At first glance, the subjects of esteemed filmmaker Les Blank’s 40-plus-year career as a documentarian appear to have little to do with one another: After all, this is a man who followed up films about Werner Herzog (Burden of Dreams and Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe) with films about garlic, polka music, and women with gap teeth. His latest, All in This Tea — made in collaboration with Gina Leibrecht and opening today at Cinema Village — follows David Lee Hoffman, an American tea expert and importer, as he travels around China looking for and discoursing about tea. Hoffman is a classic Blank visionary: A man determined to go anywhere and do anything to find the absolute best leaves, and who won’t let anything stand in his way. Blank talked to Vulture about pissing off Werner Herzog, battling Indians in South America (or at least considering it), and why that Lipton tea you’re drinking might actually be dust swept up from a factory floor.
So how did you first get interested in tea?
I met David Hoffman at the annual Himalaya Fair, which is just a couple of blocks from my house in Berkeley. He was there in his tent, giving out teas, and we got talking. I was also looking for a project I could also use to learn digital filmmaking. And I was ready for some adventure; my life had gotten too boring. So pretty soon I got a plane ticket, a video camera, a manual for the camera, and I was off.
You actually had to bring the manual with you?
Yes. I had previously shot a wedding, and a memorial service using video, and I brought a high-quality microphone, but when I plugged the microphone into the camera, it shut off the sound. So what I wound up filming had no sound.
Were they frustrated that they got the great Les Blank to film their event, only to have him screw up the sound?
Yes. But I was the most frustrated.
Watching this film, I kept thinking, Boy, I’d love to have some of that tea, but I bet it’s ridiculously expensive.
We had a scene in the film that I liked very much, but which we ended up not using: David takes a box of regular teabag tea, like Lipton, and he opens one of the teabags and all this dust flies out. He explains that you can measure the dust that comes out of a teabag and then price according to how much you pay for it, and it’s on a level with the very finest tea. And it really is dust — it’s the stuff they sweep off the floor when they’re making the good tea. Also, you can take the fine quality tea and then re-steep it over and over again, so you get your money’s worth.
I really enjoyed that the film doesn’t feel like a polemic, like so many other documentaries today.
My approach is to see what’s there and to tell the stories I find. It’s a problem for me, in fact, because I don’t approach things the way Morgan Spurlock or Michael Moore do. I suppose if I was doing it to make money, then I’d do it the way Michael Moore does it, but I like to think I’m creating a lasting work of art that people will still come to years later. I’ve been able to keep my head above water.
A lot of your films are about other artists. Do you find yourself butting heads with them when you’re shooting?
I try to give the artist a lot of room, but sometimes I might step out of line. During Burden of Dreams, I got a bit exasperated with Herzog [who was filming Fitzcarraldo, in the Amazonian jungle], and said, “Why don’t you just shoot the ship going up the hill and then turn the damn thing around and just bring it back down and no one will ever know you didn’t go across the top?” He was furious. I knew I’d gone too far.
You’ve made movies about a lot of extreme personalities over the years. What’s the craziest thing you ever shot?
I came close to doing something else that was crazy on Burden of Dreams. The neighboring Indians attacked the first day we were there. They tried to kill some of Herzog’s Indians, and the Indians we were with decided to form a war party to go and avenge them. Herzog said, “If you were a documentarian worth your salt, you’d take your camera and go with the raiding party.” The thought horrified me, so I told Werner that I would do it only if he would do it, thinking that there was no way he would. And he said, “Sure, we’ll meet at daybreak.” I couldn’t sleep a wink that night. He came into my tent in the morning and said that he’d thought about it and didn’t think it would look good for the director of a film to go on a war party. So we didn’t go, and he never got to find out how terrified I was. —Bilge Ebiri