The Secret Ingredient is a 20-minute film about a young filmmaker, his grandmother, and his uncle, who have all come together to make a special dinner so that the grandson can get it on tape. It’s a touching portrait of family ties, memories of the old days, and recipes on how to make life a bit tastier.
Director Rashi Bahri Chitnis and writer Joe Palladino answered a few questions this week over email.
How did this story come about?
Rashi: Joe and I were talking about making a short with local talent on a shoestring budget. We wanted to do a meaningful film in one location with a limited cast. Joe had a idea about family recipes and the moment I heard it, I said let’s do it. The original idea was a comedy and it took us many re-writes to find the story as it stands today in the film.
Joe: And the script gave us a chance to use some of the people from The Santa Barbara Table group to launch a production. We meet every week and there is great talent in this town.
Is it reflective of someone’s background? It seems very personal in content and tone.
Rashi: Not in the direct way but it is surely inspired by our cultures. Joe is Irish/Italian and I am Indian so food and family is a huge element is our personal lives. Both he and I can keep talking about the stories that happen in our families over food and I think that can be seen in this film too.
Joe: Some of the details and of course the names are loosely taken from my mother’s side of the family. I always loved their names and on another level — they all died at fairly young ages around 63 or so. When the actors asked about the “piles of dead bodies” in the script I had to tell them it was what I had seen even if it wasn’t the norm and it helped shape who Nanna and Mickey are.
How did you do the casting?
Rashi: Joe has been friends with Meredith McMinn and he approached her. When she and I met over coffee, we immediately connected. She had earlier some reservations about the age of her character, which was much older than it stands today in the film, so we re-wrote that which made her very comfortable and involved in the story building process. She then referred Bob Lesser. Meeting him was enough. He was immensely insightful of the character that I couldn’t wait to see both of them in their first rehearsal. Christopher is a young student from the Drama school at UCSB so he was referred by Irwin Appel.
When all of them were brought together for their first reading, it was a perfect family put together! I did many rehearsals with them and I loved it all.
Joe: For the roles of Nanna and Mickey, Meredith (Mc Minn) and Bob (Lesser) were our first choices. I have know them both for many years and was surprised to find out they had never acted together before. We sent them an early version of the script realizing the roles were written for a much older actors and they came on board with suggestions on how to bring the dialog more in step with their life experiences and their voices. Chris was a great discovery that came from a recommendation from Irwin Appel. Chris had just played Claudio in Measure for Measure out at UCSB. When we got the three of them together it was amazing how much they looked like a family. We had a few weeks with the actors in rehearsal which allowed us to adapt to their chemistry. We couldn’t have been happier.
And as a side note I think our location became a character on its own. Perry and Sage Lang’s house was this perfect stage to set our little family in. And it gave me huge kitchen envy.
It seems like their might be two secret ingredients here: a pinch of salt at the right time, and the notion of family. Was that the point?
Rashi: A pinch of salt at the right time is reflective of life. Things that come to you at the right time become meaningful and we can relish them for our entire lives. Too early and it spoils the flavor and too late and it has so meaning. And, what would one be without his or her family, irrespective of it’s taste!
Joe: Exactly, I think that the habits and traditions we form about food grow out of who we are. We find comfort in some meals and places and just naturally gravitate to them at critical points in our lives. That’s why there is and end note in the film calling out La Super Rica. It’s always been a place of comfort for me and my family. In many ways the family dinner is probably the most universal although most varied ritual we all still share — even if it is front of the TV or bringing out the fancy china. The secret in the film is the little touches that keep meal, the family, the rituals alive. So salt just that little bit at the end that little bit extra grows out of years of unrealized habits.
I thought the score was fitting. How did you select those songs?
Rashi: It was all Joe. He had the music in his head from day one!
Joe: I had a few of these written into the script as a way of thinking about the tone of the scenes. Once Bob came on to the project he and I talked about the kind of things he listened to growing up and I created a CD for “Mickey” out that style. From it, those three songs rose to the top.
The Secret Ingredient screens as part of Santa Barbara Shorts Program 2 on Thursday, February 2, 2 p.m. at the Lobero Theatre and again on Friday, February 3, 10:40 a.m. at the Metro 4.