In ‘FAMILY FEAST‘, a returning veteran and his ex-girlfriend visit their old friends the Blackwell’s for a vegan Thanksgiving feast that brings out secrets and passions everyone has bottled up since their previous gathering last Christmas. The Blackwell’s just want a cheerful and loving Thanksgiving like old times, but everyone gets much more than they bargained for as the night descends into scenes of creeping dread and uncomfortable humor as their true selves are revealed beneath the lentil loaf.
We talked with the film’s Writer/Director Andrew Lewis in anticipation of the film’s Wednesday, March 6 screening as part of The 3rd Annual Queens World Film Festival. The short film plays as part of the “Dinner Crumbs” block, held at the Jackson Heights Cinema in Queens, NY at 10:15pm.
Can you give us a brief ‘Director’s Statement’ describing your reasons for making this particular film?
In November of 2011 I shot my first short film and after the rush of being on set directing a film, I didn’t want to come down from that high. The next week was Thanksgiving and while my fiance (now wife), Emily, who also plays Elizabeth in ‘Family Feast‘, and I were preparing for dinner, I had this idea come to me of a bunch of mid to late twenty-somethings, some family, some friends, reuniting together for Thanksgiving after they’d each changed in ways that went against their original group dynamic. I had this image in my mind of everyone sitting at a table with food being served as tension developed because of the things, and relationships, they were all hiding from one another. Emily and I were preparing a vegan meal, and I thought it would add to the conflict and humour if one of the characters decided to have a vegan feast without getting approval from everyone. The first short I did was all exteriors over multiple locations, so for the next one I just wanted to see what I could do with an ensemble cast in one, confined location.
The film features extended dialogue sequences around a family’s unique Thanksgiving dinner. Can you break down the dinner sequence in terms of your directorial approach and aesthetic choices?
Initially during pre-production I wasn’t too interested in shooting handheld because I tend to favor the way a still camera can confine and create tension, but as I continued to break down the script with my DP, John Schmidt, we decided that putting the camera on a shoulder mount would allow us the freedom to move around and between the table. With an ensemble cast and multiple conflicts happening simultaneously, the shoulder mount allowed us to get inside the action and visualize these conflicts, moving from one to another. For Feast, getting a character’s reaction was just as, if not more, important to the scene than what was being said. So in the dinner scenes we usually favored set-ups that contained the speaker and at least one other character. The goal was to create a dynamic where what’s being said and what’s being interpreted are at conflict within the frame.
What are some of the influences behind ‘Family Feast’ ? How would you describe the genre of the film? Why?
The genre of what to label ‘Family Feast‘ has been interesting because when I watch the film, I see it as a sort of comedy of manners. It’s not gut busting hilarious but there are many funny moments that arise out of the tension and awkward encounters of these people trying and failing to conceal their private selves and not so “normative” tendencies. When submitting to a film festival, though, you have a small list of genres to choose from, and labeling your film as a comedy connotes a very specific kind of comedy style that ‘Family Feast‘ certainly is not. So for general purposes I’ve been labeling it as a drama because the film goes to some dark places, but when I talk with people like yourself about it, I’ve been more apt to call it a dark comedy. The best reaction I can hope for at a screening is one where half the audience finds it very funny because they can relate in some way, and the other half looks on with a knot in their stomach.
As far as influences go, I’m always returning to Roman Polanski and David Lynch. Particularly their ability to take create dread and tension out of situations and characters that, on paper, wouldn’t seem to have those qualities. Their films can be scary, hilarious, melodramatic, surreal, and mundane, all at the same time, and you watch them with this sort of “I have no idea how to react to this” quality. I guess I’ve always viewed life similar to the way it’s depicted in their work and have tried to reflect that in this film.
‘Family Feast‘ is not necessarily based on a personal experience but it definitely comes from a personal place. Being from a pretty small town in Michigan, growing up seemed to consist of a countless number of strange interactions that tended to be about what was not said. You tend to know everybody in a small town and, even with the people you’re not all that close with, you become privy to all sorts of personal and embarrassing things about them. While there’s typically an unstated agreement of what’s permissible to discuss and what’s, without question, not permissible, that agreement tends to get confused or broken. So in dramatic terms, I’ve always been attracted to these kinds of situations, where there’s something mysterious lurking and unstated, when the private and public blurs, because of the contradictory feelings and conflicts that arise out of them. While the characters in ‘Family Feast‘ may be having a conversation about their work or a new relationship or whatever, the visuals, the sound, and the performances are meant to communicate the very thing the characters are skirting around, a specific feeling that is permeating between them.
The film deals with traditional themes like family, conflict and love however it presents them in a way much more indicative of contemporary life. Was this a conscious decision or did the film’s fictitious events just happen to coincide with the rise of the “modern family” dynamic?
It wasn’t a conscious decision to examine or subvert the “modern family,” but it does seem like, after completing the film, those are definitely ideas the film is flirting with. The main focus for me when I was writing and shooting Feast, was the uncanny feeling that arises when you think you know everything there is to know about someone or a group of people and then realize that there is another hidden layer to them that you can’t, and may never, have access to. How to do you reconcile that or can you at all? It’s kind of a terrifying feeling and I wanted the film to match that dread. Even though this can happen anywhere, anytime, it does seem to be something that really starts to take hold in your mid-20s, when the people you’ve grown up with, who you’ve always been on relatively equal ground with, start to go in all these different directions, whether it be a career, a relationship, or whatever – and it’s weird. People start to be on unequal footing and communication can slowly break down. With leaving my small hometown in Michigan, getting married, moving to New York to be a filmmaker, and being in my twenties, it’s safe to say a lot of my own experiences with change and disconnect are present in the film
A returning Iraq war veteran features prominently in the film. Why did you choose this particular background for this character and how does it play into the ultimate narrative?
Having never been a soldier or ever wanting to be, I’ve always been intrigued by someone who is willing to go to war for their country. I find that choice to serve your country and to potentially sacrifice your life mysterious and captivating on many levels. The character of Jason was such a natural fit for this story because he returns to a group of people who cannot begin to understand what he has been through or the choices he has made. When he left, he had very definite roles of “Jason the Boyfriend” and “Jason the Best Friend,” but now he returns as a mystery and no one knows how to engage with him. On top of that, the group he returns to has gone through some massive changes as well. The only conception his friends have of war or a soldier’s life is through T.V. and film tropes, so there’s a real disconnect that occurs when this real life soldier steps back into a familiar setting.
There’s been a very abstract quality to the way these wars have been depicted in popular culture, to the point where I think people, and I include myself in this, at times have trouble seeing the distinction between the very real wars America has been fighting and something like The Avengers or Batman. That comment obviously isn’t a new one, but with regards to the film, Jason’s character forces the others to have to grapple with the reality of something that in their day to day lives seems very unreal.
As a filmmaker in New York City, what do you generally find to be the most difficult part of developing a project here?
I’ve found New York City offers great opportunities for no-budget, unknown filmmakers like myself due to the versatility, speed, and work ethic of the people you can find to crew. Everyone I’ve worked with from here has been a godsend to me because they’ve been able to take on multiple roles and do whatever is needed to achieve the goals of the production. Working this way I’ve been able to keep my sets relatively small and intimate without losing anything aesthetically. This also helps keep the budgets down, which I’ve been paying for out of my pocket. Also, the actors here are usually well trained and hungry to work, which is great. And if you know where to look, equipment can usually be found pretty cheap.
What’s difficult about New York, at least for me, is the issue of locations. If you’re trying to develop something without much of a budget and you and your crew can’t afford to get out of the city, you’re really confined to making every project you develop be a New York City film. I find that most of my ideas are set in a more rural setting, or at least a less urban one, so those scripts have to lie on the back burner because I know I can’t shoot them here. It’s also very hard to find an area to shoot that’s not already swarming with people, let alone one that is quiet enough to be able to record audio. But those problems are relatively minor considering the accessibility to great people this city provides.
Purchase Tickets for ‘Family Feast’ – HERE
Wednesday, March 6, 2013
The Queens World Film Festival presents
@ The Jackson Heights Cinema
40-31 82nd st
About Andrew Lewis
Andrew J. Lewis is an independent filmmaker based out of New York City. He has a Bachelor’s in English from Central Michigan University and, while there, he spent time performing and writing for the stage. This led to a short stint working for Michigan’s Boarshead Theater before heading to New York for a Master’s in Media and Film from The New School. Having completed two short films, Andrew is in the process of developing a feature film with some of his previous cast members.