Coffee With…Bruce Sinofsky

Coffee With...Bruce SinofskyBruce Sinofsky, one of the most important documentary filmmakers of his generation, has ribs on the brain. The Montclair resident of 31 years has spent a lifetime in movies — he started as an editor at Maysles Films — and is best known for the “Paradise Lost” trilogy, a harrowing true-crime odyssey that won an Emmy and was nominated for an Oscar. Now, laidback on a weathered sofa in his Montclair home, he is seriously pondering retirement. And ribs.

It’s been a long journey, and he’s tired. With his frequent partner Joe Berlinger, Sinofsky has directed the seminal documentaries “Brother’s Keeper” (1992), “Paradise Lost” (1996), “Paradise Lost 2: Revelations” (2000),” “Metallica: Some Kind of Monster” (2004) and “Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory” (2011). He also made, without Berlinger, “Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Legacy of Sun Records” for American Masters and a slew of specials for cable television.

Sinofsky has raised five children, ages 14 to 29, in this house. He moved from New York to Montclair in 1982. “Montclair has always been good to me,” he says. “Good restaurants, great schools, nice neighbors, very diversified.”

Looking supremely relaxed in a hoodie and sweat pants, dark socks and no shoes, Sinofsky introduces the family dog Isabella, a big sweet pup that asks for rubs with pleading eyes. She is part of a menagerie that boasts two birds, Igor the ferret and three cats, one of which goes by Oscar “for the fact that I didn’t win an Oscar after being nominated,” Sinofsky laughs.

Baristanet: What are you working on now?
Sinofsky: Well, I’m kind of semi-retired, but I’m involved in a project about the guy who started Mad magazine, Harvey Kurtzman. We’ve done some interviews with the people he influenced, a huge amount of people. So we’ve had fun interviewing some pretty celebrated guys in the comic and magazine businesses and that’s been kind of cool. And there are a couple of projects I’m associated with about rhythm and blues. But for the most part, at 57, I’m semi-retired, which is what I always wanted to do. There are some health issues that prevent me from doing some of the crazy stuff I did earlier in my life.
Baristanet: What kind of crazy stuff?
Sinofsky: Like the Metallica film. That was 120 days of shooting and constant flying to San Francisco.

Some days I would leave San Francisco and there’d be a call from one of the band members that something was happening the next day and could I get back. So I’d get home, talk to my wife, Florence, and tell her I had to go back to California. Going out on the road for, say, “Brother’s Keeper” or the “Paradise Lost” films you’re constantly away. And it’s exhausting, especially with the subject matter of “Paradise Lost.” It’s difficult on a personal level. You felt a little dirty being in the lives of people you normally wouldn’t know, and you’re sort of taking advantage of them. You take longer showers emotionally when you get back. But to tell a good story you have to infiltrate people’s lives. Still, there are times when you feel bad. It’s physically and emotionally taxing.

Baristanet: I understand you want to retire in the south of France and open a rib joint of all things.
Sinofsky: I’m hoping to move there once the last two kids are out of school. I’d love to move there and be there permanently. We have a place built in 1604 on five acres. And I love making ribs. I spent so much time in Memphis and I have a really good rib recipe, and they really don’t have places like that in France. I love the idea of having a place I could open whenever I feel like it and people could come up and order a rack of ribs and corn on the cob.

Baristanet: Do you think it would work in France? Barbecue ribs?
Sinofsky: Yeah, it would work in the area we live in, which is the Bordeaux area. People love to eat. The French are crazy.

Baristanet: You’ve left a big mark in the world of documentary filmmaking. What do you think your legacy will be?
Sinofsky: Oh, I don’t think about those things. The filmmaking has always been secondary to my home life. I’m proud of what I’ve done and the films themselves should stand alone as a marker of what I’ve done. It’s fun. It’s been a great career. We’ve made money and that helps. I think together and separately Joe and I have influenced people. There are a lot of people who have said, “God, when I saw ‘Brother’s Keeper’ it showed me that there were other ways of making films and it could be done.” That influence is very nice. It feels good when people approach you at a film festival and say, “I can’t tell you how much you influenced me.” And the fact that we helped save three peoples lives (with the “Paradise Lost” films) was really the ultimate moment for me. What an amazing feeling.

Baristanet: What’s your take on the recent boom in quality documentaries?
Sinofsky: The last 20 years or so have been sort of a golden age of documentaries, not only for Joe and I but for an audience that sees that if you find the right story and you convince yourself that this is a story that people will watch and care about that’s a good thing. The advent of digital video has allowed people who shouldn’t be making films to go out and make films, and they don’t make good films. But there’s a plethora of really fine documentarians out there. And if Errol (Morris) and Joe and I and a few other people have helped that, then that’s great. I love it.

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  1. obviously, the PARADISE LOST trilogy is Mr. Sinofsky’s masterwork, but don’t miss SOME KIND OF MONSTER (best rock and roll doc ever?) and especially BROTHER’S KEEPER!

  2. Bruce manages to be both refreshingly humble and a teensy bit arrogant, which is completely understandable (and even kind of endearing) in someone who has accomplished such a f#@$load. He’s a good guy, and I wish him all good things.

  3. Just a great guy and a wonderful ambassador for Montclair. We might recover from losing him to the French, but could we ever forgive him for taking his barbeque ribs with him?

  4. I interned for his production company one semester back in ’98 while attending NYU. My documentary film professor, George Stoney, turned me on to them. I was and am a huge fan. No idea Bruce was a Montclair resident though. Neat!

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