Jean Zarzour, Ray Abruzzo, Joe Pantoliano, Lynn Cohen, and Paul Ben-Victor in Robert Tinnell’s memorable and smart Feast Of The Seven Fishes
Robert Tinnell’s memorable and smart Feast Of The Seven Fishes, shot by Jamie Thompson, production design by Jason Baker, costumes by Joshua Hurt, edited by Aaron J Shelton, and a score by Matt Mariano, has a great ensemble cast including Paul Ben-Victor (Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman), Joe Pantoliano, Skyler Gisondo, Madison Iseman, Ray Abruzzo, Lynn Cohen, Jean Zarzour, Addison Timlin, Josh Helman, Andrew Schulz, Jessica Darrow, Cameron Rostami, David Kallaway, Tony Bingham, and Nancy Telzerow,
When I met with screenwriter/director Robert Tinnell for a conversation, he told me how much the film is based on his childhood memories. The time is Christmas 1983, the place a small Appalachian town in West Virginia. An extended Italian American family is readying to celebrate the Feast Of The Seven Fishes.
Robert Tinnell on an improv idea from Paul Ben-Victor for Johnny: “Can Vinnie [Cameron Rostami] say What am I? Kojak?” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
While one man prepares Baccala, a dried, salted codfish that needs a lot of soaking and rinsing, we get to know who’s who and what they all are up to. Fried whiting, piles of tiny smelt, shrimp and oysters, deep-fried eel and stuffed calamari will eventually round out the extraordinary meal. Loves of the past are conjured up and new ties are formed. The movie is an homage to beloved family members who are forever present in memories, to traditions of togetherness, and the love of tasty rituals.
Anne-Katrin Titze: For starters, what's your favourite fish?
Robert Tinnell: My favourite dish that we make is actually the calamari. Boy, my favourite fish? On Christmas Eve, it's smelt.
AKT: So it's not the Baccala?
AKT: The Baccala is the starring fish, though, in this film.
RT: It really is. I like processes. I like making things. It's not that the meal's not delicious - it's fabulous. But the memories that you create in the making of it are more important to me. If we let go of Baccala, we're letting go of my great-grandparents' sacrifice. You know what I mean? The things that we take for granted? I was coming back from the coast last year and I was mad because I couldn't get an upgrade, or something. Then I was thinking about my 14-year-old great-grandmother on a boat. By herself with her name pinned on, in steerage. I think she went through a little bit more than I did and maybe I should just shut up. I think there's an element of that, of honouring.
Beth (Madison Iseman) with Tony (Skyler Gisondo) in Feast Of The Seven Fishes
AKT: It's sometimes good to remember that many of these problems are not that big a deal. And the Baccala is the representation of it. It's dried fish, the one you can keep the longest, in a way representing the grandparents' times when there was no fresh fish available.
RT: The eels swimming around in the bathtub. And my grandfather said they would literally get a barrel of oysters. They were taking this very seriously. We were getting ready to do the film and they said, who can we contact for product placement? What would be on the table? And I was like - beer and wine. The wine was from a cask that she [great-grandma] had. She either grew it or she got chunks of cheese and the fish brought in. There was no product placement, maybe some Coca-cola.
AKT: Somebody says, I think Johnny [played by Paul Ben-Victor], in the film about Christmas past. "We had some oranges, maybe some chestnuts." And that's it. It goes back to the past, the war, the Great Depression.
RT: That's word for word. I recorded him [grandpa] saying that. "Oranges, chestnuts, maybe some pop." The time they would have been kids was about the time we were inventing the new American Christmas through Coca-cola's rendition of Santa Claus. There's a fluidity to this. We like to think there's this moment in time that's frozen.
Johnny (Paul Ben-Victor) with his brother Frankie (Joe Pantoliano) and Beth (Madison Iseman)
AKT: Right, but it isn't. Traditions are constantly invented and reinvented. But I think most people have memories and items they focus on, frozen as in a snow globe.
RT: A sense memory.
AKT: I think you trigger that even for people who have never had a celebratory fish in their lives, let alone seven. People who have totally different traditions, I think, still can relate. The film really got to me and I didn't fully understand why at times.
RT: Can I suggest? Maybe I'm wrong. It's interesting to me when we had preview screenings, the Italians in the audience have different characters they like the most. Maybe it's Nonnie [Lynn Cohen], maybe it's Johnny, it splits. But amongst the rest, it's always Beth [Madison Iseman]. Because they identify with her.
AKT: Frankie makes the comment when he invites Beth for the feast "Wear a dress."
RT: And then she doesn't.
AKT: She doesn't. She wears a skirt and a very nice blouse with a high collar. Besides the cosiness, the other side is also there. It's a small town, everyone knows everything, you cannot escape the family, you cannot escape the commentary. The nostalgia isn't saccharine. It's very grounded.
Feast Of The Seven Fishes director Robert Tinnell: “I like making things. It's not that the meal's not delicious - it's fabulous. But the memories that you create in the making of it are more important to me.” Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
RT: I appreciate that. I identify with Juke [played by Josh Helman]. I'm not Tony [Skyler Gisondo] at all. I was Juke, except I could get girlfriends. But to see how women were relegated to roles was frustrating. And to watch women, at the time girls, do maybe self-destructive things in the thought that it was somehow going to work and being forced into these roles. I remember this girl in high school one time. I said "Where are you going to go to college?" And she looked at me like I was the biggest idiot in the world. College was nowhere on her map and she was smart and wonderful, witty.
AKT: Did you watch Michael Apted's Up series of documentaries, following kids from age seven?
RT: I've only seen one of them.
AKT: 63 Up is coming out later this month. I talked with Michael Apted last week. The girl you bring up, it was clear from the time she was seven that she wouldn't go to college. It raises the question of the mapping out what a life will look like.
RT: In Appalachia, there is a fatalism. Very much a cultural fatalism. It didn't fit in the film, but the idea was that Katie’s father died in the mines. In 1968 there was a terrible mine disaster in the county. It touched so many families. Even Senator Manchin lost a relative. And I knew people who were directly affected by it. Right before we'd go to bed the radio would be on a lot and they'd have a thing, the mine report. It would say: The mine will work or won't work. And I always would pray that I wanted it to be - no, it won't work, because I didn't want my grandfather to go in. Because I was scared he was going to die.
AKT: It's like war, when you tell it.
RT: Pretty much. One of the only recurring dreams of my life was he would get killed in the mines but then he would come back home. He would say "I gotta go now." It was very scary. Even as we transition away from fossil fuels, I just don't want to forget people that made a lot of sacrifice and help us win a couple of world wars and fuelled expansion and now they are superfluous? Now you can look down your noses at them? I find that very offensive.
Robert Tinnell: “My favourite dish that we make is actually the calamari. Boy, my favourite fish? On Christmas Eve, it's smelt.”
AKT: Many people are no longer very aware of history. Paul Ben-Victor is great as Johnny.
RT: He's marvellous.
AKT: He's holding it all together in his mustard-coloured cardigan, his Seventies glasses and the permanent cigarette in his mouth.
RT: Other than the fact that my grandfather had a full head of hair, he gets it so right.
AKT: Did he do this before The Irishman?
RT: Yes. He would call a friend of mine to get the cadence of the language, because my friend kind of talked like my grandfather. He would look at videos of my grandfather. He did the work.
AKT: The dialogue is great. The men are really good with each other.
RT: I would let them improv. One that I loved that they came up with was when Paul says "Can Vinnie say What am I? Kojak?" And he goes “I’ll smack that wig off your head." I started laughing and I knew. And the audience laughs every time they see it. Because here is this kid with a full head of hair. I loved the fact that the cast and the crew, they all took such ownership in the project, so they were all bringing stuff to it.
Feast Of The Seven Fishes poster - opens in the US on November 15
AKT: The new Christmas movie? The new It's A Wonderful Life?
RT: I couldn't put "A film by …" I'm not going to argue the auteur theory. It's just that so many people worked so hard and invested so much in this film. It felt offensive for me to say "mine". There are super fans out there already, spreading the word, saying "It's my film." I'm not trying to be self-deprecating.
AKT: No, it's not yours anymore. I get that. One last thing - the pliers to the nose?
RT: Joey [Pantoliano as Frankie]. He said he would improvise his way out of this, owing to the age difference and size difference. And I went, yeah.
AKT: Pliers to the nose?
RT: Yeah, and he was absolutely right. It's one thing on the page and one thing when you really start. He was just going to punch the guy in the throat.
AKT: Well, you invented a new kind of attack.
Feast Of The Seven Fishes opens in the US on November 15.