SXSW 2011: An odd couple in 'The Dish and the Spoon'
In "The Dish and the Spoon," which had its world premiere Saturday as part of the Emerging Visions section of the South by Southwest film festival in Austin, Texas, a young woman (Greta Gerwig) is spiraling out of control after having discovered her husband has cheated on her with a woman she knows. At a diner, she meets a waifish young man (Olly Alexander) who is another seemingly lost soul, having come to America from England chasing a girl who promptly dumped him. Each in the pair, a genuine odd couple, finds solace and support in a person who is more or less a stranger.
Directed and co-written by Alison Bagnall, perhaps best known as co-writer of "Buffalo 66," the project came together quickly at the end of 2009 when financing for another project Bagnall had been working on with Gerwig abruptly fell apart. Having auditioned Alexander for that stalled film, and very much wanting to work with him, Bagnall wrote "The Dish and the Spoon" specifically for her two lead actors, with the setting an out-of-season seaside Delaware vacation town.
Enlisting current indie stalwarts Eleonore Hendricks and Amy Seimetz (who is also credited as a producer), Bagnall rounded out her cast and crew. Rather than the ironclad vision of some filmmakers, Bagnall was interested in turning the production process into one of discovery and was especially open to the input of her lead actors as to where they thought the story should go.
"I'm as controlling as any person who wants to direct a film," said Bagnall by phone from her home in Philadelphia before the premiere, "but in this film I wanted to see what they would do. I was more interested in what they thought about what the characters should do than what I wanted."
"There was a script she had written out that had the trajectory of essentially what's in the movie," said Gerwig by phone from New York. "I think we got a lot of the specificity from when we would talk through the scenes every night before we shot. We were just in this very weird place, an abandoned beach town in Delaware, so I think once we were all there, there was a lot of stimulus to creating scenes that were site specific in a way."
Alexander, on the same phone call with Gerwig but from London, said the film was shot pretty much chronologically, which allowed the actors and filmmaker to discover new things about the characters and "change it as we went."
For Gerwig, the timing of the project turned out to be a stroke of creative luck. Having just finished shooting her part in Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" opposite Ben Stiller -- a role for which she would go on to be nominated for a Film Independent Spirit Award for best actress -- Gerwig was in a rare emotional state. "I was going crazy," she said bluntly.
Gerwig brings a raging, out-of-control anger to her role in "The Dish and the Spoon." A series of phone messages she leaves for her husband throughout the film (and one for his mistress) are at once shocking, funny and a bit uncomfortable to watch.
"I feel like sometimes being extremely angry has the same sort of cathartic quality as weeping," said Gerwig. "Alison happened to have written something about this woman who is shot out of a cannon on a mission, but it was also coupled with [when] I had finished 'Greenberg,' and that was this very vulnerable character who lets people walk all over her -- and I felt so open and exposed from doing that. I had so much woundedness in me that I became the thing Greenberg says, where 'hurt people hurt people.'
"I think I became that firestorm of hurt that becomes anger. So I felt it was one of those things that combined easily with where I was. Olly knows; I was furious. I was furious the whole time, it was a nightmare."
"Yeah, she was insane," Alexander said.
Perhaps nothing captures the unique collaboration among Bagnall, Gerwig and Alexander quite like their mutual decision not to have the pair consummate their relationship in a physical way. Bagnall had originally scripted a scene of them awkwardly having sex, but Alexander and Gerwig, especially over the course of shooting, came to feel that wouldn't represent their characters or their relationship in the right way. Bagnall, trusting their instincts, demurred.
"I feel like in this movie, it's important they don't," Alexander explained. "And I think there's something to be said for a nonsexual relationship. I think it rarefies the relationship in a way."
"As we talked about it, Alison came around to realizing that was no longer the movie we were making," said Gerwig of the decision to steer clear of sex. "Olly and I as actors have a lot of chemistry, but it didn't feel sexual."
Pausing for a moment, Gerwig added, "Olly, I did not want to have sex with you."
"Cheers for that," replied Alexander with one last giggle. "Thanks."
-- Mark Olsen in Austin
Photo: Greta Gerwig and Olly Alexander in "The Dish and the Spoon." Credit: SXSW