Interview: TV comedy Sunny City/Shady People lampoons pop culture in an accurate Miami
Anyone living in South Florida can tell you that there really are two Miamis. There’s the one people see all the time on television—the one where every house has an ocean-side view, all the houses are either mansions or pastel art deco throwbacks, the roadways are clear for as far as the eye can see and everything—everything—looks like South Beach (hell, even LeBron James thought that’s where he was going to play when he signed on with the Heat). Then there’s the Miami those of us who live here know which—while not necessarily as aesthetically alluring or provocative as what’s shown on TV and the big screen, still feels unjustly overlooked in terms of how the city is represented on television and in film.
Sunny City/Shady People, a new surreal action-comedy series from native Miami filmmakers Andrew Schwartz and Dan Gonzalez, looks to be addressing that glaring oversight. Filmed entirely in South Florida and featuring all local talent (from comedic luminary Freddy Stebbins to IDM/breakcore artist Otto Von Schirach), the show lampoons pop culture while simultaneously analyzing what exactly makes it tick. If you’ve spent even a year down here, you’ll undoubtedly recognize a majority of the locations and even some of the people. This is a truly homegrown project and it shows.
Unfortunately, Schwartz and co. ran out of money before they could finish filming their half hour pilot, which they’ll need if they want to get the show picked up by a TV network, streaming service or comedy video website. Thanks to the modern marvel known as crowdfunding, however, they’ve still got a shot at getting it done. They just need your help to reach their modest IndieGoGo goal of $8,523 in the next 56 days.
I recently caught up with Schwartz and threw some questions at him about Sunny City/Shady People, the unique difficulties of accurately portraying Miami, Quentin Tarantino, British humor and much more. He didn’t dodge a single one.
(Click HERE to visit the IndieGoGo page.)
TuffGnarl.com: How would you describe Sunny City/Shady People to someone who’s never read or heard anything about it?
Andrew Schwartz: Pop culture from a Miami point of view. It’s an action-comedy series with elements of satire and musical variety. Jovial sociopath Dan Gonzalez and deadpan rationalist Andrew Schwartz are bottom rung agents for the Miami branch of “The Company”: a shadowy quasi-governmental organization in charge of intelligence gathering and black ops. Think C.I.A., but operating in the States and totally privatized—like Blackwater, but for spies and assassins. The show primarily follows Dan and Andrew as they go on ludicrous missions across the city and interact with their eccentric friends during their off hours. There are also storylines focusing on their friends and colleagues, like their overqualified office manager Courtney (Amarie Lee), who is constantly being crushed by the glass ceiling; their perennially cheerful drug dealer Ramon Colon (Mario Mateo), who inhabits a world all his own; and various characters played by Freddy Stebbins, including uptight bean-counting Supervisor Ben Fetish and Dan’s grandfather Abuelo Don Guido, a former Company superagent.
More than one person has described it as Archer meets It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, with the combination of low class layabouts and cartoonishly violent espionage. I guess that means we’d fit in well on FX?
The show features some great South Florida talent. How much of the show’s casting was based on preferential treatment to local actors, comedians and musicians and how much of it was a matter of functionality in terms of convenience for everyone involved?
It was a bit of both. We sought out local talent and also wrote parts for people whom we already knew to be dynamic performers.
My writing partner Dan Gonzalez and I went to local film festivals at places like O Cinema to meet actors and crew. We scoured comedy clubs all over the city looking for strong characters and stage presences. That’s how we found Amarie Lee, who plays the put-upon office manager Courtney. She has excellent command of a stage and natural comic timing. That’s also how we met comedy legend Freddy Stebbins, who hosts a weekly show on Thursdays at Taurus in the Grove. Freddy is a brilliant character actor who will be playing different characters in each episode with the aid of makeup, costumes, and his mastery of voices. When we first saw him playing his bombastic old Cuban man character onstage, we knew we needed to cast him as Dan’s abuelo. Since then we’ve been working closely with Freddy and writing parts based on some of his characters—with a personal favorite being his impression of “El Walter!” (Walter Mercado a.k.a. Shanti Ananda a.k.a. That Astrologer Who Looks Like Your Neighbor’s Aunt.)
It looks like a substantial portion of the pilot has already been shot and done over, at least to some degree, in post-production. How much of the pilot still needs to be shot and how did you come to the exact amount of $8,523?
We’ve already shot about one quarter to one third of the pilot episode. I’ve edited it and had local filmmaker Felix Alvarez assist with color correction.
Dan and I sat down with our director, Alex Alvarez (no relation to Felix), and broke down the production schedule. We have five remaining shoot days of about ten hours each, which we’ll need to shoot on weekends to accommodate everyone’s personal schedules. We broke down the costs for equipment rentals, crew, location permits, set construction, food for the cast, props, transportation, costuming, visual effects, and so forth. Once we cut out everything we considered unnecessary we were left with an operating budget of $8,500 to complete the pilot.
The purpose of the remaining $23 is top secret. (Fnord.)
From what I saw on the IndieGoGo video, the show is being shot over a very large swath of Miami, encompassing South Beach, Coconut Grove, Coral Gables, Wynwood, Hialeah and Kendall. I really dig that, because it’s far more representational of the area than a number of other shows claiming to take place here. How important was it to capture Miami in its truer essence in perhaps a way that hasn’t been done before? What are the benefits of doing it this way? Are there any drawbacks?
Dan and I have always griped about how Miami is represented in television and film. Even when a show manages to capture some of the local flavor, it’s never more than a taste. We wanted to do something authentic—something more complete—because we grew up here and we’re tired of the usual format: exteriors shot on South Beach, everything else on a Los Angeles soundstage. Cubans played by Mexicans, who are inexplicably outnumbered in the city by WASPy residents. The occasional Ashkenazic Jewish stereotype for comic relief. And so forth.
I was born in Coconut Grove, raised in Kendall, schooled in Pinecrest, and employed in Coral Gables. My personal experience has almost nothing in common with the movies and television shows I’ve seen about Miami. Some of the worst shows make it look like the whole city is Ocean Drive. How confusing must that be to tourists, who get a hotel somewhere downtown or in the suburbs, then realize they’ve got to cross a few miles of bridges to get to the beach?
Ugh. No. We want to do right by our city; to show the rest of the world the actual Miami we inhabit, warts and all. But, y’know, in a somewhat cartoonish way. We’re still comedians at heart.
The drawbacks? Traffic, of course. You always have to schedule around traffic in South Florida. During certain times of day the highways become glorified parking lots. That’s bad enough if you’re shooting at a single location and have to wait until everybody arrives. It can be a nightmare if you have multiple shoots on a single day in a city as spread out as Miami. We have to be diligent about clustering shoot locations together when we draft schedules so we don’t waste all the usable light sitting in our cars.
The show follows the 30 minute format that’s traditionally used with comedy shows, but it looks like you’re breaking format a bit by including music, art performances and comedy sketches. How do you plan on making all of those elements work together without things becoming too congested? Is there a worry that you might be trying to do too much?
There are many excellent traditional sitcoms that just follow a direct narrative. Some even incorporate musicians, like Metalocalypse or Tenacious D. We didn’t want to go that route, though. There’s already so much content in that format, we felt we’d get lost in the noise. And there are some great sketch comedy shows that incorporate musical acts. Saturday Night Live has always done that. Chappelle’s Show did it. Portlandia is now doing it in innovative ways. We didn’t exactly want to go that route, either. Once Dan and I sat down and talked it out we realized we wanted a hybrid of sketch and longer form narrative comedy, with shorter bits peppering the overarching story as well as musical acts thrown in for local flavor. We figured out, in essence, that we wanted to make a British show in our hometown of Miami.
Structurally, Sunny City/Shady People has its roots in the world of British alternative comedy. We took the stark contrast, long hallway shots, and some of the character dynamics from Matt Berry and Rich Fulcher’s Snuff Box. We got the snotty satire and live musical acts from The Young Ones. We incorporated film parodies in both mundane and surreal situations like Edgar Wright did on Spaced. And we mined subcultures and drew multiple character performances from a minimal cast like they did on The Mighty Boosh. Those are all shows with a talented cast and a miniscule budget. But they work because of the brilliance of the writing, the strength of the performances, and the genius of the producers at stretching a buck. Dan and I grew up with that punk rock, DIY ethos. We figured: “if they can do it, so can we!”
We keep production in mind when we’re writing the script, so we’re always trying to think of ways to create a visually appealing shot that efficiently tells the story as inexpensively as possible. And we’re lucky to have an experienced, professional crew who work quickly and effectively. (They’re called “Odd Jobs Productions” if anybody is looking to hire a crew.)
Okay… filming has wrapped, post production is over and the pilot is in the can, ready to be seen. What’s your next step?
Time to start shopping it around! We’re not dead set on any one home for the show; we just want to ensure it has national distribution and that we retain creative control. If we go the network route we think Sunny City/Shady People would fit well on El Rey, FX, FXX, Comedy Central, or Spike. If we go digital instead we think we could do well on Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video, or FunnyOrDie.
As a binge consumer of media, I personally love the Netflix model where an entire season is released at once so the viewer can marathon it or watch it as slowly as they’d like. I just imagine that’d push back release time significantly as seasonal production has to be wrapped before the public even sees the introductory episode. We have a ten episode season already written, so we could go into production on something like that immediately, but it still leaves a lot of time before the show debuts…
Your debut feature film, Do It In Post (set to release in December), is also based in South Florida and deals with larger themes than its premise initially indicates. What lessons did you learn from shooting a feature that have translated well into creating a TV series?
That was a weird film because I both worked on it and simultaneously lived it. I knew the writer/director, Rob Dionne, from working with him on an independent horror film called The Way You Look Tonight. He brought me in during the audition phase of Do It In Post to help as a production assistant. I really dug the script, which Rob had based on his own experiences working as a P.A. on [NAME WITHHELD], a disastrous independent film shot in Miami. We were all laughing out loud at the readthrough, making Living In Oblivion references… Good times.
As casting moved along into the early phases of production I kept contributing more and more to the project, eventually landing a character role in the movie and upgrading my title to Associate Producer. Budgetary constraints and a largely voluntary cast made scheduling difficult, drawing out the shooting phase of the film significantly and causing occasional internal conflicts. The film’s Producer eventually left for personal reasons and Rob, seeing how I had already been working hand-in-hand with him and Ralf Gonzalez (the Director of Photography) realized that I was the one best qualified to take the position. From there on Rob and I co-produced the film—no easy feat! We encountered all kinds of challenges, like losing our warehouse location to the Russian mafia (“allegedly”) or having the cops throw us out of a luxury highrise for noise complaints—only to have the front desk woman (who’d originally called the cops) beg one of our actors for an autograph when she realized he was a recording artist on Rick Ross’s label. “Give Gunplay my cousin’s mixtape!” Oy. So Miami!
Despite everything, though, we got the movie completed and a deal inked. You’ll be able to buy it on DVD in stores or via digital download online before the year is out.
Oh, how did I “live” the movie? I guess I could be a dick and say, “Watch it to find out!”, but I hate when people do that kind of thing in interviews just to gin up interest in whatever product they’re hawking. So the basic plot of Do It In Post is that a local pot dealer named Alex gets dragged by his friend to a low budget movie set. Alex is functioning on no sleep and just wants to leave, but multiple factors keep him on set until the day is finished. While there he interacts with the usual loonies you meet doing production, then uses his common sense (and a baggy of local cryppie) to solve the issues afflicting them. Alex’s contributions to the movie allow him to keep “falling upward,” rising from a lowly Production Assistant to Associate Producer as he helps to save the cursed production. My obstacles were different, but the journey and the methodology were similar to what Alex encountered. If, say, you’ve shot most of a scene and then lose the location, you can try to cheat the remaining portion in a similar location instead of reshooting the whole scene from scratch. Or you can rewrite the remainder of the scene for a different location, but do it in a way that feels natural and organic to the characters. You need to be flexible and creative with your solutions—particularly when careful planning falls through—and make full usage of the resources available to you. And if you’re in Miami it rarely hurts to bring high grade greens for your cast and crew.
Are there any filmmakers or artists that you’ve drawn inspiration from specifically in developing Sunny City/Shady People?
We draw inspiration from Miami itself—this city is fully of unique characters—and pretty much any popular culture we’ve come across. There are broad references as well as obscure ones, but they generally serve a plot point or help to establish character traits instead of being included merely for their own sake—to get a cheap “hey, remember this?” laugh of recognition.
The pilot episode draws heavily on the postmodern action genre established by Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Roger Avary, and their ilk. We used common genre elements—the Yakuza-style black suits, the trunk shot, the casual attitude toward violence, the self-referential meta-humor—to establish the tone of our show while commenting on how the Tarantinoverse reflects our own cultural values. Tarantino’s films in particular are often cartoonishly violent, but they generally use that violence to critique dubious concepts we secretly believe (e.g., one righteous misfit or a ragtag group of vigilantes can master his/their environment using violence, like gun-toting superheroes) or to expose the horrors behind our deepest, basest desires.
We all know Hitler wasn’t blown up in the balcony of a French movie theater while his highest officers burn to death; we know that’s a horrifying, inhumanely painful death, regardless of what monsters we considered the Nazis to be. But that doesn’t stop us from cheering at the scene, from feeling a bit of historical catharsis as we watch a group of Jewish non-victims violently dispatch the most evil man of the twentieth century. You push your revulsion toward violence aside and forget you’re suspending disbelief because—even though you know this is not how World War II was won—it allows us on one level to celebrate cherished American values of rugged individualism, exceptionalism, “gumption,” and working class ingenuity, while on another level making clear that this is a polarizing fantasy where our team plays the unimpeachable hero and the villain has no redeeming values other than a cool outfit and clever dialogue.
If you want a realistic(-ish) version of American slavery, you can watch Roots or Twelve Years A Slave. But if historical accuracy isn’t your main concern, you watch Django Unchained instead—for all its whimsy and gunplay, it better captures the spirit of how we as pop culture consumers would prefer to see ourselves and our country’s past demons. It provides the twin releases of both catharsis (seeing the oppressed triumph over their oppressors and long-lost lovers finally reunited) and comedy, which make any sufficiently gruesome story infinitely more palatable.
There seem to be a lot of existential and meta elements to the show, especially in the two main characters, Andrew and Dan’s dialogue. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Vincent and Jules’ talks in Pulp Fiction. Now, I enjoy seeing my favorite aspects of a film be fleshed out further in other works (i.e. – Tigerland’s pure focus on Vietnam military training, which was easily the best part of Full Metal Jacket), but what else can audiences look forward to in terms of similar motifs?
Having established that the Miami of Sunny City/Shady People is somewhat hyperbolic, working more like the Tarantinoverse—where situations are heightened, characters are larger than life, and extreme violence saves the day—than the “real” world, we use that cartoonish version of the city to explore further themes and motifs. In the third episode we explore the death of innocence and morality in the modern age, using the antiquated values of a Jimmy Stewart-like character to show how playing fair will cause the city to eat you alive. In the fourth episode we take on local organized crime and urban warfare through parallels to an unlikely source—the rabbit-centric animated film Watership Down. The seventh episode channels Kurosawa’s Rashomon, telling the story of a deceased friend from the conflicting points of view of three characters who each think they saw him die in different situations. And the fifth episode deconstructs Fair Use as it applies to film, television, and comic books—commenting on how much of the comic industry was based on blatant intellectual theft and how rampant copying eventually shaped the various characters and teams which we now love enough to turn into blockbuster film franchises. (But it definitely has nothing to do with how Doom Patrol and X-Men ripped each other off. Because we love both DC and Marvel and we have no desire to be sued by either company, regardless of whether we think we’re protected by parody and fair use exceptions to copyright law.)
Wow. That was longwinded. Yeah, in short: we put a lot of thought into our source material and draw inspiration from a million different places.
What can people do to help you meet your crowdfunding goal if they can’t contribute cash?
Use a credit card? Or just spread the word. The more people are talking about Sunny City/Shady People, the quicker we’ll be able to produce it.
I wouldn’t openly condone folks tagging SC/SP or Sunny City/Shady People around the city because that’s vandalism and it’s totally illegal. But if it were to happen, I don’t see how I could stop it. (Likewise if people were to stick Sunny City/Shady People stickers in prominent places—like at their favorite clubs or on vehicles—I would be powerless to prevent it.)
Any final thoughts?
Thanks for giving us the opportunity to talk about our show. Check out our Indiegogo campaign and look for the pilot episode later this year!
(All photos, including slider image, were taken from the Sunny City/Shady People Facebook page.)
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