A Piece of Cake explores a common theme: fathers who neglect their family in favor of work. Now, “common” does not necessarily mean “bad,” and A Piece of Cake certainly adds its own unique spin to this conundrum by sprinkling in a dash of absurdity as Rich Sommer’s Jim embarks on an epic adventure to acquire illegal cake decorations for his daughter, Cora (Riona O’Donnell).
If it sounds ridiculous, that’s because it is—though on purpose. Cora, for her upcoming birthday, wants silver balls on her cake. Jim agrees to get them, but Cora doubts his follow-through as he’s let her down many times before. Jim, rightly feeling bad about this, makes it his mission to get some balls (haha) and soon discovers the seedy underground world of illegal cake decorations, populated by harried fathers in business suits who speak in hushed voices as they discuss the ways in which to best acquire balls, which seem to be illegal in California.
The short, directed by brothers Austin and Meredith Bragg, is at its best when fully leaning into the more humorous aspects of the script, or employing editing techniques most often seen in action movies to great comedic effect. It’s a sweet, somewhat familiar movie, though can never quite decide if it wants to completely lean into the absurdism or maintain some level of realism, so ends up feeling a little indecisive and stuck in places. Still, a decently tasty piece of cake.
Could you explain the timeline of this movie to me? When did you first get the idea, and how long did it take to get from the idea to filming to distribution?
We can’t remember when we first heard about California’s unique situation when it comes to shiny cake confections, but it’s been banging around our heads for some time. We immediately knew it could do well as an exaggerated family-friendly drug war analogy, but that wasn’t enough for a film. It took us a while longer to come up with the actual story and ending we liked.
Eventually we brought it to an MPI short film writers workshop, where we continued to hone it. It was during that workshop that they approached us about backing the production. Naturally we jumped at that chance.
Were there any major script changes from conception to end?
Definitely. Here are two that spring to mind…
Initially we had the dad drive to a sketchy cake shack in the middle of the desert, just across the California/Nevada state line. The parking lot was going to be filled with California license plates. But the realities of production made it cost prohibitive, so we created an urban cake den.
The scene where Rich sits on the curb after learning dragees are illegal originally included a pigeon. It was a fun, somewhat surreal scene. We loved it. Unfortunately there was a bird quarantine in California at that time (foreshadowing!) and it was illegal to transport a pigeon onto set. We briefly discussed using an animatronic pigeon or swapping in a seagull—seagulls were outside the quarantine rules—but in the end it just made sense to rewrite the scene. That’s how we got to the birthday card.
I really enjoyed the editing (specifically, I’m thinking about the scenes with the Cake Den boss and the dramatic travel to “the city”); what was that process like? Meredith, how much of a say did you get into how Austin edited the film?
Meredith: A good deal. Austin put together the final timeline and really cut the final film, but we both worked through the edit. There are even some of the trickier scenes where we both edited alts to see what worked best. Both of our fingerprints are all over the thing, but Austin was the master of the timeline and really did the hard work.
Austin: I would simply add that it’s easy to get tunnel vision when editing on your own. Having Meredith in there as well opened up a lot of possibilities I wasn’t seeing.
How do your directing styles differ?
Meredith: I will say that Austin, who has an acting background, is probably better with actors than I am.
Austin: And Meredith has more visual sense.
Meredith: But by the time we’re on set we’re both on the same page about what we need and what we want. It’s actually quite helpful when an issue that needs our attention comes up. We can be in two places at once.
How do your directing styles complement each other?
The best part of having two of us is that it gives us twice as many ideas and they have to survive twice as much scrutiny. We certainly have individual strengths and weaknesses—and we each know when to lean on the other.
What was your career trajectory like? How did you branch out from more political-focused content to narrative shorts like A Piece of Cake—or were you always interested in narrative content as well?
From our days at Channel 101 to our 48-hour films and our Warner Bros. pilot, we’ve always been writing and directing comedy. Even at Reason a lot of our work is narrative and comedic. I think the biggest difference with A Piece of Cake is the scale. After years of shooting everything on our own with little to no budget, we’re pushing ourselves and our production values.
How do you balance your schedule for filming personal projects like A Piece of Cake while also producing content for Reason TV and elsewhere?
Like most everyone else making shorts, it’s about carving out weekends and evenings and, when it’s time for production, using up vacation days.
It helps to have forgiving families and access to caffeine.
You’ve also made documentaries like Welcome to the Grave—what are some of the biggest differences working on a documentary vs. a narrative film? How did what you learn from the former affect your work on the latter?
I think it’s the difference between sculpting out of clay vs. marble. With documentaries you are limited by what occurred and the footage and assets you’ve gathered. Then you start to chip away and arrange the pieces into an arc. With narrative we get to build everything from the ground up and we can push and pull the story to fit our needs.
We spend a lot more time on writing and pre-production on narratives, while in documentaries we spend more time in the edit. And that work on story structure is invaluable for assembling documentaries.
What’s your favorite type of cake?
Meredith: I’m going to cheat and say key lime pie.