Diana Kennedy has been described as “the Mick Jagger” of Mexican food. Director Elizabeth Carroll makes her feature documentary debut with “Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy” (available on-demand) following the 97-year-old author, teacher and chef around Mexico, where Kennedy lives off the grid near Michoacan.
The documentary opens with Kennedy telling Carroll and her DP Paul Mailman that she has “cooked my way through 80, 90 years of my life.” Viewers immediately get a sense of her feisty side before she starts to reminisce and tell her story. We see footage from renowned chefs such as Alice Waters and Rick Bayless who describe how this British woman became an influence on the way they cook Mexican food.
DP Mailman tells Variety about traveling to Mexico to follow Kennedy on her hiking trails and how he captured the essence of what makes her Diana Kennedy, nothing fancy.
Did you know who Diana Kennedy was before this?
When her books first came out, I had them. I ended up living and working in Mexico for a few years in the ’80s. I had a feel for the kind of person she was. It was for an enchilada recipe and I remember it said to dip the tortilla in the sauce and then fry them. I thought it would make a mess. I thought this wasn’t just someone writing a recipe. It was someone who was going much deeper.
You went to Mexico with a small crew to film her?
I had worked on a series called “After Hours with Daniel Boulud” and it had received a good critical reception and that led to other food documentary projects. I got on the project and we got to Mexico and the small crew was what we needed to get it done.
With Diana, I didn’t know what I was getting into. She was a very active 93-year-old and I had to run after her to get some of those shots. Not that I wasn’t prepared to go after her.
How did you want to portray her through your lens given who she was?
There’s a variety of things that were done. The film opens with her waking up and doing those exercises. But she plays so well close up. One of the things that motivated me and something I think about a lot is Robert Capa, a photographer who said, ‘If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” There’s something about being in the mix with someone who informs who they are and you can capture something different.
I’d back off and get a longer lens when she’s doing the exercise. When she’s doing her food camp, you wanted to feel her in that space with all the natural light and her stove. This is where the creation happens. There were a lot of people in the room, but it felt the closer you got to her, the more I could translate what her energy was.
This film was not about the food, it was about her. It was much more about learning who she was and I stayed close to her because it was the intimacy that played well.
I didn’t shoot it 200mm looking for pretty shots. I wanted to get close and get her sensibility and she understood that.
There was another sequence we shot early on. Ostensibly she was making guacamole for us. At first, I thought it was going to be about making the guacamole. In the beginning, it was about a way to get her to talk. I didn’t want to do cutaways. I stuck to her and waited for her to talk. That was the beautiful part of making this, was just staying with her and letting her do her thing and capture those moments when she revealed herself.
What equipment did you use to film her?
We used Red digital cameras and we used the Canon C300 for the verite material. As far as the equipment it was very familiar to me and that came in handy because we used handhelds and in that scene where I’m chasing her around the market as she shops, I had that and it was lots of fun to shoot. She loved it too. In the market, when she is running around, she turns to me and says, ‘I’m going that way.’ And we got into this great groove.