Any native Atlantan will be able to tell you about their first visit to Dante's Down The Hatch, once the city's most revered jazz club and fondue palace. With its warmly detailed nautical decor (complete with an alligator-filled moat), this magical spot ruled Atlanta nightlife for 43 years before being closed in July 2013. But, luckily, through Jef Bredemeier's bittersweet new documentary, we can revisit the hallowed decks of this Atlanta institution, even if we're also treated to the sad sight of its demolition as part of the bargain. Bredemeier, a longtime employee of The Hatch, gets unfettered access to the restaurant's busy final days, while drawing a candid portrait of its idiosyncratic mastermind Dante Stephensen (who cuts a memorable swath onscreen with his smoking pipe and his southern gentlemanly looks). The film finds time to ruminate on the restaurant's design and operation, as well as on the "straight ahead" jazz sounds heard wafting through the restaurant's air each night. Stepping into the establishment itself was like traveling back to a more hep era of craft and class, and so acts Dante's Down the Hatch in similar fashion: it's a genial time capsule of a recently passed era, and as such it's essential viewing for those interested in Atlanta's quickly evaporating history. It's also a road map for anyone seeking to learn how to run a business infused with heart, imagination and intelligence. Dante's Down the Hatch will premiere at the 2015 Atlanta Film Festival on the Plaza Theatre's main screen on Sunday, March 29th at 4:30 pm, with an encore showing at 7 pm.
We talked to director Jef Bredemeier about his experiences filming the final days of Dante's Down The Hatch:
I'm curious what your previous filmmaking experience is.
This is my first film and it's all basically very new to me. I had experimented somewhat with video work on a photo shoot out in LA. I did an interview and followed this musical duo around for a week and, when I came back to Atlanta, I had a friend help me edit a little short segment on them. Now when I decided to do the documentary on Dante's, there was a whole world I had to learn in order to pull it off. I opened up Premiere Pro account while filming and just started watching every tutorial I could get my hands on. If I needed to do something, I had to look it up or reach out to friends with questions. I wanted this film to look good--Dante's is a place that is over the top and mind-blowing and this would be the only memory left of it.
That seems like a tremendous responsibility to take on, especially given your debut status and the legions of fans of this establishment. But your love of The Hatch sings through in every moment of the film. When did you definitely decide that you needed to record these moments in time?
Dante pulled the team together one night in November and told us that we would be closing our doors forever. Every jaw was on the floor because we never thought he would do it. I had worked there for over 13 years at that point and that's longer than I had lived in any house growing up. That's when I thought someone should be filming this--this whole thing, everything. The place means a lot to the people who've dined there but that's nothing compared to the people who had lived there for ten, twenty, FORTY years. Over the years I can safely say that I got sick of waiting tables but I never got sick of The Hatch. I always loved the way everything looked and felt.
How long was your filming schedule, and did you run into any roadblocks along the way?
I started with New Year's Eve 2012 and continued filming into 2014 after the tear-down, doing interviews and follow ups with Dante. Other than that, there was no schedule. I was waiting tables five nights a week but I always had my camera rig hidden behind the bar so I could cover my tables and start recording. I came in on my days off or I came in early before my shift and stayed late. After waiting on 70 to 80 customers, I'd grab a beer and head up to the office where Dante and I would just sit and talk with the camera on a tripod. There were hundreds of old employees coming into town for one last meal so I was ready for anything. The difficulty was the amount of running around without a shot list or a script or even the experience of knowing what to do. It was months of chaos. Shooting in a jazz nightclub was also difficult because, if you caught something great while "Eleanor Rigby" was playing in the background, you might as well delete it because getting the rights is next to impossible.
Wow, I bet that WAS tough, dealing with all the music issues! As I'm sure you realize, your subject, Dante Stephensen, is a real treasure, and I sense he had a lot of respect for you as an employee and as a filmmaker. What is it that you think set him apart from other employers or restaurant owners?
Dante put his people first. He made sure that he had a crew that could work well together and had a personal investment in the place. This was his family and he wanted us to be happy so that we could give the people of Atlanta an amazing experience. The restaurants motto is "Where the employees give a damn" and you can ask anybody how hard it is to work for someone else after you've had the experience of working at Dante's Down the Hatch. It was a well-oiled machine. He gave yearly bonuses for good performance and he'd call meetings just to read a bunch of positive letters from customers. At many other restaurants sometimes the only exchange you'd ever have with the boss is when you're doing something wrong. That was NOT Dante. That style of managing people is driven out of fear that somewhere down the line it might be a problem and they end up throwing the baby out with the bathwater. My favorite part of making this film is the long talks we'd have about the industry as a whole and why we excelled in so many areas. This was how he and I always spoke to each other so as a boss he is very approachable and truly enjoys talking to people. That is the side of Dante that I really wanted to show in this film.
You get the feeling, as one interview subject says, that the flame of the restaurant was burning very brightly before it went out. Do you think all the activity before the restaurant's closing helped Dante and his employees keep their mind off the inevitable final day?
Honestly, I think it was a good and bad that we were so busy. The massive reaction of the city that came out for one last dinner with us was amazing and record-breaking. That crew worked themselves to the bone with three times the amount of business than they had ever seen. Those of us that stayed to the bitter end received a severance package from Dante on top of the great money they were making, so that helped a lot in the transition of losing our jobs. I will say that the only sad element was that a lot of us didn't have time to process what was going on, up until the very last day. We were all sort of speechless when we left that last night. You're standing in a parking lot with around fifty of your close friends that you won't be seeing on a daily basis anymore and you just went through what felt like war with these people. Dante's started with a bang and it finished with one as well and I don't think we'd have it any other way.
The auctioning of all the ephemera in this beautiful place and then the dismantling of the restaurant is some of the most powerful stuff in the film. Those must have been incredibly rough days to shoot, given your personal involvement in the place. What was your own emotional state during all of this?
It was hard for a lot of us to watch our home be picked to pieces and stripped to an empty shell. It's difficult to not compare it to vultures in the desert, but when you really stopped to think about it, the place was not going up in flames or being trashed. The people that were coming in to this place were gathering parts and pieces of Dante's that could live on somewhere else. As Richard Sorenson says in the movie "It''s like a 43-year-old dandelion that has cast its seeds to the wind." As the filmmaker I was listening to everyone's emotions not only over the course of the dismantle but during the year of editing as well, so at times it was very tough to keep reliving the experience. I think the hardest moment for me was filming Allen Murphy, who has past away since the closing, singing "Now that I know what loneliness is" on the very last day. That was the song for a lot of us that rang true to what we were feeling about starting a new life and moving on. As soon as he started singing I could feel my eyes filling up and the camera started to get blurry. I just held the frame and hoped he was still in it. It was difficult.
Allen's performance is definitely one of your movie's emotional highlights, so you're to be commended for keeping a few tears out of your eyes long enough to shoot it all. In the end, what did you take away from your experience first as an employee of Dante's and then as the maker of the documentary?
What I've learned now. over the past 15 years in service of this man. is to follow your gut--follow your dreams, even while walking around people that think you're crazy for doing it. He dug a hole out of the mud in Underground Atlanta to put in it a pirate ship with a jazz band, crocodiles and fondue. Everyone thought he was out of his mind. Working there taught me how to think for myself and spend less time trying to get away with stuff and more time not disappointing those around me. At the start of this project, I was a painter, primarily, and I had no business making a movie. But I had an amazing story to tell and I had to step up to the plate to tell it. I had a lot of doubts around me but nothing compared to the self-doubt that plagued me of messing up this important piece of history. I loved Dante's Down the Hatch and I loved creating the long goodbye that it deserves.
I think it's amazing that, despite your lack of experience, you just said "Screw it" and went on ahead. And you were right to do so, as you've provided people--particularly Atlanta natives, but also fans of the restaurant from around the world--a lasting document to this unusual labor of love that Dante Stephensen created so long ago. I should say, I love movies made by people who've never made movies before, and you've made a whopper of one here, one filled with heart and soul. Do you see anything now presently in Atlanta that approaches the experience of Dante's, or do you think that it's just an impossible thing to ever approach or recreate?
This type of place is a dying breed. Opening up a restaurant is a risky operation, even one without a 500 gallon moat of water in it. I'm sure in the future something will compare but it's hard to say. The timing of everything, even back in the 70's, fits into how this place came into existence. The appreciation of live jazz is even falling by the wayside. It's my hope that this film will teach people what is possible and if I was someone looking to open a restaurant on any scale, I'd want to get the advice of someone who did it well. I'd talk to Dante and the staff of amazing managers and really look at what's important when it comes to creating something for the long haul.
I think that's good advise--he's someone who obviously did it right, to the nth degree. Okay, so, finally, we come to my standard closing question, since I'm such a movie geek: name five movies you love, or that you think inform your filmmaking style?
I've always been in love with movies that move me. The first film that actually got me into painting on a serious level was Basquiat. The flow of that film just takes you through a whirlwind of that man's life. I was completely blown away by it and I choke up ever time it ends. For some of the same reasons I can't say enough about Dead Poet's Society. With living in the art world for so long you can't help but relate to the character of Neil. The antagonist is not necessarily Neil's father but the world that his father comes from, and that is sometimes the fiercest bad guy in an artists life, the fear of going against the grain. I love movies like Cast Away that stay with the character, and stay with the shot. There's a part in my documentary that focuses on Dante's face as he watches the last Fourth of July firework display and I want you to be there with him and feel what he's going through. Pride and Prejudice is, I think, an amazing display of human nature and all the grinding thoughts and assumptions that we have about the world that attempt to protect us but sometime are the things that cause us our own grief. She was a character born with a natural ability to speak her mind regardless of what the times told her she shouldn't be saying. Lastly, I'd have to say that a film like Inception would be an amazing example of creating a movie that was not based in "give them what they want" but more so in "give them something to reach for." It was a puzzle that was not afraid to be difficult to solve. It was a piece of artwork that really pushed you to understand it while being wildly entertaining and visually dynamic.
Author Dean Treadway is the Co-Host of Movie Geeks United, the internet's #1 weekly podcast devoted entirely to movies, with over 700 industry guests and four million listeners worldwide. His blog, filmicability, has over 500 articles obsessing over films present and past and is approaching 1 million hits.