Son of a gun, Jon Shook can fish. But can he cook what he catches? Picking through the wreckage of a recalcitrant sanddab riddled with bones, the chef (Animal, Son of a Gun) at one point in the short documentary Fish turns to a pal and laments, "What I got going in my head is just not working." We're watching that crucial moment when a chef, swinging for fences, watches his boll plop into an outfielder's glove. Despite its title and its subject matter, this isn't actually a film about fish. It's a film about the creative process, with all the pitfalls and failures so often forgotten in the aftermath of success.
Shot shortly after Shook and his creative partner, Vinny Dotolo, opened their seafood restaurant, Son Of A Gun, Fish is a 20-minute documentary directed by R.J. Cutler, known for his crisp, vérité explorations of politics (The War Room), fashion (The September Issue) and high school (American High). We follow Shook through a catch-kill-cook experiment as he sails out into the Los Angeles harbor, reels in a few fish and tries to turn them into a plausible restaurant dish. That's not easy with sanddabs. Small, flat and hard to de-bone, they don't lend themselves to gourmet glory.
"What's more compelling than watching somebody create something out of nothing?" Cutler says. "The producer's impulse is that you want Jonny to succeed before your very eyes the first time he tries. But the filmmaker's impulse is that you have to embrace life as it comes. And, as is always the case, it proves to be the more interesting story."
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Was Cutler ever worried, in the midst of Shook's struggles, he wouldn't find a narrative for his film? "I was sitting there in the restaurant going, 'Oh, man. He's not going to do it. What are we going to do?' Then I realized, 'Oh, that's exactly what we're going to do.'"
We won't reveal how the story ends except to say it involves serrano chiles and arugula flowers. Even beyond the boundaries of the movie, Shook's pursuit isn't really over. He's still thinking of ways to improve his concoction. That's part of the process too.
The documentary is part of USA network's "character project," a series of eight short films each made by a different director. You can watch the documentary online. The films will also screen in The Brig parking lot several times over the course of next weekend (May 20-22).