Inspiration struck quickly for “Last Meal,” an arresting short making its North American premiere at the Tribeca Film Fest this week, but it was getting the right ingredients that was the issue, quite literally.
“We were shooting at sort of the start of COVID, so you could only buy a certain amount of flour,” says Daniel Principe, who with co-director Marcus McKenzie had been moved to buy in bulk in order to recreate the final requests of various inmates who were sitting on death row. “Getting flour, getting eggs, things like that. We [were going to] film a million eggs breaking in a million different ways, so it was actually really basic things.”
As it would turn out, the pair of Australians, who collaborate under the name of Cinemâché, would create one of the safest possible shoots during the pandemic when food had the starring role, but “Last Meal” is daring in other ways, brilliantly seeing past the facade of any notion that capital punishment is a humane form of justice by dazzling the eye with the romantic interpretation of the order that those awaiting the death penalty put in as their final request, with golden brown fries fit for a McDonalds commercial flying across the screen, while gradually making one conscious not only of what they actually received when they sat down to eat, but also consideration of the crimes they were said to have committed, from well-known mass murderers such as Timothy McVeigh to far more obscure inmates such as Joe Arridy, who was coerced into given a false confession and pardoned decades after his execution.
Principe and McKenzie fascinatingly probe the distance between what the eye sees and the mind absorbs when it comes to capital punishment cases, a fitting follow-through when they themselves couldn’t believe what they had found when looking into state executions in Texas and discovered a detailed list of dinners. As delicious as the food appears, “Last Meal” is designed to leave a bad taste in your mouth, leading one to question human nature that glosses over how a society reacts to acts of violence by carrying out violence of its own as well as the glorification of both crime and punishment in the media. With the film sparking conversation as part of Tribeca, Principe and McKenzie were kind enough to have one with us about the genesis of the film and pulling such emotion from immaculate presentations of food.
How do a pair of Australians get interested in American capital punishment?
Marcus McKenzie: When we stumbled on the Texas state Web site that had the list of last meal requests, we found it really interesting that there were little asterisks that said the meals might not be exactly what were served, so it was almost a case of, “Well, hold on, there’s something to this. Why advertise what the last meals are if they aren’t actually the last meal?” That built into what the entire thing’s about. It’s this perverse pleasure of knowing what people have as their final meal and using that to explore capital punishment [which seemed like] a really juicy way of approaching it.
Daniel Principe: The other thing is that as Australians, we consume a lot of American culture. We don’t tend to watch our own films — it tends to be U.S. content and particularly the last four or five years, we’ve watched a lot of Netflix and there’s a lot of serial killer shows and all that sort of stuff, and that’s something that’s consumed us as well as the election cycles. That’s just the reality of how it is and probably the way that America is seen around the world, so that very much plays into how we perceive things as well, so it’s something that’s front of my mind.
Because I understand that the idea of the last meals and how they’re prepared came pretty immediately, was it difficult to find a shape for this? You use some choice quotes from those on death row to accompany this.
Marcus McKenzie: It was in the process of [thinking] well what meals do want to cover? We went through and picked how many meals of both the very guilty and the very innocent, just trying to put them in an order and trying to tell a story with the food, which was a lot easier actually than we probably expected it to be.
Daniel Principe: We wanted to use the quotes to speak to what we wanted to say and then use the voiceover to talk more about the facts pertaining to the case, what transpired, and what we thought might be important in terms of the salaciousness aspect of the particular circumstance and then use the quotes to rebut something. At first, we used the quotes to play into the idea and then we wanted to slowly shift them to where we’re starting to challenge some of these preconceived notions.
Marcus McKenzie: We had already done a treatment and the film ended probably one case earlier, but then we discovered this great quote from Antonin Scalia… and [we thought] “Well, that’s a perfect ending.”
Daniel Principe: Even on a film that only runs for 17 minutes, we probably spent a year researching this, just reading everything from case files to academic articles and you go down a rabbit hole, learning crazy things that just don’t seem to make any sense. That’s what attracted us to the film in the first place, which is this idea of this Web site that has an asterisk and says, “Oh, everything that we put here and that we’re showing you may not be true, but here it is anyway.” That always peaks our interest.
Did the order of the meals change much?
Marcus McKenzie: Some things changed in terms of order of the food. In the script it describes how the meal’s prepared and we do a storyboard and make sure we got all the shots and that’s obviously changed the edit when we try to sync things up with voiceover and tying in cooking sound effects with cars dragging bodies, but it was pretty much on the page from the start.
Daniel Principe: The thing that we ended up doing was probably taking out certain food shots — we’d have 10 shots and we only need five.
Marcus McKenzie: And the narration got cut down quite a lot because it’s just a bit overwhelming. It is pretty wall-to-wall but the film would have run much longer if we had put all the facts that we wanted to put into the film.
As Marcus alludes to, the sound design process for this must’ve been wild. What was it like creating emotions and sensations out of the food?
Marcus McKenzie: Our composer and sound designer is Christopher Larkin [who’s] done a lot of work in [creating] soundscapes to games [such as] “Hollow Knight,” [which] you can pick up on Nintendo Switch. And it was important to have one person handling music and sound design because you’re getting as much emotion from the sound design as you are from the score in some places. We knew that we wanted blend the idea of bottle dropping with Adolf Eichmann with the taut pull of the rope when he’s hung — we had those moments throughout the script, but we didn’t know what the music was going to be, so in terms of the score, it was really [asking Christopher to] come up with something.
Daniel Principe: We had the idea pretty early on that we wanted to craft this piece as much as we could and to keep the crew really tight. We’ve used Chris before, but just as a composer and he had sat in with us when we’ve done mixing, throwing in ideas with the sound engineers, so we said really early on, “Hey, what if we actually just get Chris? I mean you’ve already been doing game stuff as well sound design.” He’s more of a conceptual guy as well, rather than a nuts and bolts type and we wanted it to be a soundscape [where] the music would feel like the sound and the sound to feel like the music. He’s really good with that.
What’s it like to get to the finish line with this?
Marcus McKenzie: It’s good to get to the end. At the end of October last year, it had its premiere here [in Adelaide] and we’ve never had a film with as many reviews as this one, so it’s really interesting to see what the response has been and the debate it’s stirred among people. For the most part, it looks like people understand what we were going for and the message we were trying to deliver, so that’s great.
Daniel Principe: Yeah, reading reviews is probably the most pleasing [because] it’s a foreign thing to us. When you’re making short films, you don’t tend to read reviews of your films. It just goes to a festival and that’s it, but with a documentary, we know it had to have reviews and seeing that they’re actually getting exactly what we were trying to do has been exciting.