By Michael Viers
People love food. It’s tied to our identity, to our past and to our feelings, but have you ever been watching a scene and thought about what a character is eating? Or why? I’m willing to bet that unless it’s something spectacular like Chef or that sandwich from Spanglish you probably haven’t. Much like clothing or furniture, food can tell you a lot about the characters, their world and their motives. “Dirty” Harry Callahan doesn’t just eat a hot dog, he eats the same hot dog every day at the same location made the same way. It’s a habit, and that builds his character.
The inclusion of food is far more important than we realize because rarely is much attention drawn to it. Most times it’s a subtle addition. Much like audio, there’s two types of food: diegetic and non-diegetic. For those that may not know, diegetic sound is audio that’s source is present in the film, like voices or music from an instrument. Non-diegetic sound is audio that’s not visible on the screen, like score and narration. It works the same way for food.
The way a character eats their food can be used as an extension of their personality and say more about them early on than any exposition could. For instance, a noble king will have a wonderful feast prepared for him that’s just as amazing to look at as it is to eat, but what about the peasants that prepared it? How do you think their meal will look? An amazing example of food depicting a character comes from Walter Hill’s Hard Times from 1975 which includes a fascinating meal shared between two people in an oyster bar. The scene features James Coburn playing a character by the name of “Speed.” He’s a bare knuckle fight promoter during the depression whose big fighter just lost. Chaney (Charles Bronson) sees this and wants to strike up a deal to prove not only is he a better fighter, but together they can make some money. It’s a pretty simple scene, but it’s very telling of the characters by how it uses food. Throughout the scene, Speed is seen doctoring up his oysters with lemon, salt, sauces and a bunch of other toppings. He never stops what he’s doing and continues to hold the conversation throughout. Chaney, who steels one of Speed’s oysters, adds nothing to his food and gulps it down. There’s the actual story being told in this scene where Chaney is trying to convince Speed to give him a chance, but if you pay attention to the food you get another element. Speed, who doctors up his oysters, is a man of extravagant tastes. He likes fast cars, gambling, pretty women and everything he feels are the “finer things in life”. A man like him wouldn’t eat an oyster raw and one wonders if he even “likes” oysters. Chaney is a man of simple tastes and shows this by not needing anything on his oyster when he eats it. There’s also a power struggle happening in this scene where Chaney shows he’s completely comfortable taking what he wants but would rather create a partnership. All of this was in the scene, gathered only by watching how these characters ate and prepared their food.
All that being said, food doesn’t have to be featured in a scene just to give the audience in-depth analysis of a character: it can also be used as a tool to make heavy scenes easier to swallow. Exposition can be a writer’s best friend or their worst enemy depending on how it’s used, but in a visual medium it’s not always the most interesting aspect of a scene. I’m sure you’ve all seen a movie where two characters were talking… but nothing else was happening. This is where food, or the preparing of food can be a filmmaker’s best friend. A perfect example of this is actually from season 1, episode 5 of the television show The Strain entitled “Runaways” directed by Peter Weller. In this scene, an aging vampire hunter Abraham Setrakian (David Bradley) and the head of the CDC Dr. Goodweather (Corey Stoll) are talking about a recent disease outbreak while Setrakian prepares the two breakfast. Exposition scenes can normally come off rather boring and can feel too much like one character just beating another one over the head with information, but what this scene does well is making the entire situation feel very conversational. There’s no dire urgency, and since Setrakian is making some eggs and toast, it feels very casual; Goodweather has questions, and Setrakian has the answers. Sertrakian during this scene explains the origins of the head vampire known as “The Master” while cracking eggs, and why he calls them “Strigoi” instead of vampire as he scrambles said eggs. It gives David Bradley something to do to make the scene feel more lived in. More than anything, scenes like this gives the actors something to do with their hands so as to not feel so rigid or stoic. For me, some of the most memorable exposition scenes had a character doing or preparing something and food is a very logical choice because no one can operate on an empty stomach.
Here’s just two examples of how important food can be to a scene, and a testament to telling your story through production design. Filmmakers obsess over these details because of what it’ll add to a film and your experience watching it. Paying attention to these details is important because if you’re a film lover, it’ll open a new world of analysis into a movie, and if you’re a filmmaker it’ll make your characters and scenes more interesting and thought provoking. Next time you’re watching a movie and a character is cooking or eating, see what you can make of it’s inclusion. It is telling you something about them, are they providing very important information, or are they just making a sandwich? One thing is for sure, you won’t see food the same way again.