One of 8 films in the Midnight category at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival, Family Dinner is a film that we really enjoyed (full review right here) so when given a chance to speak with writer/director Peter Hengl and lead actors Nina Katlein and Alexander Sladek, we jumped at the chance to ask a couple questions about the film over a lovely meal. Check out the interview below (very minor allusions to plot points), and be sure to check out Family Dinner if it comes to a screen near you!
Where's The Remote?: So I just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I wanted to talk about first of all, the house. The house is, to me, a fantastic chamber play as you called it. How'd that come across in terms of finding that location?
Peter Hengl: It was kind of tough, because I knew that I wanted this very special and very strange place. And I knew at the same time that we wouldn't have the budget to create something from scratch. So we spend a lot of time looking for a house that fits. And luckily, we came across a location that I would consider, like a diamond in the rough. And we had a production designer, Pia Jaros, who is brilliant. And she came up with this vision of how to, you know, crystallize the qualities of this raw diamond into this really special location that it has become. And I love that it is this kind of weird, austere place that is in contrast with the wild nature around it, but at the same time, somehow connected to it. I think it's an absolutely brilliant work of production design and set design.
WTR: Definitely, just that like gate out front. You're locked in the house, even if you're outside.
Hengl: The funny thing is, we did some modifications to the house, because I always wanted to have this yard; This courtyard to have this feeling of being locked in, and to have this gate that can be locked. And the house didn't have a courtyard. So Pia, our production designer set up the front wall and the back wall. And luckily, that worked perfectly. So yeah, we did some pretty big modifications to make it work.
WTR: And what was it like kind of like living in that house? For the shoot?
Nina Katlein: It was a little bit scary I'd say [She laughs]. But yeah, at the end, it was actually just like home, kind of.
Hengl: I mean, the truth about moviemaking is that even though the place feels empty and deserted for just us four people, in real life, it was packed. Because we had the whole crew there, and there was very little space that we could use to store equipment, to have people take breaks. So any room we weren't shooting in at that moment was actually a complete mess. Everything was packed with people. So in real life, I feel it kind of felt different to what it feels like.
Alexander Sladek: Yeah, it was a lot of fun to shoot in. Because you can really see the movie magic that you can't see on screen. It was really cool to experience how they put up walls that you can really see. For example, Filipp's room and the room where you go up the stairs. They're actually not connected. There's room in between, which you can't see on screen. So that was cool, and after a while it did feel like a home for all of us.
WTR: A haunted little home. [We all laugh].
Hengl: I was really sad to leave it behind. Yeah.
WTR: Is anyone living there?
Hengl: Yeah, although the family living there is very different than in the movie obviously, [He laughs] it's exactly what it is in the film. It's like a weekend home that they use for holidays and stuff like that.
WTR: So I guess kind of pivoting away from the house, while a lot of it takes place within obviously. But one pivotal scene that I personally loved is away from the house, when you to go hunting. It's a super intense scene, and this being your debut performances, I was curious how you got into that really dark place?
Hengl: I think you should take this, yeah. [Points to Sladek].
Sladek: Yeah, it was pretty intense because I tried to really get into the character. We shot the scene a bunch of times and at the end, I was really taken up by Filipp, and after the cameras stopped rolling, I kept on crying and being sad for half an hour. So it was exhausting to shoot that scene, especially since that day it was really cold and the weather was changing constantly. We were going for a cloudy sky, but then the sun came, then it started to snow! So we had to rush into the van. As soon as the clouds were back, we went back out and tried to set everything back up. But then, the moment Peter said action, the snowy clouds came back, and we had to get back inside the van.
Hengl: Yeah, the lucky thing about that day is that we got a lot of stuff done in the morning when the weather was still okay. But we really had to cheat around the weather, and it was very tough. But it's a great scene, and I'm very happy with the results. Because that's like one of the first scenes that I wrote for the movie. And I always knew that it was going to be in there. And I think it really works.
WTR: Nina, was acting something you always wanted to get into? Or was it this film in particular that kind of called you? What was that like?
Katlein: So I played in theater for about 9 or 10 years. We shot together, [points to Sladek] I think, I don't know, a few years ago.
Sladek: Probably around 14 years old.
Katlein: But it was the first time shooting such a big movie. Definitely a great experience.
WTR: So another thing I want to talk about, is the song choice at the end: "A Formidable Marinade". That seems like providence almost that you found that, is there any history there?
Hengl: That song is actually, I think, almost 20 years old by now. And I wasn't aware of it for a long time. When I wrote the movie, it kind of got stuck in my head, and I knew early on that if we were able to do it, I wanted it as a credit song. And we were lucky to get it. And the musician, Mikelangelo & The Black Sea Gentlemen, who's from Australia actually, he loved the movie. He was very happy to be part of it. And for me, it's an interesting ending to a film that can be very bleak at parts. I wanted to have the audience be aware that though the film is very bleak, very dark, and very cynical, you don't have to necessarily take it too seriously.
WTR: Darkly comic.
Hengl: Yeah, it has a very comic streak. Something that I noticed about it, that I absolutely love is that it's very over the top. So obviously, there's very different reactions to that. Depending on who watches it, and in what situation or condition, some people find it quite funny. And some people don't find it funny at all. And I think it might be a film that gets funnier the more often you see it. Because once you know what's going to happen, that takes out a lot of the pressure and makes you more aware of how weird these people are and how outlandish the things that are happening there are. And that's something I really, really liked. That it can be very different depending on what screening you're in or what theater you see it in, whether it's on your laptop or in a theater with a crowd. I'm very happy about that.
WTR: And of course, a family dynamic, whatever that may be. What's scarier than a family dinner?
Katlein: Yeah, absolutely [All laughs].
WTR: And speaking of family, Aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger), a phenomenal performance. She's incredibly intense, obviously. Because she plays a dual role almost, switching from the lovable aunt to evil at times. What was that like working with her?
Katlein: Yeah, she is an amazing actress. And she's totally the opposite, of course. [Takes a second and smiles] Hopefully. [Everyone laughs].
Sladek: Yeah, I'm proud to call her my... fake mom [He laughs].
Katlein: It was an honor to work with her.
Hengl: Yeah, Pia is, in my opinion, one of the best actresses we have in Austria right now. She's absolutely brilliant. As those two said, she's very different in real life from the character she played, and it was a pleasure to work with her for all of us. Yeah, I mean, all of them are brilliant.
WTR: In a film with five characters, everyone seemed to bring their A game.
Hengl: Absolutely. I'm so happy to have had such a brilliantly talented cast.
WTR: Did the casting come together rather quickly?
Hengl: Yes and no. It was, in a sense, very straightforward that we assembled a cast in a very traditional way. But we took our time with some people, because I was very insecure. Casting young people is always very tough, so when they have such big roles, you have to be aware of many things. So I took Nina through quite an ordeal, [they laugh] and I'm really happy that she's stuck with it. Because now everyone can see the result. And of course, the same is true for Alex. His ordeal wasn't as tough as Nina's.
Sladek: No, it wasn't as long.
Hengl: But yeah, it was very traditional with castings and auditions. Of course, it was during COVID-19, so we had to do a lot of E-casting and Zoom casting, which is never great, but that's how it is,
WTR: Still talking about dual roles, Filipp kind of goes from an antagonistic force to an ally by the end. What was that like, playing both sides?
Sladek: I was really glad that development took place, because I wanted Filipp to connect with Simi. I felt like they were both very troubled people, that had their own issues, some more than the other. But it was really cool to, at first, just be mad and yell at her all the time. [They laugh]. And then in the end, be a little more friendly.
WTR: So I want to talk about Easter. You don't really get many horror movies around Easter. It's usually Christmas, or Halloween obviously. What kind of drew you to that holiday?
Hengl: Two things really. One, is that Easter is about death and rebirth. It's about renewal, which is something I feel is a very big part of the story, without wanting to spoil too much. And even before Christianity, even when this was a heathen holiday, it was always about food and about fasting to a certain point, and then gorging yourself on foods, so to say. And so there's lots of thematic connections to the film. So for me, it was very clear that it was going to play on Easter. And second, it hasn't been taken by any other horror film, so that's a good spot to be in.
WTR: It seems like a lot of times throughout the film, Simi does want to leave. And she even has opportunities to do so. Do you have any thoughts as to why she sticks it out to the end?
Katlein: So personally, I would have left very early [she laughs]. I think it's really important for her to lose weight. And I guess she just has this wish of "Yeah, maybe it's working, and let's try it". So yeah, I think that's the base thing on why she wants to stay.
Hengl: And I also think that Aunt Claudia gives her a kind of validation that Simi probably hasn't received so far in life. So she really just cherished that. And obviously, Aunt Claudia is very good at kind of creating Stockholm syndrome in Simi in a way. So for me, that was very important when I was writing it: It's not so much that she's trapped there, because for most of the time, she has her phone. And that's very strange for a horror film like this, where there's always reception. She kind of stays there of her own will because she wants to, and for me, Simi is actually a very strong character. Because she wants a lot of things and she works on doing those things. Even though she's superficially very timid, and very shy, she actually does things that she wants to achieve. For instance, the whole weight loss thing for me was not wanting to over-explain it and go "Ah, those guys at school treating her badly or whatever". I wanted it to be mostly about her wanting something for whatever reason there is.
WTR: So my final question that I like to ask everyone is: what's your favorite movie? Or at least movies that you watched, to get into a horror zone when filming.
Sladek: I have two, which are very different. The first one is The Reader with Kate Winslet. I think that's a really great movie. And the second one is Encanto, the Disney movie that just came out. I think they're both very touching movies in their own ways.
Katlein: I would say I'm actually more of the comedy type. But we watched a few horror movies together on the weekends while shooting. So it was something completely new, but it was interesting. A few weeks ago, I watched Nightmare on Elm Street and I kind of liked it.
Hengl: So I'm going to give you three movies that were a huge influence on this film. One is The Shining, just because I love Kubrick and the kind of atmosphere he builds up, even though that's an easy answer. I was, to a degree, influenced by Ari Aster's Hereditary, which I absolutely love. It's one of my favorite movies from the last couple of years. And one of my all-time favorite horror movies is The Wicker Man, which I really, really, really love. But since we're in New York, I'm going to shout out my all-time favorite movie, which is Ghostbusters. Every time I'm here in New York, I have to stop by the Ghostbusters headquarters and get some photos there. Yeah, I love that film.
Family Dinner celebrated its World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. Tickets for screenings and more information on the film can be found right here.