A taste of honey

Nicholas Tomnay on the corporate nightmare in What You Wish For

by Jennie Kermode

What You Wish For
What You Wish For Photo: Fantasia International Film Festival

A choice item on the menu at this year’s Fantasia International Film Festival and Frightfest, and about to screen at Fantastic Fest, Nicholas Tomnay’s What You Wish For tells the story of chef Ryan (Nick Stahl) who is down on his luck, being hunted by creditors, and decides to hide out for a while in South America, in the expensive house where his old friend Jack (Brian Groh) is staying. How has Jack, who works in the same line of business, ended up being so much more successful than him? He can’t understand it; still stranger, though, is how unhappy Jack seems to be with it. Ryan wishes he could live like that – but when he actually steps into Jack’s shoes, he finds himself very, very uncomfortable.

“In terms of the way the film was executed, I wanted it to feel very aspirational, and I wanted the audience to be kind of implicit in it as well,” the director – Nick – tells me when we meet. “I want us to desire what he is desiring. So that's why it was executed the way it was. But I think, really, it stemmed from my feeling that the world was more interested in profit than the well-being of the planet. And then also, it's hopefully an entertaining, wicked tale. That's how I was thinking about it – an entertaining, wicked tale with a bunch of ideas underneath it that I'm not throwing in your face, but they're there.”

In order to work, the film has to portray a highly privileged lifestyle in a really slick, glossy way. How was that achieved on what – as I understand it – was quite a low budget?

“We were working on a very small budget,” he confirms. “I think it probably is because of our very considered production design. I had a very specific idea about colour. It's one of those things that if you're watching it for the first time, you’ll probably never notice it, but blue has a meaning, yellow has a meaning, red has a meaning and green, green has a meaning. And then there are lots of colours that are eliminated. So it's a very arty, stylised movie, and that plus the location and the very nice lenses we used helped that feeling. I also limited the focal lengths. We only use a couple of lenses, so it's a very limited feeling in terms of how the film’s being presented. I think when you add all those things together, it creates a very bubbly sort of signature feeling.”

It’s also effective by contrast, I suggest, because when we literally go down into ordinary people's lives in the valley below the big house, there's poverty and dust and the dirt everywhere.

“Yeah, you get the idea. And gradually, you feel like they're connected. So on some level the film is about imperialism, right? It's about these people that come into this culture that is impoverished, but also has been able to have these little spots of lap of luxury. They're able to come in and fully exploit it, and so you need to see what they're exploiting.”

What interested me about that is that I think that viewers will very easily imagine that they're more like the people in the house on the hill than the other people, I say. We've been taught that by Hollywood. We've been taught to buy into that kind of imagery and think that that's who we are. But the film turns it around and will end up with most people's sympathies in a very different place.

“Well, yeah, and that's part of why I wanted it to look so seductive. I wanted it to be the thing that we all yearn for when we go on vacation, or be like, ‘Oh, if I just had this experience then everything would be wonderful.’ Ultimately, that's how things are corrupted, right? I mean, at the opening in the movie, you've got the guy and the driver standing with an umbrella. The first thing that happens to our character is he is sheltered, you know? Comfort will destroy you kind of thing. The agency can throw money at this problem, and that's very seductive, so all of it is there for that reason. The reason it looks the way it does and it feels the way it does is because hopefully it's supporting the ideas.”

The language does that as well, particularly from Imogene (Tamsin Topolski), the representative of Jack’s agency who turns up to take charge of events. I tell Nick that I loved the speech which she delivers about corporate responsibility, because if people listen to that in the context of this film and be horrified, they might start wondering why we're not horrified when other bad things are done by companies and they give us that kind of speech.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s that insane justification, and she's probably factually correct, too. On the other hand, at least when I was writing this, I was trying to write it from each character's different perspective. For Imogene, I was thinking, well, she's a very clever and capable young woman who, five years ago, may have found herself in a situation where she's suddenly trapped like Ryan is. And so what does she do? I mean, how does she deal with it? She says, ‘Okay, well, I'm just going to absolutely implement my ability and I'm going to compartmentalise this experience for myself, and just deliver an incredible experience and get paid, and be able to travel and all this. I'm going to accentuate the positive and I'm going to rationalise the negative,’ which is probably not that different to, say, somebody who works for Exxon.

“You probably don't confront your own morality until it's right there and thrown up in your face. Ryan s not a saint by any means. He's a flawed guy, but he has humanity, and he has a sense of what's right and wrong. A real conscience, I suppose. The film is told subjectively through Ryan's point of view the whole way, and so hopefully we empathise with him, we understand where he's coming from. And then as he confronts all this stuff, it requires that we have to confront it to and think about it. But also, you know, it's an entertaining movie. I'm trying to make something that's fun for an audience, and suspenseful, so I'm hoping that people will go on the ride with it.”

I also like the character of Alice (Penelope Mitchell), a young traveller whom Ryan and Jack meet early on. Its’ an inspired piece of casting which reminded me a little bit of Sandra Bullock in the US version of The Vanishing, because she doesn't have a lot of screen time but she brings a huge amount of emotion into the film, to powerful effect.

“Well see, I'm Australian, and so I liked the idea of bringing an element into this that was not playing by the rules. Because Imogen has got the whole thing locked down and she's got Ryan and she’s got Maurice there. I thought ‘What this needs is this element of chaos.’

“I liked the idea of the film being international, it's set in an unnamed Latin American place, and there's an American, an Australian and Maurice is sort of unknown, but there's a sense that this is global, right? So because I am Australian, perhaps my natural inclination was to throw an Australian in there who was just not interested in what they're interested in. What was important to her was very different and more human and real. She had a human connection with people. And yeah, I’ve always got to represent Australia.”

The film’s other standout is Randy Vasquez, who plays a local detective convinced that something dodgy is going on in the house on the hill.

Nick nods. “He is the most moral character and he is a good guy as opposed to most of the people in the movie. He's a character that comes in to help and he initially is a force of antagonism but ends up being a force to help Ryan. I love the idea of a character who thinks one thing, but does not tell you that. And Randy, in his audition, he was playing it just that way. He was the only guy actually playing it that way. I could see that he was thinking one thing and his mind was working, but he was giving something else. That's really what I hoped the character could be. Because I feel like as an audience, we know where he's coming from, But then it's interesting to watch what happens as he navigates that. Is he going to figure out what's going on?”

Being careful to avoid spoilers, we discuss the ending of the film, and Nick says that the remaining question, for him, was whether or not Imogene knew who Ryan really was.

“What occurred to me was that even if she does, she wouldn't let him know. And even if she did know, it doesn't matter, because he's a great cook. She's a complete pragmatist. So that was the question that I hope was left open, ambiguous. But I answered that by thinking, well, it doesn't actually matter either way. Because you've got someone to fill the fill the role, and as you mentioned, in the corporate paradigm of things, that's good. We have someone to sort of pull the lever, right?

“My hope is that the ideas are going to hit a bit harder, because there isn't an easy out, like ‘Oh well, it all worked out in the end.’ It is more of a Seventies ending.”

We’re running low on time at this point and before we go, I say, I want to know how he approached the culinary aspects of the film.

“That was an interesting process, because of because of the nature of what's going on,” he says. “I was reading a lot about the region and what would be cooked. And my mother made cookbooks for a living so I kind of grew up around food. I was trying to think about the product and what you cook and how you prepare. I just started reading recipes, basically. I started it when I thought, well, that's quite good for that bit of meat, and this is quite good for this bit of meat, and then I just wrote up the recipe. I was like a chef. My hope was that it looked appetising enough.”

He’s thrilled with the film’s festival success, he says.

“It's the three F's: Fantasia, Frightfest, and Fantastic Fest – I mean, it's great. I feel like genre audiences typically have different criteria on how they enjoy the cinema, you know? They tend to be quite intelligent and really interested in ideas, and more open minded and willing to go in strange directions. I don't want to sound pretentious. They seem more like cinema lovers than a general audience. So the fact that it's playing in these three festivals is a validation, and I'm really pleased.”

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