Friday, September 4, 2009

My newest toy is just like my career.

Last Saturday, I stumbled into a garage sale where I saw something I've coveted for years, but could never justify spending the money for.

A Pavoni.

I got it for $20. And since then, I've become obsessed with learning how to use it.

A Pavoni, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is to espresso as a Lamborghini is to driving. They're stupidly expensive, temperamental as hell, and stubbornly unwilling to compensate for your shortcomings. They start at $800 new (the Pavoni, not the Lamborghini), and you would think that for that kind of money it would roast and grind your beans, deliver a steaming demitasse of espresso precisely at 7:15, and tell you how sexy and thin you look in that shirt. On the contrary, a Pavoni requires you to do incredible amounts of work before it will deign to deliver a one-ounce serving of liquid.

First, there's the grind. Your coffee has to be so specifically fine-but-not-too-fine that even after five trips to two different coffee roasters, I'm only in the ball park. Fortunately, I live in Portland, where coffee is taken as seriously as ballet, political philosophy, and basketball in other cities.

Then there's the tamping. Unlike a drip coffee maker, the Pavoni has a stainless steel filter that the coffee goes into. The grinds are tamped –– pressed into place –– with a little hand tool. Tamp too hard and the water takes too long to make it through the coffee; not hard enough and the water comes through too fast.

And then there's the pulling. The pulling is the part that looks theatrical. It's where you pull up a lever, hold it, and then pull it down, forcing the hot water through the coffee grounds. The amount of time that you hold it and the amount of time you take and the pressure you exert to pull the shot are absolutely critical as well.

Add to that the blend of the beans, the darkness of the roast, and their freshness, and you have so many variables that affect each other that you'd be lucky to pull a decent shot of espresso with a Pavoni after you worked at it for three weeks. With a year of constant practice, you might be able to serve good espresso fairly consistently. And if you dedicate yourself completely to your Pavoni, not just learning its quirks and eccentricities, but also studying the arcane minutia of coffee, in several years' time you will find yourself creating shots of espresso that are sublime.

So what, you might ask, does this have to do with directing?

Everything.

Directing, like coffee, relies on a bunch of interrelated variables coming together. And there are two fundamentally different ways to combine those variables.

One approach is the equivalent of using a drip machine –– the actors, equipment, and crew are like the beans, coffee maker, and water. The more you spend, the more likely you are to end up with something pretty good, but not great, whether you know what you're doing or not. All you have to do is follow the instructions.

The other approach is the equivalent of the Pavoni. You must dedicate yourself to learning not just about the components, but how all those components interact. Eventually, after years of practice, you get to the point that you have little tolerance for inferior beans and you can tell that because it's a little more humid today, you're going to need to tamp a little harder and pull a little more slowly.

And with every single shot, you extract the absolute best that the combination of coffee, water, and heat can give you.

Until I got the Pavoni, I didn't realize just how important espresso could be to me. But I should have figured. Earlier this week, I shot a two-day job that was the equivalent of pulling a shot of espresso in a rainstorm while badgers gnawed on my ankles. In 16 years of directing, it was the most messed up, political, dysfunctional job I've ever experienced. And in spite of the circumstances, I extracted the absolute best that the actors, equipment, and crew could have given me.

I've been smiling ever since we wrapped.

Of course, it could be all the caffeine I've been drinking.