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“We got this going with Dark Sky Films, which is to say they gave us some money to make three movies and it was kind of up to me and my guys, Peter and Greg, to choose them,” says New York horror fixture and head of Glass Eye Pix, Larry Fessenden. “The budgets are microscopic, so my thinking was, ‘Who do I know who’s resourceful and can make a movie for no money?’ I thought of Joe Maggio, and the funny thing is, he’s an indie filmmaker who’s not known for horror or any of that stuff. But I just thought that Joe maybe had a dark side, so the fun thing was inviting him to make a genre movie—a scary movie.”
Fessenden is explaining the origins of Maggio’s BITTER FEAST amidst gusts of wind on an early autumn day in September 2009. We’re outside 10 Downing, a nothing if not cute and elegant little restaurant in New York City’s West Village. It’s a contemporary and trendy eatery that looks exactly like the kind of place where you would imagine the film’s celebrity-chef pro/antagonist, Peter Grey (James LeGros), would cook up a storm within. And a storm is being cooked up, both inside and out. The heavy bursts of chilly air that often interrupt Fango’s conversation with Fessenden parallel the heavy bursts of anger inside, as writer/director Maggio films one of BITTER FEAST’s early but most pivotal scenes—that of Peter reaching his breaking point.
BITTER FEAST (making its commercial debut with a run beginning this Friday, October 15 at Brooklyn, NY’s reRun Gastropub Theater) centers on Peter, whose life comes unraveled thanks to a single bad review—one that costs him his career. Peter decides to track down the blogger responsible—J.T. Franks, played by Joshua Leonard—and teach him a brutal and bitter lesson. “He [Maggio] came up with this,” Fessenden continues. “It’s just perfect for my tastes, you know. It’s about the carnage of meat, which is a theme I’ve often wanted to explore. It’s also about how, as an artist—who in this case is a chef—you have to deal with your critics. It’s a very universal thing. All of us want to pummel the people who criticize and critique us, and basically take them down into a basement and torture them.”
If anything, beyond serving as a catharsis for spurned creatives everywhere, the movie is most definitely a further testament to the LAST WINTER director’s suspicions about the more sinister side of all of us. The very affable and energetic Maggio not only jumped at the opportunity to join forces with the filmmaker, but also had already been working on the concept that turned into FEAST. “First of all, I was excited that it was Larry, whose films I have a great deal of respect for, and I was excited at the thought of being invited into Glass Eye Pix,” he says. “I had a script that was not really a horror film—it was more of a creepy drama that I wasn’t doing anything with—and Larry encouraged me to make some changes that he thought would be acceptable to his investors, and we just took it from there. I have to be honest with you; I never really thought it was going to go anywhere. I did it as an exercise in writing genre. If anything, I thought it might come in handy if I ever wanted to try and get some work script-doctoring horror films.”
Even writing exercises are spawned from sort of inspiration and impulse, however. “I’m a bit of a foodie,” Maggio notes. “I read all about food, I love to shop at green markets whenever I can. And there was a review The New York Times did of Gordon Ramsey’s new restaurant. I remember reading it, and there was one phrase that stuck out. The critic, Frank Bruni, basically said that he felt that the food ‘lacked excitement,’ and I thought, ‘What a bullshit thing to say.’ If a guy like this trashes someone, there are very real repercussions. He can sink a restaurant; I don’t know if he can sink a Gordon Ramsey place, but still I thought, ‘What a lazy thing to say.’ This guy has put all his time and effort and passion and energy into opening this restaurant, and in a split second, this one line can undo all. And I thought, ‘If I were Gordon Ramsey, I would hunt the guy down and beat the shit out of him.’ And then I thought, ‘There’s an interesting idea.’ It just sort of grew from there. In its initial, original incarnation, he didn’t get quite as torturous and things weren’t as violent and gory. That was added later when I knew I was going to make it more of a genre picture.”
The sequence being filmed, although the inciting event in the narrative, is actually coming at the very tail end of production, a few months after the bulk of the movie has wrapped, and after Maggio has had some time to reflect on his first experience with some good old blood splatter. “When it was done—when we had just finished doing it—I swore I would never do blood effects in a movie again,” Maggio exclaims. “Just because I thought going into it that it was like an automatic machine—press a button and the blood does exactly what you want it to do. In fact, it’s very hard to control, and once blood starts squirting everywhere, the reset to do a second take is a lot of work. You really have to be very, very precise, and every shot has to be planned out. I come from the school of letting the actors run with it and do whatever they want, and this was a rude awakening into real filmmaking, where you have to map things out like, ‘How is the stick gonna go in his face?’ and ‘Where’s the blood going to come from?’ and ‘When does he rip this head off?’
“But actually now,” he continues, “having gotten some distance, I like it, because you do know what you’re going to get if you go in with everything well-planned. [BITTER FEAST special makeup man] Brian Spears is a great effects artist, so I think I would do it again. I have to say, though, that it was very difficult, as we didn’t have a long shooting schedule. It was hard, but it worked.”
Like numerous microbudget features, BITTER FEAST was succesfully brought to fruition with the help of innovative technology, in this case thanks to director of photography Michael McDonough and 2nd-unit DP/camera operator Eric Branco, who shot the whole film on the Canon 5D—a digital still camera that also shoots video. “We invited Michael to participate in our little movie, and he said, ‘Hey, guys, are you aware of this new technology, the Canon 5D?’ ” Fessenden explains. “We said no, and he showed us. We did some tests and I in particular—because my whole m.o. is to have as little connection to the real world, and as much freedom as possible—loved the idea. He owned one and so did our comrade Eric Branco, who has shot a number of things for us, so suddenly we had both available for a two-camera shoot, and there you go. We didn’t have to deal with rental houses and all of those things, and the technology is very fine, very sensitive, very low-light. It looks awesome.”
Maggio agrees: “I was actually really excited about using this camera. I’d never shot on film, and I’m always looking for the newest thing that will allow me to get the most bang for the buck. Michael McDonough, first and foremost, felt very strongly about using it, and I have all the faith in the world in him. And then I did a little research. I asked other DPs and people I knew who were more familiar with the technology than I was, who said, ‘This is a game-changer of a camera.’ This thing is really muscular; you can get a lot out of it. I thought it was interesting, and in almost a gimmicky way, I loved the idea of shooting an entire feature on a still camera. That’s where other independent movies are going—always looking for the newest, most-bang-for-your-buck camera and this is definitely it.”
TO BE CONTINUED
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