Framing dinner scenes can be difficult for filmmakers, as it can be hard to know how to make what is essentially a sit-down conversation cinematic. Perhaps budding directors should study the many different ways Eliza Jiménez Cossio and Lexi Tannenholtz stage We Should Get Dinner!, which uses rapid-fire editing, a propulsive score, and even an ambitious dolly shot in order to keep on escalating the inherent tension at the heart of this sibling comedy-drama. Asking some key questions about what happens when you take someone up on a half-hearted offer, and whether or not family is something that is given or you have to work on, it is at once a meaningful experience and a deeply funny one. We had the wonderful opportunity to talk to both of the New York-based directors about creating the “smallest dolly in the world”, working on alternating close-ups and the choice behind the film’s jazzy drum score.
What was the main inspiration behind the film?
We were both wanting to work together again and were kicking around different ideas from our own lives. We tried a few other paths but found ourselves returning to this story about Eliza’s ex-step-siblings. So we fleshed it out a bit and poured a lot of specificity from both of our own lives and lost relationships into the idea.
The title of the film refers to one of those phrases people don’t really mean: when I say “we should” before something, there’s usually an implicit acceptance that it’s not actually meant to happen. Was making sure the meeting was based on this specific phrase important?
Abby and Sean are there out of some old sense of obligation. But Abby wants to be there more than Sean does. Still, before the film’s start, it’s possible that if he never suggested dinner then she wouldn’t have suggested it herself. But because he did, she’s taking that as a green light. So this conflict, which starts with the idea of “we should”, is really what they’re arguing about in the circle shot.
People often say “we should get dinner” when they don’t have the intention to follow through with it — we wanted this film to explore what happens if you do get dinner with that person you actually didn’t want to get dinner with in the first place! Through this lens it allowed us to explore the larger questions about all kinds of relationships: What happens to people who drift from your life? What happens if they come back? What do you want to say to them, if anything at all? And what if it’s not how you expected it to be? We all have our own versions of broken relationships, and this film seeks to find their weird, nostalgic, sad, and sometimes hopeful nature.
I think there’s something interesting about step-siblings as opposed to blood siblings. They are connected through marriage but don’t share the same genetics. Therefore the relationship isn’t as essential, perhaps. Was this something you were interested in exploring?
Definitely, and the final line of the film sums it up really. Who gets to count as family? As chosen family? What happens when that person has a different idea of it than you do? Non-romantic breakups never get as much attention as romantic ones, and there’s no real road map for how to deal with them. Which allows us to further confront the question: what do these two people mean to each other?
We all have our own versions of broken relationships, and this film seeks to find their weird, nostalgic, sad and sometimes hopeful nature.
I enjoyed the little details that then spiral into something more, such as the fact she doesn’t go to the toilet or the mini-argument about the cloth on the other table. Were you looking for these details to anchor the piece?
It’s always fun when a throwaway joke becomes a plot point later in the film, and taking something to its comedic logical conclusion is always satisfying. So that’s the idea we were going for and it does make the piece feel more whole in some way.
Tell me about the use of close-ups at the beginning of the conversation and how you wanted to cut between the characters to capture the energy of the piece. Also, it would be great to know about the type of equipment used to shoot!
Yeah, having the close ups really isolates each of them and differentiates them, and then by the end they’re sharing the shot. The cuts, like the music, were the chaotic energy we were imagining from the beginning. When it was shot-listing time we wanted everything to be very specific and strange, almost feeling like a flat theatre production. We wanted to play with the shifting balance of power with our camera angles being grounded in sticks before breaking out into our nauseating circle dolly and ending with our handheld scramble allowing our characters to finally break free from the dinner table. We spent a lot of time on the shot list with our DP Christine Ng and put a lot of thought and prep on that end. We made storyboards and then acted those out into video and photo-boards with Christine who is a genius and elevates everything she touches. We used an ARRI Alexa Mini and Zeiss high speed Mark III prime T.13 lenses (ranging 18mm through 85mm).
It’s always fun when a throwaway joke becomes a plot point later in the film.
I loved the circling shot around the characters as the argument intensifies. What were the logistical challenges of pulling it off? How many rehearsals did you have?
The biggest challenge was our four minute circle dolly track shot. This was achieved using what we affectionately call “the smallest circle dolly track in the history of the world” — aka a 10ft track that was wedged between two huge structural pillars in the restaurant that were 12ft apart. Who knew movie-making involved so much math! Our absolutely badass DP Christine Ng sat on top of a fisher dolly while our Key Grip Vinny DaVino and Grip Garland Berenzy moved the dolly. This needed to be a single take that was intensely choreographed to speed up and slow down with the emotion of the scene; the pace, steadiness, and character tracking was really like a dance and we ended up being able to do six takes.
The big thing though we needed to pull off before accomplishing this insane shot was to get our poor circle track to stop squeaking. Sounds easy, but it took us over an hour to figure out how to make this dolly track stop making cute loud farting sounds. Not WD-40. Not baby oil. Not Windex. But baby powder! We’re still figuring out the science of it all, but by the end of this shot we all looked like Ross from Friends with his leather pants. Nothing like a Friends reference on Directors Notes.
Who knew movie-making involved so much math!
What was it like finding the right restaurant? What did you want it to have?
A lot of scouting and cold emails! Nothing like pounding the pavement day in and day out in the Lower East Side. We basically needed a space that could accommodate the dolly track for the circle shot, that was big enough to be covid safe and really something that we could afford. Our amazing Production Designer, Amanda Carzoli, helped us find the right look and make our final restaurant decision.
I love the jazzy drumming. It kind of reminded me of Birdman and fits right into the chaotic nature of the characters. What was it like working with the drummer/composer?
We worked with Andrew Kerr who was amazing. They had never done film scoring before so we were all learning a lot together, and they really knocked it out of the park. The music was important to the film from the very first version of the script, so we were stoked to find Andrew.
What are you working on next?
Eliza currently writes on Taika Waititi’s Our Flag Means Death (HBO Max) and Fred Armisen’s This Fool (Hulu). Lexi just finished producing three indie features: Chestnut by Jac Cron for Utopia, Bad Things by Stewart Thorndike for Shudder and a comedy body-horror film called Booger by Mary Dauterman. Together we are cooking up something new and nutty, stay tuned.