Few other cities in modern times defy easy narrative as Los Angeles does. Intoxicating and infuriating in equal measure, it is large, as they say; it contains multitudes.
Artists tackling L.A. as a primary subject in their work know this. Most attempts to render the city on screen narrow their focus to a single, manageable entry point—take Thom Andersen’s video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, about the history of L.A.’s representation onscreen, for example. Occasionally, this concentrated focus gives way to grander epiphanies about the city and the moment.
That’s what happens in Laura Gabbert’s new documentary, City of Gold, whose subject is the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold, himself the city’s most astute cultural anthropologist. By comprehensively documenting the man—his professional habits, his circles of influence, his family and background—as he moves through his hometown empire, the film opens up to become about, well, everything: L.A.’s alienating vastness, its smorgasbord of perspectives, its canonical and unofficial histories, its reluctant beauty. (And, yes, its food.) As such, the film gets closer than most to the heart of what it feels like to live in Los Angeles in the 21st century.
The restaurant critic for the Los Angeles Times, Gold is a living legend, frequently referred to as the high priest (though he himself prefers “the belly”) of L.A. Throughout the film, luminaries both heap praise on him and break down why he’s so damn good at what he does: David Chang of Momofuku, fellow critic Ruth Reichl, L.A. Times Editor in Chief Davan Maharaj, Berkeley scholar Michael Dear, etc. This never gets boring. Everyone has their own piece of the Jonathan Gold story to tell, from editor Sue Horton observing that the secret weapon of his reviews is his canny use of the second person, to Chang’s suggestion that, more than anything, what characterizes Gold’s writing is his empathy (which are, I guess, two sides of the same idea).
The critic is famous for obliterating the old hierarchies of haute cuisine to exalt the broadest, most democratic culinary landscape possible, approaching the table with a fundamental respect and intellectual curiosity. It’s fitting, then, that all the chefs and restaurateurs featured in the film are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. There’s Tui Singsanong of Thai restaurant Jitlada, Genet Agonafer of Little Ethiopia’s Meals by Genet, Raul Ortega of taco truck Mariscos Jalisco, and so on. Gold’s favor, for them, is career-making and life-changing; thanks to the business his reviews have driven, they’ve obtained bank loans, built lives and put their kids through college. Then there are celebrity chefs Ludo Lefebvre and Roy Choi, whose relationships with the critic are almost spiritual in nature—in their segments, both say that Gold understands their artistry in ways they themselves could never articulate. They’re musicians whose work is finally heard by the audience it deserves.
Nothing can convey the power of Gold’s writing better than the writing itself, however. City of Gold has him read from some of his best-known pieces in voiceover, which both brings the food in question mouthwateringly to life (serious warning: Don’t watch on an empty stomach), and familiarizes the uninitiated with his wry, esoteric-yet-intimate style. These snippets also punctuate segments in the film organized by geography, handily introduced via animated maps that hone in on particular neighborhoods: Tehrangeles, downtown, Koreatown. Understanding these spatial relationships is, after all, essential to understanding Los Angeles and, subsequently, Gold’s work; “the faultlines between [cultures and neighborhoods] are sometimes where you find the most beautiful things,” he says in the film.
Beautiful is right. Cinematographers Jerry Henry and Goro Toshima capture vignettes of everyday life in Los Angeles—a jogger hopping from one foot to the other as he waits on a street corner for a light to change, cars packed bumper to bumper in late afternoon light—and accompanied by Bobby Johnston’s majestic score, the images have an unexpected poetry. Particularly breathtaking are drone-captured shots that rise up over the city’s boundless sprawl, occasionally swooping downward to pick out, for example, the faces of kids sitting by the banks of the L.A. river.
I interviewed Gabbert the day after City of Gold‘s Sundance 2015 premiere (which had featured, to everyone’s delight, a makeshift stand in the Park City snow serving L.A.’s Guerilla Tacos). Gabbert is perhaps best-known for the 2009 documentary No Impact Man (co-directed by Justin Schein), about the writer Colin Beavan’s quest to live in New York City for a year with zero environmental impact. In 2003, she made the documentary Sunset Story, about an old-age home for former radicals in L.A.’s Koreatown. While City of Gold isn’t overtly political, witnessing Gold’s open-armed, inclusive way of experiencing the world is affecting on more levels than you might think. During the post-screening Q&A at the Sundance premiere, an audience member noted that, more so than most overt social justice documentaries, “This is the movie that makes me most inspired to change—not just to eat out more, but to be more open to things.”
Someone else added, to laughs and nods of agreement, “Can you send a copy of this to all members of Congress?”
Kelly Leow, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did the film come into being? Did you approach Jonathan Gold with the idea?
LG Gabbert (LG): I approached him with the idea. Like many people, I was a transplant. Grew up in the Midwest, lived on the East Coast, and moved to L.A. from San Francisco. I kind of dreaded it. My sister lived there and I visited her a few times, and I was like, “Oh, I’m not gonna like L.A.”
MM: I had the same experience as you.
LG: Yeah. Like, the sprawl and the cars, and—I thought—compared to cities like New York, it just didn’t have the cultural heft, you know? It wasn’t a vibrant cultural city.
MM: Right—which it is! But there’s a fog over that, right? It took me three or four years before I got it myself.
LG: Yeah, but it takes that long. Something clicks. I went to UCLA, so I lived in Westwood, then I just moved east. And once I moved east, it helped a little bit. I don’t know, just learning the city and being there. And also I started reading Jonathan’s writing, and I just started checking out the restaurants he covered, and really learning the city in a new way. I was able to see it differently and see that it was actually interesting, and layered. You just have to work at it a little more.
MM: It’s not obvious.
LG: Yeah, and even the aesthetic is really interesting to me. The grit and beauty kind of meet; nature and development meet up like that.
MM: You had made films in L.A. before this one.
LG: Yeah, I had a made a film called Sunset Story that shot this retirement home for political radicals. It’s not there anymore, but it was in Koreatown. I met Jonathan because our kids ended up at the same school.
MM: Was there any hesitation on his part about doing this doc?
LG: Yes. Part of it was [to preserve his] anonymity. Although he had won the Pulitzer, so he wasn’t really anonymous. For him, I think it’s almost conceptual. He doesn’t wanna put his face all over the place. He can’t help if he’s photographed some places. He does panels, he goes and talks to university classes. It’s not like he’s wearing a mask to those things. But at the same time, he wants to be as anonymous as he can be, because he’ll be treated differently otherwise, he feels. Anyways, he was very against me doing the documentary at first. We had a couple coffees and he gave me all the reasons why it wouldn’t make a good documentary.
MM: What were they?
LG: One of them was that there would be no conflict; he wasn’t gonna give me any conflict. He wasn’t giving me in drama. He wouldn’t let me shoot personal things. There wouldn’t be any character arc, it would be a totally episodic film. You know, I’m talking to a critic here. He knows how to think about the film.
He also said, “I’m not gonna let you film me reviewing restaurants.” And what I said to him was—and we talked about this at length—that I really wanted this to be a movie about Los Angeles, but through his eyes, and I didn’t want it to have that “good review, bad review” thing. It wasn’t, like, a reality TV show, you know? I was much more interested in exploring the city of L.A. through his culinary adventures, and what we learn about the different cultures in Los Angeles, and the diversity and the make up of L.A.
MM: Did you eventually convince him through that angle?
LG: Yeah, and it was kind of like, let’s try it out. I just started filming him on and off, over the course of five years.
MM: Wow. When did you start?
MM: Were there challenges in that?
LG: Well, I actually I think it took me a while to figure out how to make the film, because of all those reasons he said. I think it took us a while to be comfortable with each other, too. He wasn’t used to being on that side of things. And I think I was a little intimidated by him.
MM: Was there a certain moment when you figured out how to do it?
LG: Incrementally, pieces start to fall into place. Like, “Oh, it works to interview him like that.” I just remember one day we showed up at his house and sat down in the living room and he just started talking, and I went to my DP, like, “Start shooting!” We didn’t have time to light or anything, and we didn’t really light that much. But he just seemed to have more of an openness. I think it just takes time to earn someone’s trust, which I really understand. It would take me a long time.
And how do I tell that story? It took shooting a lot of different stuff and then cutting different scenes, seeing how they played…
MM: Does five years include post? Were you cutting as the shoot went on, or no?
LG: It does include post. We only started cutting a year ago. We took some breaks and had someone on part time, and then we really started focusing on the edit in early summer . But we were shooting all the way to two weeks before we launched, if you can believe it. We added one interview at the very end, with Sue Horton. It was the only time anyone talks about his style, and we really needed that. Lauri Ochoa, Jonathan’s wife, suggested I talk to Sue. You know, it’s collaborative with your subjects. Once they get invested in it, then they’re like, “Maybe you should talk to this person; maybe you should talk to this person.” Lauri was great because she also has such a great story sense, and knows her husband so well, so she could kind of nudge me and push me in a certain direction.
MM: Let’s talk a little bit about financing this.
LG: Jamie Wolf is an executive producer on the film, and through the Rosenthal Family Foundation, she gave me a nice chunk of seed money and money at the end. I also financed a lot of it myself. I had a lot of people who were just excited to shoot Jonathan, so I got a lot of free help. People worked on a deferred payment basis.
I showed this thing around a lot: scenes, never the full movie, and people weren’t sure about it.
MM: Why do you think?
LG: I don’t know. I think because people want films about food to be more kind of dead-on about the food themselves and the reviewing, and more esoteric. But it was probably hard for people to get a sense of what the movie is about from a few scenes, so I understand.
MM: At what point did you hit upon the idea for how the film ended up being, formally?
LG: When we really started cutting. Pieces of it came together—for example, using [KCRW DJ] Garth Trinidad’s Guest DJ Project footage. I was really struggling with how to weave in music, and how important it is to Jonathan, and how important it was to his development as a critic. We kept listening to that Guest DJ piece over and over again. I love it in this format: I love him talking to Garth, I love hearing those [musical] pieces.
MM: It opens up another side to him.
LG: Yeah, it opens up another side to him. I think starting to interview restaurant owners and chefs was really helpful. It was like, “Oh yeah, this is the other side of [restaurant reviews]. There’s stories behind all this.” And that opened up this theme of immigration, and our diversity, and the fact that L.A. is L.A. because it had diversity. And that kind of tied together Jonathan’s mapping of the city.
MM: Did you think of the film in episodes? It doesn’t have a traditional narrative structure.
LG: That’s why it was so hard to edit. I think we built the structure more through emotional beats. So it is episodic. We tried to give it some arc through emotion only, and I think some of the immigrant story gives it that, and the stuff that’s more personal about Jonathan and his family gives it that.
MM: Some of that background personal information was placed very close to the end of the film, which surprised me.
LG: You know what, it just played better that way. We tried kind of sprinkling it throughout and that didn’t work, and we found that if you put all that stuff up front, you weren’t invested in the character yet.
MM: I get that. He’s such a public figure and personality, and so it makes sense to present him as that first, and then delve into the “real” Jonathan, whatever that means.
LG: A lot of people wanted us to tell the story much more chronologically. Like, we would show people things and they’d be like, “Structure it like this.” Chronologically, through his life. And it just didn’t work. I don’t know why, but it works now!
MM: Movies about writers can be kind of visually uninteresting, and you developed strategies to overcome that. You had him reading reviews, you had the voiceover…
LG: That was another huge challenge and we tried a million different things. We worked with different graphic designers, motion graphics people, even animating text. Actually if we had had more time, we would have tried to do more of that, but we just ran out of time. It’s expensive, and it’s a lot of trial and error to get it just right. We found that a lot of people felt that we should hire a famous actor with a wonderful voice to read. For me, whenever I watch documentaries that have that, it always takes me out of it.
MM: And Jonathan’s voice is so distinctive and it’s heard on the radio.
LG: Yes, and I think he has a wonderful voice. And then [KCRW Good Food host] Evan Kleiman has such a wonderful voice. I love her voice. She does read two of the reviews in the film; I did think of her reading all of them but it just kind of worked, this combination. I mean, I can’t say it was that well-thought out. It was about feel more than anything else. What was hard was picking the right images to go with the writing, because you don’t want to illustrate everything he’s saying, but you don’t want it to be totally random. So one of the hardest things in making the film was capturing L.A. It’s really hard to photograph LA.
MM: What do you mean?
LG: Well, if you go to New York City and look anywhere and just take a picture, it’s New York. L.A. is so diverse, but there’s also a sameness to it, in a way. Unless you’re photographing the Hollywood sign or Beverly Hills, or you know, the beach. Trying to photograph Jonathan’s L.A. was really challenging and really fun. You know, to figure out what those images would be.
MM: Can you describe your approach to shooting?
LG: We tried sending a lot of different camera people out into different neighborhoods. I thought that would really help and speed things up. But it was just chaotic and there wasn’t a kind of consistency. Jerry Henry, our DP, who did our aerials, did a lot of our B-roll on the streets. He just has an eye for it, and a patience. Also Goro Toshima did a really nice job too; we shot a lot of interviews and vérité scenes.
MM: Did they split the shooting that way—interviews and L.A. photography?
LG: Not really. Jerry also did a lot of interviews. They’re both successful DPs and busy, so it was just who was available.
MM: Can you talk about the footage Jerry captured with drones? There’s a shot above the L.A. river with people on the banks, and it seems to get so close to them.
LG: He had, I think, been given the drone on another doc. He owned the drone. So he started experimenting with it and learning how to do it. And it’s actually not easy! Some of those made me nervous when I got them back in the editing room I’d be like, “Ooh…”
He was still kind of learning the ropes of it. There’s a curve, but he got really good at it. I was really interested in showing L.A. from a different perspective that you don’t usually see. And the light. Jerry was really specific about when he would shoot, so we do have this nice light in the film. He would just go late afternoon, usually.
We collected a lot of drone footage, and there are a lot of weird things that happen with drones. We just used a GoPro, and there were little technical things, like some strobing and things like that, just because it was newer technology. So we would shoot a lot and only be able to use sections of the shots. Some of it we could fix in post a little bit, but for the most part, we had a lot of useful stuff. We really had to make sure we didn’t use too much of it. It had to be right balance. ‘Cause it looks so exciting; I wanted to use it all over.
MM: Did you have to get permits?
LG: Well… we stole the shots, basically. It was unpermitted. It’s very, very expensive to get a permit, so it doesn’t really work for a documentary budget. He shot in places where there weren’t a lot of people. Like, we didn’t shoot in downtown L.A. But, obscure overpasses or Griffith Park where he could hide and send it up.
MM: What else did you shoot on?
LG: It was mostly the Canon C300, though because we started shooting so long ago, we started on a bunch of different formats. We used a lot of the 5D and the 7D, and before that I can’t remember.
MM: Was that ever a problem?
LG: It’s not ideal, but it all looks pretty good. If I had my way, it would all be C300, but I feel like with a documentary it’s a little more forgiving.
MM: I loved the original music by Bobby Johnston.
LG: Yeah, Bobby did a great job. He did my last film, No Impact Man, too. We really went in a total different direction with the music. We wanted to have a kind of grandeur, but not over-dramatic. And I specifically didn’t want to use ethnic music to match the content. That felt too literal to me. I wanted something that was cohesive and brought L.A. all together. I started showing him scenes and he started sketches really early on. We wanted it to have more of a Steve Reich kind of feel. Something that was modern but classical, you know, but still worked to support scenes. It was a balance.
MM: With a subject like Jonathan, who is such a beloved figure, were you ever afraid of veering into hagiography?
LG: Oh yes. God, yes. Oh my God, that was my biggest fear. I feel like in these portrait docs, that’s their biggest flaw. Also, my problem is that I admired him so much. It’s a delicate balance. What did make it easier is that it’s about him, but it’s also about L.A. It’s not this biopic. But yeah, what we learned about his struggle [to write] helps to humanize him. He’s not this perfect human being. He’s relatable. Everyone knows what it’s like to procrastinate.
MM: Was that something he readily admitted from the start or did you draw that out of him over time?
LG: It took him a while to talk about that. And then I wasn’t sure if other people would talk about it, but they did.
MM: I want to ask about the maps of L.A. in the film. I imagine that you had to think about how to communicate the geography of L.A. to the uninitiated, because it’s hard to understand.
LG: Yeah, really hard. We used this great company called Mindbomb, who were really patient with us because it took us a long time to figure out how to animate the maps and make it interesting. Because even a lot of Angelenos don’t know where the San Gabriel Valley is, right? So more than anything, I just wanted to show the vastness and how there really are these distinct neighborhoods and pockets.
MM: The maps go hand in hand with all the shots of Jonathan riding in the car, which is kind of a backbone to the movie.
LG: He’s our guide, you know. He’s our Virgil taking us through. MM
City of Gold opens in theaters March 11, 2016, courtesy of Sundance Selects. All images courtesy of Sundance Selects.