MOVIE STAR WANTED, NO EXPERIENCE NECESSARY: PHIL HANLEY ON SUNDOWNERS
Toronto Film Critics Association
August 25, 2017
Two and a half years ago, Canadian-comic-turned-New-Yorker Phil Hanley got a strange email from a total stranger.
“It was Pavan (Moondi), reaching out to my website saying, ‘Hey, I’m writing this movie and I want you to be the lead.’ Apparently, he’d seen one of my stand-up sets on Craig Ferguson.
“I was like, ‘Oh, okay,’” Hanley says of the dubious message. “I’d had a few improv lessons, but I’d never acted.” He’d also been in a couple of commercials with no lines.
“I mean, I get odd emails like that on my website every so often. I like to say yes, just in case. But then he turned out to be for real, and I was kind of taken aback.”
Turns out: Yes was the right answer. Moondi, whose comedy Sundowners opens this weekend at TIFF Bell Lightbox, likes the innocence of style he gets from non-actors who are otherwise performers (just look at July Talk singer Leah Fay Goldstein, who had never acted before starring in Moondi’s previous film Diamond Tongues, earning her a Canadian Screen Award nomination).
Non-professionals are again the leads in Sundowners, a film about a pair of aimless Toronto millennials who get hired to record a seemingly-jinxed wedding at a resort in Mexico. Hanley plays Alex, a wedding videographer going nowhere fast. Luke Lalonde (lead singer of yet another Toronto band, Born Ruffians) plays his feckless best friend Justin.
It all sounded good, but Hanley admits he still didn’t entirely consider it real. “Every so often we’d meet. Pavan would come to New York and say, ‘Let’s get a drink and talk about the film.’ And then one day it was, ‘Yeah, the movie’s happening. We’re flying out to Colombia.” (Colombia doubles for Mexico in the film.)
Sundowners was based on Moondi’s own experience in Toronto as an unpaid wedding videographer, and an actual Mexican resort wedding he worked for “exposure dollars.”
“I knew the story came from him, but I didn’t really ask him too many details,” Hanley says. “I wanted to get into the space myself. But we clicked immediately. We are huge fans of Seinfeld, and we kind of started to talk to each other in comedy references, particularly Seinfeld and Louis C.K.” (Hanley says Seinfeld’s Comedian, his documentary about creating a new act from scratch, inspired the former male model to go into stand-up himself).
The Oshawa-born Hanley and the Kitchener-native Moondi hit it off so well, in fact, that they’ve since collaborated on pilot scripts for TV series. One, based on Hanley’s life in New York, was shopped around in Los Angeles this year and the comedian has high hopes to star in it.
Shot in reverse chronological order, the meat of Sundowners was shot at the Colombian resort first. The opening act of the movie was then shot in the dead of winter in Toronto. Moondi says that part of the production felt like a bit of a letdown, especially after shooting for a month in one of the most beautiful coastal vistas imaginable.
Hanley had a different take on the Toronto shoot. “By the time we got back to Toronto, Pavan and I were really close and Luke and I were, like, buddies. So, for me it was a homecoming. I hadn’t hung out with a large group of Canadians in years. The crew were from in and around Toronto. And some of my buddies from Oshawa were living in the city now.”
Hanley took to the script immediately, and to the concept of having a dream and worrying that you’re spinning your wheels in pursuit of it. “As a comic, you live it,” he says. “You do a lot of gigs that are not great. They tell you it’ll be great exposure and you get there and the audience is, like, 12 lumberjacks in rural B.C.”
Of course, he’s happier than ever that he decided to answer that crank email. “You know what? I honestly didn’t think I’d enjoy anything as much as stand-up and I did.
“I missed the immediacy of the stage a little bit. I’m dying to see the screening and see what’s landing and what gets laughs. But I definitely want to do more film and acting.”
Source: Toronto Film Critics Association
A Lot Like Going on Tour
Luke Lalonde and Pavan Moondi discuss their anti-wedding movie Sundowners, and the destination shoot in Colombia that almost killed them
by Chandler Levack
Aug 24, 2017 @ 5:00am
In Pavan Moondi’s new comedy Sundowners (which plays at TIFF Bell Lightbox, starting August 25), it’s all about the journey, not the destination wedding. The third film in Moondi’s trilogy of sorts about confused Torontonians coping with their inability to make art or express their feelings (see: 2014’s Everyday Is Like Sunday and 2015’s Diamond Tongues, the latter of which netted July Talk’s Leah Fay Goldstein a Canadian Screen Award nomination for her first acting role), the film is a bittersweet ode to wedding videos and those who film and edit them. New York comedian Phil Hanley plays Alex, a videographer recruited by his boss (a physical and unhinged Tim Heidecker) to shoot a destination wedding in Mexico. Told he can pick the photographer, Alex invites his best friend, Justin — despite the fact that Justin has neither picked up a camera nor been on a plane before. The role of the sweet but clearly depressed Justin is a breakthrough performance for yet another indie musician–turned-actor, Luke Lalonde, best known as the yelping lead singer–songwriter for Toronto band Born Ruffians. He transforms Moondi’s wry, self-aware dialogue into something fully realized and deeply human — particularly in a painfully honest scene opposite Goldstein, who plays the character’s ex-girlfriend. Filmed in Colombia, with magic-hour sunsets and swimming-pool makeouts figuring prominently, Sundowners offers supporting turns by Jackie Pirico (of Laugh Sabbath), comedian Nick Flanagan, Cara Gee (a TIFF Rising Star in 2013, who will next appear in the TIFF ’17 short We Forgot to Break Up), and Moondi mainstay Nick Thorburn (the musician who founded the band Islands and also created music for the popular podcast Serial both appears in the film and provides the soundtrack).
Over drinks at the Loveless Cafe on Dundas West, I chatted with Lalonde and Moondi about Lalonde’s secret desire to act, what it’s like to direct Tim Heidecker, and the pair’s shared affection for the Adam Sandler movie Click.
Luke, you’re very good in this movie. What was it like to act for the first time?
Luke Lalonde: It was genuinely one of the most fun experiences I’ve ever had. I wanted to try acting, but that was a secret. I wondered if I could do it in any capacity, but had never put myself out there to try to get auditions, so when Pavan asked me to be in his film out of the blue, it was an immediate “yes.”
Pavan Moondi: We had met in a bar, The Dock Ellis. I was with Pete [Dreimanis, member of July Talk and Moondi’s frequent cinematographer] and Leah [Fay Goldstein]. We talked about comedy, and that’s when you got into my brain, because we were actively casting for your part. That was a month before I asked you to do it.
What made you think Luke could act?
Pavan: On Diamond Tongues, I learned how casting a performer is a huge leg up. You know you’re getting someone who’s not going to be uncomfortable in front of the camera because their job to be in front of a lot of people. Leah proved that in Diamond Tongues, Nicholas Thorburn had acted in Everyday Is Like Sunday. So that’s always the idea: gravitating towards musicians and comedians for these roles. It also seemed like we had similar sensibilities.
Luke: It’s funny how similar. Where we really line up is in the weird, embarrassing stuff: body-switching and time-stopping films, bad Sandler movies…
Pavan: We both loved Click.
Luke: I had cried when I saw Click.
Pavan: When he’s dying and fast-forwarding through too much stuff?
So you bonded over Click and decided you could make this movie together.
Luke: That was the final hurdle: are you cool with Click?
Pavan: We shot the first part of the film in Colombia, and I think we were all aware what a once-in-a-lifetime experience it was. When we came home, it was a letdown. That’s why having Tim [Heidecker] at the beginning of the Toronto shoot was so valuable; it was a shot in the arm to get people excited again.
Luke: It’s a lot like going on tour [with another band]. By the end of the tour, you feel like you’re going to be best friends forever with the other group, but it’s such an isolated-bubble experience. You’ll maintain a few friendships, but a month afterward you’ll be like, “I haven’t talked to a lot of those guys.” I had a very intense and cool friendship with the other actors, too.
Sundowners, like your previous films, is a character study, but it’s also bigger in scope and it involved international travel. Considering all this, did you feel more pressure?
Pavan: Maybe leading up to the shoot, but I had too much to do to feel much pressure. So much of the crew are people I hang out with, trust, and am friends with. I directed a TV show before [the 2016 CBC series Four in the Morning], and that was pressure. I remember walking onto a set with a 100-person crew knowing they’re all thinking, “How the fuck did he get this job?” The first time I blocked a scene, it was so stressful I was shaking. This was just making a movie with friends.
What are the challenges of shooting a Canadian film in another country?
Pavan: There are funding rules that you can only shoot a certain number of days outside the country if you’re getting Telefilm money. Two-thirds of Sundowners was shot in Colombia, but more than half the movie had to be shot in Toronto. So when we were in Colombia, it was insane: shooting 15 pages of script a day. When we were shooting in Toronto, it was three and a half pages. They were two totally different films. On the first, there was another stupid scheduling thing where we had to shoot two days’ worth of pages. It was the most emotional stuff in the film, and some of our crew had just arrived the night before, and our cast were sick from travelling. We justified it because it’s when these guys are supposed to be drained, both physically and emotionally. I think that helped because you got to get your frustrations out by screaming at each other.
I heard someone on set fell through a roof.
Pavan: That was Abe [Sanjakdar], our camera operator. We were shooting at this old discotheque, and he had to go on the roof to clear something that was blocking a skylight. The roof was so badly constructed, he fell right through into the bathroom and onto the sink. He was really shaken up because it was marble. If he had hit his head, he’d be dead.
A wild cow also stormed the set at one point. When we shot the swimming-pool scene, the power kept going out. Everyone kept getting sick. The travel itself was insane: getting to Colombia with all our grip and lighting gear could’ve been a movie in itself. On the flight back, everyone took these Colombian sleeping pills, which were basically MDMA.
Luke: There were certain days when there was a competition to see who was the most fucked up. Pavan would say, “Look at my feet, I can barely walk! My ankles are swollen!” Phil would say, “Ow, my back!” And I’d be like, “Well, I’m shitting 80 times an hour.”
Why did you want to make this movie?
Pavan: Well, I’ve wanted to tell this story of two guys going to film a destination wedding for five or six years now. A lot of it had happened to me. Having seen films like The Hangover and Wedding Crashers, I wanted to make a movie about two guys who are typically behind the camera. This movie keeps trying to be about the people you’re used to seeing (the wedding party), but it’s not about them. We were deliberately trying to trick people into thinking they know where the film is going, then do the opposite. It’s a broad comedy that keeps getting interrupted by reality.
The anti-Sandler movie.
Pavan: Right, in that movie, the problems would have huge set pieces, but our problems are very small. Hopefully because these guys are dealing with real, human struggles, the audience will care more than them getting chased by a tiger.
There’s a very small and powerful scene between Luke and Leah early on — a discussion between two exes about an abortion. It’s interesting because it never gets brought up again. Do you relate to your character’s inability to express his feelings?
Luke: I don’t personally identify with that aspect of being a man, but I get it. Just today I went to a buy a card because a friend of mine’s father is really sick. I told the woman in the store, and she starts trying to find the card she thinks I want. The whole time, she’s identified me as a guy who doesn’t know how to talk to my male friends about my feelings, so she’s looking for the card that’s like, “I got your back, bro!” I ended up getting a blank card so I could write what I wanted in there.
I do think my character is the type of guy who clearly didn’t know how to handle that conversation about the abortion. He is pretty insensitive and thinks more about himself in that scene. It’s all about him letting her know he’s angry about it. I would’ve definitely sided more with her, because it’s not up to him — it’s her choice.
Pavan: I don’t know if it’s exclusively a male thing, because people cover up their emotions a lot of the time. Luke, you are a very emotionally developed human being because you have to write these songs. But I think a lot of people struggle to show their true selves.
How did Tim Heidecker get involved in the film, and what was he like to direct?
Pavan: We emailed his agent a couple of times, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I got his contact info and decided to email him directly because we were getting tired of waiting. I think it helped that he knew Nick [Thorburn], so he responded within an hour and I sent him the script. Three hours later he said, “Yeah, I’ll do it.”
I met with him once in LA before the shoot, and he asked if he had to memorize all of his lines. I told him there were eight important things to communicate in his scene and, as long as he hit those eight things, I didn’t really care if he did the material. As we were setting up and lighting his scene, people came in who weren’t even working that day. When he saw everyone crowded around the monitor, I saw him start to get a little nervous because he didn’t realize there was so many diehard Tim and Eric fans.
Tim told us, “Just so you know, I’m a slow starter. I need to warm up with a few takes.” The first take he gave us was 25 minutes long. He did the scripted line, then would do a joke, rewind the scene, then do another joke, and did that five times for every joke in the script. It was a master class in improv. The takes were long, and he was so funny that it was the shakiest stuff in the film because the camera guys were laughing so hard. It was also the hardest scene to edit. At a certain point, you’re bringing Tim Heidecker on to be Tim Heidecker, so you should just let that be what that is.
Luke, what was your experience like?
Luke: Tim Heidecker’s like Andy Kaufman to me: I find him so fascinating and so funny, so I had to make sure I wasn’t going to freak out. Right before Pavan called “action” on our first take, Tim turned to me, looked me in the eye, and said, “I’m gonna break you.” I was trying to be composed, but was on a razor’s edge of crying-laughing the whole time! I don’t know how people do it. I guess eventually you get over it, but I don’t know how you survive a scene with Tim Heidecker or Michael Cera.
The thing I observed is that Tim would do a scene, and if he knew he missed something midway through, he would pause, rewind, and start it over before the director called “cut.” That might be a technique a lot of people use but would never have occurred to me.
Pavan, what movie are you going to make next?
I’m trying to do my next film in the States, and I’m giving it a year. Sundowners was fully Telefilm-funded, and I want to see if I can do a film without Telefilm so I don’t have to keep going back to the well unnecessarily. The script’s been written, so now it’s a waiting game.
Luke, do you plan to act in more films?
Luke: I want to, but I don’t know how. It seems like you have to really slug it out and be very willing to put a lot of energy and time into it. If Pavan, or friends, were like, “Hey, I’m doing this thing, would you wanna do it?,” I would absolutely jump at the opportunity. But I have a lot of musical things going on and don’t know if I can spend that same kind of emotional and creative energy.
People manage to do both. I think Pavan’s right that there’s something musicians bring that’s authentic and compelling on screen.
Pavan: Well, I want Luke to bring something of himself to the film, but if there’s a part where we’re just looking for someone to come in and do a line, I don’t want them to get too deep into the character. Let’s just do the line and move on.
Luke: “These pretzels are making me thirsty!”
Source: TIFF.net’s The Review
Phil Hanley Interview: From Stand-Up to Sundowner
By Noah R. Taylor August 24, 2017 | 7:07 pm
When Phil Hanley, a stand-up comedian living in New York with no previous acting experience, found himself in the lead role of a Canadian film shooting in Columbia last winter, it was like something out of a fever dream. Not just because most of the cast and crew were ill at some point during the shoot, but because, unlike many comedians, starring in a film was never on Hanley’s to-do list. How did he get there? In a word: Pavan.
Toronto filmmaker Pavan Moondi is the writer/director of Sundowners, his third and most ambitious feature film to date. Moondi has always favoured musicians and comedians over trained actors, most notably casting Leah Goldstein of July Talk fame in her first acting gig as the lead in Diamond Tongues. The role eventually garnered her a Canadian Screen Award nomination. I myself (not an actor) even had a small role in that film, but garnered no nominations. Hanley plays the role of Alex in Sundowners, another in a growing line of Moondi’s professionally frustrated protagonists.
The film is loosely based on Moondi’s own experiences as a wedding videographer prior to breaking into feature filmmaking. One gig in particular had Moondi and a friend with zero photography experience, sent to Mexico to record a destination wedding. While nothing seemed to go right, nothing really went that wrong either. It’s this slightly heightened but very grounded scenario that we see Alex and Justin (Born Ruffians’ Luke Lalonde) navigate following the vague assignment from Alex’s boss (Tim Heidecker). Columbia stands in for Mexico and the hectic shoot had the cast and crew shooting an average of fifteen pages a day, a feat made even more challenging by stomach bugs and bathroom breaks. It was trial by fire, but Hanley and company came through with a product that all involved can be proud of.
Sundowners is another thoughtful, relatable comedy from Moondi that incorporates influences ranging from John Cassavetes to John Hughes. As Moondi’s proxy, Hanley portrays the struggling, self-deprecating, unexceptional “artist” exceptionally well. Alex can be seen as a progression of Moondi’s protagonists from a guy who has no idea what he wants to do (Everyday Is Like Sunday), to a girl who knows what she wants but not how to get it (Diamond Tongues), to someone who is doing a crappier version of what they wish they were doing (Sundowners).
When Hanley’s not getting up every night at the Comedy Cellar in New York, he’s recording a podcast called Keeping Joe (which boasts guests like Amy Schumer and Dave Attell), or working on writing his next project with Moondi. We caught up with him to discuss getting into the role, wandering cows on set, his days as a teenage model in Europe, and what’s on his Dork Shelf.
On meeting Moondi and preparing for the role:
We filmed it last February, so maybe two and half years or three years before that, out of the blue I got an email through my website that said “Hey I’m writing a film and I want you to be the lead.” He had seen one of my late night sets on one of the late night shows and he thought I would good for the main character, Alex. I was like, oh okay. Sometimes I get random emails about stuff like that. Maybe like six months or a year would pass and he would reach out, he came to New York a couple times and we’d meet for a drink. He was still saying the project’s still happening, we’re just getting funding, getting everything lined up. And then finally about six weeks out or so, he was like yeah we got the dates and we’re planning on flying to Columbia to do it.
I’m very dyslexic so it takes me a long time to read things, but we went over it and over it. Talked about a lot, talked about the scenes over the phone. We did one day of rehearsals in New York. Luke spends part of his time in New York too so we met up there and did that. Then we flew to Columbia and rehearsed for about five days. That was downtown Santa Marta then we relocated to the resort where all the Columbia stuff was shot.
I think there’s a parallel between starting out as a filmmaker and starting out as a stand-up. I could instantly relate to some of the stuff. He was doing wedding videography, which is not a great gig. When I started as a stand-up I did lots of bad gigs too, so I could relate to that, where he was at and working towards these goals that when you first start seem so far away.
On going from stand-up to acting:
Stand-up is what I’m most motivated to do. I get up and I like to write down some ideas and try them on stage that night. It’s my favourite thing to do. Living in New York and just getting to do spots every night, my home club is the Comedy Cellar, so I just know that I’ll have dinner with my friends and then just get up and do comedy. It’s my favourite thing to do, but with acting, I was open to it, I love films and admire people who act, but I never really pursued it. Within a few days of shooting this movie I was like ‘oh my god this is the best, this is so fun.’ I did really enjoy it.
The most unexpected parts of the shoot:
What kind of surprised me was how much I enjoyed it. I think part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was that I immediately clicked with Pavan. As far as comedy’s concerned we have so many reference points, we both love Seinfeld, we both like a lot of the same films and comics. And Luke I immediately really liked too. And all the camera crew too. I’ve been in New York for about six years or so, I hadn’t really hung out with a large group of Canadians in a long time. It was such a blast to make this thing with them every single day. And the Columbia crew was great too.
Once we started going we would shoot all day, and then we would rehearse at night. I don’t know if this is the most memorable but I do remember sometimes a random cow would just be on the beach where we were shooting, just walking around. One got loose and get into the pool of the resort somehow. It climbed the stairs and over the wall and all of sudden was in the pool, so everybody was freaking out. You could hear kids yelling and parents yelling and this poor cow was struggling in the water. Everyone left to go see it and I remember I was so focussed on the next scene that I didn’t bother going see something that you’ll never ever see again. A cow in resort pool in Columbia. In retrospect I really had my game face on.
On working with Tim Heidecker:
I thought I was good at not breaking or laughing in a scene where I’m not supposed to laugh. I can talk about something really ridiculous on stage with a straight face and I’m not even fighting laughter or anything like that. But doing scenes with Tim, he was so funny, it was such a challenge to not start laughing. And we were exhausted, we’d get up super early after five weeks of shooting, and we’re in this basement filming these scenes with Tim Heidecker. He was so so funny. Pavan was just letting him go, so we’d do these long scenes, he was killing me, it was so funny.
On achieving his goals as a stand-up:
I love the Seinfeld documentary Comedian, when I started stand-up I would watch that constantly. That’s all shot at the clubs in New York, predominantly the Comedy Cellar, so my goal was to move to New York and basically work at the Cellar. I auditioned and I’ve been there for four and a half years now.
That’s never happened before in my life. I’ve had many goals, stand-up’s the only thing where the more I put into the more I get out of it. People always talk about “practice, practice”, and that’s never been the case with me. Being dyslexic there were just certain things I couldn’t learn how to do, so stand-up felt like the only thing I could make a go of and accomplish something. That hasn’t been the case with anything else.
On his uncomfortable (but successful) career as a teen model in Europe:
I went from that summer, swimming with a t-shirt on among friends and family, to a show for Giorgio Armani where you’re wearing these ridiculous short shorts and a mesh tank top. I was so uncomfortable the whole time. I knew it wasn’t for me, but in retrospect, if I’d known I was going to be a stand-up, I should have taken more in.
What’s on his Dork Shelf:
I’m a huge Grateful Dead fan. I have a fair amount of memorabilia and I have a collage of shows that I’ve been to and things that I’ve collected. I’ll talk to people who are also Grateful Dead fans about it but if it comes up and I’m like, talking to a girl, I’m like oh god, I know this is the equivalent of talking about Star Wars or whatever.
I was at a show with a friend, we were really young, I don’t even think my parents would have known where I was. We were at a Dead show and there was this woman behind us and she was selling photos that she had taken of Garcia earlier in the tour, she had them printed out. So I bought one from her, and my friend was talking to her and he was really nervous because we were young and she was this older, kind of spaced out Deadhead. I can see that he’s finally getting a little more comfortable, then he turns back around to say something again, I guess she had a wooden leg and she had taken it off, and he spun around and knocked over her wooden leg. He was a little out of it too, that added to how freaked out he was by knocking over this nice woman’s wooden leg.
It’s just something that I’ve been into since I was a kid and continue to. Right now I’ll hang up the phone with you and put on a Dead show and cook a really late lunch.
Source: Dork Shelf
Interview by Charles Trapunski for Brief Take
August 24th 2017
Brief Take: Why was it so important to have Tim Heidecker in the movie?
Pavan Moondi: I’ve been a huge fan of Tim’s for a long time and it turned out most of the cast and crew were big fans as well. That turned out to be a much needed boost for everyone, since there was a bit of a natural come-down after we wrapped the Colombia portion of the movie. When we got back home to shoot the Canada portions of the film, it felt like the movie was done – we had already had a wrap party and said goodbye to half our crew in Colombia. So it was a bit of a bummer to be back in Toronto in the middle of winter, but once Tim showed up it really got everyone excited again.
Watching Tim work was pretty crazy. His scenes were about 6 pages long but he was consistently giving us 20-minute takes filled with different variations on every joke. He’s about as good as you can get at improvising – not just in terms of being hilarious, but knowing when and how to rewind the scene and make sure we got what we needed with good edit points (there was a lot of on-set laughter stepping on his lines those days).
Brief Take: To what degree would you consider the film a departure from Diamond Tongues?
PM: I think the film is definitely more overtly comedic than Diamond Tongues was, but I think the shared DNA is probably pretty apparent. They’re both still character-driven films and are similar stylistically and structurally. Leah and Nick Flanagan are both back, but I think that has more to do with me wanting to continue to work with people who I know and love than any kind of explicit relationship this film has to the others.
Brief Take: What was it like to have Phil Hanley play a non-comic role? Was he forced out of his comfort zone?
PM: I think if anything, Phil was probably being forced most out of his comfort zone compared to some of the other comedians who have smaller parts and have acted before to some capacity. Whereas with Phil – he had no real acting experience and was being counted on to carry the film and I thought really delivered. I like working with both comedians and musicians because I think they have a natural comfort in expressing themselves which is something I’m expecting from them. That said, I don’t think just any comedian or musician would make a great actor, but after meeting with Phil and Luke and previously, Leah [on Diamond Tongues], it was clear they were excited by the opportunity and were going to take it seriously. It’s hard work.
BT: What did you think of the pool scene? Would that be the centrepiece?
PM: I would probably consider the wedding scene to be the centrepiece but this one was also a difficult scene to shoot, technically speaking. The actors are in the water and shirtless and so lavalier mics weren’t an option – which meant all the audio had to be boomed. That didn’t mesh very well with my intent to shoot a lot of the movie as wide as possible but we made it work and our sound guys Paolo and Camilo did a great job staying out of the frame. Also, the power kept going out over and over again while we were trying to shoot; the monitors kept messing up; and we fell way behind schedule. The two hooligans are also played by one of our camera operators and the A.D. so it meant we were short-staffed behind the camera, as well. It was a stressful night but it came out as great as I was hoping.
BT: What sort of role does music play in informing the spirit of Sundowners?
PM: In terms of using musicians as actors, I touched on it a bit already, but there’s no specific directive to work with musicians. I’m looking for people who I think are interesting and will work well within the framework of the film and it’s just kind of happened.
In terms of how music is used in Sundowners and my previous films, it’s not really a conscious thing. I’ll randomly come up with moments and scenes while I’m in the writing phase and sometimes those will be come to me as pieces of dialogue, situations or montages. When I’m editing together the film I’m really just going with my instincts on what I think best conveys the intention of the scene and appeals to my tastes. I think it’s resulted in films that hopefully have an increasingly-specific style and feel.
Source: Brief Take
SUNDOWNERS DIRECTOR PAVAN MOONDI, A NO-EXPERIENCE-NECESSARY AUTEUR
August 23, 2017
By Jim Slotek
The education of Pavan Moondi continues apace. Today’s lesson is getting along with other writers.
Which is to say that the solo scripter and director of the acclaimed indie film Diamond Tongues and the just-released comedy Sundowners is talking to me over the phone from the writer’s room at CBC’s Schitt’s Creek.
“It’s definitely a new experience for me,” Moondi, 32, says of the between-features job he’s taken on as one of several writers in a situation comedy. “I had no idea how detailed they get in the writer’s room, the constant discussion, going really in-depth into the characters’ motivations.
“I hadn’t seen a lot of the show until just before I got the job. But I binged on it, and it’s hilarious TV. I’m very glad to be having this experience.”
There was a time not so long ago when Moondi despaired of new experiences. Like the character played by comedian Phil Hanley in Sundowners, Moondi was a wedding videographer, “long past the point of it being a valuable experience.”
We talked to him about the movie, about a pair of millennials hired to record a wedding in Mexico, where everything goes wrong in two already-messed-up lives.
ORIGINAL-CIN: Let me say off the top, I was doubly glad I liked Leah’s performance in Diamond Tongues. (Leah being Leah Fay Goldstein, lead singer of July Talk and first-time actress, who got a Canadian Screen Award nomination for it). Her dad, Lorrie Goldstein, sat next to me at work. If I’d hated it, it would have been awkward.
MOONDI: (Laughs). “Thank you. On this one, the two lead actors had never acted before either. I think the common denominator with both Leah in Diamond Tongues and Phil and Luke (Lalonde) is that they’re all performers in their day-to-day lives. Phil is a standup comedian and Luke is a musician (singer-guitarist for the band Born Ruffians).
“That gives them a head start because they’re comfortable being in front of a camera and they’re comfortable expressing themselves for an audience.”
OC: How do you get them to become the characters you’ve written?
MOONDI: “Well, it’s not like I’m expecting them to go method. I expect them to bring some of themselves to the role and we create the characters together.”
OC: I once worked on a documentary on Day Of The Dead in Mexico, for which I was paid exactly nothing. But the experience in Mexico was pay enough. Was working at a resort in Colombia (which stands in for Mexico) a bit of a carrot when it came to putting together a crew?
MOONDI: “Totally. It was such a weird environment for making a film. We were living on that resort, some of us, for almost a month, waking up in the morning, grabbing a camera and starting shooting in one of the most beautiful places in the world.
“Santa Marta has one of the longest sunsets in the world. It was so surreal, we were all kind of aware it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience while it was happening.”
OC: Were there tax incentives that made Colombia preferable as a stand-in for Mexico?
MOONDI: “It was a couple of things. One of them was we stayed at a resort intended for South Americans. There were not a lot of foreigners there, and it wasn’t bursting at the seams the way a spring-break resort in Mexico would be.
“We’d heard it was safer than Mexico, that there could be issues with your equipment going missing in Mexico and having to pay the police to get it back.
“Colombia was trying to attract production, and they went out of their way to look after us.”
OC: Ironic, considering the impression people are getting about Colombia now watching Narcos – although that’s Colombia 30 years ago.
MOONDI: “I think even 10 years ago it wouldn’t have been as safe.”
OC: This is a movie about two guys your age going nowhere. You’re clearly going somewhere. Were you drawing from people around you for Sundowners?
MOONDI: “This I started writing before I wrote Diamond Tongues – five or six years ago now. And when I was writing it, I was in the situation that these guys are in. I had worked in a call centre for a year. I shot weddings for over a year. And filmmaking just seemed as far away as it could possibly be.
“So, I was drawing on that period of my life for sure. It’s something I’ve experienced and can relate to. It’s a very tough industry to be in, and there’s loads of uncertainty. You just never know what’s going to happen. So that constant state of uncertainty is something I can still relate to.”
OC: Does it get easier?
MOONDI: “It actually gets harder with every film you make. This is my third, who knows if I’ll get another. I think that there is like a baseline level of uncertainty and anxiety that a lot of people have inside whether they express it or not.
“That’s kind of what this film is about, that sense of having your youth feel like it’s in the rear-view mirror.”
OC: Sundowners is pretty much a straight-up comedy, especially compared to Diamond Tongues. Was it based on a real experience.
MOONDI: “Actually, a lot of this movie is roughly based on a trip I went on to Mexico to shoot a wedding and some of the things I experienced there. It’s basically a realistic version of The Hangover or broad vacation comedies. We tried to keep it as realistic as possible. We didn’t want the film to feel like nothing happens, but we wanted it to feel like a lot of things could happen.”
Source: Original Cin
The Globe and Mail: Interview with Pavan Moondi – Why Sundowners – the kind of Cancon the industry needs – was so hard to get made
AUGUST 23, 2017
THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Sundowners, the new dark comedy from Toronto filmmaker Pavan Moondi, centres on a luckless wedding videographer and his worker-bee buddy who head to Mexico in the hopes of turning their sad-sack lives around. At its core, the film is about the terrifying gulf of expectations that exists between what our lives promise and what they actually deliver. It is occasionally brilliant, if completely uncomfortable.
But its cynical preoccupation with the distance between hope and reality is understandable. Despite this being Moondi’s third feature after two widely acclaimed projects (2015’s Diamond Tongues, 2014’s Everyday is Like Sunday), a solid reputation in an absurdly small industry, and a daring and fresh voice that’s the perfect antidote to decades of Cancon gripes, it is a minor miracle that Sundowners got made at all.
“This was very difficult, and took a lot longer than Diamond Tongues, which itself was incredibly difficult to get made,” says Moondi, 31, sitting in a quiet west-end Toronto bar one morning last month. “I think we only got Telefilm money here because something else fell through. But it was pretty necessary.”
Indeed, because while Sundowners only cost about $1.2-million to make – peanuts when it comes to American indie comedies or the literal peanut budget on any mainstream studio movie – it is by far the most expensive project of Moondi’s career, and likely represents a ceiling for certain Canadian filmmakers not named Egoyan, Cronenberg or Gross (and even those talents face their share of obstacles).
“I started writing Sundowners right after Everyday Is Like Sunday, so it was supposed to be the next one,” Moondi says of the script, loosely based on his early years as a directionless wedding videographer, which he used as an admittedly depressing substitute for film school. “The response was that it was too large scale a film, which is fair because it needed to be shot partially overseas, in this tropical-resort setting. So I got a producer who said, ‘Write a smaller film, I’ll kick in the cash,’ and when Diamond Tongues did better than any of us expected, we got the Telefilm money for Sundowners.”
Although Sundowners is ambitious in scale when compared with, say, Diamond Tongues, which cost $30,000 to shoot – half of the new film was shot in Colombia, subbing for Mexico, and Moondi snagged a genuine American talent in co-star Tim Heidecker, a giant of the alt-comedy scene – it doesn’t seem like it should be that hard a sell for savvy Canadian producers or the various funding agencies that keep homegrown artists afloat. Most importantly, it is crafted with a bracing vision and raw honesty, qualities that stand in stark contrast to whatever definition the public typically conjures when thinking about “Canadian film.”
From a distance, Sundowners seems like a rote meshing of two overplayed genres: the vacation-goes-wrong film, and the bros-will-be-bros movie. Yet as Eeyore-like videographer Alex (stand-up comedian Phil Hanley) and his reluctant companion Justin (musician/actor Luke Lalonde) get dragged to a destination wedding by the former’s insane boss (Heidecker), the narrative quickly reveals a darker, more subversive edge.
“I’d been shooting weddings myself and hating it, and I ended up going on this trip to Mexico on which this is loosely based. For a while, it was just my best, crazy story that I could pull out at parties. But when I wrote it as a script, I knew something was missing,” Moondi says. “It took a while to realize that I needed to go deeper with the characters, with the real intention to engage with the expectations of what a vacation-gone-awry comedy is. We do it on purpose 10, 12 times in the film, where we veer people down a path of where they think they know what’s going to happen, but then it doesn’t pay off, deliberately.”
So Moondi and his team flirt with studio-safe disaster, only to flip the script again and again.
“The risk is that you could disappoint people who want some crazy Hangover type of thing, but it’s also about reality getting in the way,” Moondi says, freely admitting that his vision immediately extinguished some of the more standard routes of financing. “The Harold Greenberg Fund rejected us because there’s no payoff. They wanted bigger set pieces, and that’s deliberately the movie I don’t want to make. I kept referring back to that Harold Greenberg application because it’s the rare grant where they write you pages of analysis of why you were rejected. It was motivational to read it back all the time.”
Yet if Sundowners is considered both not ambitious enough (by the funds set up to help burgeoning Canadian talent) or too ambitious (by private investors), then how exactly is a young filmmaker supposed to reach that next level? Moondi is working every angle he can, going beyond film to make inroads in the still-cutthroat and insular Canadian television market (he directed all eight episodes of CBC’s sitcom Four in the Morning, and is currently on the writing staff of the network’s Schitt’s Creek). But he also half-jokes about signing up for medical experiments to keep his artistic career afloat and admits that the answer to his dilemma is a familiar one.
“I was lucky enough to get Telefilm money on this one, but I feel I should probably try to make a film without it, so I’m not in this self-perpetuating cycle of constantly relying on the Telefilm model. So I have another feature that I’m done writing, and it’s the hands of a producer in L.A., where we’re trying to cast it and get private money,” he says.
“We’ve painted ourselves into a corner now,” he adds. “When you’re a Canadian film, you’re only eligible for certain programs at film festivals, like ‘world cinema.’ But the style of films that I’m making are too comedic, and those comedies don’t typically find a home in those world cinema programs, because they’re mostly foreign language or way more art house than what I’m doing. To get the most of the next one and get it seen by as many people as possible, it just might make sense to make it American with private money.”
The flight south carries a certain level of irony, notes Moondi, given that the new film takes place in Montreal and he aims to shoot it there, with an all-Canadian crew. “If you’re a Canadian comedy, it is simply hard to brand out of Canada,” he says.
That line of reasoning is easily echoed in the work of Moondi’s contemporaries, including Matt Johnson, whose raucous 2016 mockumentary Operation Avalanche was acquired by U.S. giant Lionsgate. Which means that unless the industry wakes up to the enormous talent knocking down its door, ready to move on from the micro-budget programs that ensure only a certain level of exposure, Canadian comedies will continue to hit a wall.
Toward the end of Sundowners, its heroes (or, more accurately, its lead characters, as Alex and Justin never quite hit the necessary levels of courage or conviction to qualify as protagonists) head back from Mexico with an air of defeat. But Moondi allows them something of a silver lining, albeit in the subtlest of ways.
If the Canadian industry wants to champion and develop its own artists rather than propel them southbound, perhaps producers and bureaucrats and anyone with their hand on the till can echo Sundowners’ good graces, and give the country’s talent the happy ending they, too, deserve.
Source: The Globe and Mail
Toronto filmmaker Pavan Moondi’s third feature Sundowners (opening at TIFF Bell Lightbox this Friday) is one that hits close to home. Somewhat based on true experiences that he had as a struggling videographer working weddings in an effort to hone his filmmaking chops, Sundowners is a look at a particular kind of artistic and social stagnation that many creative types, Moondi included, understand all too well. While Moondi gently jokes that the truth of the situation might be a lot sadder, at least Sundowners takes a serio-comic look at such pains.
Loosely taking some cues from a trip that Moondi made to film a destination wedding at a Mexican resort almost a decade ago, Sundowners tells the story of Alex Hopper (stand-up comedian Phil Hanley in his first starring role), a burnt out videographer and struggling filmmaker down to his last dime. His aloof, possibly bankrupt boss (Tim Hiedecker) keeps stringing Alex along for past paydays, but floats the idea of sending Alex to a Mexican resort to film a wedding that promises a huge payday. Allowed to choose any photographer to accompany him on the job, Alex settles on his best friend, Justin (Born Ruffian’s frontman Luke Lalonde, making his acting debut), an equally unhappy customer service call centre representative going through a rough patch without a lick of photography experience. Together they try to fumble through the gig and enjoy the all expenses paid trip to Mexico (which was actually filmed in Colombia), but it quickly turns into a nightmare. Their boss has found way to botch the job, the groom is a nightmare, complications lurk seemingly around every corner, and they can barely keep their shit together long enough to perform any aspects of their job in the first place.
We caught up with Moondi over the phone last week to talk about Sundowner‘s real life inspirations, why he feels comfortable casting non-actors, his own creative frustrations, and substituting Columbia for Mexico.
You actually worked as a videographer, and I know that at least part of Sundowners is inspired by a trip you made down to Mexico to film a destination wedding, but how many of the stories, jokes, and situations contained within the film are things that really happened to you?
Pavan Moondi: I’m trying to be deliberately vague with specific sequences and jokes. (laughs) I think it would ruin it for a lot of people knowing which bits were real and which ones weren’t, but I would say that the vast majority of this film happened. I think it’s a lot more based in a true story than a lot of films that market themselves as being based on a true story. (laughs)
If that’s the case, then it seems like a lot of these moments would be uncomfortable to relive and have to go through again. Did it make it any harder to make actors play these scenarios out?
Pavan Moondi: I think it’s actually the opposite. It happened so long ago, almost eight years ago now, and I first proposed the idea for the film about six year ago, and it has gone through so many different iterations every time I went back to it. One of the reasons that we’re not building this up as being based on a true story was because I didn’t want to feel confined to sticking to what actually happened. I wanted to take as much creative license as we could take. I think within a few drafts of the script, it became more about the film and the characters than what actually happened on the trip I went on. But when we started shooting, I think I thought of the real trip very little, if at all, and I became concerned on it just working as a film. And that’s still weird to think about because you think I would be transported back to those moments, but I tried to make sure that didn’t happen.
I think I wanted the actors to have their own experience with these characters. I think it only works for me thinking back on things when I was starting to flesh it out as a film, and even then it was mostly just to make sure that where I was going with things would have been plausible or not. I don’t think it would help them to know what parts actually happened and what parts didn’t. I think they were always aware that a lot of this happened, but it was never a case of someone pointing out that something was implausible and having me shoot back that, yeah, it did happen and we would have to figure out to do it. When we made it, we definitely didn’t rest on this being based on a true story, but it was definitely in the background.
Even before the trip of these characters gets to Mexico, right off the top it starts in a place of great truth where you have your main character, Alex, fighting with his boss over how much money he’s owed for past jobs and he feels really inadequate and unchallenged by the work he’s doing. Was Sundowners partially born from similar feelings that you had as an artist?
Pavan Moondi: I think so. I think the reason the film took so long to write and put together was because early on I was more fixated on getting the parts in Mexico right. It wasn’t until I figured out the parts that take place back at home that I realized who these characters were and what they were dealing with that the story started to make sense to me and it became something I wanted to make. Those things that you’re touching on are things that I’ve definitely experienced, even in filmmaking; that whole freelancer’s struggle of trying to get paid and getting jerked around constantly or being told to do things for the exposure. I had a feeling that the scenes with Tim Heidecker’s boss character would be the scenes that would be most relatable for a lot of people. I’ve definitely worked for people like that. I think that was the key, to tap into those feelings. I’ve definitely felt the way those characters feel before. I even feel that between films because there’s such a great uncertainty. You don’t know if anyone is going to see your movies. You don’t know if they’re going to be any good. You never have enough money. I think that’s a struggle that’s relatable to people whether they have aspirations of being a filmmaker or a creative type or not.
And 100% I had a lot of the same feelings that Alex has in the film back when I was a struggling videographer. I never went to film school or anything, so when I started shooting weddings I thought of it as a way to get a lot of technical knowledge and hands-on experience. I got some equipment, got some experience to teach myself, and started doing weddings working for someone else just to make money. It wasn’t a lot of money, but I thought it would be helpful with my filmmaking aspirations. I feel like I stayed on with that job well past the point of learning anything else that I could have learned. I think I did it for a year, and I shot forty or fifty weddings. There’s a montage in the film of Alex at all these different weddings towards the end, and he’s just completely bored and the weddings all kind of look the same to him. That’s how I was feeling by the end of it. I was ready to be done. My takeaway was that weddings are all exactly the same even though people think it’s the most magical and unique day of their lives, but to me they all feel the same. The people who shoot them often aren’t too thrilled to be shooting them. They would probably rather be anywhere else at that point. Also, it’s the happiest day of people’s lives, and you’re absolutely miserable. (laughs)
I was reading in an interview with Luke that he said he was a little less than confident at first to be taking on his first major acting role here, so I was wondering what you were able to do that made him want to come on board as an actor here.
Pavan Moondi: Well, he had told me that he had this secret desire to act after I had already approached him. He jumped aboard pretty quickly. We met at a bar just through friends, and we ended up hanging out all night talking about comedies. At that point, we were actively thinking about who was going to play this character, and I started to see that in Luke. I knew about Luke’s musical background, and I had known about his band for a long time, and I thought back on how much of an asset it was to have someone like Leah [Fay Goldstein] in Diamond Tongues.
I think that musicians can make for great actors, especially given the way that I direct because they’re comfortable being in front of a camera, and they’re also comfortable expressing themselves and showing what they’re truly feeling. I think the main thing with Luke was that although a lot of this film wasn’t as improvised as our previous films, there was still this focus that he would bring something of himself to the character. We talked a lot about that. We wanted to find a lot of intentions and emotions that he could relate to and understand. At some points, there are things in the character that Luke can relate to, but off screen he’s been a successful musician since he was twenty. You would think that, on paper, Luke could never relate to this character, so it was really about finding ways to show Luke that he had more in common with this character than he might be able to see on the surface. That was the key to him figuring it all out, and once he did, he was comfortable improvising along with us. There’s a scene that he has with Leah, who plays his ex-girlfriend, and that was almost totally improvised. We figured that scene out only the night before we shot it in rehearsals, and I think he was able to do that once we provided him with the tools to be in character.
And Phil has very little technical acting experience, as well. He’s obviously done stand-up, and I think when he was coming up he did a bit of improv, but I think this was the first time he ever really had to play a character in anything for an extended period of time. I think that they might have both felt a bit like they were in over their heads starring opposite one another in a feature film with almost no experience. They both lived in New York at the time, and once they were cast, I just had them meet up on their own. I think they bonded over their shared disbelief that they were going to be shooting this film in Colombia despite having no acting experience. We didn’t have either of them audition, either. I think that immediately let them find a point where they could relate to each other, and it also made them equally motivated to not want to blow it. I think that they were rehearsing together in New York, and I would just fly down and spend the day going through the script, going out to eat, and just hanging out with them to build that rapport.
But for me, casting has always been an instinctual thing. The reason we don’t audition is hard to explain. I either get a feeling like someone can do something or I don’t. With Phil, I saw him on TV doing stand-up, and I knew that he would be good at doing this character. With Luke, it was just talking to him about doing comedy in a bar that made me realize he would just get it and have the right comedic sensibility to put in place what I was envisioning. It was more of an instinctual call, and I feel like it has played out pretty well so far. I try to always make sure that the creative process isn’t rigid. I’m not asking Luke to come in and have this fully formed character that’s written on the page down and set in stone. The script might be fully written, but I’m very flexible with how that character takes shape. It’s almost a foolproof method because if the character isn’t rigid, then it can be anything that we want it to be.
You wrote this based on your recollections of Mexico, but you ended up having to film in Colombia for budgetary reasons. Did the change in scenery force you to tweak some of the story to suit the shooting locations? Was there a big difference, or were you still able to get most of what you wanted?
Pavan Moondi: I think we were able to get most of what we wanted. One of the reasons we did Colombia was because one of our producers knew another producer there who was interested in the film and could help us on the ground there. We brought a team down there of around 10 people from Canada, and then we had a crew of ten people from Colombia, so the crew was about half and half. The Colombian crew took care of most of the location scouting. They would send me photos and tell me what would work best. A lot of the Colombian crew had been to Mexico, and they knew what typically Mexican locations would look like. They found us the resort and a lot of the locations and views around there that we could use.
The only real difference was that the resort we shot at was a family resort that was mostly used by people who lived in South America. It’s not a particularly touristy resort. So when it came to having extras, we used real people a lot of the time because we’re just out there shooting on the beach. I think if we were at the kind of Mexican spring break-type resort like the one I went to for the film’s real life equivalent, there would have been a lot more North Americans in the background. But if you look very carefully in the background of most shots, everyone is Colombian all the time, even the guests at the wedding are Colombian, which makes no sense, but hopefully no one will take too much notice of that. (laughs)
But otherwise, we were at the resort 80% of the time, and we had so much work to do that we were just kind of in it and thinking it was Mexico than we had time to explore Colombia. We had a week of rehearsal where we got to travel a little bit, but otherwise we were pretty much confined to that resort for about three weeks.
Source: The Gate