Arriving appropriately this week on Screambox, Austrian shocker Family Dinner sets its slow-burn terror during the Easter season. Not a cute bunny in sight, unless you count the butchered rabbit from one particularly nasty little scene…
In Family Dinner, Simi (Nina Katlein), an overweight 15-year-old, goes to the countryside home of her aunt and uncle to spend the Christian holiday. Aunt Claudia (Pia Hierzegger) is a renowned dietician, and Simi hopes Auntie will advise her on shedding a few pounds. But, of course, something very strange is going on at the secluded farmhouse, surprises best left spoiler-free.
Gruesome caught up with Family Dinner’s writer/director Peter Hengl at his Tribeca Film Festival world premiere last June. His feature debut will have you screaming for seconds!
This is a very hard film to describe without giving away the big surprise. How would you describe it?
That’s a tough question. And I haven’t fully figured that out myself. I would describe it as a psycho-thriller, a family film, a very dark family film, a coming-of-age story. And, to a degree, as a fairy tale. It’s a tricky one, I know.
A plus-size heroine, an overweight teen, is your lead character. Earlier this year, we had a Spanish movie called Piggy about another large girl. Is this a trend here?
To be honest, when I first heard of Piggy, I was a little surprised. If this turns out to be a trend that leads to more representation for people who haven’t had this representation so far, I’m really glad to be part of such a trend.
Speaking of trends, we’ve also seen several “foody” horror movies lately, like A Banquet and The Feast. And now your film, another horror film set at the dinner table. Why do you think that is?
It’s another funny coincidence. I mean, we’ve been working on this film for over five years. I guess most of the people working on the other films have been working on theirs for quite a while as well. But on the one hand, it’s just a topic that’s in the air. I guess [we’re] a society that’s so preoccupied with lifestyle choices. And on the other hand, the story we have is unique and hasn’t been told that way before, so I feel we have something meaningful to contribute here.
It took five years to get Family Dinner financed. Why do you think there was a reluctance from financiers?
The film was made in Austria, and the financiers were Austrian. Our films here are usually funded by public funding, and Austria doesn’t have that big of a tradition of horror films, so it took some time to make them understand what we wanted to achieve, and the kind of market and audience that would be waiting for us there. But luckily, they’ve been very supportive and very helpful.
Folk horror films have also been getting much attention lately, ever since the documentary Woodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. What did you find appealing about that subgenre that Family Dinner also touches upon?
I’ve always been a huge fan of folk horror. The Wicker Man, the quintessential original folk horror film, is one of my favorite films of all time. So, for me, it was very natural to play with the elements and tropes of this genre and incorporate them into my own film. I would love to hear the opinion of Kier-La Janisse, the maker of that documentary, whether she would actually consider our film folk horror, because although we are using a folk horror element, I’m not sure if we would qualify as a full-blown, straight folk horror film.
Your original idea involved the supernatural. Why did you abandon that?
Because it was boring [laughs]. No, my original idea didn’t really have anything to say. Once I came up with the twist and what the story is about now, I felt confident that we had something unique to tell here and a perspective that hadn’t been shown before. So, it was easy to abandon previous ideas that didn’t really work.
You started your career studying with director Michael Haneke. I feel his influence on your film, especially Funny Games. Was there anything in particular about Haneke’s work that informed Family Dinner?
Yes, of course. Michael Haneke is an extremely meticulous craftsman first and foremost. He’s a wonderful artist, but he’s also a very craftmanship-oriented filmmaker. That was something that deeply inspired me. And I learned so much from his lectures at film school and his work that has influenced me on many, many levels in my own filmmaking.
Nina Katlein and Alexander Sladek are terrific as the cousins. How did you find them?
With the help of our excellent casting director, Marion Rossmann. She’s really great. And we put a lot of time and effort into looking at young talent. Obviously, we looked at a lot of people, because with young talent, you’re always working with people who haven’t had that much experience. So, it’s doubly important to make sure you get the right people. Nina and Alex were absolutely fantastic. Both of them were my first choice in the process.
Was the rabbit-skinning scene as hard to shoot as it is to watch?
Surprisingly, no, because Michael Pink, who plays the father, is not just an extremely talented actor, but also very committed to his craft. And, essentially, even though he’s a vegan and that scene must have been a particular challenge to him, he really nailed it, hit it out of the park. And so it was, at least for me, comparatively easy to do.
And that was a real rabbit, right? That wasn’t a prop?
Yes, indeed. The only way to do this in the manner where it’s really realistic and stomach-turning, as I imagined it to be, was to just buy rabbits from local hunters. So those weren’t specifically killed for our film, but part of the traditional rabbit-hunting that happens in Austria and many other countries. We simply bought a couple of rabbits that, if we hadn’t bought them, would’ve probably ended up on someone else’s dinner table.
What was the most challenging thing about directing your first feature film?
There were so many challenging things that I don’t know where to begin [laughs]. But luckily, I had an extremely supportive team and an excellent, wonderful producer [Hengl’s wife, Lola Basara], whose first film this was as well, but who really knocked it out of the park and made my life so much easier.
With your wife as producer, was this a case of “The family that slays together, stays together”?
I guess so! Yes, my wife and I have been collaborating for many years, and when you’re a team that’s as well-tuned as the two of us, it also helps when you’re making your first feature that you’ve already had this experience together and know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and can perfectly support each other.
You mentioned during your Q&A that your parents were always very supportive, though the movie isn’t reflective of your upbringing. How did Mom and Dad encourage your career?
My parents were extremely supportive in every step of my career. Before I started getting into filmmaking, I was already at university studying something else entirely. It took me a certain time to find out that this was not for me, and that filmmaking was where my true passion was. And, even though this was tough, my parents really supported my decision to switch career paths at a point in time where this was already pretty late. They’ve been supportive for me all my life, and I owe them so much. So, I still feel a little guilty making this film because of that.
What’s next for you? Do you want to make a career in genre films?
I’d love to. I have several genre scripts that I’m working on right now. I’m also working on other projects in Austria, but I really want to stay committed to the genre world and hopefully have a future there.