Flaws and Fascinations: On the making of Diamond Tongues and the art of unlikeability

A shot of Leah Fay Goldstein in the film

In Diamond Tongues, Edith (played by July Talk singer Leah Fay Goldstein) is a struggling Canadian actress who fails to cope with feelings of jealousy, resentment and frustration as friends outpace her in achievement. Expecting better for herself, the young actress reluctantly auditions for low-grade genre work with telling titles like “Blood Sausage.” She’s compelled to lie to creative peers at industry parties and conversations, where one’s answer to “What are you working on?” is not only a status symbol and ego-booster, but a potential opportunity maker-or-breaker. As cynically noted in the film, Edith’s put-on enthusiasm and hubris about her supposed accomplishments are intended to stoke her friends’ jealousy, though many of them see right through her. I talked to directors Pavan Moondi and Brian Robertson about their sophomore film, their decision to leave in certain Canadian cultural references in Diamond Tongues, and their next project, which they’re currently shooting in Colombia.

Tina Hassannia: In a CBC interview, Pavan described Diamond Tongues being a natural progression from your first film, Everyday Is Like Sunday, which you said was ‘about not knowing what you want to do with your life.’ In Diamond Tongues, you’ve moved onto the subject of ‘knowing exactly what you want to do with your life but feeling like you have no control over the thing that you want.’ Did this resonate with you and why did you make the film specific to acting?

Pavan Moondi (Writer, Co-director): The idea of having no control over the thing that you want was definitely something that resonated with me personally. Trying to make feature films when you have no connections in the industry and didn’t even go to film school was very frustrating. When we finished our first film, we were trying to shop a much larger film (which we’re currently shooting in Colombia) and were running into some brick walls. We had a producer who was interested and suggested we come up with a smaller-scale film first that he would help finance and that became Diamond Tongues. Because we conceived of that film while we were in that situation, the subject definitely resonated.

Brian Robertson (Co-director, Producer): Almost all of our characters in the film perform in one way or another but we decided to make our protagonist an actor because that’s the ultimate example of a profession where you’re at the mercy of other people’s decisions. When you’re a writer, a musician, a filmmaker, a painter—for the most part you can work on your craft in a substantial way and produce something tangible you own. For an actor, it’s harder. You can’t stand on a street corner and act.

Hassannia: It’s also a well-known fact that actresses have it worse than men performers, and it’s been a hot subject of late (e.g., just this past week the @femscriptintros Twitter account surfaced, to everyone’s horror). Given the gendered nature of the profession, did you think about how that might translate into the script, and the problems that Edith faces?

Moondi: When we decided to make the film about actors it seemed natural to make it specifically about an actress to best emphasize the theme of feeling like you have no control, and it definitely played into some of the scenes in the film where she’s being preyed upon by other people who treat her terribly.

Hassannia: The film is unabashedly Canadian—the many scenes set in cool Toronto establishments, the Canadian music and references like Just For Laughs Gags play a big part in defining the film’s milieu. So many Canadian movies downplay or completely cut out culturally specific references. Why did you choose to keep them in? Did that impact the reception of the film, both inside and outside of Canada?

Moondi: I think we wanted to find a middle ground of not trying to make a big point of showing off Toronto—in fact I’m not even sure we say ‘Toronto’ at any point in the film—while also not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. We tried to use bars that these characters would probably actually hang out at, and to only make references that people would actually make.

Robertson: We’ve screened the film all over the place and nobody has been confused or lost because of a Canadian reference in the film—like the Just for Laughs Gags joke—and we’ve had a bunch of people completely surprised that this movie came from Toronto and defy people’s perceptions of the city. We don’t say ‘Toronto’ but if you live here or ever have spent time here it definitely feels like a Toronto film.

Hassannia: What/who were your influences in writing and directing the film?

Moondi: Margot at the Wedding was a big one, both visually and in terms of dealing with a deeply flawed lead character. A Woman Under the Influence was big, too. We wanted the film to have a bit of a wild and loose quality and we showed our cinematographer [Peter Dreimanis] Husbands and Wives on the eve of shooting to illustrate that.

Robertson: In terms of directing style, we wanted our set to be really loose and to foster a collaborative environment without a hierarchy. All the actors were encouraged to bring themselves to the roles and we ensured our crew felt comfortable making suggestions if they had something in mind.

Moondi: We had a small crew that ranged in size from 4-12, and most of whom had never worked on a feature before, and we partied every night and shot the film in 9 1/2 days. We were able to make the entire crew fully invested in the film as a whole being as good as it can possibly be, which isn’t always easy. The approach is definitely something we were pulling from Cassavetes.

Hassannia: It took me a little while to get into the film at first. Edith is just such an awful person! Yes, her profession is unforgiving, which would normally garner some sympathy from the viewer, but her hardships are virtually all self-inflicted. Can you talk about why you chose to make the character unlikable?

Moondi: I don’t really like to classify the character as either likable or unlikeable. I don’t know what that means. In real life, people make mistakes and fuck up and hurt each other and can be flawed and get in their own way. A character who’s trying, struggling or failing is far more interesting to me than someone who is on a very traditional narrative arc. Whether Edith is unlikeable or not I think depends on the viewer and their ability to relate to not the things that she does, but the things that she feels—uncertainty, insecurity, jealousy. Those feelings might be ugly and make people find characters who are struggling with them unlikeable, but they’re also the things that make her human.

Robertson: When you read the character on the page she’s definitely challenging, and so we knew it would be important to cast someone who was the polar opposite of Edith so we could hopefully make the audience conflicted. We had the script finished and spent about six months trying to find a lead before we found Leah Goldstein.

Hassannia: What are you working on now?

Moondi: The new film is called Sundowners. If the first film was about not knowing what to do with your life, and the second was about not having control over what you want to do with your life, then the new one is probably about coming to terms with the fact that you’ve wasted the best years of your life. It mostly takes place at a destination wedding in Mexico and stars Phil Hanley, Luke Lalonde from Born Ruffians, Tim Heidecker, Nick Thorburn, Nick Flanagan, Cara Gee and Leah Goldstein.

Robertson: We’re at a resort just outside of Santa Marta, working with a production team from Colombia called Burning Blue. It’s our first time collaborating with a different group of people, and every single person that has joined us here has been amazing.

Hassannia: Matt Johnson (who has a hilarious cameo in your movie) recently talked to NOW about how difficult it is for young Canadian filmmakers to get government funding and recognition in Canada, which was partly why he took Operation Avalanche to Sundance instead of TIFF. As fellow Canadian filmmakers, can you relate? What have your experiences been like?

Moondi: I think a lot of what Matt said was true, but Telefilm has been good to us, giving us money to make Diamond Tongues possible and being the primary investor in our new film. The way good films are made is changing very quickly and I think they’re trying to adapt, but I see how the pace at which things move can be frustrating, whether it’s with Telefilm or also ACTRA. Outside of Telefilm, I think there tends to be a self-defeating attitude when it comes to Canadian film from people in positions who could actually make a difference in the way these films are marketed, perceived and presented—be they distributors or festival programmers. Diamond Tongues never got into TIFF, which at one point in the past might’ve been a death knell for the film. But I think we’ve done just fine without it and there have been enough success stories now of films that haven’t been able to crack the TIFF barrier that it will hopefully ignite a shift in priorities over there.

Originally published on Fandor’s Keyframe (Feb. 19, 2017).