Kings of Beer Director Sean Mullin On Maintaining Artistic Integrity While Working on Branded Content

Kings of Beer follows six of Budweiser’s top brewmasters.

The diverse cast of characters and their dedication to consistently brewing the best lager possible challenges the preconceived notions one might have of a brewmaster. It’s fitting that a movie dedicated to challenging one’s perception of a brewmaster has a behind-the-scenes story that challenges a different perception: the difficulties of working with a brand. Director Sean Mullin admits to having heard horror stories from artists who had to work with brands, but his experience with Budweiser shows that a clear pitch and shared goals can help one avoid said horror stories.  

Chris Villata, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you come into directing a documentary like this? Did Budweiser approach you? And what were those initial conversations like?

Sean Mullin (SM): It came together pretty organically through my agency, UTA. They said there was a production company out there looking to do something about beer and thought it might be right for me. So I sat down with the producers of ACE content, Justin V. Barocas and Scotty Gelade, and the three of us started hashing out some ideas. I am a lifelong beer lover—didn’t know much about it, but I was fascinated by the idea. Then we came across these brewmasters working at Budweiser who are behind the scenes. Justin and Scotty had an in to Budweiser through their company so we were able to pitch for the job and we got it. The project took off when we discovered these characters who were, in my mind, incredible.

MM: How much control would you say the brand had throughout production?

SM: I was really happy with how much autonomy they gave me and their only mandate was to make it about the characters. They supported my vision which was to make it about talented people trying to be the best they could be at something they love. And Budweiser supported that 100 percent, and they thought that was the right approach as well. Once we sold them on the approach they pretty much stayed out of my way and let me get my hooks into these characters and learn about them and follow them and see what it takes for them to excel at this extremely high level. 

MM: Were there any angles you had to focus on? Did the brand bring any ideas to you that go you excited and vice versa? 

SM: Framing the entire doc around the competition was something that came organically from the initial few meetings with Budweiser and the brewmasters. Once that was in place there wasn’t much else. They wanted to push it globally and so we took trips around the world to find these brewmasters. We went to Russia, China, Brazil, and all across the United States. They were incredibly supportive. I’d say their influence came in less during production and more during the edit when we would show them cuts and they would chime in and we would gather our notes to make sure we were on track to deliver the best film we could possibly deliver.

Budweiser behind the scenes of Kings of Beer. Image courtesy of Gravitas Ventures.

MM: Any notes from the edit that stood out to you?

SM: It was more character focused which was exactly the path in which I was trying to push the doc. We were well aligned which was nice because I come from the world of narrative and indie films. This was my first project working with a brand, and I had heard some nightmare stories about people working with brands. But this was a pretty incredible experience. I got super lucky.

MM: So it was pretty easy to establish your own directorial identity while making sure the brand’s vision of the film was fulfilled?

SM: Absolutely. From a directorial standpoint, the kinds of stories I like to tell are about characters who are trapped between this world of perception and reality. There’s a tension there between perception and reality that, as a storyteller, drives me to tell stories. My first feature film, Amira and Sam, was a love story about an army veteran and an Iraqi refugee. It challenged the perceptions of both veterans and refugees, and everything I’ve made has really focused on that, on challenging perceptions. So my pitch for Kings of Beer centered around challenging the perception of a brewmaster; seeing the reality of a brewmaster versus the perception of a brewmaster, and I believe I was able to accomplish that.

MM: Coming into it, I didn’t know there was a perception people have about brewmasters so the entire movie really was a learning experience. It reminded me of Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

SM: Oh, that was definitely an inspiration. So was Spellbound (2002).

MM: How did those inspire Kings of Beer?

SM: Well again, it was how character driven they were. I wanted the film to be as character driven as those documentaires and so did Budweiser. Jiro Dreams of Sushi was actually the doc they were really pushing in the beginning while I was pushing Spellbound, so hopefully our film encapsulates as much as both those docs as possible—just characters really focused on being the best.

MM: Going back to challenging the perception of a brewmaster, I wanted to touch on the diverse cast of characters. Was there any thought put into that? Going to China and bringing in people with different backgrounds?

SM: No, to be honest, we chose our six characters to follow about halfway through the year. Initially we chose five, but we later added Canada after Eric Carteciano and his team scored really high in the fall. So we started with five and we chose based on their scores so whoever was in the top five at the time was who we followed. We focused on picking the best and it turns out the best are the most diverse which is a great message for where we’re at right now in this country. 

Aisha Tyler (L) and William Bostwick (R) chat over beers in Kings of Beer.

MM: There’s one part in the film where one of the characters bites his tongue after saying “kick ass.” Did you have to frame certain questions in any way to keep things clean for the brand’s sake?

SM: No, not at all. The guy you’re talking about was one of the Canada guys so I think that moment is just the most Canadian thing ever, for him to say “Oh, we’re here to kick ass,” and immediately apologize and say, “I don’t know if I can say that on camera.” But those guys were great and him being so polite–I loved that. But no, I just let everybody say what they wanted. I mean, aside from a couple curse words, it’s a pretty clean film. It’s a film for the whole family about striving to be your best at something you’re passionate about which I think is everybody’s real goal. Tim Seitz sums it up pretty well, we did these little codas at the end, these little denouements to wrap up each character and I loved Tim saying that his dream was for his six year-old to become a brewmaster because, “What better pursuit in life is there than to be a brewmaster?” That summed up the movie well. My favorite coda though is Summer Anderson tasting her boyfriend’s beer. To me that is the movie in a nutshell. I’ve been a working screenwriter for over a decade here in Hollywood, so I’ve written plenty of screenplays and they always say the result of your climax illuminates your theme. That’s a screenwriting adage, and for me the result of our climax illuminating our theme was that scene of Summer tasting her boyfriend’s beer. That’s what the film’s about. Not just the difficulties of brewing lager, but also sharing and tasting a beer with someone you love.

MM: And rounding back to your initial goal, did your own perception of brewmasters change while making the film?

SM: Absolutely, I was blown away. I had the same perception of brewmasters as most which is of overweight white dudes with beards–almost like Homer Simpson—just a person who’s sort of checked out and involved in a process that’s mostly automated so they just hit a button and take a nap. As our film shows, the truth couldn’t be any further from that perception. MM

Kings of Beer released August 2, 2019 courtesy of Gravitas Ventures. All images courtesy of  Gravitas Ventures.

1 Comment

  1. Joan McGuinness

    August 9, 2019 at 6:57 pm

    I really enjoyed the documentary which I commented on after watching it last Sunday .The reason I particularly liked was precisely the reason ‘s Mr Mullin expressed in the interview, people pursuing excellence in something their passionate about , beer in this case but it could be anything .I bet Mr Mullin could do a series of these films on interesting jobs and show us the cool people doing them . If the film makers tried to make the people diverse it would not have been true or meaningful . Great people are diverse and trying to live well and we need more projects showing the truth of that and goodness out there in our world . 👏 Bravo I think I will have a beer and I I usually do not even drink beer 🍺

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