Bitter Feast, the first horror film from indie director Joe Maggio and the latest from House of the Devil and I Sell the Dead production house Glass Eye Pix, has its world premiere tonight at the Los Angeles Film Festival. I've said it on the site already, but there's nothing wrong with repetition: If you can make the screening, I certainly recommend you do. But if for whatever you still don't trust my film recommendations (spoiler alert: I'm never wrong), perhaps our interview with Maggio should help provide you some incentive for this highly satisfying chef versus critic showdown.
Horror Squad: How did you first conceive of the idea for Bitter Feast?
Joe Maggio: Let me just say I'm a huge food guy. Becoming a chef was the first thing I wanted to do before going into film. I read mostly food magazines, I love shopping for food, eating, drinking, the whole deal. I read the New York Times' dining section pretty religiously and back in June of 2007 Gordon Ramsay was opening his first restaurant in NYC. It was a highly anticipated opening and Frank Bruni, who was the most influential food critic in the country at the time, wrote this review that was just awful.
Not that it was a negative review, it was just indifferent; this lazy kind of review. His big thing was that the restaurant just "lacks excitement". And I was like, What the f*ck? Do you know how hard it is to open a restaurant? Especially for a guy as high profile as Ramsay, the stakes are so high that if it fails it could be really damaging for his career. And that is what you call him on? Not the food, just this vague, intangible complaint.
I don't know anything about Ramsay beyond his sort of reality-TV persona that he's a psychotic guy, but I got to thinking what he would do if he got his hands on Frank Bruni....he would tear him apart. I certainly would. And it kept me thinking. I was on a plane thinking about it and realized it would make a very interesting movie. So I thought on it some more and realized that the physical violence thing would get really boring for him after a while.
So what he'd want to do is make Frank Bruni care, to make him care as much as he does and then completely and randomly sh*t all over his lfie. That was my idea. So I came up with this character that's not really Gordon Ramsay, but is a bit unbalanced. I wondered how he would go about doing it. He'd be very meticulous, very planned, and somehow find a way to make this guy who cares about nothing – he doesn't even care if his wife comes home at night – and make him care that it is a life or death thing whether or not he can successfully cook an egg over easy. That's kind of where it all came from.
HS: Well that's one of the things I loved about Bitter Feast. It's setups are so simple – can he properly cook an egg? – but there's such tension behind it. I'm kind of curious, do you watch a lot of horror movies? Are you a big horror movie fan?
Maggio: I'm a movie fan, but never really a horror guy, which is why I was surprised when Larry asked me to do this. I do straight dramatic, very small, two people in a room talking and maybe somebody cries. kind of movies That would be a big scene, "Oh, God, someone's crying!"
But Larry is unusual in that way. I was a little biased, I think. I wondered why Larry wanted me to make a schlocky horror movie, but that's not how he sees it. Larry sees the world as a horrible place where people do terrible things to one another and that's just the human condition. He sees the genre as an ideal way to explore that human condition. I see now that he's right, I see his point, and I think that's why his movies are the way they are. There's never blood shooting everywhere or crazy zombies and stuff. That's how he sort of had me approach it when we were thinking about it.
I did watch a lot of horror movies just for technical reasons. I was curious to see how people handled blood and knives; how does a director get a way with making things not look fake. I was working with Michael McDonough pretty closely, who shot the movie, and we watched a lot of movies to see what we wanted and the movie that influenced the way we shot it the most was All The President's Men. If you go back and watch it, it's radical how dark it is. Three fourths of the frame will be just an out of focus foreground shot of a wall and on the right hand edge the action is happening.
We didn't have a lot of money so we couldn't have these horrific places, but we could show very little and have what people aren't seeing be frightening and suspenseful. I sort of went off on a tangent there, but no, I wouldn't say I'm a big horror guy, this was my first attempt at doing a horror movie.
HS: Well I think that's actually what really helps the film work so well. If you had just written this script for a "horror director-for-hire" type to make, it would have been very derivative of torture films that have a similar set up. But it seemed like you were operating under the freedom of having to not be the next Saw or a similar sort of film. It's more of a dark, dark drama that plays with horror conventions a bit.
Maggio: It's funny you should say that. That whole idea, torture porn, that was one of my big concerns. I didn't want the movie to ever be characterized as that. I hate torture porn.
HS: I'm with you there.
Maggio: It only intensified after I had my daughter. You become aware of what people are brining into the world and it's just like, "Wow!". I just don't get it. But, that said, in my movie there is one guy who has another guy chained up in his basement and tortures him, but I felt like it's so integral to the story...his task is so banal, he basically just wants this guy to care. That's it. And the only way he can do that is by taking these various steps; preparing the room, the tasks and what not. I felt that it wasn't gratuitous in any way.
HS: Oh, not at all.
Maggio: Another reason is it might not feel quite as much like a normal horror film is because my first draft of the script was very different. There's very little blood and it ends very differently. It was just a character piece, these three people who all suffered some loss and responded differently to that loss. These two guys run into each and start taking chunks out of each other and that was it. It was kind of just a vaguely creepy drama.
And Larry, much to his credit and Pete and Brent at Glass Eye, would have been fine with it. Those guys would have shot that, and that's what I love about them. But Larry was like, "Just consider one thing: MPI is putting money into this and they're going to want a little more blood. Something a little more in the direction of what you'd expect when you buy a ticket to a horror movie. Would you consider making a few changes?"
And we did and I feel like the script got better because of it. MPI was certainly a lot happier. What remains is a lot of character stuff and we cast people who are real character actors. Definitely the horror tropes are there, but it's rooted in a very dramatic approach.
HS: Well it sounds like you have a great relationship with the Glass Eye Pix guys, are you considering teaming up with them again on something else?
Maggio: I would love to make all my movies with them. I love their approach. It was so fun shooting Bitter Feast. The principles are Larry, Pete and Brent, but they have their usual suspects. Everyone is a director but also does something else. Glenn does a lot of graphic stuff for them, a lot of web stuff, but he also did I Sell the Dead. Jeff Grace does all their scores. Everyone gets a long and everyone loves to eat and drink. But it's still serious work and people fight and get angry at each other, but it's never ugly and always very respectful.
Larry is all about the filmmaker, which I cannot say of every producer I've worked with. If he disagrees, he makes his disagreement known, but at the end of the day I had final cut.
HS: That's certainly a rare thing to have. I definitely wish you the best of luck with the premiere on Friday. I really hope people dig it as much as I did. I think they will. Do you know of any festival or release plans beyond the LAFF?
Maggio: I know that since we shot in Woodstock it will play the Woodstock Film Festival for sure in October. They just submitted to a number of late summer and fall festivals, I know, and I think that MPI's plan is to release it in February of next year. So will get some festival play and then they'll do their release.
We're also doing some webisodes as well in support of the release.
HS: I didn't know that. So it will be webisodes with those characters?
Maggio: So far there are just three, but it's found footage from the low budget show Peter Gray did before The Feast. And you see the seeds of his demise. If you've seen the movie it will be familiar. He's not quite Peter Gray, he's a little chubbier and doesn't have the beard, but you see that there's something brewing there. So I'm working on that.
I'm also doing with Glass Eye one of their radio plays.
HS: Tales From Beyond the Pale?
Maggio: Yeah, and it will be a tie-in to Bitter Feast as well. I can't say what it is, but it's a big tie-in.