Elizabeth Carroll is the director of Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy. She studied documentary film at the University of San Francisco and, in 2013, she founded Honeywater Films in order to produce stories about food.
Elizabeth was kind enough to talk to me about the making of Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy.
What inspired you to tell Diana Kennedy’s story?
This is an interesting story because we met in a serendipitous way.
I was living in Austin, Texas around seven years ago and I was interested in making a documentary about the matriarchy of food culture in Mexico - examining the way that women pass down food culture and traditions.
I was looking for people to interview about this and I found Diana Kennedy. I had never heard of her and had no idea about the breadth of her work. I soon realised that she knows everything! She is a major authority on this subject.
I wanted to contact Diana but I wasn’t sure how. I kind of gave up. I thought, well, I guess I can’t get to her. So I left the coffee shop that I was in and drove to this small, independent bookstore in downtown Austin with the intention of looking for one of her books.
In the parking lot there was a marque advertising a book signing with Diana Kennedy - the next day! This was a turning point - it felt that there was some greater force at work.
The people at the bookstore gave me the email address of Diana Kennedy’s publicist. I sent an email saying that I would love for Diana to be a part of my project - if she would be willing.
I didn’t hear anything back and so, the next day, I went to the event... and walked in at the same time as Diana. I introduced myself and she said: “Oh yes, you're the one who wants to make a film about me.”
I hadn’t mentioned anything about making a film about her, I had just asked for an interview. But when she said that I replied “Yes, that’s me”. I just went with it because she had this incredible presence. I knew that there was something special about her - I was impressed by her immediately.
Did you talk to Diana about your documentary ideas at this event?
Diana inspired everyone at the book signing. At the end, I approached her again and she asked me what I wanted. I told her that I thought her voice needed to be heard by many, many more people. I said that not enough people know who she is and that she is a really inspiring person. I think she really liked that.
She told me that someone had tried to make a film about her a year before and she had ended up suing them. I reassured her that we didn’t have to do this, there was no pressure. But she said that her colleagues at the New York Times thought that someone should be filming her all of the time.
I asked if I could be that person and she said sure, can you fund it? I said of course but I had absolutely no idea how I was going to fund the film - I had never made a movie in my life.
What pushed the project forward was both the serendipitous experience I had with her at the book signing and the fact that, when we met, we just connected. There was this sense of understanding - like a familial connection.
Did this connection mean that Diana trusted you from the start?
Diana didn’t know me and there was no real reason why she should have trusted me but I think she liked me and there was something about me that she trusted. It was a complicated process because it took us a long time to make the movie - to get it funded and to get a crew together. As a first time filmmaker, people weren’t throwing money at me.
The documentary took around six and a half years to make. During that time, my relationship with Diana changed. At the beginning, she was very open - so fiesty and empowered. It felt like she had been waiting for someone to come and notice how incredible she is - she was charming and funny and snarky and free spirited, youthful in her heart.
In the middle of the filmmaking process, Diana began to question my choices. She became more involved in the way she wanted to be portrayed. However, by the end we got to a really good place.
I told her that she needed to trust me and that I was going to do her legacy justice. That was my goal. I explained to Diana that I respected who she was and that I was not going to portray her in a way that made her look bad. At the same time, I told her that my aim was not to be dishonest. I had to stay connected to the truth.
It is clear from your film that Diana is a formidable woman. What was it like working with her?
There were definitely moments when she was scary. It was overwhelming at times but she taught me so much about patience and how to interact with some of these issues. Diana is formidable, but she can also be open and carefree.
There were times when she would get really fiery but we had an understanding that I had a job to do and she was a willing participant. I think our dynamic worked and she also had a really good sense of humour about the filmmaking process.
How did you ensure that you avoided any sense of cultural appropriation in your film?
I wanted to tell the story through Diana’s eyes and from her perspective. The people who really know Diana know that she is one of the most respectful people. She changed her life for Mexico, she moved there and she wanted to be there more than anything.
She always credited the chefs that she got her recipes from and made sure that she was immersed enough in that world to fully understand it - rather than just grabbing a bunch of recipes and becoming a celebrity chef to make money.
Making money was never her goal. Her goal was to get information and to preserve tradition and recipes and do the research - she was a kind of anthropologist.
It was a delicate thing to portray and I was nervous about it but I think that as long as that part of her is being exposed - the truth telling and the information seeking that was ultimately very respectful of Mexicans and Mexican culture - people will hopefully reach the conclusion that she is as far away from culturally appropriating Mexico as she possibly could be.
She is about protecting the culture and the food itself and I think she has done a good job of doing just that.
I loved the guacamole scene when you intercut Diana today with archive footage of Diana from around 35 years ago. Can you tell me more about this sequence?
This is my favourite scene. We had already filmed Diana making guacamole. She has this very specific way of doing that on camera - I thought it was amazing.
I had access to 27 episodes of her shows - a lot of footage. As I made my way through it all to find what was appropriate to include in the film, I came across the episode of her making guacamole. I realised that she was making it in exactly the same way. She even says the same quirky things.
I am really happy with the way this scene worked out - I loved it and it was the most fun. It was also so interesting to watch Diana transform into her mode of culinary instructor. You can tell that she was born to do this - to be this person, this teacher.
I also loved cookbook editor Frances McCullough’s comment about Diana having more to say - and particularly how that introduced Diana’s environmentalism.
I wasn’t sure at first how we were going to weave her environmentalism into the story. I knew from the beginning that this would be a big part of the story because it is a big part of who Diana is - but I wasn’t sure where we were going to slot it into the film.
I loved the way that Fran said that line. This is from the perspective of someone who really knows Diana - they have been friends for so many years. They talk about everything and there’s no stone unturned between the two of them.
I don’t think that Fran was even really talking about sustainability. It was more that Diana is a person who will never stop doing things - exploring, researching and discovering. She is one of the few people in this world who really found her calling. She followed the unknown path with a rebellious spirit.
Fran’s comment also ended up being a perfect transition to Diana’s environmentalism.
Does Diana like the film?
The first time we watched it with her was in a library in Austin, Texas. This was the only option at the time because we couldn’t get a screening room anywhere else. It was a nightmare - it was her and seven of her most trusted friends from Texas. They were all seeing the film for the first time.
I was freaking out. I was so nervous. It was like a corporate screening room - and the sound wasn’t great and the colour wasn’t great and I felt mortified - it was all really stressful.
Diana didn’t really like the film at first. Maybe it was a quality issue. Maybe she found it difficult to watch herself on screen. I hadn't necessarily expected her to like the movie and I had prepared myself for that, but I had hoped that she wouldn’t hate the film.
A few months later, we had a screening at the Guanajuato International Film Festival in Mexico. The film filled out the theatre and all of Diana’s friends from Mexico came - it was a beautiful, more ceremonial experience.
I didn’t know if Diana was going to come because she had said that she didn’t want to see the film again. However, she showed up and came on stage after the movie. She said “Thank you so much everyone, but the person I really have to thank is Elizabeth because she has been so patient with me and she’s made this wonderful film”.
My jaw hit the floor. I didn’t know that she felt that way - it was so nice for me to learn that she liked the movie.
What are you working on next?
I had plans and now they are all gone. The pandemic happened and any project that I had been planning seems so unimportant right now.
One thing that is really driving me is my love for restaurants and restaurant culture. It is heartbreaking to see how restaurants are having to respond to the pandemic. There are places in my hometown where restaurants are closing down after 45 years in business. It is such a scary time for the restaurant industry - an industry that is so special and important to human culture, particularly in terms of maintaining communities.
If we are left with chain restaurants and no independent restaurants after the pandemic is over that is going to be horrible. We can’t let that happen. I really admire people like José Andrés. He is a huge inspiration to me - particularly what he does with the World Central Kitchen.
Andrés doesn’t make excuses. He just goes to the places where people need food and he makes them food. He is such a good example of someone who utilises a position of power for good. He is a beacon of light in the darkness. I would love to stay connected with him and I really admire him.
Some of the best projects come from the heart.
I would like to thank Elizabeth Caroll for being so generous with her time. I really enjoyed finding out more about her debut film and I am looking forward to her next project!
You can watch Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy on demand.