WV filmmaker's family tradition comes to the big screen in 'Feast of the Seven Fishes'

CLARKSBURG — West Virginia filmmaker Robert Tinnell’s first foray into romantic comedy, “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” is a deeply personal story that also includes a little how-to on the types of seafood his family cooked on Christmas Eve.

“There was smelt, whiting, baccala, calamari, oysters, clams, anchovies and octopus,” he said. “That’s already eight,” he noted, in deference to the name of the celebration and the movie title. “I’m already in violation.”

Plus, he added, “We usually have shrimp.” Nobody is really sure why it’s seven fishes, although some point to the seven sacraments observed by the Catholic church. “We would just try to stick with an odd number.”

Set in 1983, “Feast of the Seven Fishes” uses the Italian-American holiday as a backdrop for a boy-meets-girl-and-immediately-introduces-her-to-his-entire-crazy-family-during-the-holidays story.

It will be released in select theaters Friday, including in Pittsburgh and Cleveland, as well as on all major video-on-demand platforms. There is also a DVD that can be pre-ordered on Amazon. During a Q&A session at a screening of the film at the Robinson Grand Performing Arts Center in Clarksburg in September, Tinnell encouraged audience members to show their support by putting the film in their cart and checking it out.

Shot entirely in Marion and Monongalia counties — thanks to a movie tax credit that no longer exists, which could prevent a potential sequel from being made in West Virginia — the film features a cast of well-known actors who Tinnell can’t believe he was able to get.

Many of the characters were played by Tinnell’s first choices: Joe Pantoliano and Ray Abruzzo from “The Sopranos,” Lynn Cohen from “Sex and the City,” Paul Ben-Victor from “The Wire” and up-and-comers Skyler Gisondo and Madison Iseman as the young couple, all huddled up in Tinnell’s tiny former family home in Rivesville, fighting and laughing and joking and cooking.

“It was surreal,” said Tinnell, who now lives in Morgantown. “Shooting at my grandparents’ old house was the most bizarre experience of my whole life. We had to rent it, and it had been remodeled, so we had to do some things to it.”

And then he had to squeeze all the actors as well as the crew into it. “I was looking at the behind-the-scenes documentary on the DVD. There was no standing room for anybody.”

“Feast of the Seven Fishes” is loosely based on the time Tinnell took his new girlfriend — now his wife, Shannon — to a family feast celebration.

In the film, Tony — played by Gisondo, from the Netflix series “Santa Clarita Diet” — brings his non-Italian-American love interest home just before Christmas. Beth is played by Iseman, known for her role in the new “Jumanji” films. One of the jokes in the film occurs when Tony’s family surreptitiously feeds Beth eel — a Feast staple. She freaks out when they tell her what it is.

Shortly after the Clarksburg screening, “Feast of the Seven Fishes” also premiered in Toronto as one of several showings to build interest in the film. Tinnell was pleased but not overly surprised by the enthusiastic crowd in Clarksburg, attended by friends, family and some of the film’s extras.

“At the Robinson Grand, I was blown away, but then I was like, ‘This is local. Let’s just not get too ahead of ourselves. I don’t want to pretend this is everywhere we go.’ Then we went to Toronto and had the same reaction,” he said.

And then last weekend, it was part of New York reviewer William Wolf’s film criticism class at the Lincoln Center.

“Our publicist wanted us to get into these things to build word-of-mouth and to get people to review the film,” Tinnell said. “In this case, it was a very savvy crowd of people who know film and talk about film. It’s kind of a big deal to get accepted into one of these screenings.”

And it went great.

“It was the kind of feedback that you want to hear,” Tinnell said. “The crowd overwhelmingly loved the film. They were very enthusiastic and unanimously said they would recommend it to others. And in fact, during the Q&A afterward, one of the people who attended said it was the best film he’d seen all year.”

Tinnell had been kicking around the idea for “Feast of the Seven Fishes” for more than 15 years. After he decided to highlight his family holiday celebration, he first co-wrote a graphic novel/cookbook about the Feast with Shannon and two friends.

The Tinnells also teamed with Main Street Fairmont to create the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival, an event in which the scent of cooking calamari and the sound of accordion music fill a Fairmont street kept warm with heaters. This year’s festival takes place Dec. 14. Shannon, who also cooked and styled the food in the film, teaches a cooking class the evening before.

The graphic novel, festival and now the film have not only brought attention to the Feast to non-Italian-Americans, it’s revitalized the celebration within the community, too.

“If you go back before that book, you see very little written about it,” Tinnell said. “I didn’t see it in pop culture and mass-media references.”

Tinnell decided to set the film in 1983, during his college years, instead of the actual 1990s time period that he courted his wife with seafood and family.

That was the last time his great-grandmother was alive to celebrate the Feast. Tinnell was in film school in California. As usual, his grandfather and great-uncle were in charge of the menu.

“It was so much fun,” Tinnell said. “I took it for granted. I didn’t know my great-grandmother would be dead five months later.”

Plus, he wanted to set the film in a time before cellphones, which required showing the landscape without cell towers.

Portraying 1983 presented some challenges. One reviewer called Tinnell’s first film, 1995’s “Kids of the Roundtable” with Malcolm McDowell, a “marvelous, mystical reality.” “Airspeed,” released in 1999 and starring Joe Mantegna and a yet-to-be-famous Elisha Cuthbert in a plane struck by lightning, also required some special effects.

Now, he notes with a laugh, “Feast of the Seven Fishes” required more computer-generated imagery than all his previous films put together.

“We had to digitally take out cellphone towers and satellite dishes,” he said. “We had to add snow and Christmas decorations and blue screen driving.”

Those shots, of characters talking in cars while supposedly driving down Fairmont’s Victorian home-lined streets and over the High Level Bridge, were created in West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Morgantown station, which served as the film’s production office.

And, Tinnell points out, many 21st Century cars had to be digitally removed and replaced with footage of vintage models, many courtesy of former Fairmont Mayor Nick Fantasia and his car-collecting friends.

Other technology that aided filming were drone shots that captured aerial footage of the Monongahela River, which borders Rivesville, as well as a snow-making machine that kept the white stuff coming down even when the temperature got a little warm on some winter days.

The actors seemed to love spending time in North Central West Virginia during the three-week shoot in early 2018, and the Tinnells enjoyed introducing them to the area’s culture and restaurants. Myrtle Beach native Iseman fell in love with pepperoni rolls.

“We had a screening in L.A. and Madison was like, ‘Bring me pepperoni rolls.’ She ate pepperoni rolls while watching the movie.”

As for the other actors, Cohen — known as Magda the nanny on “Sex and the City” — “really responded to the material instantly,” Tinnell said. Even though she had grown up Jewish, she had attended the Feast with a childhood friend. Pantoliano, who plays Uncle Frankie, celebrates the holiday to this day. And Ben-Victor still keeps in touch with Tinnell, calling him up to talk even though he’s busy promoting the Martin Scorsese film, “The Irishman.”

Represented by Paradigm Talent Agency, Tinnell was able to secure a distribution deal for “Feast of the Seven Fishes” from Los Angeles-based Shout Factory.

“Paradigm set up screenings to different people,” Tinnell said. “We had offers and we really, really love Shout Factory’s vision for the film. We never had such a good working relationship before.”

Part of the marketing campaign is centered on showing the film in areas with a high concentration of Italian-Americans, and there also is a plan to appeal to foodies as well. But Tinnell has high hopes that the film will have a lot of general appeal.

“Toronto proved to us that the film is resonating and it’s not just for West Virginia and Pennsylvania Italian people,” Tinnell said. “All age groups and different cultures like the film. We decided to go to an international city outside of the U.S. and see how the film tracks, and it worked out real well for us.”

To see the film

“Feast of the Seven Fishes” will be released Friday in major cities. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon and viewed on major video on demand services.

For information on the Feast of the Seven Fishes Festival, which takes place in Fairmont Dec. 14, go to mainstreet fairmont.org/feast-of-the-seven-fishes-2019.html.

To see trailers for “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” go to YouTube and search the movie title.

To see a video of crowd reactions from the Clarksburg and Toronto showings, go to vimeo.com/361133364/e5585bd60e.

Mary Wade Burnside is a former Charleston Gazette reporter. She has also served as a magazine editor and as a reporter at several West Virginia dailies.

FUNERALS FOR TODAY 11/12/19

Adkins, Tressa - 6 p.m., Bethel Baptist Church, Spring Hill.

Angel, Larry - 1 p.m., St. Albans Church of the Nazarene, St. Albans.

Brown, Clara - Noon, Jackson County Memory Gardens, Cottageville.

Conley, Billy - 6 p.m., Evans Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Chapmanville.

Ellis, Emert - 11 a.m., Evans Funeral Home & Cremation Services, Chapmanville.

Green, Judy - Noon, Stevens & Grass Funeral Home, Malden.

Hackney, Teddy - 2 p.m., Tyler Mountain Memory Gardens, Cross Lanes.

Hager, Naomi - 1 p.m., Montgomery Memorial Park Chapel, London.

Higginbotham, Alice - 2 p.m., First Baptist Church, St. Albans.

Hill, Peggy - 2 p.m., Handley Funeral Home, Danville.

Hunter, Lauria - 1 p.m., Hafer Funeral Home, Elkview.

Lewis, James - 11 a.m., Buffalo Memorial Park, Buffalo.

Mull, Melanie - 3 p.m., McGhee - Handley Funeral Home, West Hamlin.

Radford, David - 11 a.m., Fidler & Frame Funeral Home, Belle.

Shingleton, Carole - 11 a.m., Gatens-Harding Funeral Home Chapel, Poca.

Sigman Sr., Ralph - Noon, Casdorph & Curry Funeral Home, St. Albans.

Snyder, Jeffrey - 1 p.m., Leavitt Funeral Home, Parkersburg.

Spaulding, Gladys - 11 a.m., Chapman Funeral Home, Hurricane.

Stone, Judith - 2 p.m., Wilcoxen Funeral Home, Point Pleasant.

Taylor, Naomi - 1 p.m., Dodd & Reed Funeral Home, Webster Springs.

Webb, Tommy - 7 p.m., Loudendale Freewill Baptist Church, Charleston.

Williams, Jennie - 2 p.m., Bartlett-Nichols Funeral Home, St. Albans.