Shooting a film and getting it out there is brave business.
Considering the number of factors often at stake for the independent filmmaker - personal finances, the time and hard work of a crew devoted to your confidence, and perhaps most vexing, the threat of your dream sucking for all to see - it's a wonder so many artists crave the thrill of putting themselves out there. But for many struck with the bug, come what may, the path is do or die.
Diamond Tongues, a film out of Toronto, is one such brave endeavour that goes as far as to choose for its subject the very real fear of giving everything to a dream and still not making the cut. Writer/co-director, Pavan Moondi, and co-director, Brian Robertson, are smart to recognize that even more horrifying than putting yourself out there from behind the comfort of the camera, is the job required of performance artists - actors and/or musicians who stand behind their talent with their bodies. They are the face of their own glory or failure.
I imagine it's for this reason that Pavan and Brian chose an actress named Edith as their protagonist to bare the anxieties of a more collective artistic community, feeling the tick-tock pressures of unhappily ever after. Edith is a whimsically charismatic person, who struggles to translate her personality through audition sides. She wants to be happy for the friends of hers who have succeeded in climbing steps, but can't shake the selfish indignation of things not going as planned.
In a brilliant casting decision, Edith is played by Leah (Fay) Goldstein of the Toronto break-out band July Talk (her band partner, Peter Dreimanis, is also the film's cinematographer). As a performer, Leah is well acquainted with putting herself out there, and unlike Edith, is more than equipped to allow her personality to shine through the role. She almost inadvertently makes an unlikable character endearing. Almost.
Nevertheless, with her celebrated career of kicking ass in Toronto behind her, Goldstein completes the Toronto picture for the local film, that, despite its excellent Toronto soundtrack, isn't pushing some travelogue agenda. The scenes play out in locations where they actually would, and do, with a soundtrack of contributions from extended friends. It isn't trying to be Toronto. It can't help but be. This is very much part of the intrigue of a film that would feel painfully typical if set in Los Angeles.
Diamond Tongues recently had its premiere at Slamdance, Somewhere in a calm from the Park City festival storm, I was able to find some time to relax with filmmakers Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson, and rock star/first time actress Leah Goldstein, for an extended conversation about executing their film, making art in Toronto, and the existential struggles that arise when should-be artists are faced with their limitations.
Can you talk about how this project originated?
Pavan Moondi: I was having drinks with a friend of mine, and he was a struggling filmmaker who had put out this project that he had poured a lot of his own money into and that he acted in and that he directed, and that he worked on, for years, but he had no business sense whatsoever. It was a Web series. It took him forever to make it, and he threw it on YouTube, and was like, oh, hopefully it's going to just find an audience now that it's on YouTube. It was a few weeks later, and it had a couple hundred views, and he had dropped significant cash into this project. I had seen it, and I had actually met him through that project and I was like, whoa, this is so good, I want to know this guy and see what he's doing next. That is how we became friends, so I had been tracking the progress of it.
Anyway, he was really frustrated, and I think at the time it was before Diamond Tongues, so we had a different film already written, and we were trying to raise money for that film. The problem was that it was a high-budget film, and we weren't equipped to raise that kind of cash. We had some good actors attached to it, and we thought that we could get the money raised, and it wasn't happening, not in the timeline that we thought it would happen. He said, "When is this going to happen? We're not young anymore." Even if we were to obtain some type of success, it would be completely unremarkable. We're at the age where we should be finding our footing by now. We were looking around at people we know who are doing all these great things, and we are struggling and scraping by and broke and not knowing what we're doing.
I started thinking about the things he was saying and how they were things that I had thought myself before and how I am sure that a lot of other people feel those same things. So I thought, in trying to make a relatable film, "why not write a movie about that"? When trying to figure out how to communicate that idea - not really having any control over what you want - which is the genesis of the film, we thought making it about an actress would communicate that idea the best way, because actors have the absolute least control, I think.
How did you come to cast July Talk's Leah Fay?
Brian Robertson: We were trying to find someone to play the character for months, five months, and we went to all the usual places to try and find someone. We put casting calls in, on the Internet; we had a large number of people contacting us. Part of it is ... maybe it is shitty, to say, but sometimes you literally are going by the first image you see of someone, and if they don't fit what you think that character looks like to you, then you move on. We were at a party during TIFF13 [Toronto International Film Festival] for Mongrel Media, a distribution company, and one of two bands that were playing at the show, at that party, was a band called July Talk. Pavan and I were walking around, talking to different people, and this band started playing. We walked up, and we saw Leah Goldstein as this super-charismatic, really empowered woman on the stage, being really wild and alive. It was a different kind of performance that I have never actually seen before.
PM: I think, when we were trying to cast someone, part of the reason why we couldn't find anyone is that we were ideally looking for someone with a bold personality, and when you have a casting call that is a picture and a list of credits, their personality doesn't come across at all. When you have 400 submissions to go through, you don't want to have to meet with 400 people to find out who has a personality, especially in an audition environment where their personality does not come through at all. I think, when we saw Leah performing, I think, the one thing we knew for sure was that she wasn't boring, that at least she was going to bring something to the table.
BR: Yes, and I think also we had long conversations about working with non-actors, so we were looking for people on the streets, in different places ... when you are trying to cast a film, it is always on your mind. You see people, you see someone on the street, and you wonder if that could be Edith. We are in a bar, and you meet someone sitting at a bar, and wonder if that could be an Edith. I think, for a couple of months, we were talking about this character wherever we were going, and when we saw her it clicked for us. They performed, and we pulled her aside at the end. Actually, there was a moment where Leah jumped off the stage and was laying on the ground with a microphone.
PM: She was pretending that she had passed out, and she was laying there. Actually, I think, we were worried.
BR: It was a really surreal moment. It was something that we were so intrigued by, so we took a picture of her while she was laying on the ground. It was like ... I think, at the moment, we said, "Oh, this is going to be the poster.
Leah Goldstein: I made everyone limbo that night with my mic stand, which is really heavy...but those film industry parties are so boring, and everyone is there to network and ignore the band, so they're hard shows to play but make you try crazier things to wake them up.
What was your first impression of these two fellows, here?
LG: I guess the same way that I never necessarily saw myself being in a band, and it happened, it was like this wild pipe dream that just materialized. Because I grew up dancing and doing performance art videos, all that sort of thing, but I guess being in a film is something that was intriguing as a woman who has been performing since I was four, but it was the kind of thing where it was like ... I had auditioned for one thing, ever, and I didn't memorize my monologue because I wasn't taking it very seriously, and I was 17 or something. They told me that I had something interesting going on, but it wasn't what they were looking for. They didn't even really say, "Keep trying," or anything. I was obviously intrigued by the prospect of, "We have this script, and it's perfect for you, and you have to do it." They were really kind of convinced about it.
Did you identify with the role of Edith?
LG: I guess I identified on this really dark, human-based level where everyone ... obviously, everyone experiences jealousy, and everyone ... I don't think ... I have never sabotaged anyone around me, to try and further my career, so I don't identify with her on that level, but I also thought it was really refreshing to have such an unflattering female character where she is ... it is not the type of role that someone who is trying to become a Hollywood starlet, whatever, would even dream of taking because she masturbates on camera, and she sleeps with a really sleazy acting teacher, and she takes acid, and she is drunk all the time and all these sorts of things. I liked how ... this is kind of something that I put first in all of the art that I make, there was a human quality to it, so when I read the script, it was like, "OK, I maybe could do this".
I think you are great in it. But how do you feel about your performance?
LG: I don't know. It is really hard to look at your face, for that long, and distinguish what other people are thinking. Yeah, I still don't know how I feel about it.
Your band July Talk is a pretty great Toronto success story, prior to blowing up, how would you describe the atmosphere in the burgeoning artist scene?
LG: It is a super supportive community, particularly with music. I feel like everyone is in a band, and all of those bands are at each others' shows and playing together. Any sort of competitive talking behind other peoples' backs or whatever ... it is pretty minimal, and people tend to throw their egos aside and get behind each other, I think.
BR: Right, but it is like the better you are, the more people come to your shows, again and again. You can actively build your audience to sustain your career. With filmmaking, it seems like there are only a few places you can go to get money - there are still gate-keepers - and because of that, people are a little more competitive, naturally.
How do you think your lives would be different if you were making indies in L.A.?
PM: The way things are funded in L.A. versus the way things are funded and supported in Canada ... I think, if you are making things in Canada, there is support from local outlets, or you can ... all you need to do is put up a film theatrically to get press from every major national paper, and if they don't like the film, they probably won't rip you apart for it when you're starting out because they feel like you are the underdog, and...
They want to support you, so it is a supportive infrastructure because we are completely overshadowed by the American market, so that support is good. I think it has helped us, but it can only take you so far.
We had to learn... there was another project that I had been trying to get funded for four years, and when you are struggling, you think, oh, I am not connected, I don't know any of the right people, only people who have grown up in this industry have a shot, and it is an industry that takes care of its own kind.
I think that is the line of thinking that maybe Edith is born from, which is not productive, and it is also not really true we've found, because you do have more control over that. If you look at the way we got this film financed, Serendipity Point Films is one of the biggest companies in Canada and we were able to sell them on taking a chance on us and we really kind of came out of nowhere.
At the Q&A when discussing shooting in Toronto, you mentioned an aversion to the idea of shots of the CN Tower. How did you aim to present or not present Toronto?
BR: It wasn't a philosophical aversion to showing the CN Tower but we had made a film before that ended up showcasing the city through its establishing shots, which was done partially out of necessity in the editing. We talked about minimizing the use of establishing shots in this film as a whole, which makes things seem a bit more anonymous but if you are from Toronto, you'll recognize all the spots that we filmed at. It's a film that takes place in the West End, and we are shooting in our favorite places that we hang out at, which are all the places that we thought Edith would probably be hanging out at if she lived here.
PM: It wasn't one of our goals to make a love letter to the city or a tourism video trying to present Toronto in a certain way.
But, the film is chock full of Toronto bands and there's definitely some love coming through...
PM: I think it is very unconscious though. We never ever talked about how we need to have more Toronto bands, or we need to show more of Toronto, or we need to show this part of the city.
BR: It was who is around making good art that might want to be involved in this thing.
PM: I think it represents the city well because we weren't trying to necessarily represent the city, because I think sometimes, if you try to, you end up creating a fictional portrait of it because you have a vested interest in making it come off well.
BR: I hope that is what people take away when they watch the film, that if you are from Toronto it sort of makes sense but also feels natural. It is like, oh, she is at this bar here, of course she is, and then she walks down the street, and, oh, she is at this bar now, of course she is.
PM: It is hopefully organic.
Your film is full of hysterically bad titles (Blood Sausage, Dog Husband, Diamond Tongues). Can you talk about the casting of that 3rd poorly titled film? Can you talk about shooting with Toronto's Matt Johnson of THE DIRTIES.
BR: The thing with Matt is that he is the most brilliant improviser in that everything he says is ... everything he gives you is hilarious. We sat down with him and we put the camera on. We turned it on, and he didn't give us one thing that was the same, but he went on and on and on and on, for 30 minutes, and everyone in the room was dying.
PM: It was the worst to shoot because we were thinking we need to get one minute, to maybe hit a couple of these points, and instead he will spend 45 minutes trying to make everyone in the room laugh. He is giving you unusable footage. You can't ... he is talking about wearing pants as a shirt and then putting his arms in the pant legs.
LG: Arm warmers... Selling them to homeless people. 50% markup!
PM: "What's my line?" OK," and then he says it.
LG: "I love you"
BR: "What's my line? OK. I love you."
PM: "What am I supposed to say, here, again?" Yeah. That's good. That's wonderful.
PM: We're like, 'we can't use this'. But he is smart enough to know that, and so he is dropping in the little nuggets that he knows you can use, within 40 minutes of this insane material that was hilarious and keeping everyone entertained but largely unusable.
So anyway, this stupid movie starring Matt Johnson, comes to represent a bit of an artistic humbling. Can you talk about some past DIAMOND TONGUES moments in your lives?
PM: I made this film, and then I was editing it, and the audio was fucking horrible. I put so much money into it and was actually happy with the actors. I thought it was all ... it wasn't bad, but the audio was an insane disaster because I tried to do too much myself. I scouted the locations, and I found this bar in downtown Toronto, and I went to look at it, and I scouted it for five minutes, and was like "this is perfect", and then I left. Then we came back to shoot, a week later, and I didn't realize that I had scouted it on a Sunday, and we were shooting on a Thursday. It was under the subway line, so the subway kept going by, every five minutes because it was a weekday, and fucking up all the sound because I didn't have the best equipment and I was thinking 'what am I doing? I should have just paid for a sound guy.'
BR: Like, "why am I thinking about the sound? This shouldn't be my job"
PM: So, my humbling, it was that we need to take it a bit more seriously. We can't be... doing everything and trying to do things as cheaply as possible, thinking that we are smarter than everyone else and that we are figuring out some new way to do things where you can make a film for literally no money and still have a final product that is as good as a professional production. I think that is what the takeaway was, was that if you want to make an actual ... a real production, then you need to treat it in a serious way, not being cocky about your competence, essentially. It's important to develop your own process and find an efficient way to do things, but there's definitely a line where you start compromising quality as a result.
What about that helpless feeling where you're trying to make it, and feel like you're supposed to make it, but as Edith says in the film, where it feels like the way things work is broken.
BR: It's that thing where you grow up, thinking that ... or you are told that if you keep plugging away, it will work out, and it is a hard thing because it works out for some people, and sometimes it doesn't. It is really hard. There is no formula, you know? Some musicians produce music for years and years and years, and they get nowhere...
PM: I think everybody has their own path to whatever they get. You can't look at how somebody else has achieved some type of success and think that you deserve it more than they do. It is not productive in any way.
LG: For me, I have always known, or suspected, that I would try to have a life in the arts, but I kind of got into ... I think I started a band because I was singing in a bar one night and met a guy who was really wasted and wanted to start playing music with me. I feel under-qualified for everything that I do in my life, and I am waiting to be outed as this fake, like a fake singer and a fake actor, and it is kind of how I felt, this whole week, being here, where it is obviously everyone who is here has one thing in common, and that is what they have been busting their ass in the field, for years and years, to be here. What gives me the right? I don't know.
I don't have the right to be here, and I probably shouldn't be here, but, yeah, I don't have enough of an ego, and I am too unsure of myself to have a specific moment where it is like, oh, my God, I am in way over my head. This is awful. Because I don't really think anything I do is very good.
Then what makes you such a confident performer, do you think? What are you conjuring up?
LG: Onstage, and stuff? I guess a need for human connection, and I think it comes off as confidence, but really it is just trying to make people get out of their fucking vanity and get out of their own minds and get out of the fact that they need to stand there and look cool and cross their arms at a TIFF party or whatever.
I don't know. My first job, ever, was dancing at Bar Mitzvahs as a go-go dancer, and I was 15. You had to wear the big baggy T-shirt and the jazz shoes and just smile and dance with old people and have 14-year-old boys touch your butt and stuff. I think that is kind of ... that is the shittiest job you could ever have, but when you get people to cross over to your side, it would be like, "Oh, yeah, I am just a shithead human being. This feels great." I don't know. You are in a higher place or something when you can leave your ego on the floor and dance like a crazy person or whatever.
BR: But you said, earlier, that you don't have a right to be here because you haven't busted your ass as hard as these other actors, but it is like people strive for ... they try and be as honest as they can, as actors, I think, and you don't need to be performing for 15 years, to emote honesty. It is like ...
PM: The thing is, nobody has a right to be here, right? Even the people who are working here don't have a right to be here. Just because you are working really hard doesn't mean you are entitled to anything, which I think might be one of the takeaways from our film. That's the way that the film industry or any creative pursuit works.
LG: But the way things work is broken!