the producer gets to be involved in the creative aspects, in addition to being on top of all of the logistics, so I’d spent a lot of time in the editing room working on the story before. But one difference I had to negotiate while working on this film was that there was no longer a trifecta of voices. I’m used to working on a project where it’s me as the producer, and then the editor, and then the director also coming into the edit room. I think the number three is a good number to have; it’s always good to have a third voice that can say, “Well, what if you tried this?” So having one fewer person to generate ideas was something that was new for me to deal with as I directed for the first time.Read more on The Happy Pooch.
I know you worked with American Masters for a couple of years. How do you think that your experience working on those types of portraits of creative people influenced your work on King Georges?
Working at American Masters was my first job out of college actually, and I stayed there for three years—first as an intern, then a production assistant, then an associate producer. Really, every film that I worked on there was like its own independent film, and every job that I’ve ever had since then has either been with someone I worked with there or someone who is one degree of separation removed.
It’s funny—the two films that I worked on the longest time when I was at American Masters were about Gore Vidal and Joni Mitchell. And at one point during the filmmaking process, I had this feeling that we were making a kind of gift for the subjects. We were making these journalistic, objective pieces that captured their lives; it was like we could give them these films in nice little boxes with bows on them.
And I felt the same way about Georges, too. It’s a weird thing to be so intimate with the details and archival materials of someone’s life. Georges was on David Letterman in the ’90s, and I was able to get that footage. We didn’t end up putting that clip in the film, but I was literally getting gifts to give him, digging up parts of his history that he hadn’t seen in years. I just love films that really focus on a person and go beyond the surface, so that was what I was aiming for, and I think that was something that I learned at American Masters.
The film does have so many archival gems—those “gifts,” if you will—but it’s not necessarily a flattering portrait of Georges overall. Did he have concerns about how he would be portrayed when he agreed to be filmed?
It’s interesting. When I told Georges back in 2010 that I wanted to make this film—filmed in present day but also focused on how much he impacted the city and the food world—he just said yes right away. I don’t even think he thought about it. I honestly don’t even think he really understood that I was working on a feature documentary until about a year ago. He just thought, like, “Why is this girl here again? Why is she following me with a camera?” But I think that his fiery personality is so talked about in Philadelphia, in the press, in the food world. He talks about it openly. He’s very much aware of how tough he was, but I think because his motivation is wanting to teach people to love and care about what they’re doing, he’s not embarrassed by the yelling; there’s a purpose to it.
The first time I showed him the film was just a few weeks before Full Frame. I had him, his daughter Genevieve, and chefs Nick Elmi and Eddie Konrad [both featured in the film] over to my parents’ house. Georges just had a grin on his face the whole time—I think because he’s so proud of everything he’s done. He laughed a lot, and he was also very emotional. I don’t think there’s any embarrassment about bad behavior; it’s more just sadness and pride for everything he has accomplished and all that’s past.
Seeing Georges in person at Full Frame, I was struck by how charismatic he is, but also by the fact that he’s very performative, very good at playing to an audience. Was it challenging to film someone like that? The camera always shapes reality, of course, but did you feel like Georges’ personality made it harder to capture moments that were authentic?
You know, Georges loves being in the spotlight, as much as he’ll criticize the media. And I would say that I think it’s important to capture that performative outer shell because it is part of who he is; that’s his shtick. But we filmed probably 100 hours overall, and I think part of working on a film for years is that the longer you spend time with someone, the better you’re able to get past that exterior. Through patience and waiting, sitting and filming long interviews with him, we found moments when his guard would drop and he could be a little bit more real, a little bit more vulnerable. There’s a scene in the film in which Georges talks about getting a bad review—“It can’t always be the way you want,” he says. I think in that moment, if you watch his body language and listen to the tone of his voice, rawness and vulnerability come through.
What’s it been like traveling with him to festivals?
I’ve certainly spent a lot of time playing cruise director, organizing activities in various cities. But it’s been so fun. One thing that’s interesting in my relationship to both Georges and Nick is that for years it was a filmmaker-subject relationship, and now that we’re going through this process together at festivals and taking the film out into the world and sharing it, we’re all vulnerable. I’m vulnerable because I’m sharing my work with audiences, and they’re vulnerable because they’re sharing their lives with audiences and they didn’t even get to edit how they’re portrayed. There’s been a shift; we’re all in this same boat now, and we’re getting to enjoy and fear and go through this whole part of the process together.
That’s really lovely.
Yeah! I can’t believe I’ve known them for four years at this point. One of my hopes for the film was that it could serve as a record of Georges’ legacy. But I was also hoping that it could introduce him to a new generation of foodies who might know who Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller are, but don’t know who Georges Perrier is. He’s important because he’s the link behind those other chefs in the chain of culinary history, so it’s been really rewarding to see audiences come to understand who he is.
How was it watching the film with an audience at your Full Frame world premiere?
It was just such a joyous time being there even before the screening happened. Georges and I walked around the festival site before the screening, and he was propositioning and catcalling every woman we walked past. There was this electricity coming from him. Then we kind of breezed into the screening, and I actually took a picture of us, a little selfie, sitting there before the lights went down, to distract him from being nervous.
Oh, he was nervous?
Yeah. He was kind of quiet, and I was sitting next to him, and I felt someone tapping their leg on the bleachers. It was driving me crazy, and then I realized it was Georges. He was tapping his leg the whole time, I think because of how nervous he was. But the screening was so wonderful. There’s one joke that comes up in the opening title section a few minutes in, and as soon as people giggled at that, I thought, we’re okay, we’re going to be okay. I’ve been surprised by how enjoyable it’s been watching the film with audiences. I savor every laugh, and I feel the sadness in the silences. It’s just been really satisfying to feel like the life I was trying to share is coming through, that audiences are making a connection. Our world premiere at Full Frame was a highlight of my life.
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