As a documentarian, Brett Schwartz is most interested in telling the stories of innovators and entrepreneurs. His latest short film, â€śRare Tea Cellarâ€ť is a prime example, delving into the tale of Chicagoan Rodrick Markus and the homegrown international emporium he created that services a group of culinary elite.
â€śI want to know where [these types of people] come from and what keeps them going, to push themselves and always show up even when the work is done,â€ť he said of his profile subjects. â€śProbably because itâ€™s not in my DNA.â€ť
Yet, actually, it is.
By day, Schwartz is a teacher of history, TV production and journalism at Deerfield High School. By night (and weekends and summer breaks), the Highland Park resident runs StoryScreen, his almost year-old production company where he hones his side projects. It continues an award-winning career he began in 1995 producing programs for such networks like MSNBC, PBS, and Court TV before Schwartz started directing, writing, filming and editing independent works including 2010â€™s feature length Mashed Media about the current state of Chicago journalism that has aired on WTTW-11.
Three years ago, Chicago was again taking his attentionâ€”this time its celebrated culinary worldâ€”as Schwartz began working on a feature documentary about chef, inventor and molecular gastronomer Homaro Cantu, the man behind the creative, high-tech Moto restaurant.
â€śI was really interested in the social innovations he has done to deal with issues like obesity and hunger,â€ť says Schwartz. His upcoming film traces Cantuâ€™s research with a MiracleBerry from West Africa that has the ability to make sour and bitter foods taste sweet. â€śDozens and dozensâ€ť of hours of footage later, Schwartz started losing steam on the project, until he found another story within it that was waiting to be told.
â€śWhen I was doing all this research, I kept stumbling into Rodrick Markus,â€ť Schwartz said. The two already had a history as classmates years ago at Highland Park High School before they ended up taking â€śvery different paths.â€ť Schwartz went on to live on both coasts, earning a number of degrees from Stanford, Cornell and NYU and working for New York-based networks before returning home to the North Shore with his young family in 2004 and teaching for the past decade.
Markus opened Rare Tea Cellar, akin to a â€ś19th century warehouseâ€ť according to Schwartz, that goes to all the ends of earth to find rare and delicate accouterments for cooking. Although the Ravenswood-based depot is not open to the public, â€śRod has penetrated every major kitchen in Chicago,â€ť said Schwartz. â€śPower chefs like [Graceâ€™s} Curtis Duffy and [Alineaâ€™s] Grant Achatz are able to push themselves in the kitchen in one way based on the ingredients they use like those that come from Rare Tea Cellar.â€ť
Later this month, the under-seven-minute film will be screened (and judged for a jury award) at the 13-day Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose, Californiaâ€”the same short festival where Schwartz screened his first film out of grad school in 1999. â€śRare Tea Cellarâ€ť was one of only 188 films chosen from a pool of 2,000-plus submissions in a growingly popular field of short films (Chicagoâ€™s Music Box Theatre hosts a special viewing session of all the Oscar nominated entries this weekend, Saturday February 14 and 15).
Schwartz has also featured his new film in its entirety on StoryScreenâ€™s website, where it can be streamed, downloaded and embedded, a bold move for an indie filmmaker. â€śIn the past weâ€™ve been very scared about copyright and there have been some places I canâ€™t apply for festivals or awards because they want exclusive rights to it,â€ť he admitted. â€śBut as we know the 21st century is an online world, and we have to wrap our heads around how to use that as an asset. Iâ€™m just trying to get it out there in the world and have more people see it and see what Iâ€™m doing with StoryScreen.â€ť
Like his subjects, that mission is to be a motivation to himself and his students. â€śI made a commitment that Iâ€™d be a teacher practitioner and that means moving beyond the theory and continuing to be a storyteller and hone my craft,â€ť he said, â€śand hopefully that means not waiting until the school year is over to go full on with it.â€ť