What They Gave Us: an interview with filmmaker Ben ProudfootMay 20th, 2011 | Posted by in Uncategorized
Charley Cvercko: So Ben, how did this project, “Dinner with Fred,” begin?
Ben Proudfoot: Well, I guess you could say the project began when my grandfather passed away in November of 2009. I was asked to speak at his funeral and I thought long and hard about what to say. In the last few years of his life, he always told this story about “how the chickens saved his life.” And I thought about that. Why that story? Why did he tell that story over and over and over again?
So I made this speech at this funeral, and I was in my second year at USC—and I just sort of really fell in love with the story.
When he passed, he left me a little bit of money. I went to three friends of mine who are producers, asked them each to match me, and that’s how it got started.
CC: So your grandfather financed it posthumously.
BP: In part, yes. I specifically earmarked his portion for the live score.
CC: How big a factor was that inheritance in your drive to tell this story? I mean, were you trying to think of something “worthy” to do with what he’d left you?
BP: I think it was definitely a factor yes. There was a responsibility there. You know, I didn’t know my grandfather that well, so this movie was kind of a posthumous “figuring out” of who he was and what legacy he was passing on to me.
CC: Right, most first time filmmakers have to make do with a credit card and overworked friends.
BP: Well we still had those! But yes, we were very lucky to have some money to work with.
CC: It’s almost like your grandfather’s legacy was to help you launch your career as a filmmaker; the money was just a means.
BP: Well exactly, yes. And you know, I would have found a way either way. But this way was particularly meaningful.
CC: What was your overall budget? I’m curious because so many of the details you used are obviously expensive: cars, trains, costumes, real actors (!), etc.
BP: Well, I’ll start by saying this. Many of those things were major hard work by me and the producer to get at a minimal, minimal cost. For instance: I spent every Friday night for months and months at the parking lot of Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, where they have an antique car show every week, hounding the guys with period-appropriate cars to come for the shoots. So the cars we found for free.
It was fun—the costumes were USC theater costumes which we retrofitted and got for the price of dry cleaning them after we were done. The 35mm film we shot on and the Panavision camera we used were completely donated.
CC: Who donated the film stock?
BP: Kodak, may they rest in peace. So there was a lot of finagling. Almost everyone worked for free. The final budget was $50K, with the largest chunks going to the score, the train, and lighting/grip.
CC: It looks like a lot more. The makeup alone!—old-guy makeup is hard to get right.
CC: Old people makeup and short hair wigs never look right, but you guys did a pretty good job.
BP: Yes, I agree he did an excellent job. He’s a wonderful man. And his fiancée did the hair. For the whole shoot!
CC: After deciding to do a period piece for less than $50K, did you at any point think, “what am I, INSANE?”
BP: Oh all the time. But, and I’ve said this a lot since, we didn’t quite know how ridiculous that was. And that was a good thing—an important thing—because instead of just giving up we called the VP at Kodak, and went after John Williams’s orchestra members. We went all out because we weren’t infested with the “it simply can’t be done” mentality. And that’s the spirit that got this movie made. The “why not?” spirit.
CC: Ignorance is helpful in that kind of situation.
BP: Absolutely critical. But is it ignorance? Because I would say that people who told me it couldn’t be done are a little ignorant.
CC: Maybe naiveté? Not knowing “it couldn’t be done.”
BP: Yes naiveté is a better word I think.
CC: So really, how often did your grandfather tell this story? Do you remember it from your childhood?
BP: It only came out in the last two years of his life, and I don’t think it would be too much to say he told it incessantly—like four or five times in one afternoon. It was part of his senility as he got older.
CC: You portray the grandson as kind of apathetic. He doesn’t want to hear the story again, he doesn’t want to eat chicken. Were you portraying yourself?
BP: It is me, and it isn’t me. I never actually had a meal just me and my grandfather. Never happened.
CC: By portraying the grandson honestly, warts and all, are you kind of owning up? Kind of apologizing for not being more available to your grandfather?
BP: Maybe. I mean I always was the one who would listen to him, so I don’t feel much guilt in that way.
CC: Right. I don’t care who you are, when a parent or grandparent dies, you’re going to think, “I wish I’d spent more time with them.”
BP: Sure, sure, absolutely. But I was never dismissive of him. Yes, there is an element of that, but Jack, for me, sort of represents a general dismissal; a general distaste and apathy towards the past and older people and history that I often find in myself and in other people in my generation. And so I wanted to have him be ever so slightly redeemed by his grandfather’s story and him being a vegetarian.
I felt like at the end there, when Jack doesn’t pour out appreciation and understanding, is an important point. Hopefully it sort of puts it in your lap as an audience member; you hope that he’ll get it, that he’ll get the point.
CC: The chicken story is in the foreground, but World War II looms over everything. Your grandfather was a member of “the greatest generation” ; the people who saved the world from Fascism.
BP: That’s right, and more than anything it’s a question of—what do we do with that? what are we going to do with what they gave us? These are things that fascinate me.
CC: One of my favorite genres of old movies is movies made during WWII, when we at home were trying to get behind the troops “over there.”
BP: Oh yeah.
CC: That perspective, of being supportive of and grateful to the people who were fighting the war.
CC: —and honoring the ones who were dying.
BP: And that’s a virtue I find very little of: gratitude. That and reverence. Not, like, religious reverence, but reverence for other people; heroes; the past.
CC: You could very easily have set this movie in America. Why the importance of making it clear it was a Canadian story?
BP: Well, I’m Canadian, and he’s Canadian. And since it is a true story, I wanted to tell it the way it happened. I think you owe that, any time you are making a movie based on a true story—especially where people died or suffered like his brothers did—to tell it as accurately as possible.
CC: Was there any intent to kind of shine some light on Canada’s contributions to World War II with “Dinner with Fred”?
BP: To be honest, not at all.
CC: It made me go, “Oh yeah, Canada fought the Nazis too.”
BP: Well that’s good! Canada did have a very significant contribution. Especially in Normandy. And anyone who has studied that day knows that, and that’s enough for me.
CC: Did you watch a lot of old movies in preparation for this? Or do you watch old movies anyway?
CC: Yes! I’ve watched all the John Ford I can find, most of it multiple times.
BP: Wonderful. He’s one of my very favorites.
CC: The opening credits are a very explicit reference to old movies, but the tone of the whole movie has an old-Hollywood feel. Was that intentional, or just an inevitable byproduct of watching so many old movies?
BP: Both. I mean the credits were intentional. I just loved that, and never saw it in modern movies. I think the first time I saw it was in How Green Was My Valley, one of the first Ford movies I saw. And I loved the idea of those kinds of titles: very human scale, which is important to me.
CC: Let’s talk about old movies a little, I get so little opportunity—kids these days!
BP: Ahah, sure! I would love that.
CC: What are some of your favorites? Specific movies I mean.
BP: Definitely How Green Was My Valley.
BP: Fantastic, and the long shot of the pastor—tons of great stuff. The scene that always gets me is when the older brothers leave town and defy their father for the first time and all that’s left at the table is Huw and his father, and Huw makes a little noise and his father says “I see you.” Huw wants his dad to know he’s loyal. I love that scene.
CC: Do you remember any specific scenes in “Dinner with Fred” that were influenced by specific movies?
BP: Yes absolutely. Let’s see . . . well, in particular, the musical sequence at the end, where he invents the methods to grow chickens faster is from Hudsucker Proxy. A new film, though neoclassical.
CC: Yeah, Hudsucker is kind of an homage to 30s films.
BP: Yes it is! I’ve yet to track down where if anywhere that sequence comes from. How Green Was My Valley was a big influence on the opening. Not only on the credits, but in general that nostalgic, warm, whisking back in time that happens at the beginning. Even that line “green it was” is a direct reference to older Huw’s voiceover. I think the voiceover in general is from How Green—the tree in the dinner scene is sort of an indirect reference to How Green: that scene where Huw learns how to walk again in that soft field of flowers.
CC: Dinner with Fred made me think of Mrs. Miniver. No specific parallels; just the general tone of a family during war time.
BP: Oh yes, Mrs. Miniver! Not a direct reference, but I love that.
CC: My favorite scene in Miniver is when Walter Pidgeon comes home from Dunkirk and tells his wife how she couldn’t possibly know what he’d been through—right after she has singlehandedly captured a Nazi pilot that dropped into her garden. I think that was what made me think of it when watching Dinner with Fred,” the way the war is there, in the background in “Dinner with Fred,” like it is in Mrs. Miniver.
BP: Yeah, that was intentional. I feel like it would have been an overpowering flavor if I’d made it a “war” movie.
CC: Yes, it could’ve felt like propaganda.
CC: So the details, like the boss without pants, etc., were those part of your grandfather’s story? Or how much did you flesh out?
BP: No, those are inventions. That character Mitch is a combo of two guys. The one thing I did change, just because it was impossible, is that the boss fell ice skating. It happened in the winter and we would have had to set the whole thing in early march.
CC: Can you think of any quirky little details that were from your grandfather’s telling of the story?
BP: Well, his wife was very much like Hilda, my grandmother: very encouraging and pragmatic, and he did love poached eggs . . . The line “we’re with friends,” about the chicken painting is very true: we used to go to this restaurant near his house that he loved. It was attached to a gas station and they had paintings of chickens, and he would always make some crack about how nice it is to dine with friends.
CC: Where did you shoot?
BP: Fillmore, California, for the farm stuff, and then we shot the train in Fort Bragg, three hours north of San Francisco. And then there were a few things in LA.
CC: Was that tissue in the collar an invented detail?
BP: Yeah, I threw that in there just to make him seem totally unprepared . . . and kind of foolish. No idea why he’d be shaving on the train anyway
CC: Was your grandfather kind of a constant presence in your mind as you were filming?
BP: He was there, yeah. In many ways it was like meeting him for the first time. He was definitely on my mind. Right through the finish. Maybe more than my grandfather, my Dad was on my mind.
CC: Can you talk about your dad in reference to the film?
BP: Briefly, you know I think he, like my grandfather, poses similar questions to me about what am I going to do; what do I owe to past generations? And what do I owe to posterity? My Father was sick at the time and recently had lost his Dad, so this was a film for him as much as it was for my grandfather, that said to him: I think this is important. I was honoring something he cared about.
CC: Was the old-movie style kind of a connection to him or your grandfather as well? Referencing films from their youth?
BP: Yes absolutely, for sure, and the fact that we shot on film was intentional.
CC: Did “Dinner with Fred” affect your relationship with your dad? Did he “get what you were trying to say?
BP: I think it did, yes, absolutely. I think on another level it proved to him I was serious about filmmaking and I wasn’t going to be a ticket-taker at Disneyland.