In a Midwestern suburb, aggro punk rocker Simon (Kyle Gallner), who finances his home music album recordings as a guinea pig for medical trials, needs to find a place to lay low following a close call with the police. After a chance encounter with the socially awkward Patty (Emily Skeggs), he seeks refuge at her house, with her conservatively religious family. As the pair get to know one another, they discover a shared passion for music, and together with a 4-track recorder, they create a song.
Written, directed, and edited by Adam Rehmeier, Dinner in America (2020) is produced by Ben Stiller and Ross Putman. The filmmaker’s previous credits include his feature debut, the horror film The Bunny Game (2011), and Jonas (2013), about a sinful man who washes up on a desolate coastline, and travelling to Los Angeles, begins delivering a profound message to the city’s citizens. He produced and edited the documentary Land Grab (2016), that told the story of the politically disruptive aspirations of an eccentric finance mogul, who sought to build the largest urban farm in Detroit.
In conversation with PopMatters, Rehmeier talks about his approach to the filmmaking process, instilling his essence in the story, and film as a vehicle to celebrate his own elated musical experiences.
We often seek to define ourselves, adopting terms such as “filmmaker” or “writer”. Aside from film, you’re musically driven, so how do you perceive your creative identity?
It’s all one energy, and whether I’m doing music, film, or photography, I don’t distinguish between them. I consider myself well-rounded, and so it’s more the path of being an artist and working, sometimes in a visual medium and other times I’m doing audio experiments or songs. People pitch and haul themselves as a director or a writer, but I consider myself a filmmaker in that I do all of the elements, and that’s a whole separate badge that not everybody gets to wear.
When I was at Sundance, I went to the editor’s brunch. I love talking about editing because that’s where your film is built or reimagined. The other editors were telling me they were terrified of showing the director the cut for the first time, and I realised for a lot of people, they’re just a director, and they’re onto the next big job. This was one thing they were doing that year, and they’re hired as an editor, and they’re going to check in periodically.
Yes, films are built that way, but I personally don’t have any interest in making films like that. I want to be involved from the first frame to the last. It’s important for me to be responsible for the decision-making. I believe more films should have a singular vision, and I usually lose interest in committee films.
In as much as the filmmaker can bring their singular vision to a film, the contradiction remains that cinema is a collaborative medium.
A quote I use a lot is [François] Truffaut’s: “There’s the film that you write, the film that you shoot, and the film that you edit, and they’re all different films.”
With Dinner in America I had the abstract version, ideas of who I think Simon is. Then as soon as Kyle was cast, I wouldn’t say he destroys what I thought, but it integrates both of our energies. Then I get to post-production and there are parts that don’t work and I need to reimagine it, so there’s another energy that comes into the process.
You have to be open-minded because the biggest struggle I see in the craft is people get stuck with a very specific vision of what they’re trying to achieve. They’re singularly focused on one thing, and there’s so much more to filmmaking than getting a specific shot that you think you need — a shot that you might not even use in post-production.
Playing in bands over the years I learned there are aspects that are collaborative, and if you’re someone who can harness that and facilitate it for other people to collaborate in that space, you’ll amplify everything you’re trying to do. If you’re closed off to it, it’ll be a trickle effect that’ll creep into your post-production, and you’ll have many disappointments. You need to keep an open mind and understand that a script is just a script, it’s not a life, it’s not anything yet. On the day of shooting is when the first miracle or the magic happens.
A strong vision compels us to look and listen, regardless of whether it’s successful or not. If you bring a part of yourself to it, our acceptance or rejection is as much about you as it is the film.
Stories such as Dinner in America are anti-social comedies, whose abrasive black humour often conceal a contradictory nature. No film can please everyone, but stories such as this seem to delight in that fact.
I love polarising cinema because it’s subjective; it’s about your own personal tastes. Dinner in America is one of those projects that, at its essence, every aspect of who I am as a person is injected into it. People ask me, “Are you Simon, or are you Patty?” I’m a little of both, and I draw from my relationships with people and my observations of growing up in the Midwest.
I can see the design for this film subconsciously now, whereas I couldn’t see it in script form. It was a very buoyant and fun, wacky and spiky script, and Emily and Kyle were able to ground it in a way that humanises these characters. When I look at its design, what I did was subconsciously make a film that’s a punk song — abrasive on the outside but it has a deeper message.
It’s like people telling you 30 or 40 years ago that Black Sabbath were evil, and it’s the devil’s work, or the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) cracking down on music in the 1980s, and the “Filthy Fifteen” [a list of songs the PMRC objected to]. When you start reading the lyrics, you see another side, and Dinner in America is salty and abrasive on the outside, but inside it’s sweet. … It subversively frames something ugly, but underneath it all, these two characters exemplify the good in people, as twisted as that can be at times, especially with Simon.
In your director’s statement included in the publicity correspondence, you spoke about bringing an expression of the DIY ethic of your musical experiences to this film. How integral was this to the development of the story?
I’ve been an avid home recorder for 29 years, and this was a vehicle to inject some of my own experiences, and the elation I feel when I’m laying something down for the first time, or discovering it. I’m not saying that was the catalyst for the film because it wasn’t, it was a by-product of framing the Simon character alongside the Patty character.
Simon came to me all at once. It was in 2006 and I was walking in the snow. The rhythm and the cadence of my boots on the gravel conjured this image of a predatory shark-like creature moving through space-time, with the cigarette hanging out of his mouth and he’s wearing a bomber jacket. There was that rhythm and a cadence to how he moved that was the root of his character.
I was able to go back to my parents house where I was staying for the holidays and sketch out the first ten minutes of the movie. Then it just sat in a folder called Kicks for a long time, as I tried to figure out what to do with this character, who uses the money he earns as a human guniea pig to pay for the albums he wants to record. I didn’t have enough [story] for it to get to the next stage where there’s a point to it all.
In 2009 I was working on a different project and struggling with writer’s block. I began sketching the characters of Patty and her family. The scene at the beginning of the film where they’re all sitting around with the taco salad and the cumin was all written in one sitting.
I was sketching this nuclear family and riffing on Midwestern people. It didn’t have a point, it was just an exercise, and four years later in 2013, I decided to combine the two. The moment I fused together a day in the life of Simon and a day in the life of Patty, it suddenly became interesting.
I didn’t know it was going to be another six years before I premiered it, but I sat down for several months and wrote it, refined it, and found passionate producers to help figure out how to make it. The money side is my biggest hindrance because I don’t think that way. I like to only think about the craft and the characters, doing everything I can to serve them emotionally and to create a space for them to work. This is what I’m hyper-focused on as a filmmaker, pushing them and pushing myself, and reimagining it as needed.
The advice often given to writers is to write what you know, but there are different levels to this concept. I’d argue that writing about what you know refers to emotion, tapping into familiar feelings so the storytelling has an emotional authenticity that can be felt by the actors and the audience.
My process is layered, and emotionally, I primarily pull from my own experiences. Everything I’m working on is coming from a sensory place that I’ve experienced, which is disguised and has mutated into something new.
It’s unrelated, but years ago I worked for the author Legs McNeil and Joey Ramone‘s brother Mickey Leigh for a year, helping them transcribe a book. I was listening to and transcribing these amazing interviews, and typing 110 double-spaced pages a day. It obviously has nothing to do with this film, but having had that in my peripheral, there are elements of it in this film.
I’m not someone who’s closed off when I go out in public. I observe, I interact with people, I pick up on their rhythms and how they speak. It’s all part of the process. I find a value in that, even though those interactions are abstract. I seek that out to harness it, and then I conjure up some of those reference points.
Would you agree that there’s a musical dimension to the filmmaking or even the writing process, where a musical rhythm and melody is present?
Filmmaking is rhythmical, and all of my scripts are, and my edit style is. This stems from being a musician first and the foundation of learning the craft.
When I write songs I output them one after the other, as they come to me. It’s automatic and I don’t even think about it, but with writing it’s more difficult. I struggle from time to time to do things rhythmically, or to feel inspired with the page itself, because to me it’s an absolute boring medium. Whereas music, putting on an album and listening to it is joyous. Reading is not very joyous, it can be, but it’s less so than watching a movie, or listening to a soundtrack. It’s definitely a notch down.
Do you think there is a transformative aspect to the creative process, where it changes you as a person?
Every film in your catalogue is a character builder. The only time it possibly wouldn’t be is if you’re not responsible for more than one aspect of the film. If you’re an all-in filmmaker, then every project is going to represent a huge growth for you.
Unlike other things I’ve done, working with Emily and Kyle opened me up in new ways emotionally. I’d either become jaded, or I’d closed off and compartmentalised things in my life. [Working with them] brought much of that to the forefront. I was able to feel emotions, and I was touched by the humanity they brought to the film. That was a profound experience.
Dinner in America is streaming on ARROW and available to buy or rent on all digital platforms in the UK on 1 June.