IFI Ireland on Sunday Interview: Aoife O’Sullivan, producer of ‘Tasting Menu’

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Tasting Menu is a feel-good comedy with elements of farce that has charmed audiences on the festival circuit with its delicious tale of overlapping lives on the closing night of a three-star Michelin restaurant in Catalonia. A young couple come together a year after their marriage fell apart and set in motion an evening that will have a profound impact on their hosts and fellow diners.

This weekend the film comes to Dublin, screening as part of Ireland on Sunday, the IFI’s monthly showcase for new Irish film.

Co-written and directed by the award-winning Spanish director Roger Gual, Tasting Menu is a co-production between Dublin-based production company Subotica Entertainment and Zentropa Spain, the Spanish arm of Danish director Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Entertainment. Among the array of talent that make up the ensemble cast are Irish stars Stephen Rea and Fionnula Flanagan.

Aoife O’Sullivan, one of the Irish producers of Tasting Menu explains how Subotica  were introduced to the project by the Spanish producer David Matamoros and Danish producer Peter Garde. “Both are connected to Zentropa in Denmark – David runs Zentropa Spain – and we have worked with Zentropa on numerous occasions in the past so it was a natural fit. The director Roger Gual had envisaged some of the situations and actors as Irish so it made sense to set the film up as a Spanish-Irish co-production. We were drawn to the interesting premise of the film, the talented young director and Spanish cast and of course the fact that we’d be working with Fionnula Flanagan and Stephen Rea.”

Tasting Menu is Roger Gual’s third feature following his impressive debut Smoking Room (2002) and Remake (2005). Gaul was instrumental in getting the two Irish actors on board meeting them personally and, according to Aoife, “the response was very enthusiastic. Both Fionnula and Stephen were very receptive and liked the freedom that Roger gave to the actors. He’s very open to letting actors make suggestions and bring some of their own creativity to the film. And of course spending some time in one of the most impressive spots of the Catalonian Costa Brava in a three-star Michelin restaurant also helped!”

Fionnula Flanagan and Stephen Rea are joined in a strong ensemble cast by the likes of Claudia Bassols, Togo Igawa, Jan Cornet and Vicenta Ndongo, among others, which brings with it particular rewards and challenges. “The reward is to see how they all work together with everyone bringing their own individual experiences and talents to the story. The characters come from all over the world so the audience is treated to a rich palette of accents and dialects as well as varying cultural approaches to dramatic situations and the experience of fine dining. The challenge is to make it look organic. From a production point of view, there are a lot of scheduling and communication challenges on a daily basis. The biggest challenge is to make it seem easy – so the director has to work harder to achieve that.”

David Matamoros, the film’s Spanish producer, worked for over two years on the development of the project. “When he first got the script, he felt like it needed to appeal to international audiences,” Aoife explains. “The premise remained the same – it was always a great one. Some characters were dropped and some others were added. The restaurant in the story is based on real life three-star restaurant El Bulli – and a bizarre case of life imitating art unfolded during development. While Roger and co-writer Silvia Gonzalez were writing initial drafts of the script they were getting advice from Ferran Adria, head chef of El Bulli, but during this period he actually made the decision to close the doors of El Bulli. So just as in the script, the last night became something really treasured. It was a lot of fun for the creative team to see that happen in parallel to the development, but there was also the challenge to be faithful to the story that they wanted to tell and not be distracted by real events.”

Aoife talks about the advantages of European co-productions citing two main advantages. “On one side, the sources of finance are bigger when you work with other countries. So a film like this can benefit from national film boards, broadcasters, investors, etc., and it somehow makes it more international. A film like Tasting Menu has travelled to places like Russia, Bulgaria, Korea, Australia, New Zealand, US, Brazil, Latin America, which it may have found harder if it was a smaller indigenous Spanish production.

“On the other hand, creatively it can be a great experience. For Tasting Menu we had actors from Ireland, Catalonia, Spain, Croatia, USA, Japan, the UK and Holland. The DoP was Andorran, the composer Irish, the director Catalan… in line with the foodie theme of the film you could call it a veritable smorgasbord of talent.”

This foodie theme brings with it a luscious symbolism that is integral to the film’s feel and affect. Spanish producer David Matamoros details the concept behind the Menu. “We consulted Ferran Adria, Carme Ruscadella, El Celler de Can Roca and Irish chefs. At the end of the day, Vicenta Ndongo the actress who plays the Chef was the key: her father is from Guinea, her mother from Andalucia, and she’s Catalan. So we wanted to create a Mediterranean trip, join all flavours from Africa, Spain, Italy, Greece… So the menu becomes a journey; every dish has a meaning. And we were able to create that. When we introduced it to Joan Roca, the chef at Celler de Can Roca, he remained silent for a minute and then he added ‘there is a lot of Gin and Tonic behind this concept. I will use it in my restaurant for the next season.’ And then we knew we were on the right track.”

Although it’s based in a seaside Spanish restaurant, several parts of the film are shot in Ireland. The mansion of Fionnula’s character, Countess D’Arcy,  was shot in Howth Head, Dublin airport features and the restaurant where Claudia Bassols’ character, Rachel, has lunch is the Rustic Stone in Dublin. Most of the love scenes were shot in the centre of Dublin. The railway station where Stephen Rea’s character, Walter, takes the train back home is in Kilkenny. Aoife remarks that “it is so beautifully integrated that you don’t notice the seams. To have the Spanish crew merging with the Irish was a great experience and some of them have become very good friends. Roger moved to Dublin to do post and to work with Stephen McKeon on the score of the film.”

Tasting Menu screens on Sunday, 23rd March 2014 at 13.00 as part of the IFI’s Ireland on Sunday monthly showcase for new Irish film.

The film will be introduced by producer Aoife O’Sullivan. 

Tickets for Tasting Menu are available now from the IFI Box Office on 01 679 3477 or online at www.ifi.ie

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