Lisa Hurwitz on THE AUTOMAT, Communal Dining and Mel Brooks – Leslie Combemale interviews

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Getting a film to any screen is a major undertaking, but finding a loyal, appreciative audience and getting national distribution is a rarity indeed. Lisa Hurwitz, director and producer of the highly acclaimed, perfectly delightful documentary The Automat knows how lucky she is her film is being so well-received and is landing in so many theaters.

The film, which took her upwards of 10 years to research and complete, celebrates the history and importance of the Horn and Hardart restaurant empire. H&H, an institution in both New York and Philadelphia, developed new technologies at the turn of the 20th century, creating an automated experience in which customers could buy coffee for 5 cents, and a wide variety of hot entrees and delicious desserts for far less than a dollar. These automats democratized eating out, allowing people from all walks of life to share in a communal dining experience.

The Automat also features a number of great interviews with H&H fans, including Colin Powell, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, and Mel Brooks, who not only appears in the very first moments of the documentary, but also performs the movie theme song “(There Was Nothing Like the Coffee) At the Automat”, which he composed. Lisa Hurwitz has brought us a film that offers a huge amount of entertainment, joy, and nostalgia, at a time when we all need it very much. I interviewed Lisa about her documentary, and about the impressive feat of getting The Automat, which is self-distributed, into theaters across the country. The Automat was selected as AWFJ’s Movie of the Week for February 18, 2022.

Leslie Combemale: You didn’t start out imagining yourself a filmmaker. While at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, you had a job as projector at the Capitol Theater, where the Olympia Film Festival took place. You started as their projectionist and ended as the fest’s director. What were the stages that took place that got you from point A to point B?

Lisa Hurwitz: For some reason, they were scrambling at the last minute to find a director for the town’s annual film festival. I had become a very reliable volunteer in the organization I was a 35 mm projectionist as well as a member of the board of directors. I remember the board president asking me if I would do the job and I think I probably said I have no idea how to direct Film Festival but sure.

LC: You’ve mentioned spending a lot of time in the cafeteria while at Evergreen. They’re communal, with all kinds of people, and they largely offer comfort food, so it does make sense. When did you start having that strong emotional connection to food and then to the automat?

LH: It was so long ago I can’t say for sure that at that early point I was already feeling this emotional connection to the automat, definitely in time I developed that. But during college I was really obsessed with food. I was obsessed with Martha Stewart and her magazine. I was obsessed with reading the New York Times food section every Wednesday. I had my own cooking show that I directed produced and starred in on the local public access TV station. I was cooking up a storm for my friends whenever not dining in the school cafeteria.

LC: The research for The Automat took something like 10 years. I loved hearing the help that libraries and archives were so integral to that work. Where did you find the most material?

LH: The greatest archival sources were Temple University Archives, The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division, John Romas’collection and Edwin Daly Jr.’s collection. Getty was also a major source.

LC: How, in that time, did your perspective on cafeterias shift? Can you name the biggest discoveries along those many years of production that most inspired you or shaped the arc of the film?

LH: 1. Walking into Steve’s barn and seeing the automats laying there.

2. When my editor Michael Levine agreed to be a supervising editor many years ago, his role eventually morphed into being an actual editor of the film.

3. Mel sitting with me for so long and giving arguably one of the best interviews ever.

4. Marianne Hardart pulling Howard Schult’z autobiography down from her bookshelf to show me the dedication page to the automat.

I think my perspective shifted in how I understood the way this cafeteria was so meaningful in people’s lives. I didn’t realize it initially, and now it’s the reason this film is doing well. People loved the automat in such a unique way.

LC: I don’t think people who hear about H&H vs those who who’d actually gone to one would really understand the cultural significance of the company, in terms of egalitarianism. Immigrants at the turn of the 20th century could go and get food without knowing English. Women could go there alone when that would have been scandalous anywhere else. People of color could go somewhere without having a separate entrance or being barred altogether. When did you realize this was such an important aspect of H&H, and which interviews drove that home for you?

Still from THE AUTOMAT

LH: A lot of people who went to H&H watch the film and actually tell me they had no idea about the social significance. We tried to paint the full picture, everyone only had pieces of it before. Lisa Keller, the NY Historian, was one of out first interviews, so I definitely realized it was important in this regard at an early point. Her interview persisted after interviewing many, many other folks. She explained it best.

LC: I know you did some of the editing for the film, but it had to be quite a challenge. What was the collaboration like between you and editors Michael Levine and Russell Greene?

LH: I was at the computer editing at a very early point with my friends Austin and Andre and Michael was supervising us. That only got us so far though. We passed the film off to Russ and then the film went back between Russ and Michael who each brought their different sensibilities to the table. I loved working with the two of them. They did such an amazing job.

LC: What was your connection to Mel Brooks, who is so wonderful in the film?

LH: A special guest of the movie theater I used to work at was a mutual friend of ours, and he introduced me to Mel. Mel and I stayed in touch, and I had sent him an earlier version of our first 10 minutes of the film. He loved it and asked how else he could help, and I asked him to sing a song. In the end, he didn’t just sing it but he wrote it too.

Lisa Hurwitz with Mel Brooks

LC: You are both the producer and director, and the film has been self-distributed. How did the release of this film into a larger number of theaters happen? You are beautifully bucking the system with this success!

LH: Thank you, we’re working really hard! We didn’t get any a theatrical distribution offer in the US that made sense, though we did get one in Canada – Films We Like – and they’re doing a fantastic job with the film there. We were planning on skipping a theatrical in the US until Film Forum in NYC contacted me asking for a screener and then next thing I knew they wanted to book our US theatrical premiere, so we figured we might as well do LA, and then after it was doing so well at Film Forum we figured what the heck and just kept going. Theaters were contacting me directly and I also brought on our booker at that point who took that over and worked with our distribution advisor to bring in other theaters as well that made sense.

Distribution advisor is my sales agent Gary Rubin, our theatrical booker is Steve Fagan, our film festival and one off booker is a combo of myself and Oded Horowitz, print traffic is a combo of myself and Joaquin de la Puente, poster shipper is mom, and as of recently we have an intern Jack McGlinchy who is manning the screenings page of the website – no mean feat. I’m book keeper. We do also hire film publicists in our key theatrical markets.

LC: Of the many folks who actually worked at or were involved in the business of H&H you interviewed, which person most captured the nostalgia of the company for you?

LH: Well, that person has to be Ron Barrett the H&H art director. Without a doubt.

LC: What do you most hope people who watch the film will come away with or will stick in their heads?

LH: I do hope everyone comes away with something and not so secretly I hope this movie reminds business people to provide things that are good for their customers and to create businesses that are inspired, memorable and bring people joy! I hope it inspires everyday people to not take great things for granted and to appreciate them, to rub elbows with one another, to be kind to one another.

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren for websites including LikeABossGirls.com, where she promotes women in film with her own column. She is in her third year as producer and moderator of the "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. Find all her interviews and reviews at cinemasiren.com.