Filmmaking | Interviews | Massachusetts

Festival Spotlight: 24 Hours At The South Street Diner

24 Sep , 2012  

Written by Alli Rock | Posted by:

The Festival brings together filmmakers from all over New England, with all different styles and stories to tell. Every week, we will be publishing interviews with new festival filmmakers. This week, hear from Tom and Melissa Dowler about their round-the-clock documentary, 24 Hours At The South Street Diner.

Husband and wife filmmakers Tom and Melissa Dowler met while living abroad in London, but their first film together has a very local touch. Shot over the course of 24 hours, it tells the story of Boston’s only 24-hour restaurant, as this filmmaking pair seeks to capture “the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

Alli Rock: What inspired you to create this film?

Tom Dowler: We love watching documentary films about interesting people in extraordinary circumstances. But what drew us to make a film about the South Street Diner was something different; it was more about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. We loved the idea that this diner stood in the same spot for decades; the one constant in The Leather District, a neighborhood that went from a manufacturing base to an artist’s community to the red light district to a residential and commercial zone. Through all this change, the diner has been a stalwart of the neighborhood, and we wanted to understand what was the special thing that helped it survive and continue to evolve as the world changed around it.

AR: What were the advantages / challenges to shooting a film over 24 hours? Did you shoot the entire film in that day?

Dowler: Part of what makes the diner so compelling is that it’s the only restaurant in Boston that’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The diner feels like a completely different place at two in the afternoon than it does at two in the morning. The clients change, the atmosphere shifts completely, you even get different waiters depending on the time of day you visit. We wanted our film to reflect how the atmosphere and clientele change throughout the 24-hour period.

We also learned that keeping a 24-hour restaurant running smoothly is a Herculean feat and we felt like it was only right that we gave ourselves a similar challenge for our shoot. So one Saturday in July 2011, we arrived at The South Street Diner at 6am and shot through continuously until 6 the next morning. In a 900-square foot diner in the height of summer, that’s a challenge. One major difficulty was staying awake for 24 hours straight — something neither of us had done since college and which was much harder than we remembered more than a decade later. And because of the small size of the diner and how crowded it gets at peak times, we had to keep the crew size as small as possible. That meant between the two of us, we did everything. Cinematography, sound, interviewing, and then all of the editing.

The only parts we didn’t shoot during the 24 hours were the talking head interviews with some of the former owners of the diner, one former landlord and the diner’s current owner who has run it since the 90s, Sol Sidell.

AR: Melissa, what was the experience of making this film like for you, this being your first?

Melissa Dowler: Making a film isn’t like any other job out there, it’s complete immersion. Before making 24 Hours At The South Street Diner, I didn’t appreciate how much work goes into making a film. The fundraising and planning process was very time-intensive. Then we moved into production, which, with a 24-hour on-location shoot, was definitely a grueling experience. Then came editing, and we spent weeks searching for the story, painstakingly choosing the right music, perfecting the sound (shooting on location in a noisy diner does not make sound capture easy). After all that work, the movie is complete and your job really begins as you try to get it out to film festivals and catch the attention of distributors. For months, we lived, breathed, dreamed, slept and ate (and ate at!) the South Street Diner.

I think many documentary makers connect with their subjects, and that was certainly the case with making this film. I expected to make a movie, but I didn’t expect to make close friends. That’s exactly what I did — Sol and other people featured in the movie have been so generous and positive about it and given us so much support. Making this film also connected me to my community here in Boston in a way that I never imagined possible and made me much more passionate about the city I live in.

AR: Tom, what was the experience of making this film like for you, as a ‘non-native’ at a Boston landmark?

Tom Dowler: I grew up in the UK where — until somewhat recently — the pubs all uniformly shut at 11pm and the only way to get a drink after that was to go to an overpriced club. So I never really had the same sense of disbelief that Boston could only have one 24/7 restaurant. But I was also fascinated by how integrated the diner gets, especially after midnight. Boston has always struck me as a segregated city, with much less of a shared sense of identity than I was used to seeing in London. But at the diner, we saw an African-American couple sharing a table with a couple of white college kids they met in the line outside. We had one interviewee who summed it up perfectly: ‘whether you’re white or black; you gotta eat!’ We also heard from other diner regulars that there’s a sense of it being a safe place, no matter who you are, or what you do. Drag queens come into the diner because it’s somewhere they don’t feel judged for being different. That’s one of the factors that makes the diner such a wonderful place.

AR: How has living and working in New England affected who you both are as filmmakers?

Dowler: There’s a real appreciation in New England for the arts generally and film as part of that. For a small city, Boston has so many great galleries and museums, and a real thriving community of people who care about film. We regularly go to the DocYard screenings at the Brattle Theater and we’re always so excited by the films they screen, the directors they bring in for Q&As and — most of all — the intelligent questions the audience members ask. And the Independent Film Festival of Boston is a real credit to this city — it’s so well run and Adam Roffman always pulls together a fantastic program of films.

AR: How was your experience at the Woods Hole Film Festival?

Dowler: Woods Hole was a fantastic experience. We’d never spent any time in that part of the Cape, so it was great to soak up the amazing atmosphere, and then go and see great films. We were really impressed by the films they selected and how they were curated and presented. It’s clear that the team put lots of thought into the planning, and the passion of everyone involved shone through.

Having seen the documentary Queen of Versailles at IFF Boston, we were really excited to see more of Lauren Greenfield’s work and attend her master class. For Melissa in particular, seeing other women directors excel in documentary-making — and be recognized for it — is very inspiring. If we could spend our entire lives attending film festivals we probably would, and Woods Hole would be one of the first ones on our list each year.

24 Hours At The South Street Diner is screening as a part of the Festival from Sept 1 through October 15. Check it out here.

24 Hours At The South Street Diner is screening as a part of the Festival from Sept 1 through October 15. Check it out here.