Sundowners director Pavan Moondi, a no-experience-necessary auteur

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.

Hanley and Lalonde enduring another Mexican standoff in Sundowners

Hanley and Lalonde enduring another Mexican standoff in Sundowners

“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.”

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Jim Slotek

Jim Slotek is a former Toronto Sun columnist, movie critic, TV critic and comedy beat reporter. He’s been a scriptwriter for the NHL Awards, Gemini Awards and documentaries, and was nominated for a Gemini Award for comedy writing on a special (the NHL Awards). Prior to the Sun, he worked at the Ottawa Citizen as an entertainment reporter.