The Birthday Cake, directed by Jimmy Giannopoulos, co-written with Diomedes Raul Bermudez and Shiloh Fernandez (who also stars as Gio), shot crisply by Sean Price Williams, grips us firmly right from the start. The superb ensemble cast includes Ewan McGregor, Lorraine Bracco, Val Kilmer, Emory Cohen, William Fichtner, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Paul Sorvino, Penn Badgley, Ashley Benson, Tyler Dean Flores, Luis Guzmán, Marla Maples, and Clara McGregor.
In the first instalment of my conversation on the making of The Birthday Cake, music producer 'legend' Ed Bahlman (founder of 99 Records) joined us to discuss with Jimmy Giannopoulos the terrific score he co-wrote and performed with Tim Sandusky, and the original sound design (with Ryan M Price of Alex Ross Perry’s Her Smell, Queen Of Earth, and Golden Exits, and David Zellner and Nathan Zellner’s Damsel) that magically drives his debut feature film into the simmering night.
Jimmy Giannopoulos on Shiloh Fernandez as Gio with the birthday cake: “I never, never made the Red Riding Hood connection and I really like that, actually.”
For ten years, Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) has been carrying a cake, baked by his mother (Lorraine Bracco), to a family gathering celebrating the anniversary of his father’s death. It is around Christmas time, the relatives have law enforcement and criminal ties, and violence is prevalent and commonplace, as is loyalty. The local priest, Father Kelly (Ewan McGregor as compelling in clergy garb as Bing Crosby, or Jude Law as the Pope), presides over the neighbourhood with benevolent, all-knowing grace, and a street-smart wink.
The indigo mood of the film, not least due to Sean Price Williams’ entrancing cinematography, is one of non-stop danger. This way, it soon becomes casual danger, expected and refined. Patience is an important virtue in this world, especially for Gio’s mother, an elegant widow, who brings to mind a low-key Anna Magnani. An allergy is never random, and chance a cinematic game to be unravelled in retrospect.
The descent into the night of Brooklyn leaves ample room for all kinds of questions, from the contemporary mundane (No Kombucha at the corner deli?) to the existential (“Do you ever feel that the right thing and the wrong thing are the same?”) The depiction of a death resembling that of William Holden, or a character in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, is as memorable as the subtle way the camera captures how the men pass on the cake knife. The care to detail put into each moment makes The Birthday Cake so outstanding.
From Los Angeles, Jimmy Giannopoulos joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation.
Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) with Peeno (Penn Badgley) - from inside the bar we hear The Night by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
Anne-Katrin Titze: You are in LA?
Jimmy Giannopoulos: I am in Los Angeles right now. Are you in London?
AKT: I’m in New York.
JG: I’ll be back there soon. When I’m done with post on this film that we’re working on. In August.
AKT: You have Frank Sinatra looking over your shoulder!
JG: I thought it was an appropriate spot in the apartment to speak with you.
AKT: It’s very very obvious from your film that you love mafia movies.
JG: I do, I do.
AKT: Are there favourites?
JG: There are favourites. I remember when I started talking with Sean Price Williams who DP’d this film and we were talking about mafia movies and I was referencing some of my favourite obvious classics. From Goodfellas to The Godfather, let’s say, the most obvious. He shut me down so quick and then he made me come over and then we only watched Japanese mob movies from the Sixties and Seventies. I like all types of mob movies, but as far as New York ones like King Of New York, my favourite is probably just Goodfellas.
Amanda Seyfried and Shiloh Fernandez in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood
AKT: The cinematography is beautiful from beginning to end. I’m not a specialist on Japanese mob movies, but I loved what you did there together for the visuals. Your co-writer is your star, Shiloh Fernandez, who was in Red Riding Hood.
AKT: And I thought, in a way, this is a Red Riding Hood story you’re telling. A mother is sending her child out with a cake for family members and then we accompany that child along the way to places where wolves hang out. Did you think about Red Riding Hood?
JG: No! I never even thought about it. But you’re completely right. Ultimately, what the movie is about is family and loyalty and stuff like that. I never, never made the Red Riding Hood connection and I really like that, actually. I’m going to wrap my mind around it when we’re done here.
AKT: The carrying of the cake is such a good way to structure the film. It is also almost the opposite of how Hitchcock explained suspense. Just tell the audience about the bomb, etc.
JG: I’m thinking back to early on when Shiloh was like “Don’t worry, I got this!” No wonder he said this, he’s already done it. He understands the journey. For me, I’m a huge Hitchcock fan, I didn’t think of it in terms of that. I actually related it closer to my own personal life when it comes to the cake. You know, when I was a kid, traditionally in our family, we would bring desserts or cakes. Let’s say, my mom’s brother was having a party, Easter, Fourth of July, whatever, the kids always carried the desserts. In our family it was a cake.
Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) with his mother (Lorraine Bracco), the birthday cake maker
I was the youngest, so I would have to carry it. And then I remember as I started to get a little older, like in high school, my cousins who were a little older than me started to make fun of me. They’d be like “You’re still a kid! Your mom is still making you carry the cake!” Then I didn’t want to do it anymore. I would tell my mom “I’m not carrying that. I’m not a kid anymore.” So I always attached carrying that cake to being young and my mom not letting me grow up. She purposefully made me hold it longer. I was thinking about originally for The Birthday Cake, that our protagonist Gio, played by Shiloh, is sheltered from a lot of the family secrets.
They protect him, because it’s a crime family, ultimately, and he lost his father when he was younger, so they wanted to keep him as a kid, protected, sheltered. For me the cake symbolized the family keeping him young. In the film she says, “I don’t make it for them, I make it for your father.” That’s where my mind was going, that’s what I was using the cake for. And then I layered the cake with more ingredients.
AKT: Ha! Oh yes, many ingredients! By the way, where did you grow up?
JG: I grew up in Chicago till about 2006 and then I moved to New York.
AKT: You capture Brooklyn well. One moment that stands out in regards to the score and the music, is when you have Gio walking on the street and we hear The Night by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Then we hear the same song coming out of the bar. First we think the music is in the air, and then we know where it’s coming from. I didn’t actually catch it myself. I was watching the film with Ed Bahlman of 99 Records. Producer of Liquid Liquid, Glenn Branca.
Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) cake delivered
JG: Of course! Absolutely! Legend!
AKT: So I was watching your film with the legend and he said “Look what he’s doing with the music!”
JG: Oh that’s great! I love it. I mean I come from music. I’ve been producing music the last twenty years. For me that’s everything, you know. Making the music happen over the film and then make it practical. I love doing that as much as I possibly can. Playing with it, shifting it. That song really was a big winner for us. There’s a few songs in that film, all the music I’m really happy with, but somebody recommended that song to us and then the fact that it was Frankie Valli. I had never heard that song before and then myself and Raul, one of the co-writers and producers of the film, when we both heard that song - because the film is in one night - an we listened to the lyrics and the feel, the energy of it, we knew exactly where to put it and what to do with it. That worked out really well.
AKT: It did. Would you like to meet Ed? He’s here.
JG: Oh yeah, I’d love to, of course!
Ed Bahlman: Hi Jimmy!
Jimmy Giannopoulos on knowing Ed Bahlman’s 99 Records: “Of course! Absolutely! Legend!”
JG: How’s it going? Before anything, you know, I saw Liquid Liquid open for LCD Soundsystem in Madison Square Garden about ten years ago. And I made sure I got there early. Because I know how much of an influence they were on that band and I love that band.
EB: Always good to get there early for the opening act.
JG: Of course, especially if it’s Liquid Liquid, I mean, come on!
EB: Your score is brilliant!
JG: Thank you, that means so much coming from you!
EB: Hearing Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, I couldn’t even remember the song. It worked so well, I forgot who was singing. The beat, the rhythm, as you know, Liquid Liquid, ESG, Bush Tetras Too Many Creeps, and sounds like that. The whole score works so well.
JG: Thank you!
EB: You change it up so much, scene to scene and there is not one false note, not one false sound that I heard.
JG: That really means a lot man, thank you. The song The Night, the person who recommended it to us is a guy named Scott Vener. He’s a great music supervisor who wasn’t our supervisor, just somebody I know and he was talking to me about songs, knowing about our story. He’s the one who brought that song up. As far as the score goes, I did it with my friend Timothy Sandusky and that was really a wild one to make.
Jimmy Giannopoulos on Liquid Liquid produced by Ed Bahlman and LCD Soundsystem: “I know how much of an influence they were on that band and I love that band.”
We started the score in April, right after COVID hit and I was living with my girlfriend and Tim, who did the score with me. We were back in Chicago, living in the recording studio. Someone else was supposed to do the score. As soon as we found out that they couldn’t do it anymore, I started - this is how dumb I am, I started looking for another person to score the movie. I’m like, oh my god, I got to figure out what’s going to happen while I’m living in a recording studio! And I’ve been working on music for twenty years. I’m like, I didn’t want to do it, I’m like, I can’t take this on, I’m going to fail, I don’t even know where to start. Then step by step we kind of figured it out and just unravelled it.
EB: When did you start scoring?
JG: We started probably in May after we got to that studio.
EB: So you had all the scenes shot?
JG: Everything was shot, we were wrapped a few months before. As I said, someone else was supposed to be doing it. I was just back in Chicago because my father had gotten sick, he’s fine now. So I went back, it was COVID, so I couldn’t stay with my parents, so I was living in this recording studio because you couldn’t go to a hotel, you didn’t know what was going on because of COVID. My friend had this studio, he was there working and I just went in, hunkered down there. I didn’t know what was going on in the world, my father was sick, I was driving back and forth from New York, because I was doing the edit in New York but I wanted to be close to my father who was in Chicago, but I couldn’t be too close to him, I could only see him through the window of his house.
So it was a really tough time. With the score I had to find the through line. It ended up being the choir boy, because of the priest, how he oversees the whole neighbourhood. I wanted to thread that choir voice through the film - almost like he’s watching and knows the whole neighbourhood’s business. And we added those guitars and stuff like that, stuff that I just love from Liquid Liquid days.
David Mazouz as the young Gio
EB: Each scene, it appears to me, there’s a whole different mindset on how you’re scoring.
JG: Yep. We approached each scene as its own sort of piece at first. After we kind of went through, then we backed up and started looking for some through lines, for some cohesiveness and stitched it together that way. I’ve never scored a film before, a long-form film, so I wasn’t clear on what to do. That’s just the way my brain could break it down. And ultimately, thank you so much for bringing up the score. This is the first piece of press I’m actually doing for the film and I kind of forgot about the score. So I’m glad that it worked and you guys liked it. Because we worked really hard on it and I’m glad it worked.
EB: It does. Very much.
JG: Especially coming from you!
EB: Yea, great, see you!
JG: So nice to meet you! Hey, thank you for introducing me! It’s amazing!
AKT: The advantage of Zoom - you can have visitors, like Ed, come in. What you just said, maybe because you didn’t do the “usual”, because you did your own thing, the score was so interesting. Maybe we should get together when you come back to New York?
JG: I would absolutely love that! I would love to pick your brain and talk about films with you. I’m constantly constantly trying to learn as much as I possibly can! I’m back in August and would love to get a coffee and see what’s going on. That’d be great, that’d be so nice.
AKT: Great film, so happy we could talk.
JG: Thank you. It means so much. And thank you for introducing me as well, that was really cool!
Coming up - Jimmy Giannopoulos on Emory Cohen, Ewan McGregor, Lorraine Bracco, Val Kilmer, a candle and car ride scene, and more on The Birthday Cake.
The Birthday Cake opens in the US on June 18 and in the UK on July 16.