On the Menu at Sundance: Jonathan Gold Talks City of Gold

The food critic explains why he agreed to make this film and says “anonymity was sort of a dead concept anyway”

Fresh off officially relinquishing his anonymity, Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold went to the Sundance Film Festival for this week’s premiere of his City of Gold documentary. He’s been repping L.A. hard at Sundance, which makes sense because the city he lives in and eats around is the co-star of City of Gold. Director Laura Gabbert made the film by following Gold around L.A. as he shared his love of food, writing, and writing about food with the viewer. We sat down with Gold and Gabbert at the festival to talk about how it came to be.

What about this project made dropping the facade of anonymity appealing?

Jonathan Gold: I’ve been approached for documentaries and reality TV before. I’ve done some TV segments where they did that weird pixelization on my face, so I looked like a felon on America’s Most Wanted. But I really liked [Laura’s] first film a lot, and I figured that anonymity was sort of a dead concept anyway. If a documentary was going to be made, she might as well be the one to do it, because I admired her work.

Did you have any reservations about the filmmaking process?

Gold: At first, I didn’t want her to film at my house. I was really adamant about the privacy of my kids…until it turned out that they actually didn’t want privacy! [laughs] I was up front about the fact that there probably wasn’t going to be drama, that I probably wasn’t going to provide her with an easy narrative arc. Though in retrospect, there might have been one. There was a certain amount of tension coming from me going from L.A. Weekly to the L.A. Times, but that was barely in there. I distinctly didn’t want it to be, like, a metaphor for the end of newsprint. Because I don’t believe it’s happening, and I don’t think my experience has really been indicative of that, anyway. I was super trepidatious about having my face in the film, although obviously you couldn’t do one if you didn’t show me.

The movie is structured around different locations. It starts out Downtown, then moves to Hollywood, etc.

Laura Gabbert: We structured the film mostly by what’s discussed in the scenes. And so the locations are sort of incidental. They happened to hit a lot of different things. We wanted to hit more–we shot at many more restaurants that are not in the film. It would have been great to include those places as well, but ultimately, we had to ask what was best for the film, stylistically speaking. So we started with that, and then locations sort of followed.

It was definitely a really challenging film to edit. We were changing the structure of the film until like two weeks before we locked picture. We were honing and refining the whole way. In these kinds of documentaries, you always have to get all that exposition out. It’s not cumbersome, but you have to figure out how to eloquently dispense that information. So we kind of knew how it would start. The challenge for us was how, from a broad perspective, it’s a film about Jonathan and a film about Los Angeles, and we had to synthesize those two things. Because there wasn’t a clear narrative arc, it had to be an emotional thing. It was hard. It took us a long time.

There’s no footage of actual restaurant reviewing in the film. I assume that was purposeful?

Gold: One of the ground rules was that [Laura] wasn’t going to go with me to restaurants that I was reviewing, because there’s no conceivable way that a restaurant can be the way that a restaurant is when, you know, there’s a film crew there. It just doesn’t happen. So we only went to places that I had reviewed, places I had gone to enough times after the review, to the point where I felt that it was like it was part of my usual routine anyway. But if I walked into a restaurant with a film crew in the course of reviewing it…that would have been just impossible.

When reviewing a restaurant, I never let them know I’m coming. I always use fake names, I have like fake cards, I have a bunch of phone numbers that I use when I’m making reservations. I often show up late, so that my party is seated before I show up, so that it won’t be preferential that way. But certain restaurants know who I am anyway. It’s kind of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in restaurant criticism–observing it changes it.

Is there any material that didn’t make the final cut that you miss?

Gabbert: There’s a bunch of things. We’ll probably have so many DVD extras. There’s one wonderful scene between Jonathan and his daughter, Isabel, where they’re looking at her sketch book. We’re probably going to put that back into the film after Sundance. You end up having to cut a lot of stuff that doesn’t just keep moving the story forward. In the American marketplace, there’s such an emphasis from buyers on keeping documentaries short, keeping them moving. If I’d made this movie in Europe, it would have been a really different movie.

Gold: You have to kill the darlings, as they say.