Walker Zupp

Talking to Melissa Skirboll (dir. My Dinner With Schwartzey, 2019)


My Dinner With Schwartzey is one of my favourite films out of the material the pre-screeners & I selected for the 2019 BIFF Shorts Programme. It has a ferocious garage-band quality, along with a kinetic—and what I would call Latin—energy wrought from the editing by Evan Metzold. Based on a short story by Penny B. Jackson (who co-wrote the script with Skirboll) it chronicles a brief, warped journey into the New York rock scene, complete with an almost Lynchian cast of characters who bounce back & forth into the frame like adult versions of that kid at your school who ate glue.

Under halfway through the film a man (Lou Reed, perhaps?) leans over to Schwartzey to talk to him. Schwartzey’s date Fiona turns to another guest and mutters, ‘Is that…?’ after which the guest is like, Shut up. Be cool.

‘We had a David Bowie lookalike,’ director Melissa Skirboll remembers on her couch in her New York apartment, ‘he was supposed to fly in that morning but he got stuck in a weather thing.’

A bit stumped. ‘W-Where was the David Bowie lookalike flying from?’

“From Florida, but I guess there was a storm. It was April when we shot it, so it could have been, like, hurricaney weather. I don’t remember, exactly. But his flight was cancelled. Then the second flight got cancelled. And I was like, ‘So Lou Reed! You’re on!’” your correspondent imagining a rather androgynous individual stuck in Tampa International Airport trying to kill time in sub-par cafés & restaurants, ‘cuz the David Bowie lookalike would’ve been a much bigger audience recognition when she’s like, ‘Oh, is that…?’ but I think it works with Lou Reed too.’ Poor Lou. No one knows him.

Skirboll and writer Penny B. Jackson had worked together before when the pair adapted several of Jackson’s stories for the stage. ‘When we sat down to decide which one of her pieces might work as a film, this one [My Dinner With Schwartzey] came up,’ raising her eyebrows, “and then the whole Weinstein story broke and we were like, ‘You know what? This is really topical.’”

‘He [James Pravasilis] does look a lot like Harvey Weinstein,’ your correspondent’s sincerest apologies to Mr. Pravasilis, ‘I mean – a good-looking version of Harvey Weinstein.’

Melissa laughs. ‘That’s why I picked him.’

One asset of the film is its performances. Each actor’s dialogue (none of which was dubbed: ‘We couldn’t afford to do a dub.’) and gestures are flawless. ‘When you’re working on a low budget,’ explaining in an unpretentious & seasoned manner, ‘having actors who you don’t have to coax into a good performance, like, they’re there, they inhabit the body: that’s 90% of it. Then it’s just, like, let them do their thing and let them play.’ Although much of the film is stylized, there’s always this organic thread roping together the Schwartzey-dollhouse. ‘These people were so amazing that I don’t think we cast anybody who wasn’t just right.’

As #MeToo broiled in the background of the film’s production, I asked Melissa if she thought she was a political filmmaker. ‘I would not describe myself that way. I’m trying to remember who the quote is, but the personal is political—’

(1969: Carol Hanisch publishes an essay called The Personal is Political in which it is written: ‘One of the first things we discover in these groups is thatpersonal problems are political problems. There are no personal solutions at this time. There is only collective action for a collective solution.’)*

‘—I think as a filmmaker—or as a storyteller in general with theatre, with film, with any of the creative stuff I do—it’s about entertaining, and creating something that’s interesting, that makes you think, that makes you laugh, that makes you cry,’ she nods, ‘and if it’s not entertaining, being political is—just—boring, you know, getting up on a soapbox and spouting your creed.’

“That’s what I liked about the film: it’s very, ‘here’s some stuff, what do you think about it?’ It never says what you should think is good or bad.’

‘Well, also, this stuff doesn’t happen in a vacuum. So I remember being 16 and being able to get into clubs and not wanting people to treat me like a child [we subsequently discuss a famous individual who shall remain nameless] it wasn’t just one person, it was her parents, it was the people she hung out with, it was the director, it was a whole lifestyle. So it was more,’ in terms of the film we know as My Dinner With Schwartzey, “of ‘let’s make this entertainment, and then you decide.’”

Ten of the My Dinner With Schwartzey production team are flying to Bermuda for the film’s premier. With any luck, the David Bowie lookalike will accidentally board their flight, have an existential crisis, and live in Bermuda for the rest of his life.

* For the entire Carol Hanisch essay visit: http://www.carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html