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celebrity chef exacts revenge on a food blogger who torpedoes his
The origins of BITTER FEAST go back to June, 2007. I was reading a Frank Bruni review of Gordon Ramsay’s first New York City restaurant, “London Hotel.” There was a lassitude in Bruni’s writing that gave you the sense he liked the food, but wanted to dislike it, and so he delivered this odd, middling, lazy review, ultimately condemning it for lack of what Bruni considered “the most important thing of all – excitement.” It struck me that this was totally ridiculous and unfair. Then I started thinking what I would do to Frank Bruni if I were Gordon Ramsay. After many strange imaginings, I concluded that more than anything else, what Ramsay would probably want is to somehow force Bruni to live in Ramsay’s shoes for a bit, to teach him empathy, to force him to care about cooking with the intensity that Ramsay cared about it, and then to randomly and arbitrarily shit all over Bruni’s dreams. Thus, BITTER FEAST.
Jump to two years later, the winter of 2009. Larry Fessenden, a pal from NYC and the festival circuit, called to ask if I had any horror scripts I wanted to make on a very low budget. At first I said no, but then I remembered this Frank Bruni review, and it suddenly occurred to me that while not a horror tale in the strictest sense, there certainly was the potential to explore the horrific repercussions of real human cruelty and indifference. Larry, Brent Kunkle and Pete Phok (the Glasseye triumvirate) also saw the genre potential, and together we shaped and molded this core idea of a man driven to excessive cruelty by the cruelty which he himself has been forced to endure throughout his life.
The challenges of making BITTER FEAST were many, but I only seem to remember the fun we had and the joy of finally working with a “real” crew, complete with a real gaffer (Brandon Taylor); the audio duo of Alison Jackson and Kate Driscoll (in the past I’ve always done my own sound); the sublime production design of Beck Underwood; Brian Spears’ special FX make-up; Liz Vastola as the one-woman wardrobe machine; and Michael “McFilthy” McDonough behind the camera and martini mixer, to name but a few. Still, there were only 14 shoot days and we quite literally sprinted through the schedule. To facilitate shooting in the woods at night without lights we shot on two Canon 5D Mark II SR cameras which have tremendous low-light capabilities. Trying to keep the actors in focus, given the super-duper shallow depth of field of the still lenses, was a constant challenge that gave McD and our B-camera operator Eric Branco fits, but somehow we prevailed, coaxed along from day to day by the delectability of Larry and line producer’s Jacob Jaffke’s cooking, and nightly ice-cold wrap beers.
On my first three films I focused entirely on writing and working with the actors. The logistical challenges on BITTER FEAST forced me to focus more on what the camera was doing, special FX, stunts, etc. I was extremely fortunate then to have James LeGros leading our cast. James showed up with the entire script memorized and an entire life, complete with verbal tics and a special little strut, worked out for Peter Grey. Ditto for Joshua Leonard, Amy Seimetz, John Speradakos and of course the ineluctable Larry Fessenden as private investigator Bill Coley.
In preparation for the film, Michael McDonough and I watched several films. Oddly enough, the picture which had the greatest influence on our shooting was “All the President’s Men.” There was something about the darkness of Gordon Willis’ frames that excited and inspired us and seemed appropriate to tell the sad tale of Peter Grey and his unfortunate collision with JT Franks. We were crazy with darkness and frames blotted out by mysterious objects and people moving in and out of the foreground. At the end of every day I would ask McD if we’d gone far enough and he assured me we had. I hope we did.
- Joe Maggio
In partnering with Dark Sky Films to make a slate of ultra no budget movies, Glass Eye Pix was committing to a daunting task: to deliver quality genre fare for almost no money. In thinking of resourceful filmmakers to meet the challenge, my mind drifted to Joe Maggio who I knew had made a number of no-budget features with strong performances. I invited Joe to try his hand at a genre script and the story he proposed was absolutely delicious. Originally titled MAD CHEF, it was a spare character piece about two smart and willful professionals engaged in a battle of wits. It reminded me of movies like SLEUTH and DEATHRAP: wicked and tense.
Because Joe had in the past worked as the sound mixer and boom operator on his own films while at the same time directing, we were able to conceive of an extremely small crew and still provide Joe with a bit more than he was used to, with producer Brent Kunkle doubling as Maggio’s Assistant director. Another strategy to remain lean was the choice to shoot on the Canon 5D still camera with its 30fps video capability. When we made this decision in June of 2009 it was an unusual move, and we were among the very first to make a narrative feature on the device. The benefits of the camera are its extreme low light capabilities, its portability, and the diversity of lenses available for it. Mike McDonough, our cinematographer, was able to give the project a film look by limiting his depth of field.
The production called for several New York City locations including two restaurants, two apartments and a television studio, all of which were shot out in five days. The remainder of the story was lensed in 9 days in a house and surrounding woods in upstate New York— the same house where the Glass Eye Pix production WENDIGO had been shot in 2000. The entire crew was able to live in the location, giving the 14 day shoot the feel of an extended camping trip, and engendering a distinct camaraderie among all involved. Meals were prepared fresh daily in the very kitchen which would hours later be transformed into the sparse set, and more often than not there was barbeque for dinner. In fact one of the great challenges for production designer Beck Underwood was to make the house appear austere and unoccupied, when in truth there was a crew member dwelling in nearly every nook and cranny of the place. The producer’s son had to give up his room to the wardrobe department and live in a closet for the duration of the shoot and Brian Spears the fx artist lived in a chicken coop.
Production wrapped in early July with one scene remaining to shoot: The sequence with world-renowned chef Mario Batali. This scene was filmed several months later to accommodate his and Le Gros’ busy schedules. It is not the first time Glass Eye Pix has shut down a production and waited for an actor’s availability; I SELL THE DEAD took a four-month hiatus from shooting to accommodate Ron Perlman’s schedule. A bigger production might be ill-advised to take on these sorts of risks.
In post-production, it was decided that to further enhance the look of the film, we would down-convert the frame rate to 24 frames per second. Though this took some trial and error on the part of producer Peter Phok and editor Seth Anderson, the results were worth it. Similarly, we pushed the film’s color boundaries with the help of the colorist, Milan Boncich, at Offhollywood. Our usual sound team, designer Graham Reznick, composer Jeff Grace and post facility Digit Audio, lent their skills to the aural landscape of the film, providing this humble production a big movie sound.
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