Who knew a four-hour dinner could ever lead to anything other than a massive bar tab, and maybe a fat ass? In the case of Michael Blieden, it’s gone much further. One evening’s dinner has led to a successful play called Melvin Goes to Dinner, which has recently been turned into a film of the same name by Mr. Show himself, Bob Odenkirk. Now, the film is traveling the festival circuit, starting off last January at Slamdance, then making a well-received stop at SXSW (winning the Audience Award for Best Narrative First Film), and now, Melvin debuts in the Bay area at the Sonoma Valley Film Festival.
Michael Blieden took some time to discuss the film with us.
So Michael, what inspired the film?
That is the most complicated question you could possibly ask. Um…I had dinner with a friend and it was like a four-hour dinner with people I didn’t know and we were all in relationships. Two guys, two girls. And none of the four people were dating each other. This dinner went on for like four hours, and I came away from it thinking, you know, I know there’s a genre of movies and plays where it’s people sitting and talking, like The Breakfast Club which is one of my favorites. I wanted to write my own version of one of those.
You know, it’s probably weird that I’m sitting here talking to you about it… it’s something that I sat on for like six or seven months, and Bob and I just sat in my roommate’s bedroom and edited it, and now I’m talking to you about it. It’s just weird.
Now, how did it develop from the play to the film?
Naomi Odenkirk came and saw the play; she liked it; she brought Bob. At first, Bob was like, “Wow, I think that’s a good play.” Cuz he really doesn’t like plays, and then he came back again and again… and after seeing it five times, he and Naomi were like, “Well, maybe we should make a movie out of it.” So they called me and I sat down with Bob, and he was like, “Would you like to make a movie out of it?” I said, “Yeah, I’d love to.” So I wrote the script and then we did it. We just did it.
Now, this is really unusual, but the cast of the play…
That never happens.
I have to give so much credit to Bob for that, because I think it was the smartest decision. My friends were in the play and I felt like I couldn’t demand that they be in the movie. I felt like I had a vested interest. But their performances were so good, they all just inspired Bob, who said to me, “I want to do it, and I want to do it with the same cast.” And the reason why we benefited from that (aside from everybody being phenomenal with it), we knew the play so well that we were able to shoot everything so quickly – table stuff in two days, we did reverses one day, but one day we did 68 pages of dialogue. 68 pages in ONE DAY. We’d do 10 to 12-minute takes. Bob would just let us perform, cuz we’d done the play like 40 – 50 times. We’d say, “All right, I’ll start on this page,” and we’d just do the play. And no one else would be able to do that, other than people who knew the play that well.
What I think really works about the film is that it doesn’t feel like a filmed play. There are many elements of the movie that feel cinematic. It messes with time a little bit. The time shifts. Is that something you did in the screenplay development?
Yeah. First of all, even when I wrote it as a play, I thought, “Oh, I hope someone sees this as a movie.” Cuz I see it that way. And then, Bob was very conscientious about not wanting people to feel like they’re sitting through a play. And I was very conscientious about finding a way to get away from the table. So, in the movie, you get away from the table about like every 6 or 7 pages. You have a break. So I think it makes you feel like you’re ready to come back when you leave.
We were really worried it would feel like a filmed play, like, we just put actors who were in the play in it and turned the cameras on, and so we were very conscious of visualizing the stories being told in the restaurant. They take you to different places in the country. So we said, well, we’ll make the movie and actually go there. So, you get away about every 6 or 7 minutes. I think the longest time you’re at the table without a break is like 7 and a half minutes. And in that way, we’re able to make it as much like the play as possible, while making it different!
Let me ask about the woman who plays the waitress. She has such a distinctive voice.
Yeah. She really talks that way! Her name is Kathleen Roll and I’ve been friends with her for a while. I told her, “Kathleen, I want you to do this part. Do NOT do any acting. Do not act at all. Just be yourself.” Cuz she is so out there. She’s so smart, but she talks that way. She’s like, “Oh, hi! Oh my gosh! Oh wow!” I mean, the second she starts talking, it’s funny. It’s just funny.
Yeah, she comes up with these complete non sequiturs.
She’s not acting.
So what’s next for this film?
I wish I knew. I’ve never been through this, so I don’t know what happens or where you go with the movie. DJ Paul, one of the producers, he’s got a grand scheme and he’s kind of guiding us. But for me, I’m just like, “Oh, I hope people get to see it.” I mean, that’s all, that’s all I understand.