Finding Higher Grounds: an unpublished interview about a controversial coffee film
The Pourover has always been built on interviews. I like reading (and listening to) smart people talk about things they’re interested in, and figured my readers would too. My first ever interview back in 2018 was a big get, when Brooke McDonnell of Equator Coffees & Teas was kind enough to answer questions from a random person with a hastily-built website.
Since then I’ve used interviews with experts to explore various topics like climate change, dark roasts in specialty coffee, and a purported fourth wave. I’m still bad at interviewing, but I’m getting better with each one. I’ve also somehow managed to secure interviews with a bonafide celebrity, John Green, as well as one of my favourite media critics Adam Johnson. (The lesson here is, shoot your shot.)
Those latter two have made me bolder in who I reach out to, even if the whole experience fills me with trepidation. Putting yourself out there is scary, and coming across like an idiot is scarier still.
I enjoyed Kate Nash’s work on the Netflix series ‘GLOW’, and when I first read about the release of a new film called ‘Coffee Wars’ I reached out to see if I could get an interview. Approval took a long time, and it didn’t click until later that it was the same controversial film that Sprudge had written about years earlier. (The lesson here is, do your research before you ask.)
I decided to go ahead with the interview—it was Kate Nash, after all—and watched the movie to prepare. The film is… not great, although somewhat charming in a low-budget sort of way. However the issues surrounding the film, specifically its choice of director, make it impossible to recommend.
We’ll get to that. But first, a flashback sequence.
In 2019 news leaked of an indie comedy loosely based around the World Barista Championship. In their first couple of scoops on the subject, Sprudge was positively giddy—even promising to hold a screening of the film if it turned out to be real—reinforcing my belief that Hollywood has been missing a huge opportunity to cash in on coffee folk’s longing to see themselves on the big screen (but that’s a topic for another article).
That movie, then called ‘Higher Grounds’, featured Kate Nash as a vegan coffee shop owner struggling to compete with the dairy-driven cafes around her. Strapped for cash, she enters the World Barista Championship in order to win the money that would keep her vegan dreams alive.
Co-starring a mix of British character actors (Taskmaster alumni Hugh Dennis and Sally Phillips) and up-and-comers (Saoirse-Monica Jackson of ‘Derry Girls’ and Toby Sebastian of ‘Game of Thrones’) the film featured a worthy (and oddly portentive) focus on veganism in coffee competitions. Finally, it looked like ‘Higher Grounds’ would scratch the coffee movie itch.
As Sprudge put it: “Flawed though the fundamental elements of the plot may be, we still very much want Higher Grounds to be a real motion picture. Sally Phillips is a treasure, and seeing her in any coffee competition-related role would be an absolute dream.”
However it subsequently emerged that the director of ‘Higher Grounds’ was Randall Miller, who was on probation having served a year in prison after pleading guilty to involuntary manslaughter in the 2014 death of camera assistant Sarah Jones. Jones was killed by a freight train during the filming of ‘Midnight Rider’ in Georgia, a film Miller was directing and producing.
As part of his probation, Miller was barred from working as a “director, first assistant director or supervisor with responsibility for safety in any film production”. Despite this, he was still hired to direct ‘Higher Grounds'. Officials argued that doing so violated his probation, but a judge eventually ruled that, because Miller’s lawyers were able to argue that he wasn’t “responsible for safety” on the set, he technically hadn’t broken any rules.
‘Coffee Wars’, as the film is now called, was released to little fanfare on streaming services earlier this year. While it was covered by the vegan press, coffee media has steered clear. It’s pretty obvious that the controversy around Miller’s participation has made people wary of the film. I find it strange that those involved didn’t google his name before signing on, and in fact it’s slightly baffling that he was offered the job at all.
But then, according to Variety the vegan trust that funded the movie actively sought Miller out to direct—the financiers admired his 2008 film ‘Bottle Shock’, about the California wine industry, and hoped he could “make something similar for the vegan cause.”
All of which is a pity, because ‘Coffee Wars’ could have been exactly what the coffee world was looking for in a cinematic representation: it’s goofy and slightly low-budget, but also high-energy and well-intentioned. There’s an alternate reality where this film becomes a cult classic among coffee folk, playing to rapturous receptions at late night coffee festival screenings.
I’m not going to publish the interview—after mulling it over, I’ve decided that it doesn’t really say anything. I did ask Nash about the controversy surrounding ‘Coffee Wars’, and also asked the PR firm I was in contact with to provide me with some sort of statement. Both declined to comment. It feels pointless to relay the rest of our conversation, which was perfectly pleasant and focused more on the vegan and coffee aspect of the movie, in the context of the wider story.
I still find it strange that the film was made in the first place—with this director, at least. It’s not like those involved could plead ignorance to knowledge of the Miller case. His conviction was big news in Hollywood at the time, as it was the first instance of a director being convicted over the death of a cast or crew member. (Since 1990, at least 47 people have died on film sets in the United States with hundreds more seriously injured.)
Whether the British cast were aware is another matter (although, again, Google is free) but the whole thing casts a shadow over ‘Coffee Wars’ that I’m not sure it will ever escape from. It makes sense that the film has had little coverage in the coffee press since its release and I don’t see Sprudge holding their promised screening anytime soon.
The father of Sarah Jones was present at the hearing where Miller was found not to have broken the terms of his probation by shooting ‘Coffee Wars’, and I’m going to leave the final words for him.
“I feel like [Miller] really has never accepted responsibility for what happened that day,” Richard Jones said of the case. “I truly do not wish him ill will. I only want him to accept responsibility for the part he took in Sarah’s death, and accept the ramifications of it.”