A Dish Best Served Cold

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In "Bitter Feast," writer-director Joe Maggio concocts a revenge scheme any artist would relish. After receiving a nasty review, celebrity chef Peter Gray (James LeGros) kidnaps the blogger responsible (Joshua Leonard) and turns the tables on his critic, forcing him to endure several cooking challenges if he wants to be fed. With the dark—and often darkly funny—indie making its debut at the L.A. Film Festival this week, Maggio wrote about the genesis of the script and offered insight into his casting process:

The idea for "Bitter Feast" came to me sometime in the summer of 2007 while reading Frank Bruni's New York Times review of Gordon Ramsay's restaurant, London Hotel. At one point in the review, Bruni suggested, and I'm paraphrasing here, that to his mind London Hotel lacked the thing essential to any successful restaurant: excitement. This notion got stuck in my head, I suppose because it's very, very hard to open a restaurant, and for Bruni to condemn Ramsay for something so completely and utterly fatuous struck me as incredibly unfair. All I could think of was Gordon Ramsay reading this silly, lazy review, and I wondered what on earth must be going through his head. Then I started imagining what I would do to Bruni if I were Ramsay. I concluded what Ramsay would probably want—even more than the pleasure of committing physical violence against his tormentor—would be to somehow force Bruni to walk in Ramsay's shoes for a bit, to teach him a little empathy, to make him care about cooking with the intensity that Ramsay cares about it, and then arbitrarily shit all over Bruni's dreams. And there you have the central premise of "Bitter Feast," pretty much in a nutshell.

Casting was challenging on a number of fronts. By the time we got the green light from our financier (MPI Media/Dark Sky Films), we were down to less than eight weeks of preproduction. Not surprisingly, MPI fully expected a cast of names. Working with Dauphin-Backel Casting, we immediately began sending out offers, which, given our time crunch, often expired in just a few days. I remember we sent an offer to Peter Sarsgaard on a Friday afternoon and demanded an answer on the following Monday. It was totally ridiculous, but we had no other choice. On any given day, we'd look at dozens of faces and names, carefully consider each one based not just on their appropriateness for the role but also their bankability and relative "get-ability." We'd weigh the pros and cons, grow attached to and excited about several prospects, only to have them all pass because of money, scheduling, or both.

Our first casting break came when we got James LeGros for the role of Peter Gray. James was actually my first choice, and he also happens to be good friends with "Bitter Feast" producer Larry Fessenden. Fessenden called LeGros directly at his home but never got a call back. Assuming he just wasn't interested, we moved on and made several offers to other actors. Weeks later, on a desperate whim, Fessenden called again and actually spoke with LeGros, who it turns out had never gotten the first message. He loved the idea, was available, and agreed to participate right there on the phone.

Other roles were cast in an equally serendipitous manner. We approached Mark Duplass to play J.T. Franks; he passed due to scheduling conflicts but recommended Joshua Leonard, with whom he'd recently worked on Lynne Shelton's "Humpday." Leonard signed on and recommended his friend Amy Seimetz for the role of Frank's wife, Katherine. And so on. This "friends recommending friends" approach meant the actors already knew and trusted one another before we even began shooting, saving everyone a lot of time and frustration. Considering how fast we had to work (we shot the entire film in 14 days), things went remarkably smoothly, probably because of this pre-established intimacy. One night at dinner, I remarked to LeGros that I couldn't wait for the day when I had an enormous budget and all the time in the world. He just laughed and shook his head. "The only difference between this and a big-budget movie," he said, "is on a bigger film, there'd be more people telling you to hurry."

"Bitter Feast" screens at the L.A. Film Festival on Fri., June 18, at 9:45 p.m. and Sun., June 20, at 10 p.m. Both screenings are at the Downtown Independent Theatre. For more information, visit www.lafilmfest.com/2010.