Interview: Rebecca Gerendasy of Cooking Up a Story

Rebeccatonsoftastytomatoes_1I first came across the video site called Cooking Up a Story when I saw the piece there which chronicles a visit with Pat Morford, who makes Rivers Edge goat cheeses on the Oregon coast. Later, the site also posted a video/story about Sasha Davies and Michael Claypool of Cheese by Hand fame, filmed back in July when they were in Portland for the American Cheese Society conference. I became intrigued by these smart, interesting mini movies about cheese (and other things as well) and wanted to meet the person, or people, behind the camera. And so, a couple of months ago, I interviewed Rebecca Gerendasy about her work and the stories she tells.

You're a TV cameraperson by training - how did you get into that line of work?

I got into this line of work a long time ago…when videotape was reel to reel. Film was predominately the medium being used – 16mm film in the TV news business. I was a senior in college in Memphis, Tennessee and a friend of mine who was also a senior (and an art major like myself) was doing a project on videotape and she needed help b/c the equipment was big and clumsy and I said – sure, I’ll help you.  I fell in love with it, and I was three months from graduating. Two weeks after I got my degree I said to myself, OK, I’m bored, now what? I wanted to catch this wave of the future called videotape, so I went to my local TV station for a job interview. The news director, Frank Gardner, gave me my first break.

It sounds like you pretty much walked into it?

Essentially. I spent all my time there, I watched everybody and soaked all of it up. My first TV job was running a teleprompter and doing some writing. But writing wasn’t what I wanted to do, so I spent all my free time watching editors and shooters. Fortunately, there were a couple of camera guys who took me under their wing and mentored me. After a few months of doing that, I started gripping for one of the cameramen full time. The equipment was much heavier back then, the tape decks were like 50 lbs, so I was basically a mule; I carried the tape deck and ran sound as he shot. Soon I started shooting eventually and within a short time, I worked my way up to shooting five days a week. After being there a couple of years I was ready to move on to bigger news markets. I spent a couple of years here in Portland at KOIN, and then most of my career at KTVU in the Bay Area.

What was it like being a woman in what must have been (and maybe still is) a male-dominated field? Did you have any difficulties or were your male colleagues supportive?

Once you establish that we live very much in a man’s world, the rest is easy, you just keep forging ahead. I never felt I was part of the boy’s club, but I did earn their respect. Of course, when I started, I wasn’t the first in the industry, but I was the first in my company (twice), and really there were probably only a handful of women in my profession back in 1977. The one big difference for me was that I knew that if I did well, that would make it easier in the future for women to work in the profession.

What is it like to be the cameraperson for a local TV news station? Did you do a lot of running out at 3AM to a big accident, all of that sort of crisis stuff - is that the kind of lifestyle it ends up being?

Only once or twice did I get called in the middle of the night. Believe it or not, there are people who do that for a living. They (at least in SF) listen to the scanners, respond accordingly, and sell their footage to the local stations. When I worked here in Portland, if memory serves me, we took turns taking the overnight shift, being on call. So a few times, yes, I did go out in the middle of the night, but I never had to work a 1AM to 8AM shift. But I’ve had every combination of days on and days off that you can think of; I worked nights for a long time. It’s not a line of work that’s for everyone. You see a lot of bad stuff.

It sounds like it could get formulaic…

Yes, it became that for a number of people I knew. I remember another cameraperson telling me a couple of years after he left, he said - you know, I ask myself, is this what I’m going to do for the rest of my life? And I guess maybe there’s a little bit of that in there for me.

When did you start Potter Productions?

Potter Productions (note: Potter Productions is the name of Rebecca's production company) slowly evolved. I produced and published my first DVD – Now You’re Cookin’: Inside the World of Championship BBQ, which is a hybrid how-to and documentary about what you need to know to participate and succeed in barbecue competitions. It was well received in the barbecue community and it led to the next DVD, BBQ Secrets: The Master Guide to Extraordinary Barbecue Cookin’. That one is a straight on how-to video cookbook demonstrated by 3 World Champion barbecue cooks, each with their own successful barbecue restaurants. You get to see how they control temperature, make rubs, apply rubs, see different woods to use and how to use them, how to smoke different meats, the list goes on. It is a popular DVD. Both have won awards and both contain stories. So not only do you get great information from experienced people, it is entertaining as well.

Video/TV is a good medium for cooking because a recipe will say – mix such and such together, but what, really, does 'mixing' mean? And for how long?

And if you have to layer something or just put a little bit on, it’s all relative isn’t it? And also in the case of the BBQ Secrets DVD, you’re seeing people who are world champions. These guys know their stuff. They know it inside out, it’s unbelievable. The man from Little Rock, AK, who goes by the name of “Sarge” was so camera shy, very uncomfortable, and I understood that totally. But as soon as I got him going on his BBQ, everything disappeared. I was smiling when I was filming him at this point, because I could tell I (the camera, the lights, the boom mic) wasn’t there anymore for him.

Are there particular challenges to filming someone and telling a story via that medium?

There’s a key element to filming the way I do…you need to be able to listen. If you have an agenda in your head that something is going to go X – Y –Z no matter what, you’re telling the story the way you see it.  I consider that more of a scripted approach. I think some people get into filmmaking because they want it to go a certain way. I like the challenge of shooting and creating a story unscripted, not knowing exactly how it will play out.  I go in with a general idea of what I would like to capture, then I listen. I keep open to what happens and what is said.

Being an editor has also made me a better filmmaker. I know how to shoot a sequence that works, and how to vary my shots to move the story forward. And it’s not just the picture that the tells the story, it’s the sound too. Since my pieces are told in the voice of the subject, a lot of questions are asked during an interview, and I pay attention to what is said as I record general shots. I'm also listening for those gems of sound that occur while filming that gives lushness and depth to a piece, like a box scrapping on the ground, a knife chop on a cutting board, the pop of a bottle as it is uncorked. All this is part of listening and staying open to what occurs. 

How did Cooking Up a Story evolve from the documentary work you'd been doing?

We came up with the idea for what became CUpS (Cooking Up a Story) in December 2005, and that’s really when we started realizing…this could work on the internet. So we needed a name, and that was the hard part, sort of. Actually, we kept coming up with different names but the internet URL was always taken.

So I knew I wanted to put some shows in the can, and I thought it would be good to go to a winery, since there are so many nice wineries around here – and so that’s when I came up with the idea of – well, what does a winery do in the winter? Because, obviously, it was not in that prime winery time of the year, early fall during harvest. So seeing and hearing first hand was very interesting - they were much busier than I had expected. It was beautiful place, they had stunning views of Mt. Hood and Mt. St. Helens because they’re up on a knoll. But the fog never went away! It goes back to this idea of being unscripted, you know, you have this idea – but you have to go with what you’ve got – I had wanted to see rolling hills and green vines but that’s not what I got…it’s all here in my head! But that’s not what I got! That became the Winery in Winter piece.

What you’re doing with CUpS is interesting because you’re a camera person, not a traditional reporter…

There is a big difference. But you can imagine after so many years of filming stories and listening to reporters I’ve internalized the reporting persona. Besides, creating stories is a collaborative effort. When I go out and do the stories for CUpS, I hire someone experienced in interviewing to ask the questions because for me to film and ask the questions – I tried it on the very first one – it just doesn’t work as well. Besides, you’ve got so much going on, you’re thinking about the framing, the lighting, are the sound levels right, and it just becomes uncomfortable to do it all.

That’s interesting - you wouldn’t hire someone to do the filming but you would hire someone to ask the questions.

I love to film, and I recognize asking questions and interviewing people is itself a special art form. So I like to work with people who love to ask people questions, in a sense, and also know how a story is told. When you’re working in an unscripted documentary style things are said, things happen, that are unplanned - so you have to know how to flow with it and follow up with questions that might not be written down. I can’t stop the camera and say – follow up with this question because they just said this – I let go and they do the questioning, from a list I originally wrote down. And, depending on what the person says, maybe we just go down a whole different avenue. That’s the fun part of it.

Where do you want to go with Cooking Up A Story and/or Potter Productions?

CUpS is kind of our little baby. We’re working on syndicating it to other sites, and working on advertising and sponsorships – which will allow it to continue and grow. I have ideas for other shows that involve stories that would blend in with what’s there now. Our biggest goal right now is to grow an audience. It’s brief, it’s informative, it’s educational, it’s entertaining – recipes every week. That’s the thing I thought was going to be really hard but people are great about sharing – oh yeah, I’ve got a recipe.

What I’m doing is stories about food and people, it’s not just - OK, I love to make this kind of dish, this is how you do it, and my family comes over and eats it. I like to think about how people’s lives intersect w/ food, how their lives might be affected by it. For example, in Type 1 Diabetes: Calvin’s War, Calvin (the diabetic boy) –  he’s into food because he has to be, his life depends upon it. And because there is no prewritten script or narrator, you see what a day is like for him told in his own voice.

I also wanted to mention that we're doing podcasts...if you have a place where you download podcasts, like iTunes, you can download our show and put it on your player. For the people who have video ones you can see it, and for the people who don’t, I do an audio version. So you can actually put it on your player and listen and/or watch it. And the show’s text content is also available through RSS syndication, which makes it very easy to obtain all our content without even having to come to our site.

Do you plan to do any full length documentaries?

I’m working on one called "The BBQ Jones" right now (which will be a feature length documentary when completed) when I can, in between other things. I like filming documentaries - to have one all my own is wonderful, but it’s quite monumental. The first DVD I produced, Inside the World of Championship BBQ, is both a how-to and a documentary. Editing can be like putting a 10,000 piece puzzle together, because there are all these clips of audio and/or picture — sometimes I use just the audio, sometimes just the video, but much of the time I use the video with the synched audio. Sometimes the puzzle piece is just one word, or one sound. And there could be a myriad of ways on how to put all these pieces together, it depends on how and what you want to convey.

After filming everything, I look at it all and transcribe it all, and then I look to see who says what and how they say it, and then start thinking about how to break it down into parts that make a story. Essentially who are these people, where are they – setting the scene – and then what’s going on, what are they trying to do, or if there’s a conflict…pretty much the ABCs of storytelling.

I generally have an idea of where I’m going to start, the hard part for me is where is it going to end? There’s an editor who said that he finds the end of a story first and builds the rest towards the end, which makes a lot of sense. When I’m filming, I won’t stop until I know I have at least one end. Usually I have at least two ends, so I have something to choose from b/c I don’t know how it’s going to go. It’s very organic.

Do you have ideas for any other documentaries after The BBQ Jones?

I’d like to continue to make the show (CUpS), make it a bigger show. It’s possible that it will become a 30 minute show. But that takes more people…it could grow into that. People in the TV industry have asked us – do you have something you could put together into a 30 minute show? I’d like to develop the show, and maybe make it about more than just food. But the monetary support needs to be there, it’s just the reality of the business. You don’t even get close to that until you start having the viewership.

People who want to support this and see more of it – I say, tell your friends. You can come to the site, or again, you can see it through iTunes, and a host of other readers. For a more complete list go to addtoany.com.

So pass the word! I feel like I’m not in one straight category with what I do…it is a video blog in a sense, but it’s also a show. It’s a show about food, so is it a food blog? But it’s also a storytelling blog – it’s really a combination of many elements. I’d say it’s a television show for the internet. You get to see interesting stories about people’s lives and how they intersect with food, every episode has original recipes, there are additional links to take you to sites with information that correlates to the show, and there are additional videos to watch that are fun and a little bit different. The internet is where you’ll soon be seeing more shows that are unique to the platform. It’s a new wave, and I’m looking forward to the future of it, for myself, and other filmmakers who also have a passion to tell stories.