Filmmaker Interview: Alison Bagnall (“The Dish and the Spoon”)

Get your tickets now for the NY Premiere of the The Dish and the Spoon, this Friday, June 3rd at 350 Grand St in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

This Friday, Rooftop Films kicks off our SXSW Weekend the NY Premiere of Alison Bagnall’s new film The Dish and The Spoon, a charmingly off-kilter romance featuring magnetic performances from indie starlet Greta Gerwig and newcomer Ollie Alexander.

Gerwig (Greenberg, Arthur) plays Rose, a woman on the run from a crumbling marriage, whose life collides with that of a world weary British teen (Alexander),  forever changing them both. Rooftop’s Kathryn Tam spoke to director Alison Bagnall about the extraordinary performances she was able to get from Gerwig and Alexander, and her attraction to the magical realism that seems to permeate periods of intense crisis.

Rooftop Films: What’s the film about?

Alison Bagnall: I have an attraction to those periods of crisis which feel so terrible in the moment that you are living them, but which – in hindsight – can feel like a dream.  That you are nostalgic for.  Or sometimes you can meet a stranger for a brief period and imagine an entire alternate life…which then never comes to be.  But you carry around the memory of the few days you spent in the company of that person.  That memory can feel magical and perfect.  It never gets polluted by the mundane and the practical that come with actually navigating a relationship.

RF: Although Olly Alexander plays a major role in the film, his character remains unnamed, merely listed as “the Boy” in the credits. Why is this?

AB: We tried to come up with names for Olly’s character, and hadn’t found one that felt right.  Then i started to want to not find out his name.  I thought of his character as having tinges of an apparition, or like he fell out of the sky.  So because a name never came naturally, I listened to that and didn’t try to force a name onto him.  Some people think that Greta’s character was so self-absorbed that she never bothered to ask his name.  That was not the intention, however.

RF: In the film, we see the Boy drawing cubes on the car window, playing with puzzles, and meticulously cutting potatoes into near-perfect cubes. Do these geometric shapes and patterns say something about his character, or even about the film as a whole?

AB: Olly Alexander likes cubes.  He has a tattoo of a cube on his arm.  I didn’t ask him to draw the cubes on the car window – I didn’t see them until I watched the dailies.  And I didn’t ask him to cube the potatoes in the kitchen scene – that was just Olly.  Ideally a film character is a merging of an actor’s own self with the character on the page.  When they use their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, it gives a nice specificity to the character that is better than anything I could make up.

There is something about those cubes that – as a metaphor – evoke safety in their perfection.  They’re reassuring and regular.  And his ‘cubing’ feel like a self-soothing impulse.  I see his character as having gone through some harsh experiences at a young age, and as having been on his own from too young an age.  I felt he would have good reasons for craving the regularity and perfection of a cube.  With puzzles, you’re putting broken pieces back together-a connected impulse.  But honestly, this is the first time I’ve ever consciously thought of why those things are in the film.  I never questioned it before.

RF: The film takes place on the Delaware Beaches, a place that seems to have seen better days. Yet the film seems to be able to romanticize the place. Is there a reason for this choice of location? Do you have any personal experiences there?

AB: ‘There’s no art without limitations’.  I had very little money with which to make this movie and was trying to figure out how to make it cheaply.  I was discussing it with our DP Mark Schwartzbard and initially he had said, ‘well if you only have that much money you’ll have to shoot it in New York so you don’t have to house and feed everyone.’  But then he called back and we talked about how we didn’t want to make another Indie movie set in New York and also, there is a great focus that comes with a whole crew being stuck on location together, when they can’t go back home to their regular lives every evening.  So I tried to think of locations that would be ultra-inexpensive and also might fit the story.  Seaside towns are full of empty rental cottages in the winter so I thought that we would get housing cheaply and locations as well.  I figured that it would be filmmaker friendly as the locals welcome the departure of the throngs but – at the same time – life can get a little dull and lonely in the off season.

I like the look of a seaside town better in winter than summer.  It was like a big empty playground for us.

The Delaware beaches have not been as built up as other parts of the Atlantic coast (if you exclude the massive outlet malls on Highway 1.  They are more like the beach towns that I remembered from my childhood, with areas – like Broadkill Beach – that still had ramshackle fisherman’s cottages.  There is also a nature preserve so there were thousands of birds around.  Rehoboth Beach – where we shot a lot of the film – is actually quite upscale, but we used the corners that were more rundown and old-fashioned looking.  I like films with a timeless quality, where it’s hard to tell what year they were filmed in.

RF: Throughout the film, we see Gerwig and Alexander constantly playing “dress-up.” Does this “dress-up,” or theme of playing “house” in general, have a greater meaning in the film?

AB: I see the Greta’s and Olly’s characters as reverting to a quasi child-like state in this moment of upheaval that we meet them.  And I see their adventure together as a flight of innocence with shades of adult darkness creeping in at the edges.  And I do see them as ‘playing house’ together, sort of living an imagined life together.  Greta said after watching the film that she found herself wishing that there were an alternate world where these two actually could be together.  All of these elements – the dress-up, the role-playing – are meant to add to that sense of playfulness and stepping out of the adult world of responsibilities and the mundane.

RF: The cheated-on wife has been portrayed in films many times before, but Greta Gerwig seems to be able to take that character to the next level of realness, to the point where we begin to feel just as uncomfortable as the Boy witnessing Rose’s episodes in person. Did any of your past experiences impact the character development or plot of the film in any way?

AB: I’ve had a couple experiences with betraying and being betrayed and I have always been amazed at what anguish, even criminal impulses betrayal can cause. I have read with pained fascination about spouses doing violent things after a betrayal – the husband who shoots his wife and her lover; the female astronaut who was discovered with a trunkful of weapons which she planned to use to off her romantic rival; a woman in the fancy Philadelphia suburb who was arrested for beating up the au pair.  I thought it would be compelling – knowing Greta – to watch her playing a wife who has come unhinged.  Greta has the ability to go from light and wacky to wrenchingly poignant.  I didn’t do a lot to get such a visceral performance from Greta in this movie.  I just put her character in this situation and let Greta bring what she wanted to it, and then tried to get out of her way.  I love Greta’s portrayal of this woman in this moment of personal calamity.  I wanted people to be able to laugh at the character’s behavior, because I think people can be quite funny in these situations, though it never feels funny to them.  Greta is able to make sad, uncomfortable things funny.  And poignant at the same time.

RF: What was your process in working with Greta and Olly to create such a natural relationship?

AB: I tried to let their natural impulses and responses to each other play out, without trying to force anything.  I had initially planned for this film to be much more of a romance, or at least a lot more sexual.  But then Greta said, ‘oh I would never go for this kid’.   I think that was partly because of his age and partly because of where her character is emotionally.  But I didn’t try to fight it.  I let that play into the story and we just changed the story based on their responses to each other.  And Greta was such a whirling dervish that it was easy for Olly to rely on his natural responses to her.  Whether he is just watching her like she’s a zoo animal, or falling in love with her, or being abused by her.  She gave him a lot of stimulus to react to.

RF: What is your next project?

AB: I am developing a film called FUNNY BUNNY.  It is much more of a comedy than The Dish & The Spoon, and more of a love story too.  Olly Alexander will be in it.  I also want to write another movie for Greta Gerwig.

RF: What excites you about screening at Rooftop Films?

AB: Some of my most memorable cinematic memories are of seeing movies at open air screenings.  I watched Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, at an open-air screening at the Fortezza Belvedere in Florence.  When you watch a movie outdoors like that, there are so many more sensory elements at work in addition to the film itself..the warm breeze, the moon and clouds over head, buzzing insects.  It stimulates more of your senses than if you are in the black box of a theater, which can be great in its own way.  But I find that a movie gets deeper into my tissues when I have seen it outdoors.  The Dish and The Spoon was conceived to be somewhat of a magical dream, so I feel it might mesh well with the magic of being up in the night sky.  That is part of why Rooftop Films wanted to screen it.  They said that films with some magic play well on their rooftops.

The Dish and the Spoon makes its NY Premiere this Friday at Rooftop Films. Greta Gerwig and Alison Bagnall will be there in person for a Q&A following the show. Get your tickets now.