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Florent: Queen of the Meat Market

Director David Sigal talks about his biodoc time capsule of a restaurant—a place that changed New York forever.

Florent: Queen of the Meat Market


Director David Sigal’s Florent: Queen of the Meat Market is a bio doc about the life and times of… a restaurant. In 1985, charismatic Frenchman Florent Morellet had a vision, planting a diner/bistro in the middle of what was then a somewhat seedy, industrial neighborhood just west and north of the quaint West Village. Restaurant Florent quickly became a 24-hour-a-day haven for a soup-to-nuts collection of New Yorkers: from little old ladies to flamboyant drag queens, from neighborhood families to transvestite prostitutes—with a few celebrities thrown in for good measure—everyone was welcome at Florent.


Over the next 23 years, change happened: to Florent, the man, who learned he was HIV-positive; to the neighborhood, which turned into the ultra-chic Meatpacking District (if you build it, they will come); and to New York itself, whose economic roller coasters and gentrification projects have turned the city on its head. By the time the restaurant closed in 2008, it had become an ironic manifestation of the changes around it; where Morellet had once been a pioneer, he had now been forced out of the neighborhood as a result of prohibitive rent increases.


At the center, however, of all these changes, the diversities—cultural, societal, sexual, political, economic, racial—that define the city have not gone away. And Restaurant Florent represented all these spectra, all in one little dining room. We recently sat down with director David Sigal to talk about his “time capsule” of a movie, and what Florent—both restaurant and man—represent.


Florent: Queen of the Meat Market


Tribeca: What made you want to tell this story? It reads like a labor of love.


David Sigal: It’s definitely a labor of love. I thought it would be really fascinating to tell so many stories that take place in this one diner, in a small corner of New York City. I could tell stories about social activism, political activism, socialites, celebrities, drag queens, and crack whores…


Tribeca: And where they all came together.

David Sigal:
Exactly! And after I started to talk to Florent, I realized how charismatic he is. Basically, I went to talk to him about the idea for the project. It was just supposed to be a meeting, but he just started talking, and I got out a little camera I happened to have with me, and then he didn’t stop talking for six months. [laughs] There’s a piece in the film from that first meeting—where he shows me his grandmother’s cookbook—and I thought that was cute; even though it’s just on a little camera, I didn’t want to leave it out.


I could tell so many stories through this diner, and this man. Actually, now that I look back on it, it ended up being a movie about change. Because I wasn’t sure that he was going to close the diner when I started, and obviously, that happened while I was filming: good for a movie, bad for New York. And it turned out to be a movie about how New York changes, and how a person can change, and how you deal with and accept and work with change, and become a better person in the end.


I think Florent is really happy now, even though the diner is closed. He’s changed. It’s really remarkable how many lives he’s led, and to go from being a restauranteur to a cartographer—which is what he’s doing now—I would not have guessed that while we were filming.


Tribeca: Did you have any connection to Florent? Did you know him?


David Sigal: I sort of knew him socially, but I was a long-term customer. In my younger and wilder days, I was a late-night guy, but by then I had turned into a morning breakfast person—like 8 am; I wake up pretty early.


Tribeca: So you live in the neighborhood?

David Sigal:
Yeah, I live pretty close, in the West Village.


Tribeca: Was Florent open to the idea from the start?


David Sigal: I had to get some mutual friends to convince him that I was okay. I am a Tribeca alum—the first film I made was called The Look, and it premiered here at Tribeca. So I sent him the good review I got for that in Variety. And… I sent him other some information about me professionally. Other than that, he said yes at that first meeting.


Tribeca: What made Florent—the restaurant—so special? Can you sum it up in a sentence?


David Sigal: I think it really represented New York City—the cross-section from fancy people to people on the streets. All sorts of people were welcome there. Just like anyone can come to NYC and feel welcome and accepted, I think Florent epitomized that.


Tribeca: What kinds of connections did you have to the NYC style A-listers that we see in the film? Julianne Moore, Diane von Furstenberg, Michael Musto, Isaac Mizrahi… Did you have to convince anyone?


David Sigal: I think we have one of the last interviews with Christo and Jean-Claude together—I think Jean-Claude died right after we shot. What was interesting about making this film was that Florent prompted me with a list of people who were longtime customers. What was amazing to me is that everyone I approached said yes, and made their schedule just open up for me. It was shockingly easy to schedule all these people! Everyone in New York just made it happen.


I just showed up with a camera, for instance, at Julianne Moore’s house. Everyone was exactly the same—Diane welcomed us into her office, and we were really lucky to shoot in front of Warhols of her in the background.


Florent: Queen of the Meat Market


Tribeca: Was there a “lightning-strikes” moment during production, either good or bad?


David Sigal: I think it almost happened every say, because I peeled back so many layers, and I didn’t realize how much he’d done. I didn’t know that Florent’s father is one of the most famous living artists in France—he has a show at the Pompidou right now. I didn’t really grasp the whole nightclub scene in New York, because I wasn’t that type of party person. I didn’t really know the story of the meatpackers, because they were basically gone when I moved to New York. I didn’t know that story of the tranny hookers… So I learned something new every day of talking to Florent—he’s really turned into a role model for me, in how he’s dealt with everything.


I was really fascinated by the idea of how you could have a business based on social and political activism, and be successful financially. That was really fascinating—that you could do good, and actually make money. I really respect that.


Tribeca: Can you talk about your interview process? Over how long a period did you shoot?


David Sigal: I started shooting in January 2008, and then I continued until closing night [June 2008]. I think by about March, it became clear that the restaurant was closing.


As an exercise, I really wanted to not appear in the film myself. I didn’t want it to be about me at all; I didn’t even want my voice in it as a questioner, and I didn’t want to use a narrator. I think I succeeded! I am not in it once.


I am really influenced by the Maysles, and how they shoot. And I find their way really interesting. Actually, I got to meet Albert Maysles during the filming, and we were talking about how he actually does it—he tries to have two people on screen who talk to each other, so he can stay out of it. On the next thing I do, that’s what I’d like to try.


Tribeca: How did you gather the archival footage? Was that complicated?


David Sigal: No. Florent himself is the most organized person you can imagine. He has filing cabinets that are dated and organized and cleared. Most of the old footage is just from old friends of his, and their photos, etc.


Tribeca: How much did you have to look at and cull through? Was it tough to decide what to put in?


David Sigal: We could have had a 10-hour miniseries, if we’d wanted. It was really hard. I think with Florent alone we shot maybe 30 hours, or more? I know we have over 120 hours of interviews and footage.


We had to be ruthless. There were a lot of events that happened, that he was involved in, that we didn’t use. We eventually made the decision to do was really to use footage from inside the restaurant and around the neighborhood.


I think the footage from the last few weeks really captured the burlesque scene in New York—I didn’t even know that really existed. It reminded me of Warhol’s Factory, where you have this mix of people, some wacky, and they are all really smart. Hopefully, in like 20 years, this will be like a time capsule of that period, of a time and place in New York.


Tribeca: How did you decide what to include? Some of it is quite racy…


David Sigal: It wasn’t really a concern; I thought that the restaurant was racy. For example, there are these 2 guys who I’m interviewing in broad daylight on Gansevoort Street, and I don’t know why, but they pulled their pants down. I didn’t prompt it; it just sort of happened. I think that represents what could have happened in the restaurant on any given day.


There’s a line that Tigger says in the film, that Florent represents the kind of place he always wanted to go to when he was growing up in the Midwest—it was what New York meant to him.


Florent: Queen of the Meat Market


Tribeca: What do you want audiences to take away from the film?


David Sigal: I want them to have a lot of fun, and be entertained. And also sort of see this icon of New York, Florent Morellet, as an example of how you could come to New York from anywhere—from France or from Missouri—and reinvent your life and be successful and be happy and have a great life with friends and family. And do something to really influence people, and make them think.


Tribeca: It’s for people who were regulars, for people who went there once, and who never went there.


David Sigal: Yes. People who have never been there and see the movie tend to say to me, “Oh, I wish I’d gone there.”


Tribeca: Your last film, The Look, which was at Tribeca in 2003, was a narrative. What inspired you to take the leap to documentary? Which did you like better?


David Sigal: After The Look, I had made a lot of shorts that were documentaries for the web, and then I was developing another script with some writers. And then the writer’s strike happened. And I was like, I gotta make a movie. So I picked up the camera and started making Florent.


We actually made the other film; I was a co-producer: Fair Game [with Sean Penn and Naomi Watts]. We had been developing it for six years [with lots of setbacks]. The movie finally came out in November.


Tribeca: So which do you prefer? Features or narratives? What’s up next for you?


David Sigal: I like both! I want to do another story about a historical female figure, AND I want to make another documentary. So I want to do both. I’m working on them…


Tribeca: So you want to do two movies at the same time?


David Sigal: I do. I actually like it—to make something really small and something big at the same time. Because you can actually do something: I can pick up my camera—I shot Florent myself—I can pick it up and do it on no budget, and not have to wait for development and all that. So I want to do the same thing again. I want to make another New York-based documentary about politics in New York.


Tribeca: When and where can audiences find Florent: Queen of the Meat Market?


David Sigal: Theatrically, it opens at Cinema Village on May 20.  We also sold international rights to the Sundance Channel, and then Cinetic’s Film Buff picked up the digital rights. So on June 7, it should be on iTunes and all their platforms.


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