Matevž Luzar is a successful Slovene movie director and screenwriter. He is best known for his comedy drama ‘Good to Go’ – the movie that’s been filling cinemas throughout the entire spring. Prior to this, his short films have been acclaimed as great success both at home and abroad.
Matevž studied theology first, then transferred to the Slovenian Academy of Theatre, Radio, Film, and TV, graduating with a short feature film ‘Wolfy’ that was nominated for the Honorary Foreign Award at the 35th Annual Student Academy Awards competition. Matevž is a big fan of tea, so I invited him to a tea tasting gig. Some teas he has chosen himself, while other teas were my choice. For over two hours we sat at a gongfu table, drank tea, and talked about tea, his work and interests.
P.S.: This interview is also available in Slovene.
Photo: Matevž brewing the dahongpao
Have you seen a Chinese tea tray before?
I’ve seen the tea tray, gaiwan, and cups … but I’ve never used such tools to make tea. Nothing like what you are doing right now.
First we are going to pour hot water over the gear in order to wash and warm it up.
I see. Why are you using a pair of tongs?
So I don’t burn my fingers handling the hot cups. This way I can also avoid touching the surface of the cups that other people will drink from. Do you remember your first experience with tea?
I remember my grandmother had a black tea container. She said that it was Russian tea. I used to drink it when I had digestion issues. That’s a childhood memory. I do not know what kind of tea she gave me though. She just said that it was Russian tea. Later I came to Ljubljana as a student, and, although I did drink some tea, I was really more into coffee. The problem was that I couldn’t get good quality coffee anywhere. That was annoying. During that period I drank too much bad coffee. Later, as I began to re-discover tea, I started ordering it from England. Recently, I’ve been mostly drinking the teas that you and Roman offer. I used to drink tea from November to March, taking a break from it for summer. But now I drink tea in summer too.
Many people who drink coffee in summer say it seems strange that someone drinks tea when it is warm outdoors.
Yeah, that’s funny.
Have you given up coffee completely?
Almost. During the last five months I’ve just had a few cups. But it’s more like paying homage to the old habit. A cup of coffee in the morning used to invigorate me, but now the effect is quite the opposite – my energy drops.
The caffeine in tea is quite slow to both “set in” and “let go”. Coffee, on the other hand, gives you a rush of energy that reaches its peak and falls rapidly.
That’s what I like about tea. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and I always drink tea when I write. It calms me down somehow, clears my head, and helps me to stay focused.
For starters, I’m going to brew a green tea called Huangshan Maofeng. The first infusion is very gentle. I’d like to know why you’ve picked this particular tea?
I’ve spotted it a while ago, and I’ve wanted to try it ever since. I love green tea. I usually drink greens in the afternoon or evening. In the morning I prefer black. Now I actually feel like I should be drinking more green tea in general. In spring and summer, I certainly drink green tea more often.
What do you think? How’s the tea?
For this brew I will increase steeping time to 45 seconds. This is a very delicate tea. Can’t be too careful.
Yes, I personally experienced the delicate nature of greens. At first, when I was just getting into green teas, they seemed somewhat pale and watery. But I kept drinking and I soon got accustomed to the taste. Now I can perceive the different nuances that different greens offer.
I think we are too accustomed to the intense flavors of instant foods: sweet, salty, and the strong artificial flavoring. If you choose more carefully what you eat, you can train your palate to recognize and enjoy the natural flavors.
Yes, I’ve noticed that too. (Sips tea) I love this freshness. Do you use such short infusion times for black teas too?
I do, especially with delicate blacks, such as dianhong. It performs best when steeped for under 30 seconds.
Extensive steeping of black tea is common for the English tea culture. Of course, the British also add milk and sugar. The Chinese never do that.
I’m a fan of Chinese tradition too. It seems to me that brewing tea is similar to brewing coffee. You have different traditions, different schools of preparing and enjoying it. Just think of the Viennese or Italian way of preparing coffee … The other day, I had to explain to my wife why she shouldn’t put milk in tea. At least not in my tea… because that would be a waste! I also see a lot of people drink flavored teas. I never really like those.
Hold the gaiwan for a moment. Try and smell the freshly opened leaves.
This Huangshan smells slightly sweet.
Would you say that tea has changed your life in some way?
I like to sense and appreciate the nuances. I pay attention to flavor. I watch myself and observe what I like, what I think feels good. I’ve got this understanding from drinking tea, and I also use it in the film world. Tea is always by my side when I work on new movies. Most importantly, tea is still changing me. It’s a process. I‘m not a true tea master yet, but I aspire to become one. Above all, I like the fact that tea is a big part of my life now. It’s been a pleasant discovery. One thing that I still find surprising is that all these different kinds of tea come from the same plant. I realized that quite early in my tea career; it’s fascinating! I commit myself to whatever I do: I read around the topic and try to stay up-to-date with latest buzz. I feel the same way about tea. Or sushi. Or chess. It’s kind of sad that tea culture in Slovenia is still in its nascent stage. For example, in San Francisco tea culture is booming. But here in Slovenia, I simply don’t know any places where I could go to talk about tea with like-minded people. That’s why I like what you and Roman are doing for the local tea culture. You’re providing a narrative. It’s not just about tea the beverage, but everything that surrounds it.
Do you brew your tea routinely or is it a type of meditation?
I wouldn’t call it meditation. I drink tea when I write. I used to prepare it in a kettle, but lately I’ve mostly used a glass cup with a filter. I like glassware because it allows me to observe how the leaves open. I have yet to reach the point where I could make tea to specifically alter my mental state somehow. Now, as I sit here with you, I can say that drinking tea is a bit meditative. I see that you put a bit more ritual into brewing than I do. I do drink a lot of tea, but I pay little attention to preparation. I think I need a proper tea set for that. This way, when friends visit, I’ll able to make and serve tea peacefully. I’d like to know more about steeping time. Do you have any suggestions?
That depends a lot on what tea we are talking about. There is no universal rule. When I stumble upon a new tea, I take at least 50 grams for testing. I play with it on various levels: the temperature, the length of the infusion, the amount of water, etc. Once I feel confident that I know how to make the most of this particular tea, I can go and serve it to other people.
I also found that water quality is very important. If I use tap water to prepare the same tea in Zagorje, my hometown, and Ljubljana, I can always tell the difference.
Water hardness is a particularly important factor. Although tap water is drinkable here in Slovenia, some tea aficionados prefer to filter it first or simply use spring water.
I’ve tried different options, especially at the beginning, when I was a bit nervous I would overdo it sometimes. Eventually I realized that no way is too wrong. Tea is a personal thing. You try this and that, and sooner or later you learn which way works best for you.
One of the greens that you’ve picked for today’s session is a Yunnan version of biluochun. I hope you don’t mind if I brew this xuelong instead… I’ve got it right here. They differ in appearance, but they taste quite similar. They shape of the leaves has little effect on flavor.
Not at all. I know it’s hard to choose tea for tasting events. I feel like experimenting and there’s nothing wrong with a few surprises. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll be happy I tried something new.
OK, let’s brew this. Maybe it’s a little less gentle than the Huangshan we brewed previously. But this is still a very nice green tea.
I like it. (He smells it) It has some fruity notes. My biggest problem with teas that I like is that I can’t say which one is my favorite. How can I say that one is better than the other? I can’t! (Sipping the tea) So, I end up drinking a lot of tea. Do you think that there is a limit one shouldn’t go over? So as not to get drunk on tea?
This has never happened to me. Sometimes I really drink a lot, especially when Roman sends new teas, and I need to try them thoroughly, i.e. with full infusion cycles. But I can easily handle several days with no tea, so I’m obviously not addicted to it.
I’m not a tea addict either. It is true, however, that I do drink a lot. (He laughs)
Three cups a day; even more if I’m doing a lot of writing.
Photo: Sheng puer material after several infusions
Let’s now move to the raw puer. It’s called ‘sheng’ in Chinese. The taste is closer to green than black.
Sheng puer can also be aged, right?
Indeed. This sheng cake in front of us has been aged naturally for about five years. Conversely, shu puer is aged artificially by way of fermentation. We’ll try some shu puer at the end.
How much does a cake like this cost?
Price on puer is often bloated. For many people, east and west, puer tea is a form of investment. Oftentimes, when you buy puer, you really buy a story: how old it is, where and how it was made and stored. When you buy a young sheng, you often think about what this tea will taste like after 10 or 20 years. If you buy naturally aged cakes, you pay for the patina. This cake is from my personal collection, and it’s not for sale. If I were to sell it, I’d ask at least 50 euros. This is a good-looking and highly drinkable tea… In China you can choose from a wide range of puers: from dirt-cheap to madly expensive. Some tea shops don’t offer cakes worth less than 100 euros.
I must admit I never drank a lot of puer tea. Seeing how you make it for me, I can’t help thinking that I definitely overbrewed those few puers that I’ve tried. By the way, how do you store such tea?
This particular sheng cake is fairly dry, so it was probably aged in Kunming. In Hong Kong, for example, the climate is more humid and it affects the aging process. Unless you intend to store of it for a long time, you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Just keep it wrapped in paper and put it in a box. That’s it! I go through cakes quickly, and I don’t age them. Just keep it away from odorous substances. So, what do you think about this sheng?
I love it. You are right: it’s very drinkable. It makes a big difference how you prepare it. I’m used to larger quantities of water, but you use a gaiwan and add a bit of water multiple times.
Is there a tea that you’ve wanted to try for a while but never got a chance?
Just last week I read about a tea called dahongpao. This is one of the teas that I would like to try. I watched a documentary about a man who travels through China, looking for old tea cultivation traditions. He also spoke about dahongpao. Cliff or rock tea, isn’t it? As I understand, that tea is very expensive.
Quite right! It’s extremely expensive and inaccessible. The original dahongpao is harvested from several trees that grow on the rocks of the Wuyi Mountains. For mortals there is practically no way to ever try that tea. However, people were able to acquire cuttings from those plants and cultivate this varietal in other locations. The tea leaves harvested from such plants undergo the same processing steps as those used for the original dahongpao, and this is how more affordable versions of this tea have been able to make it to the market. Unfortunately, I’ve never tried that original dahongpao. What I do have is a bit of Yunnan-grown dahongpao that I can make for you right now if you are interested.
Yes, please, let’s brew it. (Sips) I think I could drink this every day. (Laughs) And I do not mind that it’s not the original.
While we are trying the Big Red Robe, let’s talk about tea in the movies. I’ve watched ‘Tea with Mussolini’, ‘King’s Speech’, and ‘Darjeeling Limited’ – three different films that all display elements of the English tea tradition. Black tea, tea service, long infusion times, milk, snacks…
Precisely! Also, Hitchcock came to mind with his ‘Suspicion’. In that film, tea is used as murder weapon. The main protagonist is convinced that her husband wants to kill her. In fact, he plans to put poison in her tea. I agree with what you said. You can see the Anglo-Indian influence on how tea is presented in movies we watch. We mainly watch movies from the Anglo-Saxon world. Movies transmit tea culture through the pryzm of English writers. If you watch Asian films, you’ll get a different picture. Watch some Japanese movies for example, and note how they show the culture of drinking tea. I think that our ideas about how tea should be prepared and consumed would be different if we were more exposed to non-English productions. On the English note however, I remember the movie called ‘Tea for two’ …
By Butler? I have this film on my to-watch list, but I haven’t been able to find it.
Yes, that movie is old. It was made in the fifties. I remember. I watched it about ten years ago. There’s a lot of tea and tea ware in that movie … Another work that features tea is ‘Poirot’. But this is again the English tea tradition. We can look into American production as well, but those movies feature iced tea and lots of sugar. I must say coffee plays a much stronger role in US movies than tea when it comes to placing beverages in the actors’ hands.
What can you say about the scenes in certain movies, where one can see water pouring from teapots?
That’s a common thing for movie making. Actors also don’t drink real alcohol. Think about how many takes there can be for a single scene. Actors would have to drink tea for the whole day. Besides, water is a lot easier to handle. There’s a myriad of more important things that need to be considered at the set. Film making is a complex process, and errors like this do occur… unfortunately.
How does this affect authenticity? Connoisseurs are often attracted to filmmakers’ attention to details…
Here you can see the difference between good and bad films. However, most viewers do not notice such small mistakes. You notice water instead of tea. Things you’re into or deal with at work, you are more likely to notice, of course.
When watching a movie, what do you pay attention to?
As a professional film director, I am biased. However, when I first watch a movie I try to look at it through the eyes of an average viewer. I try not to pay attention to professional stuff, such as what tricks the director had to use to achieve a certain effect. I try to keep an open mind and enjoy the film. Then I watch the movie again – often more than once – and do my analysis. I notice stuff, of course … Minor errors that you mention … of course I see them too. Say, we were filming a scene with this very tea setup … We’d have to hire someone who would make sure that all the gear is positioned in exactly the same way throughout all takes, that the amount of tea in cups remains the same, etc. We’d probably spend the whole day shooting just this one scene. So it’s quite impossible to avoid all mistakes. You can keep their number to a minimum, if you have a good team. For instance, when I was filming ‘Good to go’, one scene was shot in the Chinese restaurant. Among other things, we had to make sure that the food was arranged properly: the position of plates on the table, food freshness, how much food should be left at a certain point, etc.
What interests me about ‘Good to go’ is the ending. Can I ask you for a personal interpretation of the last 5 minutes of the movie?
I agree that the end is very open. For most of the movie viewers follow a single storyline, but in the end the camera takes them to the other rooms where viewers see new stories unfold. Some people are happy, some are alone, some are dying. The circle of life illustrated in this film is very important. A 70-year-old “adolescent” goes through a change and realizes that it’s never too late to live his life to the fullest. Also, the movie shows that everything moves in cycles: that parents become children of their own kinds when those grow up. That is why the ending is as it is. The main characters are happy, and at this point in time we are no longer interested in their story. There are other stories going on. However, I personally like the fact that the ending encourages debate and reflection. Everyone is welcome interpret the ending in their own way. That is a good thing.
The Slovenian audience and film critics liked your first feature movie. However, I’m more interested in what you think about your work? You’ve written, directed, edited. What do you feel when you sit with the rest of the audience and watch the premiers of your own plays and movies?
‘Good to go’ is a summation of a stage in my creative development. It’s the last part of a trilogy. It is no coincidence that Slovenian actors Janez Škof and Evgen Car meet at the beginning of this feature film. Both have already played in my previous short films. All in all, I’m glad that through this trilogy I’ve told a story that I’ve always wanted to tell. I wanted to explore loneliness, aging, and human relationships in Slovenia. This specific theme can be seen in all of my works. With each film, of course, in the end I wonder what would happen if I changed this and that… especially with feature films. I have no problems watching ‘Good to go’ again and again because I am very happy with how it turned out. I enjoy watching my movies with other people. I observe their reactions and draw conclusions. Someone is laughing, someone is sad. That means a lot to me.
What is more important for you: that your movies become hits at the box office or is it more about the embedded message?
If you shoot a film for commercial purposes only, it will be quickly forgotten. You know that you made a good movie if it passes the test of time. If 10 years from now people still watch your work, you know you’re doing it right. At the same time, each work of art conveys a message. If the message contributes with commercial success, that’s just another confirmation of your professional success. What’s really important to me is that the viewers generate some kind of reaction to my work. I like feedback. One woman took her mother to the cinema to watch my movie. Her mother hadn’t gone to the movies for half a decade, but she went to see my film. That flatters me.
‘Good to go’ is doing very well. What are your plans for the next production? What are you currently working on?
I’m writing a new script. I don’t want to reveal any details for now. Nor do I have a specific deadline in mind. The path to the next movie will be long. Screenwriting, securing funds, shooting, editing – long way to go before it hits the theaters.
Can you say if your next film will feature at least one scene with tea?
PS: At the end of the session we brewed a few coins of shu puer with snow chrysanthemum. More about Matevž Luzar can be found on his website. This interview was conducted by Miha Jesenšek and translated into English by Roman Kaplunov.