By MICHAEL GINGOLD
“Everyone knows the situation of a loaded family dinner, and the awkwardness and darkness that can be at that table, and that’s something I wanted to capture in this film,” says Austrian writer/director Peter Hengl. And he certainly has; Hengl’s debut feature FAMILY DINNER, releasing today exclusively on Screambox, takes those feelings of discomfort and multiplies them tenfold into a chilling, slow-burning horror story.
Nina Katlein stars as overweight teenager Simi, who pays a visit to the rural home of her aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) and uncle Stefan (Michael Pink). Claudia, a popular nutritionist and author, puts Simi on a diet program that becomes increasingly strict and oppressive, and Simi also clashes with her repressed, antagonistic cousin Filipp (Alexander Sladek). Things are quite evidently not at all well in this household, and as the movie goes on, Simi realizes just how much is wrong. It was following FAMILY DINNER’s world premiere at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival that RUE MORGUE spoke to Katlein, Hengl (who also discusses the movie in issue #211, now on sale) and Sladek, seen below at a special spread set up by the fest.
Peter, you’ve mentioned that out of your cast, only Sladek is a carnivore.
PETER HENGL: Yeah, and that made certain scenes a challenge, because the characters eat meat in the film. We managed to fake it in a way that I don’t think is noticeable. That was kind of a fun situation, once we had the cast assembled and realized that was going to be another challenge we hadn’t anticipated.
Nina and Alexander, could you each talk about your initial reactions to the script and your roles in it?
NINA KATLEIN: Actually, I was a little bit shocked [laughs] when I first read it, but I actually loved my role, because I think it’s something new, in a way. I don’t believe there are many characters with weight problems and things like that in films, and that’s what I liked most about my role.
ALEXANDER SLADEK: I loved the script when I first read it. It read like a horror novel, because it was so thrilling and packed with suspense. I remember I got it during the casting process, along with a full description of my role. At first I was a bit unsure about whether I could pull it off, because I’m a really positive person who doesn’t like to get mad. But then I had a lot of fun shouting at Nina. [Everyone laughs]
There is a great tension that builds up between the two of you. Were you able to rehearse at all to prepare for that?
HENGL: We actually rehearsed a lot. Something I really have to emphasize, because people tend to not believe it, is that this is the first feature film and the first major acting roles for both of them; they had a little experience, but not too much. So we had a great acting coach who helped us get into the whole script, and we spent a whole week preparing, just the four of us, the two youngsters and the acting coach and me, and then another week when we brought in the two adult actors. So we were very well-prepared when we showed up on day one of shooting.
Did the two of you have fun with your antagonistic scenes together?
KATLEIN: Yes, we did!
SLADEK: We were great friends off camera, and so it was a lot of fun to shout at each other and then make fun of each other afterwards. [Both laugh]
Nina, you mentioned Simi’s weight issues, and this is indeed a rare horror film that talks about body-shaming and those kinds of subjects. Can you talk about approaching that side of the character?
KATLEIN: I think it’s a tough theme, and I can relate to that, and I feel for Simi. But actually, it wasn’t that hard to play it, because I had a very good partner who made it easy.
HENGL: At the same time, at least the way I know you, Nina, you are much more self-confident than the character you played, and that was a great help.
KATLEIN: Well, I feel like it’s easier to play the complete opposite of yourself than a person who is like yourself.
HENGL: I don’t know if you actually know this, but when we cast you, because the first rounds of castings were e-castings and via Zoom and things like that, we hardly had any time to actually get to know each other. And you played this timid character so well that I felt like, “Ah, maybe she’s too timid herself, maybe it’s going to be tough for her to do certain scenes.” That was a concern to me in the beginning, and then I got to know the real you and I was like, “OK, we’re fine.”
Alexander, how was it for you to play such a repressed character?
SLADEK: It was a lot of fun, but it was also demanding, because I really tried to get into the character. There’s the scene where we go on the hunt, and we shot it about seven, eight times, and during the last take I was so into my part that I just kept on sobbing after the cameras stopped rolling. It was exhausting; every night I went to bed and fell asleep instantly, because it is demanding to just cry all day, or be mad all day. But it was also really cool to get to experience that, being mad or anxious for once.
HENGL: And it was such a great performance that you gave. I’m amazed at both of you that you had not just the acting chops to do this, but also the stamina to live through our very demanding shoot!
Were you as isolated at that house location as it appears in the film?
HENGL: Not really. We were in the countryside, and we all stayed together in a hotel that was close to the location. It was this huge, SHINING-esque place, and half of it was actually a former seminary where people would learn how to be priests. We were almost completely alone in that hotel, so that really contributed to the atmosphere. Most of us stayed there for the whole length of the shoot, and it really brought us together as a family.
SLADEK: The cast was together 24/7 for an entire month, so you couldn’t really leave the set behind. It was also cool, though, because everybody got to know each other very well.
HENGL: But it was psychologically very demanding, of course.
That hotel sounds like a perfect setting for your next movie!
HENGL: Yeah, who knows? Maybe.
SLADEK: Film crew trapped in former seminary! [Everyone laughs]
Your actors speak very good English; was there ever a thought of shooting the movie in English, to potentially make it more viable for the international market?
HENGL: I think it’s a very Austrian movie, and in that sense it was absolutely the right decision to shoot it in German and to use that kind of strangeness that Austria has. I mean, we have a lot of directors who make strange movies, and we have a lot of real-life cases of odd and dangerous people, and things happening under the surface. So for me it was very fitting to tell this very Austrian story in German, in the Austrian dialect.
The Austrian film GOODNIGHT MOMMY was recently remade in English; if someone came to you and asked you to redo FAMILY DINNER in America, would you take that offer?
HENGL: Some stuff would have to be adapted, but I think a lot of it would work in the U.S. as well. Because of that, however, I believe U.S. audiences will react very well to our Austrian original. But of course, if the money’s right, I’ll direct anything you ask me to. [Everyone laughs] I’d even remake it as a romantic comedy, if that’s what they want!
SLADEK: FAMILY DINNER: THE MUSICAL!