Wylie Writes’ One-On-One with Michael Sparaga

Producer/writer Michael Sparaga has seemingly laid low since 2011’s Servitude, but he’s been very busy working on The Missing Ingredient: What is the Recipe for Success? – a documentary that has the filmmaker testing the waters in another culinary scene.  This time, Sparaga hits the director’s chair for this duel story of creative minds within the food industry.

In New York City, Gino’s – an Italian restaurant – created a sustainable reputation for itself with consistent quality.  Meanwhile, an eager joint named Pescatore vies to match Gino’s notoriety, but Pescatore owner Charles Devigne is stumped by how he could make that happen.  As we watch Devigne conjure up a plan down the street from a effortless success, the audience is reminded of culinary history in last year’s Deli Man and the competitive dynamic in Christian Charles’ standup doc Comedian (a film that follows renowned comic Jerry Seinfeld and riled-up amateur Orny Adams).  However, The Missing Ingredient is able to flawlessly juggle both of its stories with laughs and emotion in tow.

Michael Sparaga’s semi-autobiographical screenwriting on Servitude may have been, unfortunately, compared to Rob McKittrick’s cynical workplace comedy Waiting…, but Sparaga truly proves himself as a filmmaker with The Missing Ingredient.  Most of all, I can’t get over my fascination with how he’s made two foodie films back-to-back.

Addison Wylie: It may have been years since I interviewed you during your Servitude run, but your latest film The Missing Ingredient: What is the Recipe for Success? makes me feel like that chat was last week.  You have a passionate and relevant voice for the hospitality/food industry.  Did you ever imagine you would have this much to say about this working class?

Michael Sparaga: To be honest, yes!  I worked in the industry for 15 years, and I still feel very connected to it.  It taught me patience and people skills.  It taught me to be organized and how to perform under pressure.  And, working in the industry allowed me to make a living while also work on building my career as a filmmaker.

I produced my first feature Sidekick while I worked at the Keg, and most of my cast and crew were Keg servers (aka. “Keggers”).  I wrote the script for my follow-up feature, Servitude, which is about a waiter rebellion in a kitschy steakhouse, while working at the Keg.  While I never inspired a rebellion, I was a thorn in the side of management.  I still take a lot of pride in the fact that I helped create the Keg Staff Meal.  It used to be that staff could eat as much bread and potatoes as they wanted, but only received a small discount on steaks.  The result was that everyone was gaining weight and starved for protein.  I met with representatives from head office and proposed a $6 steak-for-staff on work nights and they agreed it was a good idea.  That was over 13 years ago, but I hear the Keg Staff Meal still exists.

The Missing Ingredient: What is the Recipe for Success? is my second film in a row about the industry.  It’s not so much a food doc as a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to run a successful restaurant.  Directing this film made me realize that, as difficult as it is to make it as a filmmaker, making it as a restaurateur is that much harder.

AW: You chronicle duel restaurants in The Missing Ingredient, which creates a strong and intriguing contrast between a historic dining institution and a restaurant striving for success.  How much footage did you shoot and how long were you shooting for?

MS: The movie was in production for over 2 years.  We shot over thirty 2-hour interviews, plus several days of vérité footage.  The process of whittling all that down to make a 87 minute movie involved a lot of (mostly) friendly debate between me and my editor/co-producer Joel Roff.  We had a colour-coded spreadsheet breaking down the two main narratives that we used to help us shape the story of the film.  We’re also big believers in repeatedly testing a film with audiences and holding talkbacks afterward.  On the day of of our first test screening, I received news of a big development in our story.  I wasn’t certain what to do with the development, but when I told the audience after the screening what happened their reaction made me realize I had to go back into production ASAP.  I’m so glad I did because now the film gives the audience the satisfying ending they want.

AW: As a documentarian, you do a very good job giving your subjects time to establish themselves to the audience.  While we may not always agree with Pescatore owner Charles Devigne, movie goers have a cohesive understanding of his honest intentions.  Do you have to spend a lot of time with your subjects to figure them out?

MS: Whenever possible, I pre-interview my subjects before making the decision to film an interview with them.  I like to hear how they talk, answer any questions they might have, and see where they fit in the story.

In regards to Charles, I knew him before making this film.  I met him while living in New York City in the early 2000s and we remained friends even after I moved back to Toronto.  When he called and told me about his decision to use Gino’s wallpaper in Pescatore, I thought it might rub some people the wrong way, but I also knew that he was a good husband and father and a very charming and hard working restaurateur.  My theory is that an interesting personality combined with any sort of controversial decision makes for a good documentary subject.

AW: Were there ever times during filming when your interviewee would say something that would make you cringe or want to intervene?  I only mention this because there are decisions made by people in your film where the viewer can predict the misfire.  I didn’t think I could be this riveted over the selection of wallpaper!

MS: *laughs* I know, right?  I keep assuring people that this movie is about more than just two restaurants connected by wallpaper, and in a way it is, but it’s the wallpaper story that holds it all together.  I can’t count the amount of times I turned to my editor Joel and asked if we might be the only two people that think this is interesting.  He would always answer, “What do you mean we?”  I think he was kidding.

But, regarding those cringe-worthy moments you’re talking about, you just have to motor through during the interview.  You can’t let the interviewee know you just heard something that’s going to make for a big moment in your film.  And often they’re not cringe-worthy in themselves, they’re only cringe-worthy when cut back-to-back with what someone else has said.

AW: As a proud Canadian, where is your “Gino’s”?

MS: I do love (Toronto’s) Bitondo’s Pizzeria on Clinton Street.  It’s the best slice in the city – hands down.  The faces behind the counter are always the same.  It delivers the consistency I look for in an institution.

The Missing Ingredient: What is the Recipe for Success? opens at Toronto’s Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on Friday, July 15.

A Q&A with Sparaga and editor/co-producer Joel Roff cast members will follow after the 15 (6:15pm showtime), 16, and 17 screenings. Charles Devigne will also chime in after the July 15 and 16 screenings.


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