in conversation with the filmmakers behind 'The Feast'
The Feast (2017; in post-production) sits somewhere on a spectrum between mystery and accessibility; somewhere spectacular. The short film is based on acclaimed writer L.P. Lee’s story (2015), in which a nameless woman, living in a village dominated by famine and folklore, accepts an invitation into a world of opulence and objectification, embodied by the Count’s palace. Luscious and licentious, the story conjures Gothic literature, fairytale and, as Lee reveals in our interview, East Asian cultural heritage. As a work of cinema, The Feast unites the mythic and modern. The protagonist is bequeathed the name ‘Hayley’, and lives on a council estate. She rides a car to the palace, not a carriage. The film will be privately screened in London this September.
It’s rare, and humbling, to engage with the director, producers, and food stylist and original author behind a work all at once. The fruits of that discussion became a feast of cultural inspiration and inquiry in their own right.
Gaëlle Mourre (pictured above): Director, producer, writer
Spyros Parissis: Chef & Food Stylist
L.P. Lee: Co-writer
Michelle Fan: Producer
The film is described as being a dystopian tale, set in a “dystopian reality”. How do you define ‘dystopian’ - and how important is it that the connection to ‘reality’ isn’t lost?
Gaëlle: certainly The Feast film is not a part of our real world, so we were looking for elements to remove it from this one. A lot of that came from Laura’s [L.P. Lee’s] story, which is so otherworldly. At the same time, we wanted to tie that story in with something topical and relatable, so had to find elements to bring the two together. We embedded the film in a world the viewer can easily recognise - and then shifted certain elements, to make it unrecognizable. Part of that came with the protagonist’s name, Hayley. It’s a name that doesn’t mark her in any way; it’s as neutral as possible, and yet she’s an extremely strong-willed character.
Gaëlle and L.P. Lee met when they were teenagers. Lee recounts their trips to BFI – and its wine bar – when Gaëlle was at film school, chatting about stories and film at length. Lee’s written work is visually evocative, and sensorily enveloping in itself. It’s reasonable to wonder if she’d ever thought about the potential for her words to become film, while writing The Feast;
L.P. Lee: Back in 2013, when I wrote the story, I wasn’t sure anyone would even be interested in my writing. So, it’s been really exciting; especially as I love cinema so much, and I love seeing people bring different skills and perspectives to the table. Having worked with Gaëlle before, too, I really appreciate being able to see the work come to life with her.
KR: How much of an impact do you think the friendships between you have had - in terms of the filmmaking process, but also in elevating the meaning of the story?
Gaëlle: Knowing that you’re working with a talented professional [nods to team around table] is great in and of itself. But when you add a friendship on top of that, there’s a real affinity that elevates the project. There’s this unspoken shorthand between people.
Michelle: On top of that, there are certain themes in The Feast that both Laura and Gaëlle can relate to very quickly. That’s in terms of experiences as women, experiences of ambition - and the realisation that there are certain rules around appropriate ways to express that ambition.
If its makers have unique experiences of its thematic motifs, The Feast is also universal and accessible, putting a fictive lens on transgression as much as providing a portal for self-reflection.
Gaëlle: We wanted the film to be relatable, which raised a lot of questions. What can you do that will be impactful and important? How can you make intangible and insidious experiences - whether in terms of women’s social position, or race relations – accessible? Well, we felt the best way to do that is by creating a visual metaphor, which people can insert themselves into. That way they experience it directly, and come away from it with their own associations and understanding.
KR: The term "feast" derives from the Latin for ‘joyous’, and ‘festival’ – yet here the tale is one of sinister disturbance and abuse. Is that an intentional rethinking of something supposedly exuberant and ecstatic, rendered as dark and dystopian?
L.P. Lee: There are so many meanings attached to feasting. In George Bataille’s essay The Accursed Share (1949), he interprets ideas of luxury and feasting through the surplus energy of society. I’m also really interested in anthropological ideas around things that seem sweet and innocent, but are actually more dangerous. Sidney Mintz wrote about sugar, and foods that seem to be very ‘nice’, yet actually caused a social scare - or often a morality scare - when brought into consumer society.
“… [surplus wealth] is its final reason for being, and it is due to this that its sense is not able to be put off, and must be in the instant. But it is consumed in that instant. This can be magnificent, those who know how to appreciate consumption are dazzled, but nothing remains of it.” – George Bataille, The Accursed Share, Vol. 1: Consumption
Lee grew up with summer trips visiting her family in Korea, where her mother moved when Lee was young. She posits that Korea’s recent history, to which food shortage is so central, influenced the motifs of hunger and want in the story – and that she’d wondered if those traits might be more alienating for a British audience.
Spyros: to me, the story felt very much connected to the human need to have more. I see a lot of people come into my café who are trying to move forward in their careers, be better, earn more, work harder. People are striving, and they need to – but they get into a cycle of want. It sustains, and it traps. When that cycle becomes ‘life’, people can forget themselves and the humanity around them. I see a lot of that in the film.
Michelle: That kind of figurative hunger was really important to us, from the beginning. We asked; what can we say about modern ambition that goes beyond a daily acceptance of it as a ‘normal’ thing? Who is being exploited – are you exploiting the system, or is it the reverse? The film, purposefully, doesn’t give you a precise answer. It’s about a sense of power play; a dance, where you don’t really know who the victor is.
KR: Clearly, setting plays a vital role to the development of plot and character. How challenging was it to find locations that do justice to the story’s luscious - and licentious – nature, and sensory immersion?
Gaëlle: [exhales] so challenging. To shoot a film in a stately home -which Britain has no shortage of - you have to meet a very specific set of criteria. There would have been no point making The Feast if we hadn’t found the right sets. By pure luck, I was browsing online and came upon one of those lists of ‘stately homes in London you must see’, and we found the one - a listed estate in southwest London.
Michelle: This came at a moment of scouting so many great places, and coming up with just a small handful of options that could possibly work. I think one thing filmmakers come to realise - after a while - is that if you’re crazy enough to imagine something that’s pretty much impossible, if you try for long enough, you’ll probably find someone as crazy as you, who’ll be like, “OK I’ll help you.”
The Feast brings a banquet of cultural and allegorical references to the table. As director, producer, and writer, Gaëlle’s creative influences are vast, propelled by her love of storytelling:
Gaëlle: It’s more about stories than genres, I’ll find. Good Will Hunting has always been a favourite of mine. Mainly, I think, because the script is so brilliant, so finely balanced between emotion and pragmatism. Robin Williams was cast in a role that’s so unusual for him, and you really don’t know where it’s going until the very end. Those are the kinds of stories that always captivate me.
KR: And key sources of inspiration for The Feast?
Gaëlle: It’s difficult to generate points of reference until the work is in progress, when you come to realise what you’re inspired by. But one of those points of reference for The Feast was certainly Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. The lines “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you'd be boiled to death before you knew it.” I thought that was so powerful. Unless you bring a conversation up, or bring to light an issue, you’ll never resolve it.
Perhaps the delight, and significance of bringing something often unspoken or taboo to light gave a sense of purpose to everyone on set – galvanised by the creative and social bonds between the team.
Spyros: well, I think I broke all the rules of a film set, in setting up the banquet table. The food was all real, which took a lot of planning.
KR: So, the crew got to experience the metaphor of hunger first-hand.
Spyros: Oh, I think everyone hated me, because they couldn’t eat it.
Gaëlle: I stole a meringue.
L.P. Lee: there was a surprising moment of discomfort during filming for me, when [Katie Leung, playing Hayley] is indulging in the food. I felt like I had to look away, to give her due privacy. I think I saw other people averting their eyes, as though to give her space and not be spectators, witness to it. That feeling was unexpected.
KR: that’s fascinating. There’s such a powerful cultural taboo around watching people – particularly women – eating. As well as hunger as a national metaphor, say, in Korea, it also has a very individually felt nature, in terms of cultural norms and pressures around consumption.
Gaëlle: one thing I always return to is the myth of Persephone, who eats just six pomegranate seeds, and then belongs in Hades’ Underworld. Food is socially constructed as an invitation; and if you accept it, you’ve accepted an invitation into someone else’s world. You enter into this exchange based on such established cultural expectations; and when those are overturned, it’s all the more dramatic.
Lee takes up the idea that “when you consume food, you become part of that world, and that world becomes part of you” by referring to Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.
L.P. Lee: I think of that scene in which the girl’s parents are gorging on food from an empty food stall, and they turn into pigs, becoming a part of a magical realm. I remember being so amazed and scared by that moment, watching as a kid.
But the idea of an invitation being subverted is the most unsettling one for me. Outright hostility is one thing - but when given an invitation, we assume goodwill on the part of the host. You bring trust, only to be betrayed. That ruining of innocence is as unnerving to me as the act of feasting itself.
In theory, with an invitation, you’re being given something; yet often you’re implicitly giving something of yourself to the one who invites you. Questions of etiquette and inequity can be read across centuries, and Lee’s story feels intentionally suspended in an ambiguously pre-modern, patriarchal period.
KR: The modern-day interpretation of The Feast testifies to its timelessness; are there aspects of the tale you'd say are particularly relevant to this moment, in 2017?
L.P. Lee: in America - from Trump to The Handmaid’s Tale - people might be more worried about a return to conservative expectations around how women ‘should’ behave, which could have a particular impact on reception of the film.
Gaëlle: I think the idea is to show how inexplicable and insidious some situations can be, and to show how that doesn’t make them any less impactful. The subversion of an invitation or shared meal can be interpreted in many different ways. One of those is consent. And when that expectation is overturned, and you didn’t give your consent to what’s occurring, you’re left with unanswered questions about where to draw the line, how to deal with what you’re feeling.
KR: Gaëlle, you’ve worked on a range of genres and forms, including documentary, thriller, commercial, corporate and short fiction (in addition to The Feast, Gaëlle wrote and directed Awakening, winner of Best Drama at the NY international short film fest; she also directed, co-wrote and co-produced with Laura House of Locks, on which Michelle was Associate Producer). Is there a style or genre you have yet to broach?
Gaëlle: there are loads! The next I’m working on is a short film, a live action animation called Clockwork, with my boyfriend. The other project is one I’m collaborating on with Laura [L.P. Lee]: a VR series. And thirdly, I’m working on a feature length script, with the intention of directing. It’ll be my second French language piece (the first I directed but didn't write), my debut feature, and will be based in Marseilles.
Spyros: I’d like to talk to you about a fourth project as well…
…Lee assures him, “we’ll try to get food in the next one.” The Feast has seen Spyros’ entry into food styling for film. The owner of Café Parissi in Brixton, in former lives he’s been a marine biologist and dance therapist:
Spyros: I always had a desire to create a place where people could eat and share life. My background has given me a scientific understanding of food; but more social work has given me an understanding of the connections between people’s food and lives. I’ve done a lot of things, from being a sports teacher to managing a rehab centre for people overcoming addiction. All those experiences come together in what I do now.
KR: There's a certain ambiguity to the story's close (not wanting to give away spoilers) that defies the satisfaction of completion and fulfillment. Is that an intentional parallel to the notions of insatiable hunger and disillusioned consumption that run through the tale itself?
L.P. Lee: That’s interesting. In a way though, life is very ambiguous. People often think they want a neatly wrapped up ending, but in reality, I think they might not – they want something that lets their imagination work away a bit more.
KR: On that ambiguity – what do you tell people who ask what the film’s about?
L.P. Lee: I think it’s better to leave it to the audience, who come upon their own interpretation. I wouldn’t want to put too much of a mark on that.
Spyros: [smiles]…I’ll answer after the premiere.
For Gaëlle, the film is “a dystopian fairytale about power dynamics and (metaphorical) hunger.” For those who aren’t lucky enough to attend the film festivals, the creative team has plenty of cultural recommendations;
Spyros: well, my first recommendation to anyone is go and stay with a traditional family in Greece over Easter. That’s one of the most important memories for me. But as a film about the connections between food and experience, I’d recommend Like Water for Chocolate.
Gaelle: - you liked the movie?
Sypros: I mean, the book first! But I saw the movie before I read it, when I was quite young.
Gaelle: you can make fun of my reference now: Babette’s Feast. It’s such an understated film, and the emotions expressed in the film are all in the subtleties. The second recommendation is The Handmaid’s Tale.
L.P. Lee: For me, Christina Rossetti’s poem The Goblin Market, and Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. We should also honour Angela Carter’s influence with The Bloody Chamber. She’s something of a literary fairy godmother of mine.
Michelle: I just saw Top of the Lake, Season 2, and Jane Campion is one of my heroes. She makes such intricate films, but to see that stretched across a TV series was incredible. One thing I really admire is the way she thinks about women both literally and conceptually. She can build such a complex narrative structure, while dealing with so much imagery to represent women over space and time, beyond specific scenes. …also, I love Nicole Kidman.
The Feast will be privately screened in London this September; find out more here and for the latest updates follow them here.
Photography: Rita G. Cheng @ritawants2cats / The Feast 2017 ©
“How criminal it would be to wither one’s way through life, languishing in unfulfilled desires, steeped in a perpetual hunger. How wretched to be confined to a state of acceptance, to rot away from the inside out. How shameful, how miserable!
One must eat, savor and enjoy. Consume with relish else life is but a shadow on a wall.”
- L.P. Lee, The Feast
- words: Katrina Russell (KR)