“You Might Think it’s a Fun Work About Pizza, But It’s Really a Meditation on Mortality and Gentrification”: Director David Shapiro on his Sundance Premiering Doc Series, Untitled Pizza Movie
Before there was the no-budget Best Buy scam (scoring equipment by cycling through 30-day return policies) there was the Crazy Eddy scam — same deal, except that instead of the corporate anonymity of Best Buy’s Death Star big box there was a scrappy local circuit embodied by a screaming man feigning mental illness on late-night television. (“These prices are insane!!!!”) And before there was Eater, Grub Street and Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown there was Eat to Win, a kind of punk foodie travelogue in which friends David Shapiro and Leeds Atkinson tooled around New York City with their Crazy Eddie camera, visiting pizza parlors, talking to owners, and whipping out at each spot a stainless steel set of measuring tongs to scientifically rate the density of crusts and cheese toppings.
You’ve never heard of Eat to Win because while Shapiro went on to make character-driven documentaries like Keep the River on the Right and Missing People, the hi-8 footage languished in his Manhattan storage unit — like countless other unseen DIY projects enthusiastically birthed in the heyday of microbudget production. It now forms the basis, though, for one of the most rewardingly undefinable projects at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Untitled Pizza Movie, an independently produced TV series whose first three episodes are screening as part of Sundance’s Indie Episodic section.
The mildest of spoilers here: in the years between Eat to Win and Untitled Pizza Movie, Shapiro and Atkinson’s friendship frayed, and Atkinson died. The goofy, lo-fi footage, set in a New York that’s been gentrified several times over, now crackles with surplus meanings — particularly when viewed through Shapiro’s older, wiser and poetic point of view. Asks Shapiro in voiceover, “How do you remember people in a disposable world?” If you’re Shapiro, you do it filling in the missing years of Atkinson’s life, pursuing his friend’s obsessions and tracking down another key figure from the Eat to Win days — Anthony Bellucci, who was the king of New York pizza, lionized by food critics like Eric Asimov, but who disappeared into federal prison before moving to Kuala Lumpur upon release.
For a series that’s about mining the past, Untitled Pizza Movie is relentlessly forward-moving. The pace is brisk as Shapiro continually cuts to the film’s other main visual device: shots of a whole panoply of objects, lensed on turntables and conveyer belts, pulled from that same storage unit or else sourced after-the-fact on eBay. (“Call me sentimental,” Shapiro says. “I prefer archivist.”) The music cues are infectious — Captain Beefheart’s “Zig Zag Wanderer” is a thematically apt needle drop, and a punk accordion number scores each episode’s footnotes: quick, mini-docs on everything from schnauzers to the giant office tower in the Sean Connery-starring Entrapment.
Untitled Pizza Movie is produced by Shapiro’s long-standing producer, Michael Tubbs, who also wrote the theme song. I spoke with Shapiro over dim sum a few days before Sundance, learning how this DIY project’s youthful originating footage led to such an unexpectedly resonant work about loss and friendship, and also what Shapiro learned about filmmaking from Agnes Varda.
Filmmaker: You and I spoke once about this project, and I remember you saying that it was crazy and weird and that you weren’t sure what it was going to turn out to be. But I don’t remember you intimating that it might not even be a film but would turn into a series. And now that’s what it is, with three episodes premiering in Sundance’s Indie Episodic section.
Shapiro: Well, I originally conceived it as a film — that’s in my wheelhouse. I know how to make a feature-length documentary. But it’s an archive film, right? Most archive films take an existing archive, or uncover one, and make a work about it. In this case I built an archive and filmed around that, and the more I worked on it, the more I realized I was cutting myself off at the legs. I make character-driven work, and I thought, why not expand this and really play with memory, really go in depth in a character-driven way and build a relationship, a semaphore, between the work and the audience so that when the audience recognizes a thing I’ve made or built or bought, or when they hear a [music] cue that they’ve heard before, they can re-remember a piece of narrative. And, I thought, serial work would [allow me to] play with that [idea] a lot more.
Filmmaker: So the state of today’s feature film market and the perceived attractiveness of episodic didn’t play into that decision?
Shapiro: I think we can pretend like this isn’t the way it is, but this is the way it is — the instant delivery, the shifting landscape. I thought, why not put something in [the episodic market] that’s maybe a bait and switch? You might think it’s a sort of fun low work about pizza, but it’s really a meditation on mortality and gentrification. I thought I’d have a better shot at doing that in a serial way. So that was the shift.
Filmmaker: Could you discuss this shift now in terms of independent production? Yes, television is perceived to be where it’s at, but the market for purely independently produced episodic work is still nascent, it seems to me.
Shapiro: Yes. Well, this is a really risky venture, although I guess in some ways no more risky than any other independent film. It’s just more of it and more went into it. I’ve been editing for close to two years, and some people who were behind it [in the beginning] were getting antsy. “What the heck’s going on with this thing?!?” Because it was a film, and I had to tell them I changed the form. But sometimes you have to reverse engineer things — put the cart before the horse and say, “Here it is. It does a lot of things that serial [storytelling] does, yet it’s completely unique. It’s got a new language, a new form. It’s fun, and it plays with social actors in a way that documentaries can, but can’t really do [like this] in an hour and half.
Filmmaker: So how did you find support for this? Who got behind it in the beginng?
Shapiro: There’s discipline, talent and there’s luck. You can really only control one of those things, which is discipline. You either have talent or you don’t. I work really hard on my work, so that’s discipline. And sometimes you get lucky, but you have to make your luck by having good work in the world. Missing People won the Hamptons, and they give you [as a prize] $50,000 in in-kind equipment. I wanted to paint this story of a couple of schmucks on the Lower East Side on a grand canvas, so I put all of that into dollies, drones and high-end gear, and I shot a couple of scenes. Then, when Missing People played in Toronto, a couple came up to me after the screening, said they loved it and what are you doing next? I said, “I’m doing this crazy movie about pizza, death, gentrification, eating disorders, invention, failure and class.” And they said, “We’d like to be part of it.” It’s taken me 25 years to have one of those filmmaker dream events., but I finally did. So with their investment and with the in-kind award, I was able to start the film. And then I approached Brendan [Doyle] and Pete [Sillen] from C41. They saw Missing People at DOC NYC, loved it, and so we banded forces together. I also have an executive producer, Gerry Herman, who saw Missing People at the Mumbai Festival, and I brought in some financing from France. And I put my life savings into it. It’s scary, but what else am I going to do?
Filmmaker: Going back to the source material for Untitled Pizza Movie, the video show you were making with your friend Leeds, Eat to Win, that we see here — what was the motivation for doing that? Was it intended for cable access? This was pre-YouTube.
Shapiro: It was pre-YouTube, pre Food Channel. I kind of address it in [the shows], but I think [we made it] for us as people — to hang out together. Also, we knew our city was being gentrified, and we didn’t want to make some sentimental or straight PBS-y thing about that.
Filmmaker: How far did you get with this footage — turning it into something — back in the ‘90s?
Shapiro: I tried to cut it, but it was still pretty far out there back then. We weren’t making a classic documentary. We were playing with fiction, playing ourselves playing characters. And as I was cutting it I started to make Keep the River on Your Right, and that just took off. And then our friendship fell apart. But I always knew there was something worthy in there. And it turns out that 25 years later that city is gone, and so is my friend. That’s the transference. I think it’s sometimes more interesting to make something and repurpose it than to use it for its original intent.
Filmmaker: Was that the impetus for starting this project again, for revisiting this footage — your friend dying?
Shapiro: That was the trigger. Nobody knows this guy. Nobody cares. He’s a dear friend of mine, an old friend, and we had a great run together. So I wanted to make some kind of work about him, and I started to look at this pizza stuff we did in 1990s. I thought, I’m going to make a work like Missing People but a little bit more complicated because I have to be a character in it. But how do you tell the story of three people measuring their lives against their expectations set against a city that’s being gentrified? I decided to try and make a movie that’s kind of in the spirit of him — to go on a road trip. And I would use one more ingredient in the mix, which is this archive of objects to represent not only his memories but my memories and Andrew Bellucci’s memories.
Filmmaker: Did you know from the beginning that Belluci would come back and be a character in this?
Shapiro: I knew that I would try and find him. I didn’t know what would happen. I did know that it’s a different world now, and like I say in the work, you can find somebody in five clicks. But back then I really did try to find him when he got released from prison, and I couldn’t. I thought that was interesting because the subject of the film, in a way, is time, and how changing technology is affecting our lives. I mean, it’s fucking impossible to slow the world down.
Filmmaker: Tell me about coming up with the style of the archive — objects on spinning turntables and moving conveyor belts. Everything’s always in motion.
Shapiro: I wanted to capture the ephemeral quality of memory on one hand and, on the other, have it within a clinical environment, almost like an autopsy, or a spaceship. One looks at all of this stuff and sometimes it’s lingering, sometimes it’s fleeting, and sometimes it’s frustrating. “Wait, I want to look at that, don’t go so fast!” Or, “Alright, I’m bored of this thing, what’s next?” I’m using the simple metaphor of the conveyor belt of life. It’s kind of like an obituary in the New York Times where every sentence is ten years. “He spent the 1960s in Mexico and the 1970s in Greenwich Village.” That’s a life.
Filmmaker: You show yourself in your storage locker early in episode one. Are all the objects we see stuff you kept?
Shapiro: I developed a terrible eBay problem making this film because I was trying to recreate memories, and if I remembered something, I had to [buy the associated object on eBay]. I knew the start of the work would be recreating this casserole dish from the very first lunch I had with Leeds. It was in Stuyvesant Town, and his mother made this dish and it was delicious. [Leeds and I] were just instantaneous best friends, and it was pretty cool. I knew to get [the viewer] to really smell the sauerkraut you’d have to see [the casserole dish]. I thought, how should we see it? Well, almost like a sculpture in a gallery. Let’s make it all white, and disappear the horizon line, and let it live in space. Let’s make it beautiful and ugly at the same time.
Filmmaker: The way you cut to and from the archive, or within the archive sequences — the cuts have an impatient quality to them.
Shapiro: I’m fighting off the moment, fighting off time. I understand that if you want somebody to watch something serially, you have to keep them going, so I wanted to earn those moments when we linger. And I wanted to acknowledge the intent of the filmmaking at all times, to let the audience in on “we’re going to fiction now,” or “we’re going to objects now.” Sometimes you see objects ahead of the time that you know their story, and sometimes you see objects that remind you of a story [you’ve heard]. But at the end you’re going to know what these objects represent. A Captain Crunch treasure chest or a tattooed pirannah may be worthless, but they are priceless to some people who carry around worlds of memories.
Filmmaker: I liked the voiceover, which has a wry, clipped quality to it. It’s not NPR voice.
Shapiro: I don’t like NPR voice. I don’t find it soothing — I find it disingenuous. I wanted to attack that kind of generic narration, to make it salty and literary. I’m not scared of poetry. Narration doesn’t have to be all plot-driven delivery of information. Another thing I want to say: I feel like there’s a kind of unspoken dishonesty about a lot of documentaries in that they kind of bury the apparatus of their making in their manufacture. Their point of view [becomes] very cultivated and, in my opinion, often dishonest. I wanted to be totally honest: here’s how I’m doing it, here’s why I doing it, and come along for the ride. You’re going to know when this is fiction and when this is fact, if there is such a thing as fact. My interest is in being emotionally true, and I feel like a lot of work has the ring of emotional truth but by the withholding of its making is kind of manipulative. That’s always bugged me.
Filmmaker: You’re showing three episodes at Sundance, and then there are three more.
Shapiro: The three more are done. The work travels — it really goes down a road trip, back into the past, into the present, and into the future between characters and three continents. It takes a lot of unexpected turns, but so does life.
Filmmaker: Were there any particular influences on Untitled Pizza Movie? Any other artists who inspired you?
Shapiro: [The literature] of W.G. Sebald. You can show a photograph, but it doesn’t have to be the actual thing you are talking about. It’s metaphoric. [Make the audience] use their imagination a bit. And, you know, one of my mentors and favorite filmmakers is Agnes Varda, who I studied with. Something I took from her is that if there’s something that’s not in the world, put it in the world. Leeds came from an old American family who had lofty expectations of him. He was to be either literary and important or to serve the public good. To be T.S. Elliott or be in the military — nothing else mattered. But at the end of the day, he just wanted to open a taco stand, which he called “Taceaux” — spelled like the French. So I decided to make the sign that he was never able to. I made a neon sign and put it in the world and filmed it as if it existed. I drew that from Agnes.