Movie: The Dinner Party
Director: Jennifer A Davis
Please tell us something about the setting of the movie. Did you use the setting as a tool to ease the nerves of the viewers?
In a way, yes. At the beginning of the film, I wanted to start off with something a viewer would be accustomed to, so they could grasp onto reality before we took them on a little bit of a rollercoaster ride. It’s like the calm before the storm… things almost seem normal, maybe even a little familiar, and then BOOM! I’m a big believer that a viewer’s mind fills in the gaps of what they’re seeing, almost without you saying anything at all, so the setting is very important, in my opinion.
How did you come up with the story? Did the story stay with you for a long time?
It’s kind of an interesting story. This was actually one of the very first movies I ever wrote! In fact, it had been sitting in my closet for about 10 years. It was inspired by Neil Patrick Harris’s opening to an awards show he hosted many years ago. He walked through doors, visiting the past TV shows he was on, and it got me thinking, what would that be like? To get trapped in a movie, but you are suddenly the main character and you can’t get out?
I was taking a black and white, 16mm, silent film class at the time and the original story was supposed to be my Final project, but I felt like it was too big of a project to produce at the time. In fact, it was originally written about a couple celebrating their anniversary. Fast-forward to a decade later, I held auditions to cast for a couple, scrapped the idea and re-wrote it as an all-female cast at a dinner party. I loved who we cast as the original girlfriend (Brianna Gentilella) and this thought came to me to rewrite the story with her as the Lead role instead. Honestly, it was the best decision I could have ever made! She really brought this story to life, more than I even imagined. The rest, as they say, is history.
Speaking strictly about genre, do you strictly try to stick to a specific genre? How easy or difficult it then becomes for you to write the story?
I’ve been a writer my whole life and have written stories in many different genres. I think it’s also important as a writer to challenge yourself to write different types of ideas, and to write stories in other genres that don’t come so easily to you, just to show yourself that you can and to broaden your horizon.
I don’t seek out one specific genre when I’m writing, but I do tend to lean towards the Mystery/Thriller side because I find it fascinating and interesting. I love solving puzzles, and those genres are all about figuring something out. I love leading an audience to those clues and just when I have them in the palm of my hand, I hope to give them something that they didn’t expect. Don’t get me wrong, I love Comedy and RomComs and have written them before… but Mysteries, Thrillers, even ScFi, will always be my heart.
What would be that one horror movie you keep going back to time and time again? What would be the movies you grew up watching and particularly admired?
Oh this is a great question! I’m actually a scaredy cat! I have such a vivid imagination that I have to be careful what I watch because it will stick with me. I am an absolute fan of 1950s/1960s and earlier horror films. I just love the style of that time. However, my favorite older horror film is one that not many people know of. It’s called “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari”, which is a 1920 German silent horror film. I watched this film many years ago and still think it’s incredible storytelling, especially of its time. I also love “The Blob” and just recently re-watched “Frankenstein”. I think Colin Clive was absolutely brilliant!
I do really enjoy a horror film that has a message, that’s emotional, where you feel for the characters, but you know there is impending doom looming over them… where the purpose isn’t just to scare people, but to teach people something. If we talk about more recent films, I have to say “The Village” by M. Knight Shyamalan and “A Quiet Place” by John Krasinski are my top two favorites. These are the types of horror films I truly admire. It’s definitely the type of horror films that inspire me.
Tell us something about creating the characters for the movie.
Did you have something specific in mind?
The fun part of rewriting “The Dinner Party” into an all-female cast was knowing already who I was going to cast, so I got to write the characters around the actors. I knew Brianna Gentilella would be our lead from the get-go. Her character, Sarah, was specifically written to be a bit full of herself, unafraid, possibly a bit naïve too… and then she changes her tune. Brianna was the perfect fit; she is just so masterful at her craft and adapted so quickly to any situation we came up. Then came the friends, so we cast Emily Abeles, Connie Bahng and Sophina DeJesus. Emily had the sweetness of a Disney princess, Connie had a beautiful maturity about her and Sophina was a firecracker! I loved that they were all so different, with different personalities, so I loved getting to write for each one of them. They all had something different to bring to the table, and when you can get that kind of talent in the room and get to write for them, it’s an absolute blessing.
The characters are well constructed. There is something distinct in each of them that makes them different from one another. For example, one is an avid reader, another, a lover of wine. However, they all love watching movies. Do you see the bioscope as something that brings different people together?
I absolutely do. You can have nothing else in common with someone, but if you love a movie, most people can talk about it for hours. It reminds me of the Hulu original show, “Only Murders in the Building” where you have 3 absolute strangers that come together because they like the same podcast. It really shows that you don’t have to be the same as the person next to you… or live the same type of lifestyle either… if you find a common thread, that’s where the magic happens.
The performances in the movie were impeccable.
What would you like to say about the performances in your movie? Specifically, the performance of Brianna Gentilella as Sarah.
I can’t say enough how much of a blessing it was to meet all of these women. We really won the jackpot in casting. I have such respect for all four of them. They are so talented, so caring, just unbelievable to work with. They made each day fun!
When it comes to Brianna, we originally cast her as a supporting actress (as the girlfriend for the original script), but when I knew I was going to rewrite it, I thought, this gal has tricks up her sleeves and I know she can probably do anything. She’s so multi-faceted and her character goes through a lot so quickly. I think I texted her and basically said, “are you up for the challenge?” She, of course, was. The very first scene we shot was actually the “A Quiet Place” scene and it was supposed to be a completely different movie that we were going to shoot in a cornfield. The night before we got there, the corn field was cultivated! We had to think quickly! We came across an abandoned farm up the road and I wrote the script piece by piece while we filmed and we made the story up as we went! Talk about improving! That happens to be one of my most favorite scenes from the film, and it just goes to show how wonderful of an actor Brianna is because not only did she bring that story to life on the fly, she was so great to work with the entire time! I knew we had something amazing after that day.
The background score in a thriller or a horror film is of paramount importance.
How important a role do you think the background score plays in a movie like The Dinner Party, in order to sustain the suspense till the end of the movie?
I believe music is an actor on its own. Have you ever watched a Thriller or Horror on mute? It’s just not the same… it’s not as scary. But once you listen to the sound, the movie can become so horrific. It’s like its leading your emotions in a certain direction without you really having any control over it. That’s why the score to a film is so important. My great friend, David Asambadze, is not only the Director of Photography, but he’s the editor, sound designer and he scored the Nightmares and the ending of the film. He is absolutely brilliant! He knows how to look at a film and feel it. We wanted the viewer to have an emotional connection with the character as she walks through these predicaments, and the score really does that.
The narrative discusses the various facets of human memory. The thoughts, desires, and intentions are concealed sometimes on purpose and sometimes without one. Did you try to explore the fear of the uncanny, the familiar turning into someone not so familiar? What would you like say about memory of Sarah, that perhaps took her down the rabbit hole?
Sarah is such an interesting character. There’s a line in the movie where her friend, Mary, says that she’s one of those people who acts like they’re not afraid so they put up a tough exterior, but deep inside, they’re terrified. Sarah denies it, but it’s absolutely true. She can’t see past herself, even when her friends try to help her. It really took her going through something horrific for her to wake up, so to speak. When she’s going through these situations, I wanted exactly what you’re questioning – for that something familiar to turn into something not so familiar. As they say, sometimes the only thing to fear is fear itself, and once she accepted that, it set her free.
The ending reminded me of the second half of Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock. Did you intentionally trick us into believing that ominous things were actually happening and Sarah was not merely imagining them?
I am so glad you caught that connection! Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” is one of my absolute favorite movies of all time. Trickery? Maybe. Or, intentionally misleading, with a smile on my face. I personally love movies where you think you know exactly what’s happening and how it’s going to end, but then you realize you knew nothing at all. That in itself is why I love writing and filmmaking. I love leading an audience somewhere they think they know they’re going and hope in the end they get a bit of a surprise, like they couldn’t figure it out but they’re glad they couldn’t. To me, that’s entertainment.
You paid a tribute to classic horror movies like Psycho, A Quiet Place and other movies. Some old and some relatively new. Was this your way of paying homage to the great directors and movies of the past?
It absolutely was. I am really inspired by Hitchcock. I just think he was so masterful at his craft. You may not have caught it, but I also pay tribute to him in that I am in every movie I make, in one way or another, just like he did with his movies. Whether a photograph or an extra walking through a scene. I was actually in this film twice, but I’ll keep that to the audience to figure out!
I am also a huge fan of John Krasinski, as an actor and also as a writer/director. I love seeing his growth from comedy to drama to horror and always trying new things. When I saw “A Quiet Place”, I thought, that is how I feel as a writer – that movie. I think for a film that is all about being silent, it made a huge impact louder than anyone could speak. It’s all about emotion, and that’s exactly what I hope to always achieve with my films. If the audience walks away with an emotional connection to something, I’ve done my job. That’s what inspires me from a lot of older, classic films… that’s why I wanted to pay homage to them for inspiring me, as a “thank you” in a way.