When I ask director Adam Rehmeier how he has been and how bizarre it must have been to release a film during such turbulent times, he asks if he can speak freely. I say yes. “It’s been diaper shit, to not be able to go around, and flex and have fun and go around with your film, because it’s such an important part of your process.”
Rehmeier’s new film Dinner In America premiered at the 2020 Sundance film festival, shortly before the world was fully plunged into the COVID-19 pandemic. Now making its debut on Arrow in the UK, Rehmeier, who directed, wrote and edited Dinner In America, and star Kyle Gallner tells us all about how the film Gallner describes as “a punk rock monster” came about.
Dinner In America focuses on Simon (Gallner), a punk rocker and Patty (Emily Skeggs), a seemingly awkward 20-something girl, who strike up an unlikely friendship and bond with each other. Patty has been sending rather intimate pictures to the singer of a punk rock group she admires. The singer in question? Simon in a ski mask, in order to stay anonymous, but neither of them realize their connection. Together they protest and fight against the peaceful order in their suburbs and grow closer to one another. Dinner In America defies all genre labels, but it’s deeply affecting as well as comical. The cast is rounded out by Pat Healy and Mary Lynn Rajskub as Patty’s conservative parents.
The film is produced by Ben Stiller and was filmed in Detroit, Michigan. It has been described as a combination of Welcome to the Dollhouse and Napoleon Dynamite with a little Heathers mixed in. Dinner In America radiates punk rock energy and is essentially a love letter to Rehmeier’s formative years in Nebraska and the film has won several awards at film festivals around the world.
Dinner In America feels like a festival film, designed to be seen with a big crowd of like-minded people and both Rehmeier and Gallner agree. “At the premiere there was three or four points, when at least a third of the audience stood up all at once and spontaneously clapped” Rehmeier tells FilmHounds. “I keep thinking about how sad it would have been if we had missed that window” Gallner says.
“I’d rather do this in person and have a drink and just relax a little bit. I do think this is the next best thing, but it’s always going to be a substitute for the real effect. So that part is a hard pill to swallow. Especially when films aren’t easy to make, they take enormous amount of time. This film, from when I wrote it to when we premiered, it was six years. That’s a lot of time and emotional energy, 1500 days or more, it’s a lot of time. So that doesn’t even really include… I sketched this character in 2006, Simon came to me in 2006. And Patty came to me in 2009. And I didn’t write the script until 2013” Adam tells us of the origins of Dinner In America.
Rehmeier’s spirit is in every frame of Dinner In America and his uncompromising vision carries the film. “I’m interested in front to back filmmaking, meaning first ring to last frame, and having that control as the filmmaker, because you need to have a vision for your projects, and execute accordingly. And I don’t believe that that can happen with a committee of people, I just don’t believe that you can do good work, if it’s not a singular filmmaker making those choices. And I don’t think that there’s anything worth watching that really is by a committee type of thing, because it’s never really going to have perspective. I’m not saying I made the best film in the world, I’m saying I made a film that’s true to my essence, who I am.” Rehmeier says there’s a lot of both Patty and Simon in himself but leans more towards Patty. “I’m more good natured than Simon.”
Gallner’s casting wasn’t quite as straight forward as you’d expect. Rehmeier tells us they sent Gallner the script but never heard back until Gallner worked with cinematographer Jean-Philippe Bernier on a film in Romania and Rehmeier’s script hooked Gallner. “It was like nothing I’d ever read before. It was so kind of offbeat and unique. And the relationship between Simon and Patty was really special. Patty alone was just an amazing character. I think characters like that are kind of grossly underrepresented. I think we need more Patties in film.”
Gallner found the role of Simon to be a challenging one. “I thought Simon was a really interesting challenge, because you have this guy who like at the beginning of the movie is almost actively trying to be disliked, he’s so aggressive and so abrasive. And by the end of it, you realize he’s a good guy, he’s just pushing back against all the bullshit in his life very, very actively. And when he finds Patty, they just kind of balance each other out.”
“As soon as I talked to him, he just had such a grasp on the world and these characters and it was obviously such a personal story to him that everything came together in kind of a perfect storm and I’m forever grateful I was able to be a part of it” Gallner says of working with Rehmeier. The actor describes the bond between himself, Skeggs and Rehmeier as a strong one. Rehmeier and Gallner’s kids play together and the three even have a text chain still going.
Rehmeier wanted to cast Gallner after seeing a photo of him from Sundance 2015 that Rehmeier says just captured Simon in a single photo. “It was the same reaction that when I’d seen A Rebel Without a Cause, like how James Dean is able to balance pushing things and like a bad boy kind of thing, but like sensitive and vulnerable too. This image of Kyle has it in spades.”
Gallner describes his younger self as a bit of “a wild child.” Gallner used to skateboard around his hometown and break into people’s garages during the weekends and steal alcohol. Since those days, Gallner has become an accomplished actor who has starred both in major studio blockbusters as well as small indie films. Gallner was able to use his own youth as inspiration for Simon, but when asked whether he prefers characters that are far removed from his own persona or something more familiar, the actor takes a moment to think.
“It is definitely more fun to create a character like Simon and I tend to be drawn more in that direction. But there’s also some stuff where you play closer to yourself, but the story is really good or the characters are really good. It really just depends, things where it’s kind of a ho-hum story and it’s like, you’re just going to be Kyle, it doesn’t really excite me that much. I do tend to lean more in the character-y side of things, even if the guy is sort of normal. It’s important to me to come up with physical stuff or vocal stuff for things like that to kind of add something alive in there.”
While the actor, who has starred in films such as Jennifer’s Body, The Haunting In Connecticut and The Finest Hours, is instantly recognisable in his role as Simon, the performance is remarkably physical. “I wouldn’t say I was as hyped up and angry as a kid. So that was a different thing, figuring that out and a lot of that came from his physicality and talking with Adam, and creating ideas of how I wanted to talk, how I wanted him to sound, how I wanted him to walk and eat. There’s really primal stuff. If you watch him, he hunches over and guards his food, and everything’s just a little over the top aggressive.”
But Gallner’s performance wouldn’t be anything without Emily Skeggs, who is best known for her role in Desiree Akhavan’s The Miseducation of Cameron Post opposite Chloë Grace Moretz. Skeggs portrays Patty with ferocious independence and empathy, delivering a layered performance against Gallner’s more aggressive turn. Skeggs’ name was slipped to producer Ross Putman by her agent and Rehmeier had actually already cast someone else for the role, which had proved difficult for actors.
“Several times with Patty, people backed out, they got nervous or scared just on how they were going to do it, they couldn’t quite crack the nut and solve the puzzle. Emily just came from a place of such purity, that it’s one of those things where you look and just know instantly, just like I did with Kyle, so I never questioned it.”
Gallner says he and Skeggs are “kindred spirits” and credits Rehmeier for allowing the two to spend time together for two weeks before the film started shooting, starting from sitting next to each other on the airplane.
One of the film’s high points is a sweet song, titled The Watermelon Song, which is arranged and played by Simon and sung by Patty in the film’s most emotional scene. Rehmeier recorded the song with Skeggs, playing the instruments himself and Skeggs singing and describes being “shocked” by Gallner’s emotional performance in the scene while shooting.
“Kyle had heard it, we had discussed it, he had a copy of it. Fast forward two weeks, we’re actually shooting the scene. And I just wasn’t prepared for his reaction. I didn’t know what it was going to be. We never discussed it. That was what he did on the first take. It floored so many of the crew right there. I think it bonded everybody, because it was like a wow moment.”
Simon spends most of the film very reserved, aggressive and almost unlikable and his raw, emotional response to Patty singing is a tender moment in a film that otherwise projects such high, punk-rock energy. “I knew this is the first and maybe only time you see Simon crack. That (reaction) was intentional, where you see that love growing, not just for her, but for the music, you see his love of what he does. He sees something special in her and it’s special for him, he loves everything that’s happening. As gnarly as Simon is, there’s an authenticity in that, he loves his music and it means the world to him. And when people share that, that’s a big thing for him and to see Patty open up in that way, it felt like a very important moment for him and for them in their relationship.”
Rehmeier is aware that his film might divide audiences and is at peace with it, even a little excited by it. “Filmmaking and films are totally subjective, so somebody doesn’t like it, somebody likes it. I’m okay with polarizing work, I don’t think you’re really doing anything good artistically if it’s not polarizing, and that extreme, like I hated that movie, I love that movie. I love that space where a film can do that. In the case of Dinner in America, I feel like more people really get on board with it. Because of the emotional aspects that Kyle and Emily bring to it, the nuanced performances, the deepening, if you will, the character. I’m ecstatic that that film can be, like, cure for the pandemic blues, if you will. It feels like a throwback and it makes a lot of people really happy. I didn’t know that’s what I wanted to do as a filmmaker, but through the process of making this film with them, it’s inspired me in a lot of other ways as far as like future work and what my goals are for process and for how I want to work.”
DINNER IN AMERICA is streaming on ARROW and available to buy or rent on all digital platforms in the UK from 1st June.