Knife Skills is an inspiring Oscar-nominated documentary short from Thomas Lennon that explores life after prison for inmates as they start a job training program, learning top cooking techniques at Brandon Chrostowski’s restaurant, Edwins. A chance encounter started Lennon on the documentary and he talks about taking on the documentary after hearing Chrostowski’s plan. Without any agenda, Lennon filmed in the classes and kitchen and his film came together.
Read our chat below and how he made the inspiring documentary about life after prison and re-entry into life for people who have been given a much-needed second chance at life.
What I love about Knife Skills is the way you show re-entry into the world and show a different side to the world after prison, a positive and hopeful look at second chances. What started it?
I was having dinner with a friend of mine who’s a really good chef here in New York. We had a private dinner, it was him, his wife and my wife. There was this other strange guy who was at the table who had been an employee of his. Turns out it was Brandon Chrostowski who was mumbling into his soup and he said, “I’m about to open the greatest French restaurant in the United States.” He was mumbling it so I almost didn’t hear it. I thought it was quite a statement and he said it was going to be in Cleveland. I don’t know about you, but that’s not the first place that comes to mind when someone says the greatest French restaurant is going to be there. He said, “It’s going to be staffed completely by men and women straight out of prison.” I knew immediately that it was a movie. The great fortune of it was that he hadn’t signed the lease and he was just about to sign it. I was free and flew out ten days later and started filming him when he and some volunteers were painting the walls of the restaurant.
I figured it was going to be a train wreck or he could pull it off, either way it was going to be an interesting film. I didn’t see that I could lose. I knew very little. Like you, I had to think a lot of time thinking about the American justice system. I’m an average reader of the paper and I didn’t have the agenda.
I don’t think ignorance is ever an advantage in making a film, but I do think that the absence of any agenda is an advantage. I just wanted to film what I saw. I wasn’t trying to make a statement. I was just filming. I think a little bit of that sense of discovery and as things unfolded, I think my lack of an agenda and lack of background in this field was an advantage.
There’s a lot of stuff that goes along with thinking about the American criminal justice system right now in terms of the war on drugs, racial bias and mass incarceration. It’s not that I didn’t know anything about it, I was just there hanging around with a camera.
Marley’s story was one I loved and stood out. They were all compelling stories, so how did you pick your subjects?
First of all, I had an outsider’s bias and expectations that I had with me. I thought the people I was going to meet with were going to be scary. I spent a certain amount of time thinking about where I’d keep my equipment and thought about locking stuff up in my car, taking out what I absolutely needed. There were a couple of rough guys in that mix, but overall, I found the rawest, vulnerable and sweetest people who were so eager to make a change in their lives. They were so unbelievably grateful for a second chance. My presence was a non-issue. They had so much else they were worried about. They didn’t give a damn about me. I could have easily profiled ten people, but there were some who caught my attention and they stayed in the film.
You’re shooting a lot of footage so how did you edit it to 40 minutes?
It was a hard edit. I didn’t want to focus on one person. Brandon pushes the event forward but his stakes are not as high as those in the restaurant. I wanted to make it an ensemble piece and I also found that when it was short, it was better. To be able to tell you the absolute minimum that you need to know to care about a person and understand the choices they’re facing and yet still move on and be developing each character and the film as you go, that ensemble worked in a very short 40-minute context. It was tricky and not an easy edit.
What inspired you while filming this? Second chances are great, but what struck you?
What inspired me was the ensemble of this group of people, all of whom had a flaw and who among us doesn’t feel that way? In their case, it’s a lot more urgent. It was this family of misfits who had to find a way to move forward and who were able to support each other as they were moving forward. I hung around for so long, I was one of them and I loved that. We became very attached to everyone. The hardest person to know was Brandon. He was very cagey and elusive for a long time and I tried to replicate that in the film where you don’t know his story and he gradually reveals himself and I’m now very fond of him.
I love him and those guys.
Anthony Bourdain gave such a great review of Knife Skills. What was that like for you to receive that acclaim from a food critic like him?
I had never met him. We got the film to him and he looked at it and he did this gorgeous quote and that was the beginning and end of my contact with him.
He thinks of everyone in restaurants as a misfit. If you read his book, he was trouble. I think he identified with that part of it.
For you, what do you want people to talk about after seeing Knife Skills?
I want people to feel like you felt. I want people to think about the issue differently. I want people to care about the issue. After that, there are no talking heads, no prescriptions. I’m not saying, I know what needs to be done. I hope it becomes a springboard for you and other people to think about what people need when they come out of prison. They have to find a car, repair relationships, find a job and do a hundred things after years of passively was rewarded. In prison, you are rewarded for doing what you’re told. Now, they have to get all of this together. On top of this, there’s a gnawing sense that there’s something in me that I need to fix. There’s trauma, issues and re-entry is hard and requires our care. People on the left and the right are thinking we both need to be doing better.
You’re now in the Oscar race.
I’m a nervous wreck.