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[AFI FEST] Director Alison Bagnall Talks About Her Film The Dish & The Spoon

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By: Noah Nelson

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Photo Credit: Publicity image courtesy of AFI Fest 2011

Read our review of The Dish & The Spoon.

Alison Bagnall, director and co-writer of The Dish & The Spoon, hadn't made a feature in eight years. Raising her two children took priority.

"I was actually going to get out of filmmaking because I found it rather ... hum... a little bit unfulfilling." Bagnall says that her previous feature made in 2003, "wasn't really that fun to make. It was starting to feel like a very expensive hobby, and when you have kids you can't afford the luxury of a very expensive hobby."

Bagnall first emerged as the co-writer of the seminal Buffalo '66 in 1999, but an appearance in Joe Swanberg and Greta Gerwig's 2008 feature Nights and Weekends lured her back into filmmaking.

"It was after doing the cameo in the Joe Swanberg movie that I actually got excited about doing a movie again. Because on the Joe Swanberg movie there was no crew. There was just a cameraman. Like with the microphone and the boom, Greta held the boom with the microphone on it or else they taped it to a chest of drawers with duct tape when there was no one to hold it. So I got really excited about not having a crew around."

She also got excited about working with Gerwig, the prolific indie actress.

"I was instantly smitten, as are most people who meet Greta. Male and female, that's pretty natural, a pretty common reaction to meeting Greta." Bagnall asked Gerwig if she'd like to co-develop a script. "We spent a year writing a screenplay together, but it was for a different movie. So we were putting that whole movie together, but then that movie very precipitously... it didn't fall apart but it got pushed. It didn't happen but only a month before we were supposed to shoot it. But I had already been given a certain amount of money to make a movie with Greta Gerwig in it by this little group of investors in Chicago. So I still needed to make a movie with Greta."

Gerwig was about to become incredibly busy in the wake of her turn in Noah Bambach's Greenberg, so Bagnall raced into action.

"I had to make a movie with her fairly quickly so I wanted to build a movie around her and this young British actor who had come to audition for the other movie we were writing. I really got interested in that boy, Olly Alexander, from the moment I laid eyes on him really. First from seeing his photograph on the internet, then meeting him in person. 'Oh my gosh this boy is so exciting and amazing.' I wanted to put those two actors in a movie together. I just wanted to create a movie where people could spend an hour and half with those two people. And I built the movie for them."

That desire pays off for Bagnall and audiences alike, as Gerwig and Alexander have a bittersweet chemistry that makes The Dish & The Spoon a moving and humorous exploration of betrayal. In one memorable sequence, Gerwig's character Rose dresses up Alexander's unnamed boy in women's clothes and pretends to pick him up.

"It started out I think because when I met Olly, he's a little bit... he has a strong feminine quality. He's a little bit girlish. Not really because he's very masculine too, but there's something about him that's delicate and feminine. I was just thinking: 'Wouldn't it be fun to put make up on him and dress him up like a girl?' Then it just started growing: I think she should completely dress him up as a girl and she dresses up as a man, but I didn't know why.

"I had been told by this good friend (his story of) this crazy ex-girlfriend who always liked to play-act things, 'Okay lets go into that bar and you pretend you don't know me and you try to pick me up,' and they were like living together. So he said 'OK' and she'd go and he had to chat her up and see if he could pick her up. I liked that idea of them pretending not to know each other and picking each other up. But again I just put it in the script without knowing why."

Yet Gerwig needed to know why, and when pressed for a reason, Bagnall found one for her actress.

"I don't know if it was actually true but it was something to say so that she could hopefully work with it. I said I think the reason you dress him up like a girl and kind of molest him is when when people go through betrayals-- in my experience-- one tends to feel very powerless. You feel like if you could have just stopped it or done something to alter the course of events, but you weren't there and you didn't know it was happening and now...

"She's reenacting what she imagines her husband did, and it's a way of taking the power back. Taking control back by being the master of the situation. Like walking through what she thinks her husband did with this other woman and doing it herself.

"So that made sense to Greta and that was something she was able to act. And then she took it a step further and made it much darker. Because initially I thought that she picks him up and they really start making out, but then she's not able to go through with it. But Greta did a completely different thing and used it as an attack.

"She afterwards said that she felt like she was in so much pain that she wanted to inflict pain on someone else. She felt shed been hurt, and in fact this was right after Greta had shot Greenberg and there's a line in Greenberg that goes: 'Hurt people hurt people'. I think that really struck her and when she played that character in Greenberg she was so walked over and trodden on. She was, like, punched on for that whole movie... So she did that role but after the movie, after Greenberg, was over she felt kinda angry. She was angry and she wanted to get back at someone."

It's a fantastic, funny, and uncomfortable scene at the heart of the movie, and the process that led to it reveals Bagnall's approach to making the picture.

"I was really consciously making this movie in an unconscious way. I wanted to work from a very instinctual level. Make creative decisions on gut instinct and not really think things through too much.

"I think sometimes it's very hard not to imitate things other people have done. It's hard not to try to be clever. It's hard to not try to impress. It's harder to just trust your instincts and just be kind of in touch with your belly. With what your belly's saying. It's also hard to say 'I don't know'. So I was trying to be very comfortable in this movie saying 'I don't know why this should be in the film but I feel it should be there so let's shoot it.' Other people were free to make those suggestions too. When Greta or Olly felt strongly about certain things narratively: 'Well I just don't think my character would do this or I feel my character should do that now.' So we'd just completely change it if they felt really strongly about it."

That instinctual process led to even more fun, as her co-writer Andrew Lewis suggested she check out Dogfish Head brewery (a Turnstyle favorite) when he learned that she intended to shoot in Delaware. A relationship with the brewery would get around the need to have fake labels on all the beer that Gerwig's Rose drinks during the film.

"I decided to go on the brewery tour and while I was on the tour-- we were in the room of the massive 5000 gallon fermenting vessels, the 50 foot high things-- and one of the staff just turned on this little spigot and all this beer started flowing out. She filled up a cup and just drank out of the cup to taste how the beer was doing. I thought 'Oh wouldn't that be cool if the characters could go on a beer tour and sneak away and kind of like frolic in the brewery."

Dogfish Head was game. The brewery's founder Sam Calagione even has a small cameo in the film.

"They let us in on a Sunday when the staff wasn't there and I said 'Would it be okay if they drank out of a spigot of one of the vessels' because I thought [Sam] would say no. He was like 'Yeah, sure sure! we'll just wipe it off afterwards and sterilize it.' They really let us have the run of the place."

The journey Gerwig's Rose takes during the film leads towards an emotional catharsis, and it would seem the journey of making the film was a creative catharsis for Bagnall.

"I just wanted to make it kind of like a kid makes a painting. You know, kids' artwork can have this purity to it because they're not aware of technique. They're not trying to be impressive or clever. There's just kind of this innocence to children's art. We lose that as adults. I was just trying to get back to that myself."

Originally published on Turnstylenews.com, a digital information service surfacing emerging stories in news, entertainment, art and culture; powered by award-winning journalists.

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