For his latest feature film, writer/director Sean Garrity is returning to a familiar genre: the romantic comedy. Starring newcomer Hera Nalam and Kristian Jordan as Iris and Simon respectively, I Propose We Never See Each Other Again After Tonight is a winner. A sweet and charming romance that feels authentic.
I recently had the chance to speak with Sean about shooting a romance in the most unromantic of seasons (a Winnipeg winter), chemistry and his discover of Hera Nalam who is a star. The video of the interview is on YouTube
Marina Antunes: You’re a newcomer to Winnipeg and the, the city plays such a key part in the movie. As it opens there’s a realization that this is a place I recognize. It’s funny that you capture the story and you tell the story in the middle of the winter. I mean, one of the jokes with Winnipeg is we call it Winterpeg.
Sean Garrity: That’s right. Although I’m actually not a newcomer. I’m actually from here originally. Born and raised here. And then I moved to Toronto. I’ve bounced around and I’ve lived here and there, but you know, if you looked at a map of where I have lived in my life, it’s always like Winnipeg and then somewhere else, and then Winnipeg and then somewhere else, and then Winnipeg and then somewhere else. And it’s always back to home base and then out to live somewhere else. Have you seen Guy Madden’s My Winnipeg? There’s a line at the beginning of that movie that is just, you know, like everything Guy Madden does, so perfect and expresses what it is like being a Winnipegger, which is at the very beginning of the movie he’s falling asleep on the train and the voice-over says “This time I’m leaving Winnipeg for good. Again.” And that’s, you know, that’s what it is. So we’re back.
MA: But is this the first film you’ve actually made in Winnipeg?
SG: Oh no, no. In fact, most of my movies have been shot here. Even when we were living in Toronto, we would fly back here to shoot because Jonas [Chernick] who I worked with on a number of those films, Borealis and Awkward Sexual Adventure, he’s also from Winnipeg. So we would concoct these stories in Toronto, we’d come back to Winnipeg to shoot them, and then we’d go back to Toronto to post production films. It’s like the ancestral Homeland that, you know, the home of our mythologies of our personal mythology. So we have to shoot everything here.
MA: So how did this particular story come about? I mean, you’ve made romantic comedies before, but I don’t think it’s so much of a comedy as much as a really sort of down to earth and really relatable romance.
SG: Oh, that’s very kind of you to say. I wanted to do a very Winnipeg story and I’ve had the idea, you know, over the years you sort of go like “Oh, this would be a funny idea in a Winnipeg movie” and you’d, I’d put it in a file and “Oh, this would be a great scene” and I put that in a file. And then just over the years they sort of collected and when I moved back here just recently I was overcome with a desire to express… you, move back somewhere. I mean, you’re, you’re born and raised in Vancouver, right?
MA: No, actually not, but I’ve been here a very, very long time.
SG: So you have that thing if you go away on a trip, you come back to Vancouver and when you first come back, you’re like, “Oh how I love you? Oh, I missed you Vancouver.” And so I had some of that. We moved back to Winnipeg and I was like, “Oh, it’s so good to finally be back to this place.” And so that gave birth to the idea of a very Winnipeg movie and I sort of thought I wanted to work in rom-com again. And I wanted my main characters to be Filipino and Mennonite, which are two communities that really define Winnipeg.
I used to joke with people saying, “Hey, guess the answer to this question: one out of every 10 Winnipeggers is… and fill in the blank.”
And they’d say “frozen” there would be all sorts of things they would guess, but no one ever gets Filipino which is the case here. And so I kinda thought I would want to sort of ground the story in those two communities. Now, as it turned out, as I developed it, it ended up being much more Filipino than Mennonite.
You know the wedding social at the end, which is a very specific kind of fundraiser party that we do in Manitoba, is also something that a lot of Manitobans talk about, is a cultural manifestation that they identify themselves by, but I’ve never seen one in a movie.
MA: I love that there are so many specifics that are also very universal. And I love that the relationship unfolds during a winter, which is such an unappealing time. Everybody is bundled up and covered and you’re in like five layers and your face is half covered. You play into that so well.
I mean, I think Winnipeg obviously is, you know, those of us who live here, we love the summer it’s summer right now, and the summers are beautiful and gorgeous, but there’s no question that the mythology of Winnipeg I think, is very wrapped up in concepts of winter.
Our winters are certainly among the most brutal in the country. So I I’ve always found a particular beauty in winter maybe because I grew up here, but there’s something about photographing winter that I’ve always really been attracted to. It’s so difficult to do because no crews want to work in those really, really terrible three months. So I had to work hard to convince the guys to go out because… I mean, our first night, that first scene that you see in the movie where they meet pushing that car out of the snow, our rig actually froze.
We actually had to go handheld because our camera rig froze and wouldn’t work. And so, you know, that’s working in Winnipeg. But that kind of sense of the beauty of winter; and obviously, you know, there’s the obvious metaphor as well because we shot it over three months of the movie starts in January and the roads are covered in ice and the sidewalks are covered in ice and everything is white and everyone’s bundled up. But, you know, by the time we get to the end of the movie, it’s the end of April. The relationship and how much they know about each other and so many other things going on in the movie, as secrets get revealed and wherever else, I feel like the snow has kind of pulled back and what’s underneath has sort of been revealed and things have warmed up. And all of those other kind of on-the-nose metaphors for relationships are sort of at play. And we shot the film chronologically in order to sort of maximize that.
MA: I think the film avoids a lot of the cliches that are so typical of romantic comedies and one of the things that I really, really love is how real and authentic it feels. Part of that is the casting. Where did you find Hera and how did the casting work?
SG: I’m glad to hear you say that. I had to really work hard to find the cast because one of the great tragedies that I’ve discovered in making this movie is that despite the fact that the Filipino community is a cornerstone to the culture of this city, we just haven’t really put them in our movies and in our TV shows and they’re kind of largely absent, which is so weird. So when I started casting this movie, I went to my casting directors and I said: okay, I have 20 parts for Filipinos and so I’m going to want to audition, you know, three or four people for each part. We’re looking for 60 to 80 people that I want to bring in. And my casting directors were like, okay, I have five Filipinos that I can bring in.
And I was like “what five?” So I, we really had to go underground. I talked to a lot of the Filipinos that I know and I sort of said, who do you know who acts? Who do you know that’s done theater? In the end I was actually talking to drama teachers from local high schools with large Filipino population saying “who did you see come through here? Who was a great actor, who you thought should have gone into acting, but as a dental hygienist instead?”
The Filipino community in Winnipeg is very musical. Lots of people from that community are singer/songwriters. The mom and dad actually host a karaoke night at a Filipino karaoke joint in the North end of the city. That’s how I found them. They do a comedy routine, the two of them together.
But Hera, I found through a Filipino friend on Facebook and she was posting videos of herself performing her songs that she writes and sings. So I sent her a Facebook message and said, “do you act as well?” And she said, yes. So I said, “please come out to my audition.” And she came out to actually audition for a small role. She walked into the audition room and we auditioned her. I like to audition people two at a time, so they can play off each other. So she’s auditioning with somebody else. And I was just like, “Oh my God, who is this?”
So I said, okay, sir, you’re fine. Thank you very much. We’ll bring in someone else. But I said, “Hera, if you don’t mind, could you stay for a minute?” And we kept her in that room for 40 minutes. We played her off of like 12 different actors and actresses and she walked out of the room, the audition room, I turned to my co-producer and my casting director. And we were both like, “I’m so sad to see her go.” Like, I’m sad that I’m not watching her anymore.
I leapt up from my chair and I ran to the door before she got out of the building. And I said, “Hera, would you be interested in playing the lead role in this thing?” to which she responded No, I would not be interested.
And I was like “I mean the lead role in the movie” and she was like, “yeah, I know what you mean. I can’t, no, I can’t do it.” And she explained “I’m going to be in a play. We haven’t started rehearsing yet, but I got at a lead in this play. And so I, you know, I won’t be able to give you the days that you need to shoot.” And I was like, okay, let me convince you that you should walk away from that play. I was like, if you haven’t started rehearsals yet, I’m sure they can find another actor. This is like the lead in this movie. And she was like, yeah, I get it. I get it. But, you know, I promised them I’d do it. So, sorry, next time. And she walked off.
So I called her up later and I was like, “Hey, listen, I know I put you on the spot. I didn’t give you an opportunity to really think about it. I want to offer you the role again. I can talk to the people who run that theater company because they’re all friends of mine. I can talk to them. I get that you can’t walk away from a play cause Winnipeg, it’s your bread and butter for an actor to work in theater and you don’t want to make them angry by walking away to do a film. So I get that. And she was like, no. And I kept going back. And in the end, at one point, she said, you know, if you guys were able to shoot weekends when I’m not in the play, then, okay, that’s what I could do.
So I talked to my crew and I was like, guys, this woman is going to carry this movie for us. Could you shoot on weekends? And luckily Winnipeg, it had a string of movies back-to-back-to-back and everyone had just been working nonstop. And a lot of the crew was like, actually, yeah. They said the chance to see our families a little bit during the week while we’re working, might be nice. So that’s part of what led to the shooting being three months and seeing the change of seasons in the background is that we had to shoot weekends to accommodate poor Hera who was basically acting seven days a week from January until April of that year.
It’s a crazy story but I mean, I think what you see in the movie is absolutely what I saw in that audition room. Like when she walked in and she started acting right away, you get that sense of like, okay, this is her right here. This is obviously, this is our lead. She’s just got that charisma. But not only that charisma but that sense of opening up and letting you right in with what she’s feeling and what’s going on. She’s got a really incredible mastery of her craft. So yeah, I was not going to let her go.
MA: How about Kristian?
SG: So similarly I auditioned my boys separately for my leading ladies but once I had Hera and we got our boys down to like three, I auditioned all three of them with Hera and we played for quite a while, different scenes and different moods and whatever else and trying different things. Then at the end of the day, I sort of said to her, “I know who I kind like, but who did you like?” And she had never been in a film before and so she didn’t want to lose anyone the gig. So she was like, “Oh, they’re all good.” And I was like, “yeah, but you must have liked one more than the other or something.”
I kept pushing her and pushing her to give me some inkling of what she was actually feeling until she sort of said “there was that moment in those back-to-back scenes where Kristian turned around to look at me and I looked up into his blue eyes and I just melted” and I was like, okay, thank you. Got it. I was feeling he had been the best in the auditions anyway, but she just totally confirmed it for us, that she was feeling what we were also feeling watching them. But if she had said that she didn’t feel chemistry with him, we probably would have gone with someone else.
MA: The chemistry is so palpable and the scenes are just so personal, they just feel like very natural to the two of them. How much of that was on paper and how much leeway did they have to play off of each other and interact with each other?
As you probably know, because we’ve talked about other films of mine, I’m very, very collaborative with my actors. I always let them know that they have full permission to go off on a tangent if they want to. For me, the script is very much like a blueprint and one of the things that I love about film as opposed to theater of course, is that, you know, if you don’t get everything on take one, you just go back and get it on take two. So I’m very happy when they decide to go on a tangent and they did go on quite a few of them. And a lot of that did end up in the film. I think part of that also leads to what you see on the film with the connection that they have.
I feel like when a scene falls off the page and suddenly they find themselves kind of riffing on stuff, they’re just so zoned into one another because they don’t know where the scene is going to go. That really kind of plays into their connection. And certainly, I’d like to add that we did that approach full on for the scenes with Hera and her family, because I very much felt that I was not in a position to write a scene for a Filipino family, especially a scene that’s going to happen half in Tagalog. Those scenes were entirely improvised by the actors. So I went in and I sort of had a shape that I needed emotionally: I needed this speed, then this beat and this beat, and we need to end here and we need to start here. We work out the blocking but then when we actually did the scenes, we really let them kind of show us how that would play out in a Filipino home.
MA: It’s funny, you mentioned that because I was going to ask about those scenes because they really get at the feeling of obligation that plays in so many cultures.
SG: Well, I’m so glad to hear you say that. And especially the way that language plays. I’m very interested in language and the way that language plays in films. I had some, they weren’t fights, but some, some conflicts with some of the money people on this about keeping the subtitles off, because my feeling is very much, you know, people obviously who grew up in multi-lingual homes, but then the rest of us who maybe didn’t, but had friends who were growing up in multi-lingual homes, like you go to someone’s house and their parents speak Spanish or Hungarian or Cantonese or whatever. And the parents speak in that mishmash of both languages and the kids respond in English and you get it, like, you don’t need subtitles. I know what’s going on. I feel that that experience was so unique.
I don’t know if it’s uniquely Canadian, but it feels kind of quintessentially Canadian. So I wanted to leave those scenes that way, without those subtitles and the two actors who I’ve got at the karaoke place who played a mom and dad were so amazing. In addition to all the other stuff I was putting on their shoulders, I would say this take, could we have like 70% Tagalog and 30% English, like the state could we have 40% Tagalog and 60% English and they were just masterful at mixing them together often, over the course of a single sentence.
MA: The movie is so much fun. It’s, it’s such a nice thing to watch during these times when, you know, you’re kind of stuck inside and you haven’t seen anybody for a while and here comes this little unassuming romance that just leaves you feeling great. Now what the movie is out there, what are you working on now?
SG: I’m actually working on a thriller about an identity thief that I’m very interested in. It’s kind of loosely based, loosely inspired by an actual thing that happened in the news in Toronto about a year ago. A woman had like 20 identities on the go at the same time, which is really interesting, but there was also an added layer of interest because she was a new Canadian and so she was kind of performing this kind of established white Canadian, middle-class all these characters that she had sort of picked out by stealing their identities. It’s a really interesting story. The more I get into it, the more kind of fascinated I am by it and by her. I’m working on that hopefully for like next year or the year after.
EDITOR’S NOTE: You can view and listen to this interview on AWFJ’s YouTube channel.