When you think of movie music moments, John Cusack’s boombox serenade in Say Anything or the “Bohemian Rhapsody” carpool karaoke in Wayne’s World might come to mind.
Sometimes a song can be so central to the story, the characters and the production of the film, it’s hard to imagine the movie without it.
Usually, those songs are already hits when they’re matched to the mood of a scene. Other times, the songs actually drive the plot and character development (e.g. Aimee Mann’s music inspiring Paul Thomas Anderson’s script in the making of Magnolia.)
Such is the case with the title song of Dinner in America, the new indie drama written and directed by Adam Carter Rehmeier that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
“The centerpiece song was written by Emily Skeggs, who plays Patty, and myself,” says Rehmeier. “Everybody kept asking, ‘What's the song going to be?’ It's a very important moment in the movie. It needs to be absolutely right or the film will fall apart.”
Rehmeier says the key was casting.
“You need know who the vessel is going to be before you can write the song,” he says. “I could’ve gone to the studio and recorded the song ahead of time, but I don't think it would’ve had the weight that it has. Emily provided lyrics for the song in character. She wrote as Patty in the film. We sat together and structured the song around a very simple riff because in the film, the characters put the song together in about 25 minutes. They sit down and record it and it just sort of comes out of them.”
“I remember blasting through the script. It’s a fun piece of written work. It is a snow globe world that I knew I had to have a hand in creating.”—Francesca Palombo, production designer
Dinner in America gets its musical roots from the relationship between Simon (Kyle Gallner), a reckless punk rocker on the run, and Patty (Emily Skeggs), an eccentric misfit who meets Simon by chance but doesn’t immediately recognize him as the singer of her favorite band.
Rehmeier says the story is a blend of two different scripts. One was Dinner in America, and the other was Kicks, the story of a punk rocker who paid for his albums by selling his body to science. “At some point, (both scripts) were kind of dead in the water,” Rehmeier explains. “Then I started to get an idea of, ‘What if I pulled the main character from Kicks, Simon, into Dinner in America? What would it look like if he interacted with that world?’”
To begin turning his new hybrid idea into a film, he reached out to collaborators and began building a crew that included cinematographer Jean-Philippe Bernier and production designer Francesca Palombo.
“I remember blasting through the script,” says Palombo. “I don’t think I’ve read anything faster. Adam writes dialogue and describes scenes like a mad man. It’s a fun piece of written work. It is a snow globe world that I knew I had to have a hand in creating.”
Palombo says her favorite part of production design is having long conversations with the director about the characters. “I like to go deep into who they are and why they live the way they do. One notable piece of character that Adam and I had fun brewing on is Simon’s jacket patch. We just got flowing one day in conversation and thought it would be perfect to reference the former ‘good boy’ in Simon, and what better way than to show he was an Eagle Scout? I thought that was pretty punk.”
“I’m a guy who loves indie movies. I grew up on that stuff,” says Bernier. “I always wanted to do a classic American indie movie like Dinner in America. I remember as soon as my agent sent me the script and I read it, at first I was confused, then it evolved to something else. It challenged me so much that I really fell in love with the script.”
As Bernier and Rehmeier met for an interview, they began talking about their influences and bonded over their mutual love of old school movies from the 80s and 90s.
“We share similar aesthetics, similar tastes in cinema,” says Rehmeier. “So it was easy to talk with him and have a good jumping off point in our collective language.”
“One of the reasons that I like working with [Rehmeier] is that we like grindier stuff and old school, obscure stuff, but at the same time, we like the cheesy 80s teen movies as well. That was a surprise because it's rare to like both,” says Bernier.
“And that is an important part of this,” says Rehmeier. “Finding the balance for Dinner in America was somewhere in between, straddling chaotic and tender moments."
The production team also collaborated to find the right balance for the look of the film.
“My approach in making a film is first through the fine art world,” says Palombo. “I reference composition and color from artists who have a deep understanding of capturing the emotions of existence.”
Palombo began her collaboration with cinematographer Bernier by comparing their creative references and matching their color theory. “We were both fascinated that we were on a similar creative wavelength out of the gate,” says Palombo. “JP and I pulled photo references from American artists: Gregory Crewdson, Todd Hido, and Richard Corman’s photo series of Madonna on the streets of New York.”
As a native of Quebec, Bernier was hesitant to tell Palombo how much he loved the American flag—until she showed him her idea to plug the flag in throughout the film. “He was pretty jazzed,” says Palombo. “I referenced Tom Wesselman in the creation of that massive mural in our burger date scene. We had the whole art department making punk concert posters in the style of Raymond Pettibon. A few films JP and I referenced for tone and color palette were Welcome to The Dollhouse, Buffalo 66, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Ghost World.”
"Having a streamlined process allows you to track the creative notes from the director and the director of photography.”—Francesca Palombo
As the film was being edited, Palombo says she also discussed sound design and song choices with Rehmeier. “I like still being in the loop for those creative decisions even though my job was pretty much over at the end of shooting.”
To keep track of notes from those discussions, Palombo kept everything organized in Dropbox folders. “There are a few tech tools I can’t live without during my creative process,” says Palombo. “I screen grab digital references into Dropbox folders, broken into set names. I love going back into folders from past projects and looking through art notes I’ve taken on tech scouts and seeing the execution happen on screen. Having a streamlined process allows you to track the creative notes from the director and the director of photography.”
Palombo says it takes a tremendous amount of work to help bring the director’s vision to life.
“As the production designer, you become the visual voice for the director and the creator of the world for the cast and crew,” says Palombo. “If I couldn’t stay this organized, my thought process would be all over the place. I wouldn’t be able to share a clear vision so quickly.”
Despite the challenges in organizing all the input from the crew, Palombo says it’s the most satisfying part of filmmaking for her. “Nothing compares to the sensation of the collaborative process and when you nurture the ideas of a team together.”
For Rehmeier, the most satisfying part of making Dinner in America was the 10th day of production as the crew was shooting the most pivotal scene of the movie—the moment the main characters perform the song.
“I felt such a shift in the crew because we had a rough couple first weeks of production,” recalls Rehmeier. “Every person that was there, suddenly, it wasn’t just a job for them anymore. It became a piece of art that they were all really invested in. When you see that happen to the crew, that dynamic change, then everybody just kicks it into high gear for the last three weeks of the film. That was so satisfying. It was such a unique experience to see Emily and Kyle deliver the way they delivered. It changed the dynamic for the rest of the film.”
Dinner in America premiered January 24 at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
To learn how filmmakers are using Dropbox to simplify collaboration and work efficiently through every stage of the production, check out dropbox.com/film.