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Actors Nina Katlein and Alexander Sladek, and Director, Peter Hengl, from Family Dinner
Issue 38: On working with food stylists and eating on film in this food-centered horror movie.
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Tired of feeling down about her weight, plus-sized 15-year-old Simi (Nina Katlein) heads to her aunt Claudia’s house for Easter weekend. Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) is a popular nutritionist who’s written best-selling health books, so for Simi, spending a few days together could help change her diet and inspire weight loss. What should’ve been a nice holiday weekend with family, however, quickly reveals itself to be anything but. Simi’s cousin, Filipp (Alexander Sladek), is curiously hostile towards her, while Filipp’s stepdad, Stefan (Michael Pink), is curiously the opposite towards Simi, all while Claudia’s dietary guidance verges on becoming overly militant. What’s causing everyone to act so strangely and aggressively? The answers are even worse than Simi’s worst nightmares.
Family Dinner is currently playing at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival and I caught up with two of the film’s young actors and its director about the role food plays in their film, working with food stylists, and eating on camera.
If you’re in New York, you can catch the final screening this Wednesday, June 15th at the Tribeca Film Center. Get tickets here.
Brianna Plaza: Can you tell me why you wanted to write and direct a film that focuses on body image and weight loss as part of the central core of the film?
Peter Hengl: To be honest, I don't know. It just came about. The process of creating the story of the film was really long and winding, and with lots of missteps and figuring it out. And at some point, I just came across this idea and across this story, and suddenly everything clicked and it just felt right and I knew I had to do this. From that moment, I knew that's what the film was going to be about.
Brianna Plaza: There's so much food in many of the scenes. How did you decide what dishes you wanted to focus on?
Peter Hengl: The main idea was opulence and to have food that's mouthwatering, but the decision on which food is shown isn't hugely symbolic. The production designer and I got together and she essentially made a list of suggestions and we discussed it, and we chose the stuff that we liked and that we felt would be visually appealing to create this mouthwatering experience for audiences. The film is very much about someone who's not allowed to eat and has to watch others eat this good looking food. I think that's the worst, and that's horrible, when you see great food and you're not allowed to eat it.
Nina Katlein: Yea, it’s horrible when you're really hungry.
Alexander Sladek: I was the only one that was able to eat the food and it all looked really delicious. But, a lot of the time it was cold because we had to do multiple takes, but it still tasted really great.
Nina Katlein: It was a little bit complicated because we are four actors and three of us are vegetarian/vegan. Alexander is the only one who isn’t.
Nina Katlein: We used fake meat and it was really disgusting. It was cold and it was like chewing gum. You couldn't swallow because ... It was actually really disgusting.
Brianna Plaza: What is that like having to eat on film when you have to do multiple takes?
Peter Hengl: It's terribly complex because you always have to keep an eye on continuity. So you have 12 plates of the same food ready and you just switch them out because you never know how many you're going to need. It looks like it's a lot of fun, but it's like eating one bite and then, okay, reset. It's not that fun to work with and it was quite a hassle, but I think since we had such a great team, we really made it work. I'm really happy because I always knew that food was going to be so important in that film and that it worked so well. It really, really makes me happy.
Brianna Plaza: You said you worked with food stylists. Did you also have a team of chefs come in or did the food stylist just cook everything?
Peter Hengl: The stylists are chefs, but they work professionally as food stylists to create food for advertisement or films to look appealing and also be edible because most of the time the food has to be eaten. That was something that surprised me because I hadn't worked with food stylists before and my idea of food styling was this old school kind of idea that you're using hair spray and all kinds of stuff. That is actually really disgusting and when we talked to them first, they were like, no, we want to make it look appealing, but we actually cook food so it can be eaten. Everything you see on screen was 100% percent edible.
Alexander Sladek: The funny thing is Filipp’s favorite meal in the film is fish and I don't like fish. It was originally supposed to be wiener schnitzel, and I love wiener schnitzel, so I was really excited about that, and then Peter told me, "Yeah, we switched it out." Luckily Filipp really doesn't eat that much because he's got some issues so I didn't have to eat too much of it.
Brianna Plaza: Alexander doesn’t like fish and you, Nina, ate fake meat in the final scene. How hard is the acting when you’re trying to make it seem like you like it?
Nina Katlein: It was interesting because you have to just eat, and eat, and eat, and you have no chance to really swallow. So in the end, I often spit it out because my mouth was full. It was kind of hard, but it was something completely different. I've never had to do something like that before.
Alexander Sladek: Filipp’s mother thinks his favorite food is fish, but that’s her idea because she wants her son to live a healthy life and eat healthy things, but he doesn’t actually love fish. So I think I didn't really have to like the fish because I think my character was pretending to like it as well.
Peter Hengl: Except you really liked her pancakes.
Alexander Sladek: I really stuffed them into my mouth and they kept giving me the bucket saying, "You can spit it out if you want." It's like, "No, I'm going to eat that. It's just so good."
Peter Hengl: He ate so many of those, because for people who saw the film, that's the scene where Filipp really digs in and we did quite a number of takes and everyone was surprised that he was still eating all of the pancakes.
Brianna Plaza: There are a lot of scenes where there's cooking or hunting. How did the crew and cast train to make that look real on screen?
Peter Hengl: We had a hunting consultant. And so Michael, the actor who plays the step dad, is a vegan, but he has to skin a rabbit on film and I was terrified of that because that's tough to do for anyone who has never done it before and you don't really have a chance of rehearsing that. We had six rabbits that we could actually skin so that's the number of takes we had. What we did is we chose a hunting consultant who was also a hand model for Michael and we were prepared to do close ups of the hunting consultants hand for use in the film, and we were like, okay, if for some reason this doesn't work with Michael, we can do closeups of him and use the hand tool.
First, we did a few takes of the closeups of the hand so Michael could actually see what he was supposed to do, and then he did it and he did it better than the hunting consultant. I was really amazed at the degree of dedication and professionalism he showed in that scene. He's not just a brilliant actor, but also a very dedicated and professional actor to perform such a scene. It wasn’t just a performance, but actually doing something that was very intense to see performed.