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The Face of Arizona Wine: Tool’s Maynard James Keenan Talks “Blood Into Wine,” Screening February 19-26 at the Capitol PDF Print E-mail
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 11 February 2010 09:42

Maynard James KeenanMaynard James Keenan -- the frontman for prog-metal gods Tool, the co-leader of A Perfect Circle, and the founder of Puscifer -- isn't the type of person you'd expect to see as the subject of a thorough documentary. He has a reputation for being reclusive, and for jealously guarding his privacy. As he says in the movie Blood Into Wine, "I'm not much of a people person."

Yet Keenan, along with his wine-making partner Eric Glomski, is at the center of that documentary, a freewheeling but thoughtful mix of wine primer, underdog story, buddy picture, and sketch comedy. The movie is fun and gently didactic, and thankfully it engages in little idolatry. (Those hoping for a Tool movie will be disappointed; although Blood Into Wine doesn't ignore Keenan's music career, it's at best a tangent.)

Keenan often looks uncomfortable in the movie, but that could be a function of once being filmed on the toilet, and of being hectored by a pair of wine-hating talk-show hosts. (More on those things later.) But he is apparently committed enough to his cause -- fostering an Arizona wine country, and combating the idea that the state's climate and terrain can't produce good grapes and wine -- that he's willing to subject himself to all these indignities, and the public spotlight.

As Keenan told me in an interview last week: "This is an important thing we're doing up here. If we're successful with what we're doing, it's going to set up a future for more families than we can number. ... If you plant vines in this valley, they're going to taste a certain way; they're going to be very specific to where they're from. It's not a business that you can move to Mexico or China. It's from here. This is the definition of sustainable and local."

A Good Story

'Blood Into Wine'The Capitol Theatre in downtown Davenport will be one of just a handful of sites premiering Blood Into Wine on February 19. That screening will include a tasting of Arizona wines made by Keenan and Glomski, and the movie will also be shown February 20, 21, and 26.

That Blood Into Wine exists is somewhat surprising, given Keenan's nature. The project was sparked by the rock star being interviewed for Christopher Pomerenke's 2009 documentary The Heart Is a Drum Machine, about the nature of music.

But Pomerenke said last week that Keenan's participation in the earlier film remains a bit of a mystery. "We weren't entirely sure why he said 'yes'" to The Heart Is a Drum Machine, he said, "because we were aware that he's pretty private and doesn't do a lot of interviews. We suspected that maybe he liked my partner's last film [Moog, which Wine co-director Ryan Page co-produced] ... ."

Not true. Keenan said in our interview that he'd never seen Moog. "I went to some of the actors that they'd been in contact with to see what they had to say about them," he said.

And Pomerenke said that after Keenan was interviewed for Drum Machine, he asked what the movie was about.

Keenan's willingness to do Blood Into Wine (and promote the film through interviews) makes a little more sense: The movie -- scheduled for a May 4 home-video release,  Pomerenke said -- could do a lot to build national interest in Arizona wine.

Keenan might be a reluctant face for Arizona wine, but he recognizes that Arizona wine needs a face: "It takes all the pieces of the puzzle coming together to make it all work, in order for someone to discover it," he said in our interview. "You need a good story, you need a great wine-maker, you need a great farmer. And apparently you need buckets and buckets of cash you dump down a black hole."

Given the dominance of California wine in American culture, selling the public on Arizona wine requires that good story; it's a difficult sales job. One has to counter the prevailing wisdom that, as one interviewee says in the movie, trying to make wine in Arizona is like "trying to make wine on the moon."

The idea for Blood Into Wine came from Drum Machine, for which Keenan was filmed at his Arizona vineyards. Page and Pomerenke pitched Keenan the idea of a documentary about his wine-making business, and "he at first wasn't really warm to the idea," Pomerenke said, adding that it took six months to convince him. Keenan said he was merely busy with his grapes and his wines.

The filmmakers and Keenan and Glomski then went about setting the ground rules for the movie. The subjects both wanted their personal lives left out, and Keenan wanted the movie to focus on wine rather than the music career of the celebrity wine-maker. Keenan owns Caduceus Cellars and Merkin Vineyards (in northern Arizona's Verde Valley), and Glomski makes the wines, with the Tool singer essentially working as his apprentice. The pair co-owns the Arizona Stronghold Vineyard (in the southern part of the state), and Glomski has his own vineyard and winery (Page Springs) in the Verde Valley.

Keenan also said he didn't want to participate in a dry film. "One of the things that I was pretty specific about is I didn't want it to be a PBS special, either," Keenan said. "If we're going to do it, let's do it as artists would do it."

He said that although he was given significant input into the film, he didn't dictate what was in it. "For us to be in control of the final cut would compromise their vision ... ," he said. "It's their film. It's not my film. It'd be like having some producer come in and tell me how to finish the record."

"We definitely shared with those guys different versions of the edits as they were coming to us ... ," Pomerenke said. "They were kept in the loop how the story was developing. I wouldn't say there was veto power, but we're gentlemen. We are artists. This is our film. We're telling their story like we want to tell it. ... [But] we're people as well, and we want those guys to feel like it was accurately representing them."

The co-director was quick to point out, though, that "we challenge those guys pretty strongly ... ."

Truth Through Staging

"Challenge" is probably too direct, but it's undoubtedly true that Blood Into Wine is irreverent and not at all interested in maintaining the dignity of wine, wine culture, or even its subjects.

'Focus on Interesting Things'The movie opens with Focus on Interesting Things, an improvised fake talk show with Keenan as the guest and Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim (of Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) playing the moronic hosts. Keenan is clearly in on the joke and has dabbled in comedy, including with Puscifer, but the hosts are so immediately insulting to Keenan, his wine, and wine in general that Pomerenke said the Tool singer got "punk'd" a bit. Even knowing it was staged and a joke, it's hard to imagine not taking the assault at least a little personally.

"We didn't necessarily want to hurt Maynard's feelings," the filmmaker said. But "we didn't know that Interesting Things was going to get so venomous." Keenan sometimes appears to be smiling -- slightly -- but he wears a dumbfounded look most of the time, like he's been ambushed and doesn't know how to react. It's hard to tell from the film what's acting and what's befuddlement.

Pomerenke said Keenan was a good sport: "Maynard was laughing, and he didn't walk off set." Although some people who've seen the movie have said Focus on Interesting Things is "mean-spirited," Pomerenke said he doesn't know whether Keenan was as miffed as he appears. "I've never discussed it with him," he said. "Maynard is a man of few words."

Pomerenke said the goal of starting the documentary with this comedy bit was to knock Keenan off a pedestal and debunk any Arizona pride -- "attacking that right off the bat."

This opening does announce that the movie shouldn't be taken too seriously, but it also casts minor doubt on the authenticity of the "real" bits.

To be fair, there's a pretty bright line between the genuine and the fake. The staged bits are often absurd. Beyond Interesting Things, Bob Odenkirk contributes a ridiculous closing-credits skit. And the reveal that one of Keenan's responses was delivered while on the toilet -- the singer claimed the idea in our interview -- offers some jokey context for his awkwardness.

And it's clearly sincere when Keenan begins to cry talking about his mother, who died in 2003; her ashes were scattered on the vineyard, and "she gets to travel the world now" through the wine, he says in the movie.

But there are moments of uncertainty, as when Pomerenke and Page tell Keenan that they've been approached about doing a reality-TV series featuring him. Pomerenke insists the offer was real, but it doesn't play that way in the film. (Keenan's response: "Fuck no.")

"We're not real orthodox documentarians," Pomerenke said. "We like the idea of things that are somewhat staged if it can get to a deeper meaning or reveal some sort of truth through the staging."