If you don’t get that story from that person then that story is lost.
There are certain legendary institutions sprinkled all over New York City with such a rich historical legacy. Director Matthew Miele has now captured three of them. Back in 2013, he took us behind the scenes at one of the grandest department stores in SCATTER MY ASHES AT BERGDORF’S. In 2106, he snuck audiences behind closed doors at Tiffany and Co. in CRAZY ABOUT TIFFANY’S. Now, he’s taking us through the inner sanctum of The Carlyle hotel in ALWAYS AT THE CARLYLE. All at once a loving tribute to the hotel and human decency, this dazzling documentary is like being enveloped in the high-end hotel’s thousand thread count bed sheets.
I spoke with Miele over the phone about everything from the happenstance surrounding Will and Kate’s first NYC visit, to how they got to shoot in the cost-prohibitive hotel rooms, to the exhilarating feeling it was to capture living history.
You are always such a pleasure to speak with and I’d imagine that’s the number one quality to have for your job.
I guess so. I don’t know what that is, or what I’m giving off, but the biggest thing I try to do – especially when we’re on camera – is really listen to what they are saying and to hang on every word. To me, it’s this lost art of conversation happening right now. It’s rare to have someone talk to you for 35-45 minutes, which was the average interview time we did with everyone. There was so much valuable stuff just sitting on drives right now. When you interview so many people for a film, I think over 100 people were in it, it’s tough to get everyone and balance it out. I had to leave a lot of people out, but we got everyone who I felt really reflected what the hotel meant to not only the guests, past and present, but to the staff. I think that was the hardest to film and nicest to see.
Filming spanned a few years, right? How did you know you were done?
The beauty of filmmaking in the digital era is that you can consistently keep adding to a film even if you might declare, “Let’s start editing a film now.” I never say, once we’re in editing, we’re finished, because there are always little things, or lines, you might want to try to get from someone if you have a conversation with them to lead you to the next story, or next departure point. I never say it’s done, done – except when there’s a distributor that says, “We love this rough cut. We’d love to distribute this.” Then when they put the date on it for theatrical, then we have to say we have to hit that date and say that’s enough.
This one was tough because it got a huge amount of people in the hotel, who love it and wanted to be a part of it. It’s existing here for you to keep filming whatever you need. There’s so many more little details you wish you could spot.
One thing a lot of people talk about to me is the drinks here. A martini, for instance, you get a sidecar. It’s such an old-school thing, but it means a lot to people because you’re getting almost a drink and a half. The drinks are expensive, but it’s The Carlyle – it’s the atmosphere. There are little bits like that where it’s such a charming little thing, but I think I wanna lean on the employees more and give them more of a spotlight. It’s not necessarily about the what and the who as far as this hotel is concerned, which is what I learned.
What began your own personal history with The Carlyle – how did it get on your radar? It’s such an iconic institution.
I’ve been coming to the city forever. I’m the third of three siblings. I was that kid who absorbed a lot, I guess. A lack of adventure, or ignorance wasn’t my trait. I really wanted to get out in the world and my mother picked up on that. She would take me to the city, to the Bergdorf windows, and these old ice cream shops. When you really experience New York (and this was back in the 80’s), it’s like things change all the time, but there are certain things that hold on. The Carlyle not only holds on, but keeps reinventing itself because of who comes here. It’s a generational thing. When I first came to The Carlyle in my 20’s, it’s something you are very attracted to immediately – especially Bemelmans’s Bar. The irony of kid drawings in this adult place – the charm of how this came about, who was drawing these, and how long did this take – all of that stuff is amazing to learn. And when you find out, you find out the happenstance involved in something that’s becoming iconic.
You open on tight-lipped Carlyle workers whose trade is in discretion. This must’ve been the toughest nut to crack. Was it exhilarating to break these people open?
It was. Year one of this documentary, I didn’t think I could do it because everyone was tight-lipped and I wasn’t sure they were going to be nice to it. In fact, I reached out to the former employees, as well as current, and the former were really not looking to partake. I think they were part of the older code of, “We don’t speak about that.” I respected that and I never pried or went back to them to reconsider. I’m not that type of storyteller. I want the information from the people who want to tell me and who feel comfortable telling me. When they do, it is exhilarating because you get a peek. If you don’t get that story from that person then that story is lost. That’s what I try to tell people. If you don’t tell me, it’s one of the things that will die with the hotel, or with you. For instance, the Paul Newman story. The fact that the salad dressing was kind of invented here. You don’t hear about that kind of thing happening much anymore. It’s something light and airy, but also meaningful.
Was it pure happenstance that filming coincided with Will and Kate’s first ever NYC visit?
It was very much so. I started filming a year prior. And I think it was late 2014, I started to hear about something happening. I didn’t hear who it was, but I heard little strips here and there from some people who knew – who were in the inner circle then – that there were some important people coming. And they couldn’t tell me. I had no idea. I was shocked that Prince William had never been to New York. I was curious and didn’t pester, but finally, as it got closer, they brought me into this private meeting and they told me, of course I couldn’t say a word to anyone. I immediately thought the anticipation I feel should be in the movie. When the media picked up on it, the stories they told we used in the film to show a few days out and when they arrived and walked into the place. The fact that the frenzy was there and the screaming and the paparazzi was all outside waiting for them, you could’ve put your camera anywhere and got a great shot. The Royals were nice enough to let us be in the lobby with them with only the staff – we were the only cameras allowed in. We got the exclusive photos of them greeting the staff. I know that’s something they typically don’t do, but gave us the exclusive because they loved the hotel and Princess Diana had stayed there and they wanted to allow us to have that access, which was not only a testament to them, but a respect to the hotel itself.
As you mentioned, your documentaries not just serve as living histories for these iconic establishments, but also as travelogues. Do any natives get mad that you’re exposing their secret place?
Sometimes, yeah. I’ve been told a few times by people, “Don’t tell anyone.” Because it is something they take pride in knowing that no one else does. It’s their own little private oasis. Again, I wasn’t trying to make it as much of a tourist destination as it already is. It’s a little out of the way. It will always have this piece of it that will stay secretive and private, but now that the film is out there, I’m glad you said that. I do know that when people are going to want to come, they will be able to experience one level of it, which is so great. If you can’t afford a room, and I can’t, but have been happy to be in them on occasion for the interviews and they are really spectacular. The cost is prohibitive, but you can still come to the hotel and go to the bar, or peek into the cafe, or just exist in the gallery and you can get every bit of what you’d get in the room. Everyone has accessibility in that regard.
How did renting the interview rooms work? Did you get a discount, or were you allowed to film when not in use?
Yeah. It was when they were available. Sometimes they’re not always reserved because it’s being kept for someone out of town and they’re preparing it for their arrival. Or someone has their favorite suite and we’ll do it in that specific spot. That’s part of the allure of the hotel. It’s not a homogenized experience – if you go into one room, it doesn’t look like the one next to it. These suites are their own world – their own design. The floor plans are all different. It’s really a remarkable, fun maze.
One of the people here I loved was Dwight Owsley – the, now retired, concierge. I started to cry when he spoke about why he was retiring. It was just so poignant. Was he someone you felt could serve as your lens – sort of like Betty Halbreich in your Bergdorf’s documentary?
Yeah, because Dwight is that remarkable man who had this stutter, which I picked up on immediately, and he’s right up front at the concierge desk. He’s not abashed at all with his presence, or his conversation. If he does stutter, it’s not off-putting – it’s quite endearing. At The Carlyle, they embraced him. He was the one who really locked into the changing New York and the change in society and what was happening in general with how people used to look on the sidewalks of New York. He says, “We all look like messengers now,” which is just a statement on the relaxed culture. I think he’s lamenting on something that did happen and maybe doesn’t really happen anymore and he thought it was his time to retire.
It’s not every day you find a business that has employees who have stayed on for as long as these hotel workers have. Not only that but have the dedicated, repeat customers.
I think so. That’s something I wanted to make sure came across and put an emotion on the film. I’m glad that everyone seems to be sharing in that same sentiment.
ALWAYS AT THE CARLYLE is now playing in New York City and Los Angeles.