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.
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.”
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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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