Recently I attended Nightstream Film Festival, a brand new virtual genre film festival, with a focus on horror but some other genre gems thrown in. One of those was Adam Rehmeier’s DINNER IN AMERICA starring Emily Skeggs and Kyle Gallner, which also won Best Audience Award at the fest. I was lucky enough to steal a few hours of Adam’s time (yes, we might have got a little carried away in discussion…) to talk all things Dinner in America and a little about his extreme horror film The Bunny Game.
I would describe DINNER IN AMERICA as the coming of age film I didn’t know I needed. Where did you take your inspiration for this heartfelt yet dark comedy?
It’s an accumulation. Because if we’re going to get real about it, it’s your life’s work. Meaning that if you’re a tinning fork and there’s this information coming in, it’s just about grabbing bits and pieces of that information, and using it to start with a seed of an idea. This film for me starts in 2006, I’m in the Midwest with my parents and it had been snowing, and I remember walking outside – I love when it’s really snowy and quiet, that’s probably one of my favourite things on earth, that quiet and stillness. Just my rhythm at the speed at which I was walking, on the sand and gravel, created this rhythm and that became Simon’s rhythm.
So I went back inside and jotted down this story about a punk rock kid and that came just from that walking sound. So it started with a sound, a rhythm, a cadence and that cadence was something I could sustain and images started flashing in. I sat down and I wrote down everything from the laboratory at the beginning to the dinner with the parents and the turkey. That was the initial idea and it was saved in a folder called ‘kicks’. So it was just a seed, a rhythm, and something I tried to interpret what it was.
With Simon and Patty, when first brought together, it’s hard to see how they will become entwined. Did you pull on any personal experiences you had? Both of the characters just feel so relatable and genuine and real.
Well I’ll tell you why they feel so relatable and lived in, it’s because of Kyle and Emily. It’s because of the energy they brought to the characters. As a director it’s energy management; energy management of your crew, your DP, sound engineer, everybody, your energy management of the cast. I like to set everything up before we do it so when we’re on the day it’s just very easy and expected, so the character work is discovered before the shoot. I’m surprised how many shoots and sets I’ve been on where people just show up on the day and they’re just falling into scenes and doing small refinements. I trust my talent but there’s also a preliminary period, with this film I had 2 weeks with Emily and Kyle, so we could bond. How I did it was the most obvious way as I feel music is the great unifier between people. They already had mixtapes from when they had been cast, they already had records for Simon and Patty and I would call those mixes in-character mixes so it’s not what I would choose, it’s what Patty or Simon would choose. The real connector for all of us was music, as it’s a universal connector and so easy to speak the language. So the first thing we did together was all of the music for the film, so our first day together we went to the recording studio, we did all the punk stuff with Kyle and brought in this awesome band, and on the second day we went in the studio and Emily and I wrote the Watermelon song.
The Watermelon song is incredible, I absolutely loved it and as soon as I finished I needed to know how I could get my hands on it. But like you said, it’s music that really connects the whole film together.
Exactly. On this project, the clearest path for me as a director was to record the music first, not like 2 weeks into the film, because honestly you’re never clear in production, so I wanted to do that upfront. This hypothetical song that she belts out in the movie was stressful because it’s such a pivotal point and a lot hinges on it, I would argue that absolutely everything leads to that moment and it’s kind of the climax to the movie, with everything else as just this resolution from it. But that’s the real climax of the movie.
There’s a scene where we expect Simon to beat the shit out of two guys, but we’re surprised to find he actually gets beaten the fuck out of. With this and other scenes you pushed past typical stereotypes. Was it intentional to push past these stereotypes?
For this film I pretty much had a beginning and an ending, and with most things I’m very meticulous with outlining, but this film I was a lot looser with it. So when it came to the scene where Simon gets beaten up by the two jocks, you want him to pick up a crowbar and smash their heads in, but this was just what came to it at the time and in the real world guys like Dereck and Brandon kick the shit out of someone like Simon. It’s not a fair fight to begin with, it’s two on one. So it wasn’t intentional.
And because of that reality, all the characters in the film just feel so real.
Well if we didn’t have that we wouldn’t be able to have the sequence that we have there in the film. For me my favourite part of that is when Simon’s like “Buckle up, I drive fucking nuts!” and yes he does drive fucking nuts. And that’s Kyle actually driving the car, it’s not on a tow rig…
You look a lot at dysfunctional families in the film, something we can all resonate with. How did you figure out the dynamics for each different family?
I knew what the film was going to be called when I was working on it, Dinner in America, so I saw that as an opportunity to have a theme. So there’s the dinners which are the four anchor points of the film. Once you think about those four pieces, you start building from there but there’s also stuff that’s like a mini story within each of those. Everything is food related in the film, there are layers and lakers of food, if you look there’s food in nearly every frame of the film, it’s very centered around eating and consuming. I’ve used those four dinner as the anchor points, and I was conscious of a theme in the dinner, so when we get to the end and we’ve seen this punk kid go through all these series of dinners and eating related scenes like in the convenience store with the hot dog and at the diner with the punk band is eating burgers and he eats a burger with Patty. But having the punchline that his best meal is in prison (big spoiler), it became a gag throughout the entire film. It’s just so funny that this kid spends all this time moving through the world and the best meal he has is because of an illegal thing happening in prison, something happening from corruption.
So, is it genuinely hard to find a good dinner in America?
No it’s not hard to find a good dinner in America. But it depends where you are. If you’re dining out it could be harder in the Midwest. I’m a bit of a food snob but I’m also not really. Having lived in LA for 20 years, having access to great markets and produce and stuff, better meat, fresh fish, it’s not hard to get a good meal in America but I think it’s increasingly hard in small towns as they are drying up, lots of food chains, fast food chains and a lot of bullshit.
That’s always good to know. Okay, another thing I also love… Wow I sound like I’m fangirling here!
You can be a fangirl with Patty! She’s an everygirl. That’s what I wanted to say before, that’s what I love about this is that women and men are connecting with her and she’s an everygirl. Which I think is so important to see. Emily is an evergirl and she’s amazing, she’s an amazing talent. Working with her was an absolute joy, and I think watching this film people just connect with her. It’s been a theme that has been repeating again and again and again as we screen in different places. Especially girls, they just fall in love with her because they were that girl with the crush on on the nasty punk boy.
Your portrayal of sexuality and virginity is really well done compared to a lot of other films that show it in a really bizarre light. Was that Emily that brought the realness or was it you? Did you speak to females?
It’s all articulation in that process, and I think a lot of it is so intuitive and a lot of it is telepathy. In any working relationship you’re going to have to decide on how available you are for the other person and I make myself very available, yet most of the work is silent work that we do. It starts on that page and if you can articulate it on the page. Emily was that awkward girl, to the point that the chuck taylor shoes she wears, those are her actual shoes that she wore when she was 15 years old. So she’s wearing part of her childhood in the film, and has that emotional reference point. The work that we do in preparation is not super deep, there’s not a trick to it, yet it’s all encompassing. I’m never sitting there with my actors telling them to do something, all of their intuition is correct for their character. As long as we do our homework before, it’s a thing that you feel, an energy you feel. You reap what you sow, and you get out what you put in so if you trust fully and they know that you’re catching them and they are just doing what they do naturally. And that’s where the real beautiful parts can flourish, and you’re coming at this like Simon and Patty are in the basement; when you make production an environment where good things can flourish, they will. When there’s rule and regulations, you’ll never make something with heart.
It’s coming from a genuine place, and Kyle and Emily are the vessels for this whole thing, it doesn’t work without them being 100% invested. This was such a hard script and I’m so proud of these two because the script is very hard if you’re not fully invested, it just simply won’t work. If that song isn’t an earworm in your head then this film just wont work.
Most of my readers will know you for your extremely controversial film THE BUNNY GAME. How come you took quite a different direction with DINNER IN AMERICA?
All of my projects are completely different from one another, they’re all like their own little thing. My genesis of The Bunny Game – Rodleen Gestic was my filmmaking partner and the emotional route for that story was in her own abduction that she had. So the seed was planted there and my desire to make a type of horror film at the time, and it was a true collaboration where she had this idea. She had a story, something that had happened to her and it morphed into this concept. The way we worked in that experience was so different to this, so the design and the rules were totally different but the same energy of collaboration and that dedication was there. She did things for the film, like fasting for 30 days before we shot, well it actually turned out to be 40 days. We spent years figuring out what we wanted her to look like, and in that situation it was like 30,000 photographs we had taken over a certain period of time and honing what this person looked liked. That was a fully improvised film, with just bullet points and everything we did in the film was a one take wonder, we didn’t reshoot anything. I used the camera like a documentary and shot everything free-hand.
Just her level of dedication made it worthwhile. It’s so polarising, that the film leans towards either revered as arthouse cinema or complete trash. We’ve had from the New York Times doing a spot on us to really rad European outlets to coffee table magazines including us. We were in academia papers in the UK, Scotland and Wales, these were 80-90 page thesis’. It was controversial and gave us a voice to speak out about censorship and other important issues. But a lot about the process and dedication I expect, it’s the same kind of expectations every time I work. Why make a film like that? Because it was an opportunity to work with Rodleen in a way, and a one of a kind experience, it’s half of her energy and half of mine. That’s what was so cool about it too, was that this was a cathartic process for her because this is someone that has escaped from a capture, and she was able to process that and do something with that, that’s art, that is what art is. It’s working with someone like that. Do I like the film? No. I made it as an extreme horror film, and it leans towards experimental too.
Time and time again when it came to The Bunny Game so many people have claimed it’s awful because of what Rodleen was put through and even gone as far to say the film is misogynistic.
Well that’s not true because it’s half of her energy. She actually controlled that aspect, and there were scenarios that were set but this was anti-direction. Because I was also operating at the time, we had spent 5 years learning how to dance with each other on the camera. Misogynistic? No, not at all. For it to be misogynistic, there would have to be some slant where I’m like some kind of controlling director… Just the idea that this was some kind of production that had hierarchy is not true, there was me, there was Rodleen and there was the truck driver. We were the only people there. So there is no misogyny. Misogyny is real, but it’s real life. I had an encounter with that truck driver on a film in Montana, he threatened me and attacked me. I couldn’t find a man that could match the intensity of Rodleen, I couldn’t find an actor that could do it, I couldn’t find someone that could control her spirit and just how large she is in life, her energy. Jeff was the only guy I could remotely think of. He tried to bash my fucking face in on a film on Montana. I was thinking for The Bunny Game, who could play next to Rodleen, she’s so powerful, free and fierce. So if it wasn’t someone that matched that intensity, it wouldn’t work. Jeff is that embodiment of masculine and aggressiveness, and I needed that to make it work. Because neither of them were actors it gave this disturbing sense to the film.
Watching extreme films are often empowering for women, something I feel when watching and can tell that Rodleen felt whilst making The Bunny Game.
I feel like it was for her, actually I know it was for her. But it was also very draining, because you’re giving everything and that only happens once. So a lot of it was like street performance with a hidden camera. The sad part is, you can talk about misogynistic, you can talk about all of these things but the fact is when I was hidden and no-one was around and didn’t know she was with filming, and she’s stumbling down the street and she falls, she falls into the gutter and stays down. Do you think people helped her or laughed at her? They laughed at her. They walked over her and pointed at her and laughed, women laughed at her. No-one rushed to help her in downtown LA. Not a single person asked her if she was okay – no-one could see me. No-one ever helped her. That’s the truth. I don’t focus on what someone is going to think of the film when making it because as long as I’m still able to do this, I want to push myself into as many interesting projects with interesting characters. Don’t expect some marginal story with marginal characters, I love characters too much that I’ll never make anything like that.
And that’s exactly what comes through with Dinner in America, it’s a film with great storylines, great music, comedy, very dark and takes you by surprise. But the heart of the film lies within the characters and reality of it. It is a character driven film with so much fun and positivity around it.
That’s exactly what you can expect from me each time, a deep dive in characters in a way that we haven’t seen before. This film is a film for genre freaks like me, I made this film for people who don’t like normal romantic comedies, this is our film. I’m a genre freak, this is for us and our group of people.
A huge thank you to Adam for taking the time to chat to me!