The moving picture is a craft like few others. It’s one that starts small, then grows from an artful eye and a unique technical know how. An idea becomes a script which goes into production then gets neatened in post-production to ultimately become a piece of visual art to make the viewer think and hopefully be entertained. Maybe a connection to whisky making isn’t so far off. A grain of barley is the beginning of a recipe which is processed in various stages ultimately leading to a delicate dance of mixing and blending to make something that a drinker will find beautiful and delicious. Dream to film. Grain to glass.
Greg Swartz is the master distiller of a documentary film in early production about scotch whisky, The Water of Life – A Whisky Film. A director and writer with a love of this holy water to so many, Swartz is taking his filmmaking background to tell the story of whisky. His goal is to look through the lens at the art and skill of the people who are making the juice that we savor.
The film is a labor of love for Swartz and his team. Meeting these folks recently, it’s easy to see how their enthusiasm for the subject will manifest itself to celluloid, or ones and zeros, as the case may be. Theirs is a true excitement when talking about the people they’ve met, the places they’ve explored, and the whiskies they’ve drank along the way during production. It’s not a flavor of the month love for Greg and company, so it seems. Their passion for whisky will be there if the doc never is finished or sees the dark of a theater. But not to worry, that won’t be an issue. This project is well on its way to a screen near you. This kind of filmmaking gusto doesn’t just fade away.
As the film’s eye behind the camera, Swartz’s goal is to bring to the screen the people behind the drams for all to listen to and learn about; to show why they do what they do and how they do it. Whisky is a centuries old saga about people as all good stories are.
We spoke to the director about The Water of Life, A Whisky Film and learned a bit more about this interesting project…
AK: We here at Boozedancing.com like to start with the hard hitting questions first so the folks watching at home know we’re serious. So tell us about the first scotch you ever had? Probably post-college, unless you were one of those sophisticated college drinkers.
GS: My introduction to single malt was somewhat unique because I was an exchange student in Scotland when I was 19. I became a legal drinker overnight. Most of the things that I drank that year were beers in the student union, but I did get introduced to The Bon Accord during that trip and I did get my first ever bottle, which was a Glenlivet 12-year-old. I had “Scotch” before that, but the quotation marks are because it was a Baltimore distilled “Scotch-style whisky” and it was terrible.
AK: We know from terrible “whisky” well. Quotes intended. So where does the impetus to make a film about whisky come from? This isn’t from the Marvel universe, is it? There’s no DramMan from 1937 that we don’t know about, is there?
GS: The impetus for me came from the Speyside Tours Whisky Walk last fall. My wife and I went to Scotland for our tenth anniversary and we did a walking tour of the distilleries around Dufftown. I try to keep the antenna up as an artist and a writer, and I was crackling with ideas throughout the hike.
AK: For an artist, a creative person, a filmmaker to commit to an idea, a project, there has to be something very personal about it. What’s so special about whisky to you?
GS: To me, the hook was really the craftsmanship. The lifetime of commitment that these men and women undertake when they decide to make this unique beverage. It’s that special place where epiphany intersects with labor. I always react to that. I aspire to it myself, but I usually find myself lacking.
AK: The magic of whisky to me comes from the people making it. From speaking to you, you’ve been very fortunate to meet so many interesting people in the industry, like John Campbell and Jim McEwan, hall-of-famers both, who are featured in the film. But tell us about a few names that we wouldn’t recognize and their impact on the story you’re telling in the film.
GS: Michelle Myron, who led the above mentioned Whisky Walk. Her enthusiastic skepticism is infectious and I owe her a lot from that day. Rachel MacNeill [of Wild and Magic Islay], who is in some ways, Michelle’s Islay counterpart, has been a wonderful friend to the film. The entire team at Gordon & MacPhail, especially Jodi Best, who showed us the ropes. Oh, and Keith Cruickshank at Benromach who is a very kind and open man who was excited to share his craft with us.
AK: I know Rachel! She is one of the amazing Islay folks who did me a great favor when I was there four years ago, dropping off a handmade bracelet for my wife in the Bowmore visitor center. And we never even met aside from e-mails. She’s a great example of the Islay and whisky communities. Community it seems is a backbone of crowdfunding projects which is how this film is being supported. Worked for Veronica Mars! I plan to crowdfund my kids’ college educations. Why’d you choose this route for your film’s financing instead of more traditional routes? There must be plenty of pros and cons.
GS: We didn’t want to wait. We knew we had a great idea and we knew that it had to be objective. We couldn’t tell an honest story if we went to a Diageo or BeamSuntory and got money. We just wanted to do it right. Most of us on this film are longtime collaborators and it just seemed to click. That being said, it’s WAY harder than we thought it would be.
AK: Financing aside, what have you found to be challenging about the project?
GS: Virtually nothing. I mean, making films is hard. But we know that. This film has been a dream, lined with whisky. Everyone and everything has just clicked into place. We had an initial investor show up and get us started and we’ve been racing ever since. One of our co-producers, Tim Sexton, says it’s because we have a strong and focused story and a fresh take on it.
AK: Where are you on the production timeline? How much more filming do you see ahead of you? Anymore trips to Scotland scheduled? Any sense of a release date and you plan on releasing it and/or distributing it?
GS: We’ve shot between 1/4 and 1/3 of the film so far, but the remaining 2/3 are the hard parts. We’re heading back to Scotland in late September or early October. Still trying to work out dates. Our goal for completion is late April of next year. We’re still exploring our options on distribution.
AK: Whisky has been “hot” in media circles for a few years now even though the stuff has been in production for two or three hundred years or so. All over the world there are blogs, podcasts, books, magazines, documentaries. How do you carve out your own story to tell?
GS: It’s really a great time for whisky and we know that we have a fresh take on things because we get “it’s about time” all the time. We are just focusing on the people first and foremost. Not the marketing or the branding or the global growth.
AK: We hate the “What’s your favorite Whisky?” question. Instead, tell us a few whisky brands or expressions that really speak to you?
GS: I’m a huge Bruichladdich fanboy. Love the stuff. And I love Benromach and Ardbeg a lot too. Lately, I have taken a real interest in comparing independent bottlers’ expressions with the distillery releases of the same spirit.
AK: Can’t disagree with those names. I could solely live on Ardbeg and Bruichladdich without a problem. And to bottle this chat up neatly, what was the last scotch you had?
GS: I’m sipping a Laphroaig Select as I type this.