‘Feast of Seven Fishes’ Film Has an Appetite for Tradition

YOUNGSTOWN – The feast of seven fishes is a Christmas Eve tradition observed by many Italian American families. It’s part of the fabric of life in the Mahoning Valley, where folks line up at grocery stores and delicatessens on Christmas eve to stock up on seafood for the dinner.

The feast is also the subject of the 2018 film “Feast of the Seven Fishes,” which will be screened at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 7, in the Thomas Ballroom at Tyler History Center, 325 W. Federal St., downtown. Admission is free.

The Mahoning Valley Historical Society decided to sponsor a screening of the little-known film as a nod to the feast’s role in the area’s history.

The film is a slice-of-life comedy set in a northern West Virginia city in the early 1980s. It follows a working-class Italian American family as it prepares for the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. The members share memories and create new ones.

“Seven Fishes” was written and directed by Robert Tinnell of West Virginia. The cast includes Skyler Gisondo, Madison Iseman, Addison Timlin, Josh Helman, Joe Pantoliano, Paul Ben-Victor and Ray Abruzzo.

Tinnell based the script on the 2005 graphic novel of the same name that he wrote with his wife, Shannon Colaianni Tinnell. The graphic novel was nominated for an Eisner Award in the year of its release.

Tinnell will be present at the Youngstown screening and will take part in a question-and-answer session after the movie. To view the trailer for the film, click HERE.

Tinnell is a writer, director and producer. In addition to “Seven Fishes,” he produced two films for Lifetime and the 2017 drama “Back Fork.”

His initial claim to fame was as producer of the cult classic “Surf Nazis Must Die,” and as a producer of music videos. Over time, he became better known as the director and screenwriter of such films as “Kids of the Round Table” and “Frankenstein and Me.”

Tinnell said his decision to write the “Feast of the Seven Fishes” graphic novel stemmed from his own life experiences. He discussed the movie and his career in this email interview:

QUESTION: Your earliest work leaned toward horror. What inspired you to make “Feast of the Seven Fishes”? 

Robert Tinnell, who wrote and directed “Feast of Seven Fishes,” will take part in a post-screening question and answer session at the Tyler History Center on Dec. 7.

TINNELL: I wish I could say that I had a master plan, but the truth is, it evolved rather organically. I had made a little film about my grandfather and his brothers cooking the feast just to preserve it. It didn’t occur to me to write a story about it until maybe eight years later. At that time, my career was in a very weird up and down period. I was still interested in horror comic books in addition to films. But I had this idea and it just sort of burst onto the page.

QUESTION: What did you hope to convey to viewers with the film?

TINNELL: My ambitions or hopes for the project have evolved through the years. Initially, my biggest ambition was to at least preserve the foodways – at least the ways we cooked for Christmas Eve.  But then somewhere along the way it took on a life of its own and exploded. If you go back and try and search for articles, books or movies about the Feast before we published the comic strip, you won’t find very much. It was fading away. 

QUESTION: The feast of seven fishes remains a tradition among Italian-American families in the Youngstown area. When the movie was released, did you attempt to gain an audience through film festivals or other distribution in this area?

TINNELL: The movie was in competition in the Heartland Film Festival and won audience choice for Best Feature Film, which was great. I would have preferred a different release plan – it was in theaters but often in regions with little-to-no ties to the tradition or the Italian community. If I had had my way, I would have released it just in Pittsburgh/Youngstown/Cleveland, and maybe Philadelphia, and let it build. Because that’s what happened when we collected the comic strips and published the graphic novel (which includes recipes for the feast). We started with a little bookstore signing tour, and Youngstown was the first place I did a signing.  We sold something like 150 books in 45 minutes out at Jimmy’s Italian Specialties [in Liberty Township].  No bookstore chain could see the value in the book. So, we ended up marketing through Italian markets, like Pennsylvania Macaroni in Pittsburgh. And that approach worked.    

 QUESTION: Where did you shoot the movie?

TINNELL: We filmed in Rivesville and Fairmont, W.Va. We actually shot in my grandparents’ house. So, it’s about as authentic as is humanly possible.

QUESTION: Do you have any other film projects in the works?

TINNELL: I just produced a couple of films for Lifetime that will air in February.  I am not sure which film I will be directing next, although I am attached to one I wrote that has some Italian-American elements.  In the meantime, I still direct commercials and other projects. 

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