Art Imitating Life: filmmaker Pavan Moondi on ‘Sundowners’

by Andrew Parker

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

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 one of the popular Cancun family resorts 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.

Sundowners opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto on Friday, August 25, 2017.

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