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Fango’s visit to the set of writer/director Joe Maggio’s revenge shocker BITTER FEAST (opening Friday, October 15 at Brooklyn, NY’s reRun Gastropub Theater; see the first part of this story here) is taking place months after the main portion of shooting, at a restaurant in lower Manhattan. The reason the film is being wrapped up so far removed from the rest of its production (most of which took place in upstate New York) is simple: a brief onscreen turn by real-life celebrity chef Mario Batali, who briefly essays the boss of onscreen celebrity chef Peter Grey (James LeGros) and bears some seriously bad news for him.
This very apropos cameo (“In a food movie, it’s the perfect hook for the foodies to be drawn into what is otherwise quite a shocking horror picture,” producer Larry Fessenden notes) wouldn’t have happened without Fessenden’s very non-mainstream belief in making films on your own time. “In the old days, you’d have rental houses, and you’d have to rent everything and shoot it all in 18 days or whatever it was. In the case of [his second feature] HABIT, the DP owned the camera, so we were able to spread out the shoot. We were basically able to shoot half a day and say, ‘Is everybody cool? Let’s just meet tomorrow and do the next scene right, rather than rush it through, because maybe you have in fact a job to do.’
“The point is, you can break open a schedule, though if you do a real movie, you get bonded, which means a bank is involved and they won’t let you leave a scene hanging. In this case, though, I invited Batali to be in the movie in July, and he said, ‘I’m going away for the summer.’ I said, ‘If we wait, can we shoot you in the fall?’ He said, ‘Well, sure, I’ll be around.’ You wouldn’t be able to do that on a real movie, because the banks would say, ‘That’s impossible, you can’t half-shoot your movie.’ So that was the risk we could take, because we’re taking a bit more of a ballsy approach, just trying to break the mold. It’s same thing with [his upcoming vampire thriller] STAKE LAND. We wanted the different seasons. It’s postapocalyptic, it’s epic and it’s supposed to take place over the course of a year. So we shot in summer in Pennsylvania, and we’re going back in November so we’ll have bare trees and a whole different vibe. The thing is, it’s production value, but you haven’t spent a single penny more because you’ve opened up the shoot. I encourage creative scheduling and budgeting; that’s how you get these movies made for nothing.”
Batali, who had recently made his acting debut providing a voiceover for Wes Anderson’s stop-motion feature THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, was glad to be a part of BITTER FEAST—despite the genre not being exactly his thing. “I’m very nervous around horror movies; I love the idea, but I’m squeamish around bloodshed,” he says. “I imagine whenever you make it, from the other side of the camera, you can see how it’s done and you’re ready for the tension moment to explode. I’ve never seen that side; I’m always a little jittery about it. So I don’t watch a lot of horror movies, but the idea of the torture and the chef and me playing the other side of the coin, I thought was hilarious. I think it will be fun.”
That “torture” comes in after Peter receives a scathing review from on-line blogger J.T. Franks (Joshua Leonard) that ruins his professional life, and decides to take exacting, food-specific revenge on him. BITTER FEAST marks LeGros’ second collaboration with Fessenden after the latter directed him in THE LAST WINTER. “FEAST was a really great script—very literary—and Greg Newman, our [Dark Sky Films] financier, seemed to really enjoy the idea,” Fessenden says. “I called James LeGros and said, ‘You’ve gotta be in this movie,’ and Joe was really excited by that choice.”
“This is my first time working with an actor of his stature, with his kind of experience,” Maggio says. “In the past I’ve worked with great actors, but we always had a long rehearsal period and they were a part of the formation of the script. I met James the day we started shooting, and I was amazed—he just showed up and knew all of his lines; it was fantastic. Again, it has changed the way I will approach future films. I find a lot of rehearsal can be good and bad. People do become familiar and comfortable with each other and the material, but it loses something, a freshness. Whereas with James, he walked on set, made some choices and we talked a little bit about the character, and he has just been so professional in what he’s doing. We haven’t talked it to death. It’s been a truly eye-opening experience.”
Eye-opening is often a good way to describe the films in Glass Eye Pix’s repertoire—both in terms of scares and deeper subtext. Given that Peter Grey specializes in organic and eco-friendly cuisine, Fango can’t help but wonder if that’s a Fessenden touch (since he previously addressed environmental concerns in LAST WINTER). “It is a theme in the film, it’s why I’m fond of the script, but it has nothing to do with me,” he insists. “I believe in those things for political and sustainable reasons. In the movie, it’s a little bit more that the chef is really uptight and has very strong standards. But that’s fun; you can poke fun at these things but know at the same time that there’s truth to it. And that’s kind of true of most pretensions. There’s some truth and intellectualism, but it’s also like, ‘Enough already, dude.’
“In this film, what happens is that he’s so manically organic that he’s kind of obsessive, and it’s sort of an indication of his mania. There’s a nice backstory where he has a tragedy in his past, and that’s what sort of haunts him. It’s a very nice piece. So the organics came…organically, if I can say that, from Joe Maggio’s pen.”
So has Glass Eye’s recruitment of a filmmaker with no previous genre inclinations been a successful one? The head honcho sure thinks so. “Joe took to it rather well, frighteningly well,” Fessenden raves. “In other words, what I actually came to learn about Joe is he has a lot of dark places in his soul, and it’s quite fun. He really drew on that. I believe any great filmmaker could dip into the genre, because it’s all there inside of us. Anger, resentments, bitterness; just push that a little further into violence, and there you have the makings of a great horror movie.”
Check out info on BITTER FEAST at its official website.
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