Writer-director Joe Maggio, the moviemaker behind the poignant, splice-of-life dramas Virgil Bliss and Paper Covers Rock, has taken his camera to an even grittier side of moviemaking with his latest feature, Bitter Feast. The gore-tastic film stars offbeat indie darling James LeGros as a deranged celebrity chef who goes to sadistic extremes when taking revenge on a snarky food critic—played by Humpday scene-stealer Joshua Leonard—who he blames for the loss of his television show, restaurant and cookware endorsement. Ridiculous? You bet. But as the chef’s torture continues, the film’s light humor gradually fades and Bitter Feast turns darker with each course.
Bitter Feast is now on DVD and VOD from Dark Sky Films.
Here, Maggio takes a break from the whirlwind of festival activities to dish about Bitter Feast and his fear of celebrity chefs.
Lauren Barbato (MM): Horror-comedy is not a hybrid genre we see often. How did you balance the two so you got both the laughs and the screams?
Joe Maggio (JM): I’m very glad you’ve asked this question because it allows me to correct an error committed when MPI/Dark Sky Films first began marketing Bitter Feast. On the day we were shooting the egg challenge, I remarked to one of the MPI reps who happened to be on set that right after James LeGros slammed Joshua Leonard in the face with the cast iron frying pan, the entire crew burst out laughing and then into uproarious applause. The rep and I both agreed that there had been several moments like this throughout the shoot and that despite the films’ overall darkness, it was actually quite funny at times. Cut to the first press release that MPI put out, where they referred to Bitter Feast as a “comic thriller.” I reject this label. It’s a horror film. There are moments that are so over-the-top and unhinged that you can’t help but laugh, but that doesn’t make it a comedy. The laughter comes from the insanity of the situation, not because there is anything overtly comedic in my intent.
MM: How difficult is it to do (believable) horror on a tight budget?
Joe Maggio (JM):Making any film on a tight budget is difficult, and a horror film, especially if it has any blood FX or stunts (Bitter Feast has both!) is extremely difficult to pull off and make it look and feel real. You just have no idea how complicated even a simple blood scene can be on a low budget. I mean, once that blood sprays in take one, you’ve got to clean it up for take two. You’ve got to clean the actors’ hair, skin, wardrobe, the walls. It takes forever. And then you have to consider wardrobe. On a low-budget film, maybe you have one replacement. Let’s say you do a stunt—a simple fall—and the actor’s shirt gets torn or badly stained. Add to it that you’re shooting in the middle of the woods in the middle of the night. Now you’ve got one shirt left and let’s say that the first take was blown because of some camera problem. Now you’ve got one shot to make it work, maybe two if you can somehow preserve this replacement shirt. You see what I mean? I think we were successful in Bitter Feast and I owe it all to the people that Glasseye surrounded me with: Michael McDonough shooting on the 5D; Beck Underwood’s sublime production design; Brian Spears’ uncanny blood FX, bruising, knives, syringes, etc.; Seth Anderson editing/making sense of some at times pretty dodgy footage; Graham Reznick pulling it all together with his sound design; Jeff Grace’s score… The list goes on. These are all top-notch artists and they all came together on this movie and gave me everything they had. I won’t reveal the actual budget, but I guarantee you’d call me a liar if I told you what it was.
MM: In the film, the chef forces cooking tasks upon the food critic that he must then nail to perfection. Which meal can you nail to perfection in a life-or-death situation?
JM: I’m a pretty good cook, but I’ve never been in a life or death situation before so I can’t say I wouldn’t get freaked out and screw up. That said, if you put a gun to my head and said ‘Cook!’ I’m pretty confident I could make you a mean-ass paella. In Bitter Feast I purposely chose tasks that would seem simple but in fact, in real life, can be kind of a pain in the ass to get just right, or, like with the steak challenge, would be very difficult to judge with any degree of objectivity. I mean, who can say that a steak is “perfectly medium rare?” You’re talking about so many degrees of medium rare and everybody has their own preference and you are always just kind of approximating.
MM: Was there a particular TV chef you had in mind when writing Bitter Feast? Which TV chef would you not want to piss off the most?
JM: Yes, I was thinking of Gordon Ramsay. In fact, the entire story behind Bitter Feast was inspired by Frank Bruni’s The New York Times review of Ramsay’s London Hotel, which opened in Manhattan back in June 2007. I love Frank Bruni’s reviews, but I thought his London Hotel review was really kind of silly and, dare I say, lazy. He essentially condemned the restaurant because, in his opinion, it lacked “excitement.” I’ve worked in restaurant kitchens and I can tell you it is very, very hard, and very, very risky to open a restaurant in Manhattan, especially a high-profile place like London Hotel. That Bruni would have been so fatuous in his review seemed really irresponsible to me. It got me thinking and imagining Gordon Ramsay reading the review and probably wanting to strangle Frank Bruni. That was the genesis of the whole Bitter Feast story.
As for TV chefs I wouldn’t want to piss off? I’d say it’s a toss up between Mario Batali and Anthony Bourdain, but not because I’d be afraid of physical punishment. I just think both of them are pretty fucking cool and great at what they do, which is cooking, and which I love almost as much as eating. So I’d hate to get on their bad side.