Curiosity is the main ingredient in Jack C. Newell’s newest film “42 Grams,” a documentary about a chef, Jake Bickelhaupt, his wife Alexa, and the impact of a high-stakes restaurant life. Newell, the Program Director at The Harold Ramis Film School at The Second City and also a commercial director, met with me recently to discuss the film, the subjects, and how this labor of love came to be.
Newell’s curiosity, as he said, “…was rewarded in the biggest ways possible” as “42 Grams” hit the film festival circuit and is now currently available on digital platforms such as iTunes. But Newell cautions that this isn’t your typical food documentary, defining the it as “…really funny at moments, and really, really sad…you learn something, but you also feel something. It’s complex.”
Complexity in the most satisfying ingredient in “42 Grams” and that word accurately describes this culinary tale. Newell’s keen insight and willingness to share his thoughts about the process were, dare I say, icing on the cake when it comes to savoring the many complicated and delicious layers of this film.
Food is a common theme in Newell’s cinematic endeavors. His first feature film, “Close Quarters,” featured two young baristas and his second feature, “Open Tables” “…was an exploration of food, but from the diners’ point of view. Food is almost incidental…” And now, Newell found Bickelhaupt, a self-trained chef with one of the most impressive resumes you’ve ever seen. Working under Charlie Trotter and creating dishes at the world-renowned Alinea and Schwa in Chicago, this underground chef turned 2-Star Michelin restaurant purveyor is now the focus of a uniquely emotional, delicious, and sometimes volatile story.
Finding Jake seemed serendipitous as Newell and his then-girlfriend Rebecca attended a fundraiser at the Steppenwolf Theater in 2013. One of the silent auction items was dinner at an underground restaurant called Sous Rising. Newell, a foodie who takes pride in his knowledge of the Chicago restaurant scene, couldn’t believe his luck. The couple “won” the item and were blown away by the food served in this this intimate Uptown neighborhood apartment. “It’s the best food I’ve ever had. Easily. Each course is better than the one before it…” Newell then approached Bickelhaupt after the meal, connected over their common roots of Wisconsin and said, “‘Could I follow you?’ and he said ‘yes.’ So three weeks later I just showed up with my camera and just started filming them do the underground restaurant thing.”
The entire project simmered in the pot for about 3 years. Newell shared that after “…a year and 9 months of solid filming [there was] no solid narrative arc being apparent.” Did he panic? The answer is a resounding “no.” He reiterated his curious nature. “Curiosity isn’t a business plan and no one can make a career on it…but that’s what makes it so special.” He continued, “…[Bickelhaupt’s] wife (Alexa) presenting the food that he’s making…that was a very intimate dynamic that you almost never get at restaurants. It’s like family.”
Capturing that intimacy and finding that narrative arc was no easy task. Newell confided that after 2 years into filming, becoming a fly on the wall, he encountered a reticence to stay involved by both Jake and Alexa. “I thought I had lost my access…every single question I would ask, they’d give me the same answer. I was running out of steam.” Newell was afraid that might be the end of the road, but his instinct pushed him forward, allowing the couple to view a rough cut of the film. This was the turning point. Jake left the room at the end of the showing, overwhelmed by emotion as he witnessed some of his outbursts and character flaws. Alexa then told Newell, “‘You’re not done yet. You have way more to film. We have to tell you about our marriage. We have to tell you about our parents’” Newell said, “In showing them [the rough cut] it opened up a whole other avenue…I had actually taken it easy on Jake because I was a little worried about showing it to him.” The full story could now be told making this a more complicated and delectable film.
Emotions ran high in this intense documentary as we became connected with Jake and Alexa. We saw the good and the bad, the real people in front of the camera lens. They weren’t perfect—they were real. And then, Newell happened to capture one of the most dramatic scenes that gave him that needed narrative arc. That particular scene brought me to tears and Newell shared that he too cries “…every time I see it which is crazy because once you see your movie enough times you get really desensitized to it, but not that part! And then, the very, very end, I cry at that part too!” Newell felt that the film is just like a great meal. “…you’re super satisfied…It’s emotional and true. That’s exactly what the [restaurant] life is. There’s always darkness [and] sacrifice.”
Newell, a “jack of all trades,” has found that his ability to wear a variety of hats, from actor and editor to director and producer, making him a better filmmaker. Newell described making “42 Grams” as “…a perfect machine. It works on every single level.” And I couldn’t agree more—it’s the appetizer, the palate cleanser, the entree and dessert of movies. This experience, according to Newell, has given him more confidence in his story-telling abilities and has learned a very valuable lesson: “Tell the story you want to tell. Don’t tell the story you think people want you to tell.” He has done just that with “42 Grams” and I’m confident we will see that in his upcoming documentary “How to Build a School in Haiti,” and a narrative film with the working title “Monuments.”
While you can see “42 Grams” on VOD, Chicagoans have the amazing opportunity to see it in the newly renovated Gene Siskel Film Center , meet Jack C. Newel,l and ask questions after the film on Jan. 27 and 28 and on Jan. 31 and Feb. 1. For tickets to this cinematically beautiful and creative delight, go to http://www.siskelfilmcenter.org/42grams