Agave: The Spirit of a Nation is a documentary film that takes viewers beyond the spirits of mezcal and tequila to discover how one delicate plant can carry the weight of the nation of Mexico and the people trying to protect it. Agave follows three main characters: Graciela Angeles of Mezcal Real Minero, Aquilino García López of Mezcal Vago, and Carlos Camarena of Tequila Ocho, Tapatio, and others. The documentary premiered at South by Southwest in the United States and Festival Internacional de Cine in Guadalajara, Mexico. It is now screening at more film festivals, including the SF Doc Fest this month.
Last March, we attended the premiere and gave the film two thumbs up. Later that week we sat down with the filmmakers to discuss their background in documentary filmmaking, this project, and of course.. mezcal. We interviewed co-producers and co-directors Nick Kovacic and Matt Riggieri, along with cinematographer Nate Pesce; all three previously collaborated on the documentary Decanted which follows elite Napa Valley winemakers.
Nick and Matt, you two have worked together on three alcohol-related documentaries at this point. Are your family or friends worried that it’s all about alcohol?
Matt Riggieri: They think that we have the easiest life in the world.
Nick Kovacic: They all think that we’re just having fun all the time.
Matt: We’re like no, it’s so much work. We pour our hearts and souls into finding stories and trying to communicate them in a way to our audience. I think this film is the most soulful of anything we’ve done. I think this is the most authentically connected to what our vision in filming is.
Nick: We’ve always collaborated with awesome people. This time around it was so, so important that we collaborate with our Mexican counterparts down there. We put together a fantastic team from pre-production all the way through post-production. It’s been such a pleasure and it’s been absolutely amazing being able to work with everybody on this.
Matt: We were never planning to make a second alcohol based documentary. Nick made Brewmore because he just wanted something to do.
Nick: In my spare time.
Matt: Yeah, and then it just has moved from one to the other… so there was never a plan. What I think it has done, is helped us hone a craft. And hone our storytelling. And hone the way we want to tell stories.
After Decanted, did you immediately know, let’s make an agave film?
Nick: We were actually working on this film while Decanted was still doing festivals. Decanted came out on Netflix at the end of May  and we were like, all right cool, we’re going to be shooting the next one in like three weeks.
Matt: We had jokingly said in the end of doing Decanted, now we just have to do a documentary about a spirit. Even before that we had talked about how mezcal, of any spirit, has the actual story that needs to be told. It’s an untold story and has the most cultural significance. Scotch would be a good one too.
Nick: Tequila and mezcal are so prevalent all around the world now, but nobody really knows anything about them.
You started filming in early 2017?
Matt: Last two weeks of June, first two weeks of July. This is the fastest I’ve ever made a film.
Nick: It was all about being prepared and organized. We came at it totally prepared and organized. It feels good to just knock it all out and just be done, because it helps keep the original vision that you had all the way through. There’s so much stress and weight on your shoulders as a filmmaker throughout the project, because these are like babies that you’re making and once it’s done it’s like it’s off to college.
Matt: It was fast but I don’t think we could have done it without our team of collaborators in Mexico. They were there with us every step of the way and making sure that we told an authentic story. We had many long conversations about that.
Nick: I think it really helped actually, this being the third film. We took all the things we learned from the first two and we applied it to this one.
What did the research look like before you began shooting?
Nick: We had a story document that Chantel [Martineau] worked with us on, structuring out what we wanted to do. Obviously that’s gonna change once you insert the characters into it. With the casting that the guys were doing down there, we were able to build the biographies of the people that we were meeting. That was extremely helpful, because within our story doc we had an idea of different acts.
Matt: And thematically we knew what we wanted in the characters. Searching for that and then finding characters that compliment each other. It’s sort of like you meet someone, you hang out with them and see how..
Nick: How you guys gel.
Matt: What’s your rapport is with them. Then you put a camera on them, put a mic on them, see how they react to a camera. I use the term casting, because that’s what it is, but it’s really meeting. Meeting, because you can read about someone, talk to them on the phone, but until you meet face to face, you don’t really know how awesome they can be.
How’s your Spanish?
Matt: My Spanish is gotten better, but it’s not the best. I can listen really well.
Nick: It was a challenge, but I don’t say that it hindered our ability to make the film because even if you can’t speak to somebody, body language and looking at the details of things are universal. When we would do edits with Clementina [Mantellini – film editor], afterwards I’d have the transcriptions in Spanish and then I’d read it all in Spanish and then watch it on the screen. It was challenging, but now I’ve basically memorized everything everybody says in the movie.
Matt: Helena Medina [production manager] was amazing and she interviewed for us. We would talk about what we wanted to get across in the interviews and then we would make pauses and be like, “Hey, is this is what we think she’s saying or think he’s saying? Is that correct? Are we catching the subtext of what’s going on?”
They probably don’t see camera crews up in their villages very often. How did you guys make them comfortable?
Nate Pesce (cinematographer): We didn’t take the cameras out at first.
Nick: Yeah, it’s really important to establish a relationship with people.. so they’re comfortable with you and you’re comfortable with them. We do this for all projects. Then slowly bring out the camera. Start further away and get closer and closer and closer with it.
Nate: Find some common ground first.
Nick: Be extremely respectful and don’t make a ton of noise.
Nate: It’s a very quiet process anyways. You hear the audio and there is audio design in it, of course. There’s sound design, making sure that everything is coming across realistically. But, Aquilino’s place, for example, it’s a very peaceful, slow process. And that reflected the choice to just be slow and methodical with it, as well. Because, this is a very long plant to grow. We’ll let it happen. And show the patience. And almost the separation from the rest of the big cities. You see in the Mexico City shots in the b-roll we shot just these packed streets.
Nick: The only thing we set up was the fire scene where Graciela is telling you about the meaning of fire. Before I shot that, I knew I wanted her to speak of the philosophy, the meaning of fire. What it means to her. We’d been shooting with her in Oaxaca, in the city. So, I just brought her back to the hotel and we recorded her as a voiceover. That’s the only thing that I can think of that we set up.
One of the more beautiful scenes was Graciela in the library. Where she goes left to right across the screen and she’s singing. How did you capture the shot and get the audio?
Nate: An awesome sound guy. He did a fantastic job.
Nick: When we went and did the library shot, she was belting it out and then we’re like, that’s f*cking awesome. We sent it to Caleb [Stine] and it transitioned seamlessly into the score.
There were all these beautiful moments within the stories of each character. Were you following them around for very long? Or was some of that kind of scripted?
Nick: When we started, we basically gave ourselves a structure to work in. So, you’re just not all over the place. We gave ourselves guiding rules to be within. [To Nate] You can talk about that a little more.
Nate: With Ernesto [Pardo – cinematographer], sometimes we were filming the same scene and other times we were split apart to get different coverage of different moments of things happening in real time. But, for the most part, yeah, all of that was pretty real. You have to divide and conquer. Especially with the documentaries. Especially when you’re trying to film it a certain way. And give it a certain style. I wonder how many people maybe were thinking, “Is this set up or not?” Sometimes docs are very just observational, follow along. The observational side of it was the way Nick and Matt and Ernesto and I talked about holding shots. Letting people come in and out of shots. And be really patient on some. And then others, we’re walking with them so it’s very subjective, and you’re kind of with that character. Right over the shoulder. Right in front of them, right in their face. Beyond that just let it unfold.
What’s Aquilino like? Seems like an interesting guy that does his own thing.
Nick: He’s badass.
Matt: He’s the most badass person I’ve ever met.
Nick: He’s a man versus nature.
Matt: Visually, nature. And hence that’s why there’s a lot of composition where he is a very small part of nature. We’re always cutting to these shots where he’s in these expanses or he’s driving off a mountain, or he’s [visually] lost in the field…
Or in a river?
Matt: That’s how I met Aquilino. We get to the river and coming across this river is this man in a white wife-beater and tighty whities. And his knife. And I was like, oh my God. I have not spoken a word to this man yet, but I am already in love with who he is.
It’s awesome that you got Damien Alcazar to do some of the narration. How did that work?
Nick: Three or four years ago when I just had thought about this documentary. Just as an idea, I looked at the films that were all coming out. Every year, the national Mexican film board releases a book, and in that book there’s everything they’ve done. Looking through it, there’s this film that stuck out. I watched the trailer. Damien is in it. Fast forward, we’re doing this film and we’re talking about how we’re going to do narration. We’ve never done it before. Who should we get to do it? I finally had a chance to watch that film and I was like, this guy is awesome. He’s got a fantastic voice. Really great. And then I looked in little bit more at his Wikipedia and he’s a person who uses his stardom to voice the concerns of the people. He really represents the people.
Matt: His family comes from Michoacan. He has a little bit of history of mezcal in his family. He was gung-ho to do the project when we talked to him.
Do you have any favorite mezcals now that you’ve done all the research?
Nick: I knew you were going to ask us that question.
Matt: I’m gonna give you the bullsh*t answer, I think the best mezcal is the one that you’re having in front of you and enjoying with friends. I know it is the bullshit answer, but it’s also it’s really true. I think the mezcaleros would prefer it that way. It’s not supposed to be your favorite, it’s supposed to be the experience. It’s the same thing as drinking wine. A twenty dollar bottle of wine could be shit, or a twenty dollar bottle of wine could be really good, and it could be the same bottle of wine, because it’s the experience you attach to what you are drinking. Not what you are drinking just in itself.
Nick: Yeah, it’s about the experience.
Matt: I will say, Mexicano.
Nick: I like some of the blends that Vago has.
Matt: Those are nice. Arroqueno.
Nick: The Largo. Real Minero Largo. That’s really good.
Matt: The stuff you can’t buy, I like that stuff. Aquilino gave us puntas one night, it was like eighty percent and it was so smooth and it was dangerous, because I could drink this and not know it was eighty percent. [To Nick] That’s the night you fell out of the hammock.
Nick: Yeah. I was trying to go to the bathroom.
Matt: Usually once you get in, you can’t get out. Also Aquilino gave us some mezcal that tasted like jalapenos. It wasn’t spicy like jalapenos, it just had the taste of jalapenos.
Nick: It was like whatever had been growing in the ground around it. Carlos has some fields that were originally planted with mango trees. So basically they would fall and it would decay on the ground and then it would churn back into the earth. And now they plant agave in it. So in Ocho [Tequila], one of his tequilas in the Ocho series, came from that field.
Matt: I think the most spectacular thing for me in this whole process was meeting these three amazing people that I can find inspiration in. Finding people that should be the role models of the world. Everyone should look up to Carlos, Graciela and Aquilino and say, “I can make my community a better place. I can try to make the world a better place. I have the power in me to just, even if it’s just a little and it’s just my little community, bring everyone else with me.”
Where to watch the film
Agave is currently on the film festival circuit. You can track upcoming screenings on their website or on their Instagram page. Thereafter it should become available on streaming services like Netflix. We encourage all agave advocates to see the film. It will transport you to the palenques where some of the world’s best spirits are being produced. But, be careful.. whether or not you’ve ever visited Oaxaca or even Mexico, this wonderfully shot documentary will make you want to immediately book a trip.