Among Friends: A Chat with the Directors of Feast of the Epiphany

Since its debut in 2003, the online film publication Reverse Shot has found playful and provocative ways of blurring the boundaries between presumed opposites. With their tradition of symposiums—collections of newly commissioned essays on various topics and questions in film culture—the magazine has regularly asked its writers to take a close, skeptical look at how we think about cinema, and to interrogate old-fashioned dichotomies between mainstream and art-house, East and West, narrative and documentary.

Now, three RS mainstays—founders Michael Koresky and Jeff Reichert, and frequent contributor Farihah Zaman (who, with Reichert, has made several acclaimed documentaries, including 2010’s Gerrymandering and 2013’s Remote Area Medical)—are bringing their distinctive critical sensibilities to the screen with Feast of the Epiphany, a new film that combines truth and fiction to haunting effect. The movie begins as a kind of meditative chamber drama, following a young woman named Abby as she spends a wintry day preparing for a dinner party she’s throwing at her Brooklyn brownstone. Intended as a gesture of kindness toward a grieving friend, the evening culminates in a confrontation with mortality and loss, after which the movie unexpectedly leaps into the realm of documentary, with a lyrical portrait of the upstate New York farm where ingredients for that fictional meal were produced.

The result is a thought-provoking, emotionally resonant experiment in film form, one that expands on the long-running cinephilic exploration Reverse Shot has sustained over the past sixteen years. Ahead of Feast’s theatrical premiere at the Museum of the Moving Image, in Queens, New York, I spoke with the trio about what they were looking to capture in this deeply elegiac film.

Three-person directing teams aren’t especially common. So I thought we’d start by talking a bit about what each of you brought to the table on this film.

Farihah: It’s difficult to figure out who’s responsible for what on this project, barring a few things: Michael wrote the script; Jeff is an amazing director of photography; and I brought a lot in terms of producing early in the process. But that’s not what I think about when I remember our collaboration. It all felt so much more fluid than that.

One of the things that was wonderful about making this film is that we all have collaborated in different capacities before. Jeff and I have made documentaries together; Michael and Jeff started Reverse Shot; and Michael has edited my writing there for years. We’ve also spent a lot of time in each other’s company, and the themes you see in the film—grief, food, the importance of gathering—have steeped over time in our conversations. So the movie does encapsulate our shared values.

Jeff: I think of all three of us as people who are restless and are interested in constantly trying things out. Reverse Shot has always been an experiment in film criticism. Michael and I think about the symposiums that we publish there as posing critical challenges to writers and asking them to think about cinema and about their practice in new ways. And now we’ve made a movie that’s half fiction and half documentary, and part of the impetus for doing it was the question: what would happen if we did this? What would it be like?

Michael: We started talking about it around 2011, and my memory is that we were just walking around the farmer’s market saying: wouldn’t it be interesting if you had a narrative where there’s a dinner and then it cuts off at a certain point and drops you into a documentary about where the food comes from? That being said, we weren’t only interested in doing something experimental; we had to have the right reason to do it. And there came a point when we found that this basic framework allowed us to grapple with some very personal things we were experiencing in our lives.

What attracted you to this unusual approach to the hybrid film? In contemporary cinema, the trend has been for movies that mix fiction and documentary to integrate those elements in the same plane of action, but here they are very clearly delineated.

Michael: We wanted people to know what they were watching. Starting out, we weren’t inspired by specific films so much as we were working against certain trends. One of those trends was what we felt to be the sometimes dispassionate academicism of hybrid films that force audiences to negotiate moment to moment between truth and fiction, which can feel emotionally disengaged. We wanted people to get engaged in the narrative; if you didn’t care about the people on-screen before the movie cuts off and drops them, that would have been a failure for us.

Another thing we were working against was this trend in American indie cinema of negativity and nastiness. Usually when you have a movie in which people get together for a dinner, they end up saying horrible things to each other. People think profundity comes out of that. But this movie is about trying as hard as you possibly can to do something nice for someone and failing. To us, that’s much more interesting and tragic. 

Farihah: I think what’s unique about this movie is that typically, with this kind of hybrid film, you would have narrative as connective tissue. But here we don’t give you a narrative handle. We were really asking if it was possible to feel the cohesion of the film on the basis of an emotional rather than a narrative arc.

The performances in the first section are obviously a crucial part of how you shaped that emotional arc. They have a theatrical quality to them, which becomes all the more pronounced when contrasted with the more naturalistic feel of the documentary portion. Since all three of you were new to directing actors, I’m curious how you landed on this stylistic choice.

Michael: From the beginning we were hoping to have a stylized form of acting that didn’t get in the way of the emotion, which is hard to do. Shonni Enelow, who was our casting director and dramaturge, helped in the first auditions. She’d give the actors various exercises, telling them to read their lines in different ways: in the style of a Noël Coward drawing-room comedy, for instance, or in the style of Daniel Day-Lewis in The Age of Innocence. By the time we cast the actors and got to the first rehearsal, everyone knew that we were doing something a little different. In that way, it was more like experimental theater than we’d originally intended.

Farihah: We talked a lot about how one of the uncanny things about grief is that it touches every part of your life, when you’re still in the bell jar, and in complex ways. We didn’t give one-to-one instruction; we never said, “Don’t forget that this character is sad here, so she’ll cut the onions like this.” But we did want to capture the fact that when you’re grieving, you feel so much in your own world, and when your bubble touches someone else’s bubble, it can be unnerving. So we discussed how grief informs your way of moving in the world, and that for some people this happens more acutely than for others.

Farihah and Jeff, was there anything that surprised you about working on your first narrative film?

Farihah: It was fun and off-putting to be thrown into a situation, after having made a few films, where the basics were lost to us. I’d sit down with Ashley [Connor, the cinematographer on the film’s first section], and she’d say, “We’re shooting twelve pages tomorrow,” and I’d say, “Is that bad?” I had no idea. I’d never thought about film and time according to pages before, and you’ve just blown my mind!

Jeff: There were earlier drafts of this film where after the movie transitions to the farm we started doing the things that would normally happen at the beginning of a documentary: introducing people in a certain way, introducing the space in a certain way. There was something not quite right about that. It wasn’t until we screened the film and actually got some feedback that we realized, oh, we’re forty-four minutes into a film at this point. We should reject our impulse to start over and give you all the things that you feel at the opening of a movie. Let’s just put people into the farm space and see how much we can carry the emotion without introducing you right off the bat.

Michael, were there any movies that helped guide you in writing the long conversations in the first section?

Michael: I think it’s more interesting when people aren’t saying the things they’re feeling. And I think it’s really interesting when people are talking a lot and not saying it. So I love Richard Linklater; I love The Before Trilogy and Slacker. Those are movies where things are talked around in a way they usually aren’t in American cinema. I also want to mention Olivier Assayas—particularly Boarding Gate and Clouds of Sils Maria, which have conversation scenes that go on way longer than you think they’re going to go, and they’re alternated with brief visual scenes. I thought it’d be interesting to make a movie that starts out extremely verbal and then becomes, in the nonfiction section, so nonverbal.

Farihah: Personal Shopper came out after our movie was finished, but it’s interesting to think of films that share tonal DNA. I think about that film and the interplay between quotidian, day-to-day experience with moments that are otherworldly for no real reason—moments where someone just feels an energy in the air. I think striving for that is a real Assayas hallmark, and it explains why the camera moves the way it does in his films—there’s a feeling that there’s a third person in the room. We also thought a lot about the lost art of banter. I was interested in the energy of classic romantic comedies from the thirties—The Awful Truth, Bringing Up Baby—and what happens when that kind of chemistry is applied to friendships. The spark in the room has to indicate so much more about the characters’ relationships than can be said in the scene.

Jeff: Because I work in documentary, most of the conversations I’ve filmed in the past have been in situations where I didn’t know what the “lines” were going to be. Filming people talking in documentary is hard because you can’t quite anticipate where things are going to go. So it was exciting to know all the time what was going to be said next, and also to be able to think through how the camera works in relation to that, in a planned way, rather than just being completely reactive.

It’s not often you see a movie that’s so attentive to the step-by-step, hours-long work of preparing a big meal. Do you all have any favorite food movies that informed your approach to that?

Michael: There are two films I think of when I think about food and cinema. The first is a bit obvious: Babette’s Feast. It’s a great movie about food and how it can heal a community. Something that was a little more present in our minds while we were making the film was Jeanne Dielman. In some of the early versions of Feast, we had very long sequences in which you’re just watching Abby cook, and . . . they were deadly, so we ended up cutting those out. But still, Jeanne Dielman was one of the early inspirations. And completely by happenstance, the kitchen in that film looks a lot like the one in ours!

Jeff: Even though the movie didn’t end up being a durational examination of a woman making a dinner in Brooklyn, I think if we hadn’t filmed it in the way that we did, with the idea that it could be that, we wouldn’t have been able to select and assemble moments with the rhythm and information that we wanted. Ben [Garchar], our editor, did a great job of showing us that it couldn’t be that durational examination, but also how the pieces we’d captured in those long takes could be best put together.

Farihah: I want to mention one food moment in cinema that I love. It’s in The Spirit of the Beehive, where the girl crouches on the ground and looks at the mushroom and says, “It smells so good.” I think about that a lot, in terms of the relationship between film and nature, and how we can respond to even just a single food item: how you can pick up an apple and it can be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen. It was something I thought about when we were on the farm and trying to focus our attention in a way that would allow us to express something about how all things great and small are connected.

Farihah mentioned your shared values earlier. I’m wondering how you’d characterize those values, and what you think made this team work. The movie has a palpable sense of having arisen out of friendship.

Jeff: We all have an ethic of “why not just try?” I think in a creative context, people can become defensive and intent on preserving some initial idea they had, whether or not that’s borne out in the material they’ve captured. The cost to try something—whether in a shot or an edit or a line reading—is so small, especially in the way we make films these days. Why not do everything and see which of those things you like best? Often it’s the thing you didn’t expect that ends up being most exciting, and also most representative of the film.