Canadian filmmaker Jeremy LaLonde sits in a downtown Toronto TV studio flanked by three of the female stars of his ensemble comedy, Sex After Kids, Kate Hewlett, Amanda Brugel, and Zoie Palmer. Despite having shot the film and parted ways a while ago, the jokes and good natured ribbing between the cast and their director doesn’t seem to have missed the beat, with everyone playfully taking shots at one another and complementing each other endlessly. It’s a dynamic that certainly comes across on screen for a comedy that by design has to deal with the touchy, sometimes humorously vulgary and sometimes painfully awkward and heartwrenching subject of what to do in a relationship after having kids and parental responsibilities take precedence over the physical and emotional needs of a couple or a parent.
For his latest film (opening this Friday in Toronto) based on some of his own experiences as a parent, LaLonde approached his actors first with an idea for a film where the often comedic downsides of his titular issue are exposed through several overlapping and intersecting storylines. Writing parts specifically with people in mind before he forged ahead with the final script, LaLonde wanted to create something more collaborative and loose with his limited shooting schedule instead of something rigidly controlled and potentially false.
Valuing collaboration and instinct over, the filmmaker with an extensive editing background chose Hewlett (recently seen on Degrassi: The Next Generation and soon to be appearing in the Jason Momoa thriller Debug), Brugel (nominated for an ACTRA award later this month for her work here), and Palmer (who continues her role on the popular Canadian produced TV series Lost Girl) to anchor three of his main storylines. Brugel plays a successful actress trying very hard to make her husband attracted to her once again. Hewlett plays one half of a splintering same sex couple that seems to be growing further apart when it comes to parenting ideology. Palmer gets the chance to show off her considerable comedic chops as a single parent that’s still relatively inexperienced in love and sex and unsure of what she wants in a partner.
Dork Shelf talked with the filmmaker and cast about finding the right people for the roles, assembling a film out of a lot of different parts in a small amount of time, letting go of your ego to play something realistically for laughs, not being able to keep straight faces, and why Jeremy jokingly made his low budget independent film sound even lower budget than it really was.
Dork Shelf: Jeremy, you kind of went an interesting direction with this film and you kind of made sure you had your cast locked into place and filling in the script based on your own personal experiences once you had your actors in place. What was it like working around that and playing to everyone’s strengths that you brought on board?
Jeremy LaLonde: I started off unconventionally in that I came up with the idea and did an outline first of what storylines I felt would be the strongest, and then I kind of started approaching the cast. I kind of wrote this three page document for them. The first page was just sort of this general idea of the story and the themes. The second page was the character breakdowns and the storylines. The third page was kind of like the rules: this is the ridiculous way that we are going to make this movie, and if you don’t want to go with that, that’s cool and I respect that, but you’re not going to enjoy making this movie. You’re going to have to wear your own clothes. You’re going to have to drive yourself to set. We’ll try to arrange a private room if there’s room wherever we’re shooting and you really need it, but you probably won’t ever get one. We couldn’t really promise any of that stuff, so if they were up for that, then we can play. We we’re going to have a lot of fun, but you were never going to have any of the creature comforts you would normally be used to on a set.
Kate Hewlett: “You’re not going to eat! We won’t even have WATER!” (laughs)
Amanda Brugel: (laughs) Yeah! You made it sound like it was going to be absolute hell!
Zoie Palmer: You told me we were going to be camping!
AB: And then we get there and there’s actually like food and make-up…
KH: “You mean we actually have WATER?!? This is AMAZING!” (laughs)
JL: But that was the trick! If I hadn’t said that first you guys would have expected something! (laughs)
DS: The trick was to reduce everyone’s expectations?
JL: SO LOW! (laughs)
AB: The first day I packed my own lunch and brought my own food for me and my child. That’s how you made it sound. (laughs)
ZP: Still not as weird as the “animals WILL be harmed during the making of this movie” part of that letter.
JL: Yeah, if you weren’t comfortable with a little animal bashing, then there was going to be some problems. (laughs) But to the credit of everyone, they were all up for it. I think there was only one person who turned us down because their schedule just wasn’t going to work. They were going away. But no one turned it down.
Everyone was really gung ho for making something really fun and cool, but I also wanted them to feel free to collaborate and let them know that this wasn’t going to be a dictatorship. You would be expected to bring your own ideas and thoughts to your characters to help them grow and develop. They could speak to that, but from what I know that I have at least seen personally, that’s not something that’s all that common and definitely something that appeals to an actor.
DS: For you guys as actors, you are definitely bringing a lot of distinct personality to your roles, and all of you stay remarkably busy with other projects, but something about doing a comedy on this scale in such a short amount of time seems like it would give you a good chance to go on your instincts more and deliver something a bit more natural than something that could be rehearsed to death. What’s it like having that tight schedule and be able to be relaxed and just make sure that the film’s humor works for your characters?
AB: I love it! I’m working on a comedy right now, actually, and while the results are funny, there’s nothing comedic about anything that goes into making it. There are always producers and sometimes the network present and everyone is always so guarded about not offending anyone, and pace, and kind of forcing us at times to always stay sunny and cheerful. There are a lot of agendas going on and your agenda for what you want for the character will almost never come first. I can see why sometimes things have to be like that, but it’s almost never the most fun experience you could have as an actor.
Having that new kind of freedom for the first time was actually kind of exhausting and confusing at first on this one. I remember Jeremy on the first day walked through and gave us the walkthrough on what we were going to do and he just kept asking us for input and at first I was so nervous to give any input. I was kind of apprehensive at first because I just wasn’t used to it. (laughs) Just having someone there that valued my opinion was really freeing.
JL: I don’t now. (laughs)
KH: I think that’s a huge testament to Jeremy, though, because the tone on sets are set by either the lead of the film or series or by the director, and we didn’t have a lead, so the only person we had was Jeremy, and he set the tone. The tone was that we were able to play. If he was stressed out, then we were going to be stressed out. If ever he was stressed out, it never showed up on set, and that’s a wonderful thing for an actor, because so many times you can feel the tension of everyone higher up than you: “we’re losing the light,” “this person needs this right away.” You as an actor can feel all that tension on set and you can feel that sometimes when you’re doing a scene. It’s especially hard when you’re trying to be funny and you’re succumbing to that pressure. It was great to just not have that on this set.
And I haven’t done a ton of features, mostly I do TV, but I’m always amazed when doing a feature how many more times you can actually DO something. (laughs) “You mean you guys can do 25 takes?” Maybe I’m lazy, but sometimes I get bored around take four. Sometimes you have too much time on a feature, but the shooting here was more TV paced with a relaxed kind of feature environment, which is great for me.
DS: Amanda, you get to play one of the sillier characters in the film, but also the woman who is the most professionally successful. What was it like sort of playing a strong, successful woman, but to also have some fun and be a bit silly at the same time?
AB: It’s fun and amazing. I’ve said this before that it’s my kind of love letter to new moms. I just tried to get in touch with the fact that we all go through a lot of the same things and think the same things, and deep within our homes there are always these secrets that we never really talk about if you’re a working mother, so it was really nice to reveal the truth, no matter how ugly it is. It’s especially fun to do that with a character that’s so successful and posh on the outside because no one lives that way 24-7, and I kept saying that if I could make one woman happy or that I could reflect one woman’s story, then I would be happy. And, I mean, even as actors we never really throw ourselves that nakedly onto the screen, especially after you have kids and you’re in an industry where you can have body image issues about being significantly overweight. That was another thing.
ZP: Well, you are definitely not significantly overweight. You are HOT. (laughs)
AB: (laughs) It was freeing because it was one of the first times I could ever be on screen and just tell my own ego to f-off. I want to do it again and again now. I kept asking for the make-up people to make me look worse and to put a little more peanut butter on my face. For an aging actress, that’s the best thing.
KH: I just wanted to say that, especially with your character who is trying to be sexy and appealing after having a kid, that there’s something really hard about that. When there’s a loss of attraction in a couple and the other half of the relationship just can’t rise to the occasion, for lack of a better expression, it’s like there’s a real vulnerability, and usually if this were a Hollywood production, whatever man or woman would be in the scene would have only had water that day so they could have this perfect looking six pack, you know? You watch it and you can’t understand or relate to it at all, and in a comedy if that happened, I wouldn’t know what the joke is. This person seems to be acting self conscious, and Amanda is beautiful, but she looks like a real person.
AB: I mean, that’s fun to do, but it’s also horrifying because you know it’s something that you can go through yourself, and I know I do with my own husband, and why don’t we ever see that more? That was rewarding, but it’s hard as an actress doing it on screen to get your ego to disappear, but to finally be able to get to that level was amazing.
DS: Kate, that loss of attraction that you bring up is certainly a part of the role you’re playing, and you have probably the most tumultuous relationship in the film that goes far beyond just not having sex. It’s a really tenuous relationship that could end at any time. What was it like trying to create that dynamic for this couple?
KH: It really is kind of the tragic storyline, in a way. It has some hope to it, but there’s definitely a sadness to that storyline that isn’t as present in the other stories.
JL: I think it’s also one of the more universal storylines in the film, too. I know it goes on in my own relationship. We’re not always on the same page, but you want your kids to think you are. Every relationship is about finding that compromise, and a lot of people don’t talk about their feelings on certain things, and you get to a point where we realize we don’t agree on something but we have to find ways of making it work.
KH: If they didn’t have the explosive fight in the film that this couple ends up having, it really is a relationship that I think would have ended. There’s something about that day to day pretending that everything is fine and that all your problems will just go away. You need to have that fight, so there’s something really universal about that. Plus, there’s that whole added backstory about one of them not being a “real” parent.
DS: Which in a way makes it even more universal, because even though it’s a same sex relationship, it takes on the same problems that a lot of people might have being stepparents.
KH: Yeah! Absolutely. There’s that question of “Can I just walk away from this if it gets too hard? I’m not legally obliged to be here or biologically required to be here.”
DS: Zoie, your sense of humor in the film is something that I really love to do myself, which is to say really dirty and filthy things to people, but to sound as polite as possible doing it. It’s very hard to do with a straight face.
ZP: Oh, we didn’t do it with a straight face very often. (laughs) We definitely have quite a few outtakes that would make for a heck of a blooper reel. This was a fun character because I don’t think she’s really all that experienced in love or as a mother or even in relationships. I think at one point she just found someone who she thought it was going to last with, and she doesn’t really have a ton of history with men in general. I love characters like this that are always walking a line, like here walking a line between someone who is really competent in a lot of ways, but a total disaster in others. Characters that are always unsure of themselves and that the audience can never be sure of are always fun to play. She’s got lots of strength, but she’s also a trainwreck. When you can go to those two extremes and you have the kind of freedom that we had here, there’s not much you can do wrong and you can play around a lot more. Hence, not keeping a straight face all the time. (laughs)
DS: Jeremy, when you write an ensemble piece like this you start off wanting to give everything equal time and put it in a logical order, but what’s it like balancing them out at the end of it all and what needs to be played out in each of them?
JL: Wow. That’s a big question. It’s just kind of a lot of prep in the beginning to make sure each story had a strong arc and figuring out the order before we even really shot. I mean, the order did change a little, but not by much. I think there are a few scenes that I moved around and changed, but a great deal of it was as it had been placed into our initial outline. I had been trained as an editor, so my brain kind of already works that way, anyway, especially in terms of structure and flow.
But this was a bit more complicated, and the biggest challenge for something like that was tone. Working with so many different actors over the course of only 15 days that are spaced out over three months, tone definitely becomes a primary consideration while shooting. We shot with Amanda first and we shot the fight scene first and then we shot the sex scene, and I did that on purpose because those were the two ends of the spectrum. It’s never going to be more serious than the first part and it will never get goofier than the second. That became my shooting palate for the entire movie. It was creating a net to work with for each story. That was my little trick.