Review Fix chats with Dinner Party creator and star Chris Naoki Lee, who discusses the film, its themes and goals.
About Dinner Party:
12 years after high school, a group of childhood friends reunites for a reunion dinner, accompanied by their significant others. They soon come to realize they have changed just as much as the social climate of racism, sexism, and classism has evolved. All the while, an incoming verdict on a controversial court case regarding sexual misconduct that has captured the nation’s attention will have an impact on not only the nation but this group of friends.
Review Fix: What inspired this project for you?
Chris Naoki Lee: I felt that at the time of Dinner Party‘s inception, somewhere around late 2018, we were already at such a divided place in our country, and I wanted to produce a film that not only reflected the many perspectives we all had but also allowed an avenue for audience members to participate in meaningful dialogue. On top of all that, the characters in this story mirrored much of my own upbringing in a suburban city outside of LA, where I had many friends of different races, and I wanted to tell a story of what it could feel like when they reunite during such culturally divisive times. Adding in the angle of the sexual assault trial was what tied it all together. We were quite taken with the Brett Kavanaugh hearings regarding his allegations, and how divisive the country was in terms of who was right and wrong. I wanted to add that type of controversial element to Dinner Party, further drawing a line in the sand for where our characters stand. The main thing we made sure of when writing this was to not make any character’s view or intention black and white, but always in a state of gray because I believe that best reflects our lives. We all have good intentions (mostly), but our social surroundings and the lessons we learn throughout life can often skew people into different and at times volatile, directions. Even though these friends all grew up together, what happens when those different directions all come crashing to a head? That’s what Dinner Party is about.
Review Fix: What is your creative process like?
Lee: It’s a bit all over the place. I love to visualize just as much as I like to free write. I have a chalkboard in my living room so I often break up acts and scenes to create a story map so I can always refer back to it when I’m writing. Music is also critical for me during the writing process, and I try to create playlists or “moods” that can help encompass the style of the story I’m trying to tell. With a story like this, with so many diverse voices, we also wanted to be sure to find as much authenticity as we could. So even during re-writes and table reads, we would ask our actors what they thought of certain lines, would they say it differently, or perhaps have a more layered viewpoint. As a person of color, representation matters, and we wanted to do our due diligence to our actors and audience that we put a lot of time and care into bringing these characters to life. When it came to filming, I gave my actors a lot of freedom to explore and take agency in their characters. I believe that’s one of the keys to success when you’re on set. They’re all professionals, they know what they’re doing, just get out of their way and let them take flight. And I couldn’t be prouder of the energy and life this ensemble created.
Review Fix: How is it different from the other things you’ve worked on?
Lee: Well, first and foremost, this is my very first feature. So that alone raises the stakes. However, it was such an incredible learning experience. We shot this at a breakneck pace, and it’s a kudos to the cast and crew for being able to roll with the punches while maintaining professionalism and high-level skill. Having to make real-time, split-second decisions on set can be difficult, but it teaches you to have a deeper conviction in your vision. The post-production process was also different, simply because of the pandemic, so we had to do a lot of meetings and sessions remotely, whether it be color, music, etc. But again, it’s a testament to the resilience we all have to be able to come together and collaborate on a project we all deeply believed in.
Review Fix: What was it like to see it come to life?
Lee: It was an absolute joy seeing Dinner Party come to life, and again, because this is my first feature, it will always hold a dear place in my heart. And even though I’ve already said it, I want to continue to credit my cast and crew for their dedication and hard work. It can be surprisingly difficult to get a project, whether it be feature films or series, to be made from start to finish. So to have something tangible, to be able to say “hey, I made this full-length feature film,” is a very humbling feeling. It also makes me very excited for what’s to come and what I will work on next.
Review Fix: What are your goals for it?
Lee: I’d love to see this on a streaming platform in the future after we go through our festival circuits. I believe this is one of those films where you can watch it with friends or a loved one, and although it tackles controversial topics, it can engage them in dialogue afterward. We want to invite questions like, “wait, do I do what that character does,” “which of these characters am I most like,” “my friends are just like this, is that good or bad,” and so on. If we can even expand the perspective of one audience member, we did our jobs as storytellers.
Review Fix: How would you like it to be remembered?
Lee: Oh man, that’s tough. Maybe my cooking? Just kidding. But I do make a mean fried chicken. I just hope I’ll be remembered for finding the courage to speak on matters that are important to not only me but us as a collective. Although I have a very specific perspective on life, I try to learn from people who don’t think the way I do and try to incorporate that into my stories. I’d like to be remembered for trying to bridge the gap between the division, however difficult that may be. And at least for now, I’d like to be remembered for the stories I wanted to tell, and the messages that underline them.
Review Fix: What’s next?
Lee: I’m working on a couple of other features at the moment with some well-known, talented collaborators, so I’m excited to see where that goes. I am also diving a little bit more into the animation world, which is fairly new and scary to me. But that’s also a good reason why I am venturing into it because one of the ways to grow as an artist is to work outside your comfort zone. I am also helping to produce my partner, Imani Hakim’s, feature film as well.