Going into this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, Sunset Stories was one of the hotly-anticipated features, coming off a world premiere run at South by Southwest and being the feature directorial debut from writer/director/producer Ernesto Foronda (Better Luck Tomorrow). Sunset Stories is the story of May (Monique Gabriela Curnen), a nurse who must return to her native LA to deliver the bone marrow needed for a transplant. Her worst fears of running into her ex JP (Sung Kang) are realized, and the cooler holding the marrow disappears in the hands of the man-child Chaz (Joshua Leonard). May is forced to seek the help of JP, and spend a night immersed in the city she thought she had left behind. I recently sat down with Foronda in anticipation of the film’s showing at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Here’s what Foronda shared with be about providing a new spin on familiar genres, showing audiences aspects of LA seldom portrayed on-screen, and crafting Sunset Stories.
Jackson Truax: Sunset Stories as a film takes some very familiar genres and plot devices – the chase story, baggage that goes missing, ex-lovers thrown back together – and juxtaposes those ideas onto each other in a way that feels really fresh and unique. How did that come to be the premise for the story?
Ernesto Foronda: The story came from two different thoughts. My sister is an oncology nurse in Orange County. She does the transplant of bone marrow. That’s where part of the premise comes from. The other part of the premise is this regret I had [over] a failed relationship, and my fear I had over returning to [places], fear of bumping into that person. When that relationship…just ended so abruptly, there was no closure. Then making the film, it became really about regret and going forward. I think the great thing about the film is [that] it has all these familiar things, [and] a really diverse cast helps in making it feel really fresh. That people of color can actually own this narrative and put themselves in the center and own the story instead of marginalizing themselves. I think that as really what made the film fresh.
JT: You and co-director Silas Howard have talked about wanting to make a film that wasn’t a “little” film or an “indie” film, but a “big” film and “big movie made for a small price.” How do you set out to make that kind of film?
EF: We felt like every time we talked about making films, people wanted us to make these dark, indie films. We wanted to be able to play in the same kind of field as the bigger films. So we wanted to do things like romantic comedy… But we knew we didn’t have that kind of budget. So we just pulled in a lot of favors. A lot of people just came in to help us. For example, Justin Lin, our Executive Producer does the Fast and Furiousmovies. He brought in…Peter Brown to mix our sound. [He] does “Game of Thrones…” There are all these amazing cameos in the film. We said, “Can you come and do this? We only have $100.” And they would do it. We had had a lot of professionals that we’ve met throughout the years that wanted to help. Because they believed in the story, and how to make these kinds of films.
JT: You seemed to really embrace making the film as a very do-it-yourself, low-budget production with a 14-day shooting schedule. What were the biggest challenges that created? Conversely, how did it benefit the film or the experience of making it?
EF: One of the biggest benefits is that kind of crash course bonds the crew. So we had a great, close-knit crew… During breaks, we would film ourselves doing sing-alongs. Everybody loved that feeling of family. But it was a really big struggle. We had no permits. We shot with a digital Canon, the 5D. We only had basically two lights. And we were asking some big names to walk onto a set… So there were a lot of obstacles and challenges. We didn’t pay for almost any locations. We had a location manager who was also our Associate Producer who works for “The Mentalist,” Tada Chae. He would get us a hotel to shoot in for a day for $400. We literally were just using scraps. But we put everything we could on-screen. I think it shows.
JT: How big was your crew in total?
EF: We were running anywhere from…5 to at the most, maybe 15.
JT: The city of Los Angeles is this vibrant, alive character in the film that interacts with the characters in almost every scene. I know filming here was part of the initial approach, but what did the city add to the process of screenwriting and making Sunset Stories?
EF: We wanted to make a love letter to Los Angeles. And a Los Angeles that no one really sees. We felt like people say that, “People don’t walk in Los Angeles.” But really, they do. We wanted to see where those areas were… I came from the East Side of LA. I personally have basically lived a good part of my life in the Silver Lake area, Echo Park. I wanted to show that neighborhood, that community, how diverse it is, the artistic feeling in it, the vibrancy at night. It’s such a different city when you’re walking at night. It may not be crowded, like say, New York. But there’s something beautiful about Los Angeles that I don’t think anyone gets on film… Everybody thinks, “Everybody’s in their cars.” Maybe that’s partially true. But, I just wanted to show that beauty as well.
JT: You talked about filming in Silver Lake. One of locations that will be familiar to music fans is the Silverlake Lounge. How did you end up filming there?
EF: A lot of people film at the Silverlake Lounge. So that was just a matter of calling and getting that. But, if you notice, we actually shot around that area… It looks like a lot of Los Angeles. But it’s really a one-block radius. We just kept crossing the street for another shot. Or going a little further down Sunset to get a shot. We have to thank…American Apparel. Because they have really good lighting in their storefronts. So every time we needed a walk-and-talk scene, we would just find one and have [the actors] cross [in front of] it, because it’s really well-lit.
JT: For all the obvious reasons, I would imagine you couldn’t have something like an American Apparel sign in the film. How did you go about shooting around things like that? How difficult was it?
EF: It was very difficult. We had to make sure…to edit around everything. To blur everything out… But there were some people, especially in the East Side, where it’s people we know, like [Thai restaurant] Mae Ploy, and [clothing store] Pull My Daisy, and all these stores that are owned by friends. It’s a close-knit, artistic community. They were willing to have us go in there and shoot.
JT: Joshua Leonard is an incredible figure in the indie film scene. How did he come to be in the movie, and what do think he brought to it that was unique?
EF: Joshua Leonard and Silas had been in an [Independent Filmmaker Project] directing lab. That’s how they met. We asked Joshua to be in the film. He was more than happy to. I’m also a short film programmer at Sundance. So we had that connection as well. Because Joshua’s a staple at Sundance. Again, he brought in that cachet, as far as that mumblecore kind of film, that we were trying to use, but use in a way that was very LA. He lives in LA. He knew this world. He knew these people. He brought that realistic but funny take to the film.
JT: When people think of the mumblecore movement, the association is these films that are made by twenty-somethings, though now some of the filmmakers are bit older. But the style is films about the concerns of being that age, executed in a manner that feels very unscripted. What were some of the things you took from that genre, and where did you want to consciously depart from it?
EF: I love their production style, and their budget. And their logistics of making film. What I was concerned about is that, to me, mumblecore is very specific in its audience. Not to be overly critical, but I feel [the] subject matter is very kind-of hipster, kind-of white. It kind of marginalizes people of color in a way. So I wanted to make a mumblecore film, even though it doesn’t seem like it, with people of color. Our Executive Producer Justin Lin once said that [mumblecore] was, “White People with Problem films.” But this one is, “People of Color with White People Problems.”
JT: You said you didn’t get any permits. Did you get union waivers for the cast and crew?
EF: Yes. We definitely went through the proper channels. Because I’m union. I’m [Writers Guild]. So we had everything. All the unions [were] properly done. Actually, Tatiana Kelly, our producer, just did The Words and she does bigger films. This was just her downtime. So she agreed to jump in and [help]. Her last film was the closing night at Sundance and has so many huge stars.
JT: How did you come to have Kevin Bacon appear in a cameo in the movie?
EF: My co-writer and producer Valerie Stadler is childhood friends with [Bacon’s wife] Kyra Sedgwick. Kyra was her bridesmaid. They’re just close, close friends. So she called in this favor. He was absolutely delighted to do it.
JT: You’re obviously very passionate about wanting to make a film that doesn’t marginalize people of color or transgender people. One of the ways some films marginalize those characters is by making them very one-dimensional stereotypes. How did you make sure your characters were more multi-dimensional than that?
EF: I don’t know if you can name another movie where a Latina and an Asian-American are two romantic leads. It’s basically putting them in the center of the narrative and having them control it. That’s completely what our agenda was. Also, the fact that we resisted any form of [explanation]. We feel like people of color always need to explain themselves. Why they’re here. If they’re immigrants. They can’t exist without having to say why they’re [in a film]. That’s why we wanted to make a film where they just existed. Because that’s our community. If you walk [in] LA, you don’t ask them, “By the way, how did you get here? Where are you from?” No, you just interact.
JT: Sunset Stories had its world premiere at South by Southwest. What was the experience of showing the film there, and what was the reaction?
EF: In general, people loved it. We had a lot of people come up to us and say that it was their favorite film. I think because of the fact that South by Southwest has a lot of “White People with Problems” movies. So when they come up to something like this, it’s a breath of fresh air for them. We had great Q&As, and a lot of people just loving it. Because a lot of people saw themselves on the screen, whether they were a person of color or not.
JT: After the film’s showing at the LAAPFF tomorrow night, do you know what opportunities audiences will have to seek out Sunset Stories?
EF: We don’t have distribution as of yet. We are in talks. But we are also going to be in a lot more festivals coming up. But we just can’t say it yet. Because it hasn’t been formally announced.
JT: As you’re getting Sunset Stories out into the world, do you know what audiences can expect to see from you next?
EF: I actually just finished an adaptation of “We Disappear,” which is a novel by Scott Heim, who [wrote] “Mysterious Skin” [which] Gregg Araki adapted into a film. “We Disappear” was his follow-up novel… I’m adapting a very classic Japanese manga [comic] called “Dororo” for Justin Lin. This is the author [Osamu Tezuka] that did “Astra Boy…” I’m trying to do a web series…about an all Asian-American sorority. It’s a horror web series.
JT: After seeing Sunset Stories, is there anything in particular you hope audiences will be thinking or feeling as the credits roll?
EF: I feel like when people see a lot of [films with] people of color…it’s tragic. I want to give a sense of hope. Also, the fact that this actually a real problem, [shortage of] bone marrow. It’s actually a really important subject that touches a lot of people. I just want to give that sense of joy and hope. That people can fix themselves.
Filed under: LiC Interview