Casting spells

Jimmy Giannopoulos on Emory Cohen, Ewan McGregor and Lorraine Bracco in The Birthday Cake

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Father Kelly (Ewan McGregor) advising Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) in The Birthday Cake, Jimmy Giannopoulos’ sharp debut feature.
Father Kelly (Ewan McGregor) advising Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) in The Birthday Cake, Jimmy Giannopoulos’ sharp debut feature.

In the first instalment of my conversation with Jimmy Giannopoulos on The Birthday Cake, Ed Bahlman (music producer and founder of 99 Records) joined us to discuss the score Jimmy co-wrote and performed with Tim Sandusky and how he worked on creating the original sound design for the film with Ryan M Price. We also touched on the screenplay, co-written with Diomedes Raul Bermudez and Shiloh Fernandez (who also stars as Gio), the possible subliminal influence of Shiloh being in Catherine Hardwicke’s Red Riding Hood on the script, and Sean Price Williams’ entrancing cinematography.

Jimmy Giannopoulos (pointing to his Frank Sinatra poster) with Anne-Katrin Titze on seeing Emory Cohen in John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn: “I was really blown away by him as a performer.”
Jimmy Giannopoulos (pointing to his Frank Sinatra poster) with Anne-Katrin Titze on seeing Emory Cohen in John Crowley’s adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel Brooklyn: “I was really blown away by him as a performer.”

Jimmy speaks about working with Emory Cohen, Ewan McGregor, and Lorraine Bracco, who are part of a terrific cast which includes Val Kilmer, William Fichtner, Vincent Pastore, David Mazouz, Paul Sorvino, Penn Badgley, Ashley Benson, Tyler Dean Flores, Luis Guzmán, Marla Maples, and Clara McGregor in the second instalment.

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. Patience is an important virtue in this world, especially for Gio’s mother (Lorraine Bracco), an elegant widow, who brings to mind a low-key Anna Magnani. Emory Cohen is the streetwise Leo who is an early mentor for Gio in how to handle himself.

For ten years, Gio has been carrying a cake, baked by his mother, 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.

From Los Angeles, Jimmy Giannopoulos joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on The Birthday Cake.

Emory Cohen has that Marlon Brando quality
Emory Cohen has that Marlon Brando quality Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze

Anne-Katrin Titze: I would like to talk abut your great cast. You have so many wonderful actors, let’s start with Emory Cohen. I interviewed him many years ago. Can you hear the Brooklyn police siren in the background?

Jimmy Giannopoulos: I miss it! I love it! It’s appropriate.

AKT: They’re not stopping here, so that’s a good sign. I spoke with Emory about [Derek Cianfrance’s] The Place Beyond The Pines. I was impressed by him then, I’m impressed by him now. He had told me that his first acting experience was in high school, where he played Peachum, the gangster, in [Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill's] The Three Penny Opera. How did you get to cast him?

JG: You know, I met Emory years ago, about seven years ago at Sundance. I was out at Sundance with some friends, playing some shows, because I had done music for a long time at some little parties out there and I had a lot of friends who were in films. I met with Emory up there and we were hanging out and really getting along and I remember I liked him so much. He was young, he’s a man now, we were both young then but I remember really liking him. Then I watched some of the films he was in.

After I saw [John Crowley’s] Brooklyn, I was really blown away by him as a performer. He probably is one of my favourite actors. Across the board, he truly is. And he was before we cast him. One of the producers, when we were looking for that role mentioned him. And as soon as he mentioned him, I immediately popped up and I said, “I love Emory, tell him it’s me, tell him who I am, he knows who I am.” The producer’s name is Greg Lauritano, and within 15 minutes of Greg telling me to consider Emory, I was on the phone with Emory and he was already cast.

Jimmy Giannopoulos on Ewan McGregor as Father Kelly: “What he brought to the table, little moments, just a professional who’s at the top of his game with his craft.”
Jimmy Giannopoulos on Ewan McGregor as Father Kelly: “What he brought to the table, little moments, just a professional who’s at the top of his game with his craft.”

In this film when we started talking about the character, he’s like me, on the phone he’s so casual. We laugh and talk about whatever and then in the last five minutes it gets real. Then all of a sudden he starts talking about how he wants to angle the character, how he wants to look. He modelled it after this gangster in Boston and he showed me the jacket, the chain, the hair. He was so quick to grab the character and start to dig into it, with a little bit of a lisp.

AKT: Yeah, I noticed the lisp and that he puts his tongue over his lower teeth. When I talked with him he said “Brando is Jesus,” and he has that Brando quality to him.

JG: He sure does.

AKT: Ewan McGregor plays a priest. Is he better as a priest or better as a fashion designer [Halston]? In your film he has a bit of Bing Crosby in [Leo McCarey’s] The Bells of St. Mary’s. A benevolence, combined with ruling, I don’t know, like a church rooster.

JG: Yeah. I actually just binged Halston. I watched the first episode and then I just kept it going.

AKT: I did too. Same thing.

JG: The way the performances translated, the way it just kind of hit and hit, I was so in. And I hadn’t been that in in a while, just able to go straight through. He’s obviously a great actor and when we were thinking about the film … When I was growing up, we would go to church, my parents would take me and my brother to church, and everyone knew the priest, the priest knew everyone. I knew who the good guys and the bad guys were in the neighbourhood. Let’s leave it at that.

Jimmy Giannopoulos on Lorraine Bracco as Sofia: “She really brought that role to life and understood it.”
Jimmy Giannopoulos on Lorraine Bracco as Sofia: “She really brought that role to life and understood it.”

And the priest knew everybody. Everyone came to the same place, they congregated, and the priest always spoke confidently and directly. He was kind of like the umbrella over the neighbourhood. He knew my mom’s business, he knew my business: “So you’re playing basketball now?” This guy knows everything. Thinking about this role, Ewan’s name came up and I was like, who better? Whose face do you want to see whom you really can trust? Who can pull that off? Who has that voice, and he just stuck.

Obviously he’s mega-talented and he can do anything really. He read the script, we talked about it a little bit, he was into it, and it was really, really, absolutely wonderful working with him. What he brought to the table, little moments, just a professional who’s at the top of his game with his craft. Emory, Ewan, a lot of the people I worked with, I’m so lucky, they made it really easy for me on my first film.

AKT: Lorraine Bracco, she, of course, comes also with mafia television baggage. She never before reminded me of Anna Magnani as she does in The Birthday Cake. That has to do with the costumes [by Jaclyn McCoubrey], I believe, and her makeup and hair, the pearl earrings. She looks like a classic Italian widow, very elegant.

JG: Exactly.

AKT: It’s not how we’re used to seeing her. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition.

Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) with his mother (Lorraine Bracco): “When they have a little dance in the film, that was Lorraine.”
Gio (Shiloh Fernandez) with his mother (Lorraine Bracco): “When they have a little dance in the film, that was Lorraine.”

JG: I’m glad that you used those words, like widow. Because she does play a widow and again, going back to my childhood, family members who were widows, that’s how they dressed. That’s the tradition. And our film is a lot about tradition that I experienced as a child and that still is relevant today. Even though it’s 2021, that tradition still is strong. She really brought that role to life and understood it.

And Lorraine, what she highlighted when we were talking to her was the fact that she was a mother and this was her son. When they have a little dance in the film, that was Lorraine. She was like, this is the anniversary of her husband’s death and her son’s about to go out into the world and she wanted to do something even more with her son. She was like, “why don’t we play our favourite song and have a little dance together?” We really wanted to make that connection with her son. She was pretty wonderful.

Read what Jimmy Giannopoulos had to say on the score with Ed Bahlman, cinematographer Sean Price Williams, Shiloh Fernandez and Red Riding Hood, seeing Liquid Liquid at Madison Square Garden, and on being a “huge” Alfred Hitchcock fan.

Coming up - Jimmy Giannopoulos on Val Kilmer, a candle and car ride scene, and more on The Birthday Cake.

The Birthday Cake opened in the US on June 18 and in cinemas and on digital in the UK on July 16.

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