Interview: Thomas Lennon Talks About the Delicacy of Storytelling in His Documentary Short ‘Knife Skills’

Some stories are so improbable they must be true. The new documentary short from Oscar-winning filmmaker Thomas Lennon (“The Blood of Yingzhou District”) is no exception. “Knife Skills,” a documentary set in Cleveland, Ohio, follows the launch of the high-end French restaurant Edwins as the staff prepares to open its doors. The catch? The restaurant is staffed almost entirely by men and women who’ve just finished serving time in prison. Oh, and they only have two months to learn how to cook. These men and women race against the clock to sharpen their skills in the kitchen with the help of founder, CEO and host Brandon Chrostowski, an established Cleveland restauranteur with his own history with the law, according to The Independent. As the trainees learn the in and outs of sauces and the eight kinds of knife cuts in a kitchen, the group pulls together to prove that second chances can yield delicious and poignant results.

“Knife Skills” has already made waves in the world of cinema, finding its way on to the Oscar shortlist for best documentary short. I recently spoke to Thomas Lennon about his film, a passion project that began over a friendly dinner and grew incredibly close to the filmmaker’s heart.

SM: First off, congratulations on the Oscar shortlisting!

TL: Thanks very much, it’s a great feeling.

SM: So, how’d you come across this story? Not everyone would know about a high-end French restaurant hiring former convicts in Cleveland.

TL: (laughs) It’s an improbable story. I wish I could say it came out of research, but I sort of stumbled across it. I met Brandon [Edwins’ owner] at a dinner with a mutual friend; we were seated across the table from one another and I started asking him about who he was, and he mumbled a bit back. Eventually, he told me he was going to create the greatest restaurant in the United States. When I asked him where it would be, he said Cleveland, and it would be staffed with former convicts, which was surprising- I was expecting the place to be in New York or LA. I knew right away it was a story, and luckily Brandon was just going back to sign the lease [for Edwin’s] and I asked to fly back with him, [wanting] to see what’s going on. Soon it was me and a couple of volunteers painting the walls. It was my good luck, and I got to be there as [they] built the place.

SM: What general story did you want to portray in “Knife Skills”?

TL: It was incredible serendipity. I didn’t know about criminal justice issues, besides, you know, what I’d read in the papers. In some ways the fact that I didn’t have an agenda was actually an asset. I just went in with my camera and filmed whatever I saw and the story just unfolded, and it didn’t fit into one political argument. I just found these men and women enormously engaging and vulnerable, that’s what I was struck by, how incredibly vulnerable they were with me, I just filmed and we would talk. And then, there were times where I- I liked these men and women a lot, and I was a little unprepared when they ran into one problem or another. I was worried about scaring potential employers away [from hiring former convicts], but I just decided to stick to the story. “Knife Skills” doesn’t provide a tidy image or advertisement and it’s not on a political tract, it’s just a portrait of [these folks] at re-entry.

SM: How’d you pick which subjects to follow in the doc?

TL: I wanted to make an ensemble film, I wanted to make a film about the process about coming out of prison. I wanted to focus on the whole group and how they became this sort of family, all of whom were carrying a past of which they were not proud, including Brandon, and it felt like everyone I was filming, they had something to prove. The film is untied [to one person] on purpose because I wanted to portray how interconnected these people were, which was the challenge of the edit because I wanted to make a documentary short without leaving out important pieces. My editor Nick [August-Perna] and I looked at each other and said it was the most delicate edit of our lives. We had to develop each character while developing the story of their whole lives, where [you felt good and] you could bring someone into another person’s soul. It wasn’t about how much you could put in, but what you could leave out and still tell your story. That’s a kind of discipline that was tricky but enormously creative and fun.

SL: What sort of overall message did you want “Knife Skills” audience to walk away with?

TL: Good question. My real goal is to take a group of people who general audiences don’t know well, might even fear a little, and just have people be inside the lives of these folks. At the same time, I wanted it to be fun, a foodie film. It’s not an everyday [story], it’s such an unlikely setting. My goal was to take you into a world that is improbable and eccentric and in the end, think about life, think about prison, and engage with those ideas. But ultimately, “Knife Skills” isn’t an eat-your-vegetables kind of movie.

SM: So, final question…what’s up next for you?

TL: Nobody asked me to make this film, the story wasn’t commissioned. “Knife Skills” is my baby, I just want to make sure this little child is launched into the world before starting my next project, though I have a few things on the shelf. It’s not all about going to glitzy parties in LA to talk about it. I want to get it into prisons, in front of employers, people who’ve just come out of prison…I want [“Knife Skills”] to walks its walk and walk into the world before I take few other projects off the shelf.

Find out if “Knife Skills” gets an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short on Jan. 23! Watch the trailer above.

CLICK THE CATEGORY TO SEE THE OSCAR PREDICTIONS:

MOTION PICTURE | DIRECTOR |
LEAD ACTOR | LEAD ACTRESS | SUPPORTING ACTOR | SUPPORTING ACTRESS | 
ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY | ADAPTED SCREENPLAY | ANIMATED FEATURE |
PRODUCTION DESIGN | CINEMATOGRAPHY | COSTUME DESIGN | FILM EDITING | MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING | SOUND MIXING | SOUND EDITING | VISUAL EFFECTS |
ORIGINAL SCORE | ORIGINAL SONG |
FOREIGN LANGUAGE | DOCUMENTARY FEATURE |

ANIMATED SHORT | DOCUMENTARY SHORT | LIVE ACTION SHORT |