After a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival last January, Dinner in America, a punk comedy-drama writer/director Adam Rehmeier, came to genre-focused audiences at the virtual version of the Fantasia Film Festival. Film Inquiry chatted with Rehmeier about Mac Demarco, a good mixtape, and finding the right lead actors.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Michael Frank: How did you come across the two leads of the film?
Adam Rehmeier: It’s funny because Kyle Gallner was one of my original five actors that I was looking at for this. I could cast something with never hearing someone speak. I could cast something on a look, I could you just feel it. If you look at his Facebook profile picture, that’s the image of him that I realize this assignment this could be Simon. He’s young, he looks young, but his eyes are telling me that he’s seen a lot of roads and also he’s vulnerable. I feel like Simon is very complex that way. I feel like that with Kyle. One of the producers had auditioned Kyle for another movie, and he didn’t get the role. But he had direct contact with him. So he slipped him the Dinner in America script. At a certain point, we had been going to a few of the other actors on the list and I really wanted to get it to Kyle and see what he thought and so he got it to Kyle. But there were crickets on that end. You just keep throwing shit until something sticks.
I definitely wanted to cast Simon before I cast Patty. Simon absolutely had to be taller than Patty. She has to look up to him slightly. Because it’s also in the blocking of how we did things. She’s always behind him until they come together. And then they’re in the frame, they share the frame and then they’re on the same plane. There’s a lot of stuff where he’s walking across and she’s following behind him, like, there’s a distance in a space. And the same goes with the height. So I didn’t hear shit from Kyle for three years. Then the DP that I was working with on the film, he was shooting a film in Romania, and Kyle was the star of the movie. And he told Kyle we were looking to recast the male lead. This fucking kid went back to his email. Yeah, and pulled the script from three years ago and read it that night. So just crazy. Right? Then he calls me the next day and wants to do the movie.
Emily was a submission. I think I had already cast another girl. And then she kind of got cold feet. And then I saw Emily’s tape. She wore the glasses in her audition that she has in the movie. She went out and bought those at Walgreens. I wanted to talk to her right away. Before the end of the night, we were both sending each other great music references for stuff that was important to us.
I want to ask about the first 15 minutes of the film, which are a bit brash and far from politically correct. You hear slurs immediately off the bat. Why’d you choose to start the film that way, especially as it gets sweeter as it goes on?
Adam Rehmeier: I think that it’s weird because it took us five or six years to get the film even up so it fell apart several times. It’s funny because, in Trump’s America, I feel like we really grew into the environment. I think it’s offensive. It’s things I hear still, and that disturbs me, and I’m not afraid. I’m also not afraid to use that. So I feel like the current climate, it’s almost more relevant than ever. It disturbs me but I find that it is absurd and cartoonish. In reality, this country right now feels like a cartoon to me. So I don’t feel like it’s far off, you know, at all. I live in Oakland County, Michigan. And I have three small children. And I’m out and about it. I honestly think that there’s a lot of grotesque right now.
I had to ask about the Mac Demarco song in the arcade. How’d you land on choosing that song for that moment?
Adam Rehmeier: I edited the film as well, and it’s all emotion. So you’re putting all of this emotion into things and it’s honestly that cheap guitar that Mac uses on the Salad Days album. I’m a bit of an audiophile. I’ve been recording music and stuff since I was 15. I love that album and I just love the quality of that cheap guitar with it. I love how that sounds. And I just love how that sounds when it’s in the film, but just sometimes that’s a song that for years and years, I would put on and listen to 30/40 times in a row. I will just loop that song and I’ll study and learn every nook and cranny of it. That’s one of the ones that I could just drive around LA for four days listening to that song. It felt right in the arcade.
And how about Patty’s song? Is that actually Emily [Skeggs] singing?
Adam Rehmeier: So I had her write the lyrics as Patty in character. And so she wrote those lyrics. And she brought a notepad of stuff. And she had several pages of lyrics that she had written. And she and I went through and cherry-picked and structured them. And I wrote the song with her and I performed all the instruments and then she did the singing. So that was her second take that you hear in the film. I wanted it to sound like it was immediate. We did a demo the first day with her and then the second day we went back and I laid down everything and then she did the two vocal takes. It was a very small part of the script. It’s an eighth of the page. It basically says she belts out the song. In Emily’s case, she can sing. She’s former Broadway. So if you want her to go big, she can go huge. But for Patty, it was about pulling that weight back. So it’s tiny but pure. And so that was the key ingredient with her, just having her pull it way back and just emit this pure sound. She was meant to be Patty. She was 100% meant to be.
I noticed you only cut away from her twice during the song. It’s almost completely uninterrupted, right?
Adam Rehmeier: Well, didn’t you think she needed it? If you notice when you watch it next time, it’s just the tiniest little creep. It’s just the tiniest little creep. It’s so slight. But it’s her moment. It’s her thing and it’s because you can see her transform in real-time. You can witness it. And it’s a hard thing to explain. It’s her being truly comfortable for the first time in her life. And I just thought this film can have that. I feel that moment every time I’ve seen this movie. It’s probably my proudest moment on this film. That was the 10th day coming off of a really hard week and we needed that day to go really well.
Would you say it’s Patty’s movie? Or Simon’s?
Adam Rehmeier: Well, another thing I want to say about the abrasiveness, I designed this in a way like a mixtape. Again it’s bubbled, but there’s the element of when you hear abrasive music, your first instinct is the lyrics are really abrasive, but oftentimes there’s a message behind it that is so sweet and soft. It’s really abrasive music about saving the world. And so that was also part of that shock value. What I feel is it’s also a generational thing. You feel that passing the punk rock torch to the next generation or, in this case, it’s to another person. To Simon, there’s a shelf life here. So there’s a shelf life for us. This has been about having a good time and making quality recordings. Obviously, he’s a purist, you know, and so he struggles with that, but it’s about passing that torch to Patty. It’s like the Ramones passing the torch to somebody else. I don’t want to say Green Day, but that’s accurate.
So, in many ways, the film’s basically a mixtape?
Adam Rehmeier: Yeah. It was fucked up at times, but it was also light at times. It makes you smile and cry and pissed off and everything a good mixtape should do, right?
Film Inquiry would like to thank Adam Rehmeier for taking the time to speak with us.
Does content like this matter to you?
Become a Member and support film journalism. Unlock access to all of Film Inquiry`s great articles. Join a community of like-minded readers who are passionate about cinema – get access to our private members Network, give back to independent filmmakers, and more.