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
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.
A clip from Pavan Moondi's Diamond Tongues (2015), which awarded star Leah Fay Goldstein an Actress in a Leading Role nomination at the Canadian Screen Awards.
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!”
Catch a screening of Sundowners at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, August 25. Writer/director Pavan Moondi will conduct a Q&A with actors Phil Hanley and Jackie Pirico at the 7pm screening. The official Sundowners after party will take place at TIFF afterwards from 9pm to late, guests can show their ticket stub to gain admission!