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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Report: Galway Film Fleadh 2013

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Matt Miccuci looks back over his 7 days following Irish film in the sweltering heat of Galway for the Fleadh’s 25th anniversary.

“We borrowed the weather from Cannes,” was this year’s joke at the Fleadh.

Indeed, this could easily be remembered as the ‘hottest’  edition of the festival on account of the weather alone. It was hot, very hot, and the unventilated Town Hall Theatre often felt like one big oven. Yet, the programme was too stimulating to give into the call of the beach and strange urges to build a sand castle.

Of course, the people who decided to spend the hottest days Galway has possibly ever seen locked in a theatre were widely rewarded. Just like every year since its birth twenty-five years ago, the festival showcased some of the best home-grown productions today which in turn represented the good health and ambition of Irish cinema.

Things kicked off to a crowd pleasing start with Roger Gual’s Tasting Menu, a very charming comedy of errors telling the story of intertwining lives at the closing night of a Catalonian restaurant, regarded as the best restaurant in the world. Its theatrical approach aided by a good pace and great timing recalled the works of great names from Robert Altman to none other than William Shakespeare! Just as impressively, it closed with the introverted and reflective drama The Sea, in which director Stephen Brown skilfully made the task of turning the famous John Banville novel based on memory and regret look easy in a compact production complete with refined visual touches and compellingly withdrawn performances by Ciarán Hinds and Charlotte Rampling.

There were many different stories told and a wide assortment of styles and genres presented, but the recession inevitably came out as the prevailing theme. Two films in particular, though very different, represented it directly.

Lance Daly’s Life’s a Breeze, billed as a feelgood recession comedy, saw the return of the working class comedy à la Ealing Studios of Passport to Pimlico. This film is quite entertaining and commercially appealing – this is also the reason why it will probably be among the most successful films shown at the Fleadh during its domestic cinema run.

Alternatively, Out of Here used a much more direct and though-provoking approach to capture the essence of the everyday urban monotony and frustration of the life of a young Dubliner. Donal Foreman’s film is nothing short of praiseworthy for its passive anger and realist approach, as well as a visual style that is beautiful in its simplicity. Foreman also represented the kind of independent filmmaking that Irish cinema should thrive on for the way in which he brought Out of Here together through crowd-funding but also through determination, passion and a will to go out there and really make it happen.

The influence of the recession in the new Irish films could also be seen by the vulnerability of a lot of the lead characters, particularly the male characters. In fact, many aspects of masculinity were revealed in original ways. An excellent example is found in Joe Lawlor and Christine Molloy’s hypnotic modern noir Mister John with its wonderfully unconventional character study of a man – played by Aiden Gillen in what is hands down one of this year’s most enchanting and haunting performances – whose troubled family life and misery lead him to re-invent himself as his dead brother’s alter ego in Singapore. The film is driven by a unique brand of mystery, with a hypnotic flow and stunning 35mm photography that enrich the experience and take full advantage of the naturally sinister beauty of a humid Singapore.

Similarly, in the documentary Coming Home, Viko Nikci captures the life of Angel Cordero, a man incarcerated for thirteen years for a crime he did not commit and chooses to examine the man rather than the case by focusing on his struggles as he reconnects with the outside world and his estranged daughter. Nikci’s use of narrative filmmaking photography and Angel’s own genuine magnetism as well as a desire to open up to the camera eye made this film very popular and without a doubt the most touching film of this year’s Fleadh. Indeed Nikci’s film was justly rewarded at Galway, picking up the Best Irish Documentary prize at Sunday’s award ceremony.

One could even read a specific viewpoint on masculine stubbornness and how it threatened to end the world in the gripping documentary, Here Was Cuba by John Murray and Emer Reynolds. Muldowney’s beautifully bizarre Love Eternal, on the other hand, is about a necrophiliac – in fact it may well be the sweetest film that could possibly ever be made about necrophilia.

The horror genre was well represented with Rossella de Ventuo’s Irish Italian production House of Shadows, a film which carries many new ideas and a genuine dramatic depth – both things lacking in the vast majority of today’s horror films – as well as an absorbing performance by Fiona Glascott.

My greatest personal regret is that I didn’t get to see the best Irish feature prize by Academy Award nominee Steph Green Run & Jump, though the positive feedback it received will have me rushing to the cinema as soon as it hits the screens. I also regret missing films like Discoverdale and Hill Street. Yet, in the end it didn’t matter that much, as I felt highly rewarded for the time I dedicated to following this year’s festival and highly rewarded by the quality of the many premieres I attended. So, I think it’s fair to congratulate everyone involved on the organising team who was responsible for yet another exciting Fleadh. But maybe let’s get some air conditioning for the Town Hall Theatre for next year, yeah?

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Galway Film Fleadh: ‘Tasting Menu’ review

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Matt Micucci samples the delights of the Galway Film Fleadh’s opening film, Tasting Menu, starring Fionnula Flanagan, who was in attendence at a lively post-screening Q&A session.

The 25th Galway Film Fleadh could not have kicked off in a more delightful and delicious way. Tasting Menu, co-written and directed by Roger Gual, is a great feel-good comedy which charmed the audience with its story of lives crossing on the closing night of a Catalonian restaurant regarded as the best restaurant in the world. The director and star of the film Fionnula Flanagan were in attendance and talked a little about the film.

“It was the happiest shoot I was ever on,” said Flanagan, whose radiant performance as an endearingly eccentric wealthy countess who brings her dead husband’s urn to the restaurant is a real treat. “It was like being away with the gypsies – you know, the ones that play tambourines and tell fortunes.” Watching the film, it is plain to see that the cast had fun playing their roles on screen as they were allowed more freedom to portray their characters thanks to the director’s theatrical approach which recalls the works of Robert Altman. “I like to let the scenes play out” he said, “which is why I treat each scene individually. That way, the set feels a lot like a theatre stage. I trust the actors’ creations, and in the editing room I am aware of their performances when I choose what to use and what not to use in the final work.”

This theatrical approach is one of the things that interested Flanagan in working with Gual. She mentioned his previous film Smoking Room, an independent production which earned him a Goya Award in 2003 as best new director. “When I saw Smoking Room, I noticed this approach too, as well as his sense of humour and his sense of human condition. That is managed so well in Tasting Menu by the humour, which is quite Shakespearean – the comedy of errors and of mistaken identities. To me it was amazing that he was able to fashion a story that included everyone and gave everyone their moment.”

Indeed, all the characters in the film seem to be playing a vital role in the sophisticated structure of its multi-layered plot; from the waiters in the background to the pivotal story of star-crossed lovers about a couple meeting up after a year-long separation. “I try to write a story I can believe in, a story I think can be moving and entertaining. I like telling stories that have something in it I want to share with the audience,” Gual said.

Of course, apart from the comedy and the romance, there is the food, which as well as providing the film’s important ‘MacGuffin’ element, is also glorified as an art form in its own right. “We were inspired by the documentaries about ElBulli and other famous Catalonian restaurants.” Gual also mentioned that they collaborated with El Celler de Can Roca, a restaurant from Girona, which was recently named the best restaurant in the world by Restaurant Magazine; their crew also helped make the dishes that are seen in the film adding a beautiful visual touch.

Tasting Menu marks the introduction of Roger Gual to an Irish audience, and reveals him as an interesting filmmaker worthy of being discovered. It is a highly enjoyable film with its tasteful mixture of laughs and romanticism as well as carrying pleasant messages of denial of snobbery and a call for return to innocence without falling for clichés or flawed sentimentalism. Unravelling at a steady pace and thanks to some vibrant performances by the cast, this film is very entertaining and a promising beginning to this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.

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Irish Film at the Galway Film Fleadh preview: Tasting Menu

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 The 25th Galway Film Fleadh (9 – 14 July, 2013)

Tasting Menu

Tuesday, 9th July

Town Hall Theatre

19.30

Stephen Rea and Fionnula Flanagan star in Tasting Menu, a romantic ensemble comedy-drama devoted to the beauty of love, food and the Mediterranean way of life. Directed by the award-winning Spanish director Roger Gual, the film was co-produced by Dublin-based production company Subotica Entertainment and Zentropa Spain, the Spanish arm of Danish director Lars von Trier’s Zentropa Entertainment.

Irish producer Aoife O’Sullivan from Subotica told Film Ireland, ‘we’re delighted that Tasting Menu was chosen to open the Fleadh this year. The film is an Irish Spanish co-production – it was shot in a beautiful seaside location in Spain so it’s very fitting that its Irish launch is in a beautiful seaside town in Ireland.’

The film, which also stars Claudia Bassols, Jan Cornet, Rodrigo Cortés and Togo Igawa, centres around Marc (Jan Cornet) and Rachel (Claudia Bassols), who have booked a table at the best restaurant in the world, situated in an idyllic cove of Costa Brava. When it turns out that the booking is on the same date as the last night before the restaurant closes forever, their booking becomes even more important and the night when unexpected things happen.

Tickets are available to book from the Town Hall Theatre on 091 569777 or at www.tht.ie

 

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