The 14th Annual Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival was this past
weekend in November and it had five films as part of its "Regional
Showcase." Four of those films were documentaries and were under an hour
in length. The other was an actual, fictional, feature-length film with
actors and was made along the Delaware shore, utilizing prominent or
popular locations like the Dogfish Head brewery. It's called The Dish and the Spoon.
Writer-director Alison Bagnall premiered The Dish and the Spoon in March at the South By Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas. Trade papers like The Hollywood Reporter gave it positive reviews. It also played this May at the Maryland Film Festival in Baltimore.
The origin of Bagnall's movie is very similar to that of Matt Porterfield whose recent film Putty Hill also played at the Maryland Film Festival, but it played the previous year. Porterfield is a professor at Johns Hopkins University. He was in the process of making Metal Gods when funding fell through. Porterfield loved the actors he already had so much that he didn't want to walk away from them with nothing, so out of the ashes of that rose Putty Hill, which is now available on DVD.
Bagnall is an actress herself. She was collaborating on a project with actress Greta Gerwig when she found Olly Alexander, a remarkable, 19-year-old English actor. When Bagnall's project also fell through, Bagnall too loved her actors and didn't want to walk away from them with nothing, so out of the ashes of her previous project rose The Dish and the Spoon.
In a Q & A at South By Southwest, Bagnall said she wanted to write a script specifically for Gerwig and Alexander. She wanted to craft something that came out of their lives. She indicated that she prefers to have a real person, an actual actor in mind first, and then write her screenplay, which is generally the opposite of how movies are made.
Typical, Hollywood films will type the screenplay first and then find the actors to fit the roles. Here, Bagnall had the actors first and then fit the roles to them. Bagnall had originally met Gerwig on the set of Joe Swanberg's Nights and Weekends (2008). Swanberg is a prolific, independent filmmaker from the Midwest. Bagnall had never seen Gerwig's work before, but she thought Gerwig was just personally inspiring and interesting as an actress. Bagnall likened Gerwig to 1940s actors, having that skill or style but in a modern setting.
The Dish and the Spoon is about Rose, a young woman, played by Gerwig. After learning her husband is having an affair, Rose decides to go to her childhood, seaside town to find his mistress. While there, she encounters an unnamed, British boy, played by Olly Alexander. The British boy's girlfriend has abandoned him.
Bagnall said this story was spawned during one sleepless night a couple of years ago. She said she'd been on both sides of the cheating game and was interested less in the affair and more in the aftermath. She was interested how crazy people can get, the anger, the grief and the worthlessness that they feel. More importantly, she was interested in seeing how Greta Gerwig could get or how'd she feel going through that.
In terms of Alexander's character, Bagnall had a friend whose father had an affair and whose mother committed suicide. Even though this isn't explicit in the movie, Bagnall wanted to explore what possible effect, this unspoken affair-turned-suicide might have on a young son. Specifically, she wanted to see Alexander explore this effect.
With these two actors in her head acting on these two angles of an affair, Bagnall spent three weeks writing what was not a standard screenplay, which normally might be 80-100 pages. She instead churned out 60 pages of prose, which got molded down into a script.
She gave that script to her actors, not as a finished product but still as a mold that required the hands of Gerwig and Alexander to further shape to fit them. After the movie was completed and audiences saw it, Bagnall frequently got asked if shaping to fit the actors meant a lot of improvisation. I even asked Bagnall, because she met Gerwig on a Joe Swanberg movie, if she used a lot of improvisation or improv. Swanberg's movies seemingly embrace improv, working sans a script, but Bagnall said her movie isn't like that. Except for one scene, her actors stay on script. The shaping to fit merely meant that instead of improv in the middle of scenes, Bagnall had her actors give input about the scenes prior, typically the night prior.
Bagnall moved into production rather quickly, and while her movie was all about delving into these two characters, it was also about delving into a third and that third character was the state of Delaware. Bagnall had never been to the First State. She was born in Connecticut and had gone to New York City to make a career for herself. Yet, because of digital technology, allowing a filmmaker to be established anywhere and because it has a better look, better schools and cheaper real estate, Bagnall left New York and moved to Philadelphia five years ago. Since re-locating there, Bagnall learned that the Delaware beaches were a great summer retreat for many Philadelphia residents. Delaware's beaches had been frequently recommended to her, so it easily became the setting for her movie.
Bagnall, her actors and her small crew of five people who Bagnall described as flexible like a SWAT team came to Delaware in 2009 to start filming. She had scouted the area and said she found it to be perfect. She filmed in several exterior places, and enjoyed it, even in December when it was in the middle of the off-season and getting very cold and windy.
She thought that the environment made filming there perfect. She made the movie mainly in the Rehoboth Beach area, probably the biggest tourist attraction in southern Delaware. In December, however, the place is practically a ghost town. To Bagnall, this idea of a beach town in winter seemed evocative. She said it was poetic in a way.
Friends who grew up in southern Delaware told Bagnall that as adolescents, they would perhaps buy beer and donuts and hang out in the towers of Cape Henlopen State Park. That park is just north of Rehoboth Beach. It sits along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean too, and its towers are World War II Observation Towers, tall, cylindrical, stone, castle-like structures. They were places built for protection, now utilized as a teenage haunt, a kind of refuge.
In that analysis, the Delaware coastal community becomes their playground, their sandbox as it were. Unlike most toddlers in sandboxes though, the two main characters can drink alcohol, and Bagnall said the Rehoboth Beach bars and restaurants were fully cooperative in accommodating her movie. She was able to shoot in a couple of drinking establishments, including Finbar's Pub & Grill. Most notably, Bagnall was able to take her camera crew and actors into the Dogfish Head brewery where her characters got to drink from the most unlikely and also the most enviable of places.
When it comes to utilizing the state of Delaware, its coastal community and all it has to offer, as a character, there's no way she could have avoided Dogfish Head, and its founder, Sam Calagione who does make a cameo in Bagnall's movie. This was of course not Calagione's first time in front of a camera. According to Shannon German for Delaware Today, Calagione was an extra in New Rose Hotel (1998) starring Christopher Walken and Willem Dafoe. In 2009, Calagione was heavily featured in the film Beer Wars, and in 2010, he starred in his own TV series Brew Masters on Discovery Channel.
Though it's never spoken, Gerwig's character Rose, returning to her childhood town, could be a regression for her. She's not only going back to the physical space where she was young but in a mental or spiritual space as well. She's becoming or in many instances is acting as she did or as she would if she were actually young again.
Bagnall told me that one of the most striking images in the film is the two actors on a swing set, not swinging up and down but twisting side-to-side. There's also physical interplay here that could be a metaphor for characters in crisis, capsizing into kids. It's a flight of innocence, a realistic reaction that people would have during rough times. The title of this movie The Dish and the Spoon even comes from a children's nursery rhyme.