Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw reflect on their lauded documentary and an affinity for telling stories about communities that hold onto traditions
By Robert Goldrich
NEW YORK -- Michael Dweck and Gregory Kershaw--who earlier this year as a tandem won both DGA and ASC awards for their feature documentary The Truffle Hunters--have come aboard the directorial roster of Park Pictures for commercials and branded content.
The relationship with Park was born out of Dweck and Kershaw’s collaborative bond with its sister shop Park Pictures Features which provided financial and creative support for The Truffle Hunters, helping to finish the film. That support was led by producers Sam Bisbee and Jackie Kelman Bisbee along with their Park partner, Lance Acord, an acclaimed filmmaker in his own right.
Written, directed and lensed by Dweck and Kershaw, The Truffle Hunters follows a vanishing breed of now elderly men and their faithful dogs through the forests of Northern Italy’s Piedmont region in search of the white Alba truffle, a prized delicacy, the most coveted of which can command astoundingly high prices at auction. The quest for truffles can prove daunting--but not so elusive for savvy hunters like Birba, Carlo and Sergio who work independently of each other and are wise in the art and experience-based science of their pursuit. They are at one with nature while trusting their dogs’ keen sense of smell to unearth these culinary treasures. The last of a generation, these hunters show a mix of passion, humor, a sense of good-hearted adventure and pride in what they do, reflecting old world values and operating in tune with the gentle rhythms of life within environs of natural beauty--all a far cry from the frenetic pace of a city.
Dweck observed that he and Kershaw have an inherent interest in and penchant for communities and people who “hold onto their souls and traditions.” This is reflected, continued Dweck, in both films on which he and Kershaw have collaborated--The Truffle Hunters and prior to that, The Last Race, directed and co-written by Dweck with Kershaw serving as cinematographer and writing compatriot. The Last Race debuted at Sundance in 2018, taking us to the Long Island birthplace of stock car racing where only one track remains. With realtors seeing dollar signs, the track’s community and elderly owners keep the bulldozers at bay, looking to protect this blue collar American sport. The Last Race immerses us in the intimate world of grassroots racing.
For both documentaries, Dweck and Kershaw embedded themselves with their subjects. In the case of The Truffle Hunters, the filmmakers spent three years with the protagonists, building trust over time, no easy feat for two outsiders. “We took our time getting into this world,” said Dweck who said his prime shared goal with Kershaw is “to immerse an audience in a world and make it feel for them the way it feels for us as filmmakers experiencing it.”
Kershaw said he was “in awe” of the truffle hunters he encountered, describing them as an inspiration and citing their energy, commitment and passion. And while the aforementioned awards from the Directors Guild of America and the American Society of Cinematographers would be gratifying under any circumstances, they seemed even more so for a film that, affirmed Kershaw, “was true to both of our hearts” and “made without compromise”--akin to how the truffle hunters live their lives.
Dweck said that he didn't expect The Truffle Hunters to win DGA and ASC Awards. He described many of the voting members of the Guild and the Society as “heroes of ours. It is an incredible honor.” The writer-director added that after years of being immersed in the truffle hunters’ world, he and Kershaw didn’t know exactly what they had with this film. “We never showed it to an audience before Sundance. We didn’t know how an audience would react to it. It’s a film quite different from most documentaries.” Thus for it to be acknowledged at Sundance, by the DGA and ASC means the world to the filmmakers.
In addition to being screened at Sundance, The Truffle Hunters hit the festival circuit at Telluride and was one of three documentaries to be selected for the Cannes Film Festival in 2020. Beyond the aforementioned Directors Guild and American Society of Cinematographers awards, The Truffle Hunters won the Capri Documentary Award, earned a Producers Guild Award nomination, and was shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.
The Park connection
Dweck and Kershaw reached out to Sam Bisbee to assist in getting The Truffle Hunters over the finish line. Jackie Kelman Bisbee shared that she along with her Park colleagues were drawn by the opportunity to tell a joyful story, particularly during the time of a pandemic. The uplifting narrative has indeed resonated with audiences.
Park in turn helped to lift up the visibility of The Truffle Hunters, which made an auspicious debut at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. This marked the 13th film, a mix of narrative and documentary fare, that Park Pictures Features has brought to Sundance over the years, including Other People, Robot & Frank, Infinitely Polar Bear, God’s Pocket, Hearts Beat Loud, An Evening with Beverly Luff, Cop Car and The Sentence. The latter was the first documentary from Park Pictures Features and won such honors as the Audience Award for Documentary at the 2018 Sundance fest and a primetime Emmy the following year for Exceptional Merit in Documentary Filmmaking. With The Sentence whetting its appetite for more non-fiction fare. Park has since delved deeper into the doc. arena with multiple films, including The Truffle Hunters.
The Truffle Hunters marks a departure from Park Pictures’ docu norm which has been to tackle weightier issues. The Sentence for example centered on the unjustly harsh sentence and incarceration of Cindy Shank due to drug violations by her late boyfriend. The toll on her family--particularly her three daughters--was profound, though Shank was eventually released when granted clemency by President Obama in 2016. The Sentence was credited with getting the attention of both sides of the political aisle in Congress, yielding criminal justice reform with the passage of The First Step Act which reduces mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders in federal prisons and allows some people to be incarcerated closer to their homes to allow families to more easily their visit loved ones. The Sentence was directed by Rudy Valdez (Shank’s brother) who too is now on Park Pictures’ spot directorial roster.
Still while The Truffle Hunters hearkens back to a time-honored tradition, it does touch upon some social issues of consequence--including the greed of the food industry when it comes to the prized truffles, and environmental concerns such as climate change and deforestation that threaten to jeopardize nature’s ground which yields these food delicacies. This mesh of human storytelling, old world values and matters of significance has garnered critical acclaim for The Truffle Hunters.The film has also gained a following with a recently wrapped theatrical run in the U.S., ongoing video on demand access, being ranked among the most watched documentaries on iTunes this year, and with other streaming platform exposure in the offing. As momentum continues to build with the film attaining a higher profile, Jackie Kelman Bisbee noted that she felt the time was right to make a push for directors Dweck and Kershaw in the commercialmaking/branded content marketplace.
Dweck, though, is hardly a newcomer to the advertising community, having founded the venerable ad agency Dweck & Campbell, a shop known for its creative chops. Dweck left that agency years ago to begin what has proven to be a successful career in art and film. His works include photography books “The End: Montauk, NY” and “Habana Libre.” His first feature film, the aforementioned The Last Race, made its mark at Sundance and elsewhere on the festival circuit. The Truffle Hunters is the second feature he’s directed, this time in concert with Kershaw.
After its positive experience on The Truffle Hunters, Park Pictures Features hopes to again collaborate with Dweck and Kershaw on their next feature documentary. Meanwhile Park Pictures is exploring opportunities for the directors in the spotmaking/branded content arena.
Also on the documentary score but separate from their work with Dweck and Kershaw, Park Pictures Features has such projects as the recent theatrical release Not Going Quietly directed by Nicholas Brukman, which tells the story of Ady Barkan, who was diagnosed with ALS at the age of 32 and, fearing rising medical costs in light of the proposed 2018 tax reform, heads for Washington, D.C. as part of a group voicing its concerns. Barkan has gone on to become a leading healthcare activist and patient advocate.
Park Pictures Features also had a hand in Storm Lake, the AFI Docs’ Audience Award winner earlier this year for Best Feature. Directed by Jerry Risius and Beth Levison, Storm Lake takes us to Storm Lake, Iowa, where Art Cullen, brother John, son Tom, wife Delores and sister-in-law Mary have been publishing a Pulitzer Prize-winning local newspaper for 30 years. Yet with newspapers everywhere shutting down, Storm Lake explores the threat to the very survival of this important form of local journalism
Park Pictures Features additionally has in the doc. hopper Broadway Rising, being directed by Amy Rice, which chronicles the reopening of Broadway, casting a light not only on familiar onstage faces but the overall theater community, including ushers and support workers, restaurant owners and staffers, craftspeople, costume houses, designers et al. Among the producers working with Park Pictures Features on Broadway Rises are Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Tony-winning Oklahoma! producer Justin Mikita.
And on the narrative feature front, Park’s Acord and Jackie Kelman Bisbee are among the exec producers on the political thriller The Independent, with Sam Bisbee serving as a producer. Brian Cox (Succession) and Jodie Turner-Smith (After Yang, Queen & Slim) star, with Broadway Rising’s Rice slated to direct.