Chris Naoki Lee gets real with adult friendships in Dinner Party

Adult friendships and their complexities are explored in Chris Naoki Lee’s debut indie film Dinner Party. his creative process, and navigating old friendships.

CW: This article contains mentions of sexual assault and other potentially upsetting topics.

Friendships are put to the test when controversy comes for dinner

Actor and filmmaker Chris Naoki Lee describes his film Dinner Party as a “slow-burning film” about adult friendships that simmers and simmers until eventually, it boils over.

Dinner Party, Lee’s directorial debut, follows a group of childhood friends and their partners who reunite amid the backdrop of a controversial sexual assault case verdict.

Actors and director on the set of Dinner Party.
Chris Naoki Lee, director, writer, and actor for “Cal”, directing on the set of Dinner Party. Photo Credit: liquidfish productions

Over the span of one night, the friends navigate their starkly different views on race, gender, and class. They confront unspoken actions from the past, and figure out, individually, if things can be reconciled.

The intimate, socially-conscious film explores identity, relationships, and the uncomfortable moments of figuring out oneself as an adult. It achieves this through excruciatingly real, unfiltered conversations between old friends and strangers.

Cold Tea Collective sat down with Chris Naoki Lee to chat about directing, writing, and acting in Dinner Party, shooting a film in four days, and navigating old friendships as an adult.

Read more: Writer, actress Sujata Day on her new film and telling Bengali American stories

“Directing, acting, and pretty much everything else”

Lee admits that he had a strong desire to create a film like Dinner Party to simply get his first feature film out into the world, and not go through so much red tape.

As a result, the film benefits from its leanness. Not only did he write, direct, and act in the film — the team worked with a modest set and budget, and shot the film in only four days.

Actors in a backyard enjoying a break on the set of Dinner Party.
Left to right: Lee, Imani Hakim (Izzy), and Daniel Weaver (Vinny) on the set of Dinner Party. Photo Credit: liquidfish productions

“This was something I really wanted to do just in terms of ‘just get it done’,” he said.

Lee shot the film in one location, and the characters interact within the same spaces before congregating for dinner.

“I find that often in my life, it’s at these intimate spaces and gatherings where these kinds of dialogues can happen,” he said. 

The dinner party setting was chosen to create this feeling, but also due to time and space constraints. With such limits, the team had to move quickly, contributing to a “guerrilla” feel, as he describes.

The crew moved alongside the actors while assistant cameras racked the focus between subjects. “It had [a] bit of kinetic energy,” he said. The crew usually only got two takes for each scene, which created “a lot of fun energy” and creative opportunity.

Lee jokes that there are three movies: the movie you write, the movie you direct, and the movie you edit. Through the three stages, he said, the movie “naturally shifts” depending on certain factors.

For Lee, the film developed alongside how the actors presented themselves, the limitations and challenges that arose from each day, and the discoveries of unplanned, “great little nuggets” during the editing phase.

A scene from Dinner Party depicting the cast of the movie and someone holding a clipboard.
Actors ready to film another take. Photo Credit: liquidfish productions

“There was a lot of serendipity that happened within the film’s [production],” he said. “And I thought — it couldn’t have turned out any other way.”

Read more: The Paper Tigers: Against all odds

Setting up the dinner party

Lee paired his experience with adult friendships with his Asian American identity in his childhood friend group and a real-life divisive court case in Dinner Party.

Lee, who also plays one of the characters, said the five friends in the film are “amalgamations” of his childhood friends. He describes them as diverse, but predominantly white-adjacent.

“Coming from that time, 15-20 years ago, how conversations were and how we were treated as Asian Americans even within […] diverse groups, there was always still a feeling of an ‘other’,” he said.

In the film, the five friends initially catch up in good humour and nostalgia, playing beer pong and cracking jokes while their girlfriends prepare dinner, and roll their eyes at “the boys.”

The othering of Lee’s character Cal, and Rish, who is Indian, seeps into the reunion dinner — sometimes imperceptibly. As they play beer pong, the duo is referred to as “curry-rice” by their friend Miles, an outspoken white man with an inflated ego.

A still from Dinner Party with five friends talking in a backyard.
Miles (Charles Hittinger, centre) antagonizes the minority and female characters throughout the dinner party, which sets the stage for serious conflict and conversation. Photo Credit: liquidfish productions

During Cal and Rish’s turn, Miles asks Cal if “he’ll be able to see this time”. Cal responds with a forced laugh and a “You only get one of those, you know that.”

Later on, the backdrop of a nationally televised sexual assault hearing case frames the second half of the film. Lee cites the 2018 Brett Kavanaugh hearings as the “impetus” behind this framing.

While he had his own perspective on the hearings, he said it was “fascinating” to meet people who had vastly different views and justifications.

Quickly enough, the microaggressions and offensive jokes that built up before the dinner create moments of real tension. The slow-burn happens alongside the verdict of the case, during the climax of the dinner.

Each of the characters and couples carry their own histories and perspectives into the dinner. The confluence of political opinions and personalities in one space never feels unnatural or overly dramatic. Authenticity was always Lee’s goal. 

Early on, Lee had about half the cast read the script to get their initial raw takes on the story. He anticipated it would take 10 to 15 minutes. 

Actors, crew and director looking over a script.
Cast and crew reading over the script of Dinner Party. Photo Credit: liquidfish productions

“No joke — afterwards, we spent the next two and a half hours talking amongst, you know, men and women, just different stories,” he said. “It was really eye-opening. There was such an authenticity that we felt that we could bring.”

Read more: Dear Kiki: How am I supposed to feel about my friend’s apathy towards the Atlanta spa shootings and anti-Asian racism?

Confronting old friendships

The film’s tagline reads “If you met your childhood friends today, would you still fuck with them?” It captures a quintessential experience of adulthood — that of confronting changing relationships with old friends.

But according to Lee, it’s difficult and unclear how to navigate some of these major differences in our oldest, closest friendships. 

A still from Dinner Party with a woman in the foreground and others in the background out of focus
Kara Wang plays Shannon, who holds a central role in one of the film’s tensest moments. Photo Credit: liquidfish productions

He recalled many intense conversations with his close friends during the George Floyd protests, and stressed the importance of dialogue.

“Nothing can happen until you talk about it,” he said.

See also: How to talk to your Asian immigrant parents about racism and Black Lives Matter

In high school, Lee wanted to assimilate and be “a part of the group”. He was unsure about when to speak out or stand up for himself.

“I think as you get older, you’re ready to just throw that Band-aid off,” he said. “I think it just also becomes a little bit easier. Because you just stop giving a shit as much, you know, the older you get.”

Today, for those Lee doesn’t agree with — especially if they aren’t close friends — his “cut off time is much quicker.”

However, he said the hardest conversations are with his closest friends, some of whom he describes as his “brothers”.

In an ideal world, he hopes that as conflicts arise, people can try to understand and educate their friends. He understands that it can’t happen all the time.

“From [the] standpoint of a foundational friendship, someone you bled with, sweated with, shed tears with, all of that — what’s the breaking point?”

“There’s no real answer,” he said. “I think it’s just circumstantial and based on everyone individually.”

A still from a movie of two people having a serious conversation.
Gen (Kausar Mohammed) and Rish (Mayank Bhatter) are a couple whose relationship is put to the test during the party. Photo Credit: liquidfish productions

For Lee, he said he tries to be as empathetic and understanding as he can with everyone.

“I want to try to lead the film in a way that lends itself to that idea of ‘can we still find a way?’” 

Dinner Party will be playing at the SCAD Savannah Film Festival on October 28th.

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