The New Jersey International Film Festival runs across two weekends, June 4-6 and June 11-13. On Sunday, June 6th, the festival screens “Sweethurt,” a wonderful young-adult comedy with two interwoven stories of love, friendship, and the paralyzing fear of dying alone.
The film features a wonderfully diverse cast of lead characters in a coming-of-age story very much in the same vein as ‘80s and ‘90s classics such as “Say Anything,” “Chasing Amy,” and “American Pie,” but with the unique perspective of Australian director Tom Danger and co-writer Logan Webster.
We spoke to Tom Danger via email to learn more about the film.
Jersey Arts: The first thing that really hit me about “Sweethurt” was the soundtrack. To me, a good film soundtrack becomes almost like an important character in itself. What are your thoughts about the music in the film and was it difficult to get the rights to the songs?
Tom Danger: The music in “Sweethurt” is one of my favorite things about the film. I want to sell the soundtrack, or at least stand on a street corner and throw it at people, then they thank me later.
During the edit, my co-writer/producer Logan and I threw in temporary tracks that we felt fit the mood of a scene, or placeholders because we knew that eventually we would need a track to go there. Almost none of those initial choices are in the finished film, with the notable exception of “Body Talks” by The Struts, and the two songs by Third Eye Blind featured in the film, “How's It Going To Be” and “Motorcycle Drive-By,” which are some of my all-time favorite songs.
Once we finished the edit and turned our attention to what we really wanted to the soundtrack to be, which turned out to lean quite heavily towards late ‘90s and early 2000s pop-punk, we started reaching out to dozens of bands, or their managers, anything really – to try and see if we could obtain the rights. Luckily, there are so many incredibly talented bands who aren't necessarily in the mainstream, who manage themselves, and without having to traverse the hellscape of dealing with record companies, it was sometimes as simple as telling the band who we were and what we wanted, and asking if they would be so kind. And most of the time, they say yes – they're happy to know there are people out there who appreciate the art they're creating, and of course, we would offer compensation for their efforts and to try and support them.
For the larger, aforementioned bands, who have large fan bases and are attached to scary record labels, I had to admit to myself that I know nothing about anything music industry related, and found a music supervisor to do all the hard work for me. Her name was Belinda, and she was an absolute godsend. If it weren't for her, the soundtrack wouldn't be as great as it is. So I would say about 75% of the soundtrack was Logan and I liaising with a lot of bands, and the remaining 25% was Belinda landing those bigger fish for us.
The second thing I noticed is that you utilize the classic touches of ‘80s/’90s comedies of having secondary characters who stand out – for example, Max Cameron and Abby are so outlandish they kind of steal scenes they’re in.
In the case of Max Cameron, played by the incomparably wholesome Dylan Lee, we had wanted to work with him for a while beforehand, and took everything we loved about him – his charm, his humor, that adorable smile, and cranked it up to 11. Essentially, the way we describe Max is as a character who accidentally wandered into this movie from a completely different one. He's so out of place but somehow, fits right in with the rest of the gang.
And Sam Germain, who plays Abby, is actually the sweetest and kindest human being you'll ever meet, so we just wanted to mess with her and make her play a horrible, horrible person. Good fun. Both Logan and I feel that one thing missing from many modern comedies is emphasis on character. Putting a boring character in a funny situation isn't funny. But putting a good, funny character in any situation can let you strike gold.
The film does a wonderful job of establishing the characters for a pretty large size group. Were the characters based on real-life friends or people you knew?
Yes and no, but mostly yes. We wrote most of the characters with particular actors in mind, which allowed us to play to their strengths as performers and have fun with it, for example, “Hey, wouldn't it be funny if Mike had to throw himself through a table and had no choice in the matter? Hell yeah, let's do that.” Because we were familiar with everyone's comedic sensibilities and personal idiosyncrasies, it let us really try to show that kind of stuff on-screen.
And, as far as weird stuff goes, "Sweethurt" has a bunch of weird stuff in it. From the goat and satanism to a kid sister madly infatuated with a friend, to the ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend who has his own theme song. Is there a limit to how much weirdness a filmmaker can get away with? Or do you think anything goes with a comedy?
There's a pretty fine line you have to toe, because if you go too far, you risk going into farce or spoof territory, which isn't really what we wanted to do. Despite the absurdity and weird stuff going on, at the core of “Sweethurt” is a genuine and sincere story about heartbreak and finding yourself. We felt that as long as the real stuff was allowed to breathe, the emotional moments took their time, the pay-offs felt earned, and the audience was given the opportunity to get to know and empathize with the characters, we could get away with the weird stuff.
A lot of great comedy is absurd, like “The Mighty Boosh” or “The Adventures of Lano & Woodley,” and stuff happens that can never happen in real life, but somehow, it works.
Likewise, you’ve got some great lines in the film, like: “soul crushing regrets that keep me up at night” and a monologue by Jacob that starts “What me and Olivia had... I’m not stupid, I know I’ll eventually get over her,” that remind me of the great John Cusack films of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
John Cusack is, of course, a national treasure and must be protected at all costs. A lot of his movies were direct influences on the film; specifically “Say Anything,” to the point where if you look at the poster to that film and look at the title's font, I really tried to have something similar for “Sweethurt.” One of his lesser-known flicks, “Better Off Dead,” definitely has a certain charming absurdity to it that's pretty similar to “Sweethurt” as well.
After looking up the cast on IMDB, I was surprised to see that this was the first credited film for Rav Ratnayake. Were you nervous at all about having someone in their first film as the lead?
Not at all! Rav is very naturally charming and charismatic, with a voice like melted caramel. Just silky and smooth. Even though he hadn't acted before, he's always had a keen interest and probably practiced in the mirror.
We did work with him pretty thoroughly in the weeks leading up to the shoot on some of the more difficult and dialogue-heavy portions of the film, and he took it all in stride – Mike, too. Since we wrote the film with them in mind, we knew what they were capable of and tailored their roles to suit their talents.
You’ve said that you and your brother used to watch Kevin Smith films and how he was an influence of yours. Did you and your brother share a lot of the same tastes in films? What was it like to be part of the film he made before he died?
Growing up, my brother and I knew that our lives would be dedicated to films in one way or another. We'd make stupid videos in our backyard with a camera Dad gave us, and learned the essentials of making films — like shot composition and editing — simply by messing around and having fun. I still carry a lot of that with me. So naturally we'd watch movies together all the time, would endlessly quote them and even re-enact certain things – we once re-made the ending of “Back to the Future Part III” on a playground train in our neighborhood. Good stuff.
As we got older and got more into independent films and directors, people like Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez became heroes to us because they seemed to be just like us; people who loved movies and made them just because they wanted to, even if it seemed like they couldn't, or shouldn't. So when my brother made his film, “Sick,” just after he graduated film school, just with our friends and in our house, we felt like we were very much following in the footsteps of people like Kevin Smith. In the credits of his movie, Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez get a special thanks 'for leading the way.' I imagine a lot of film-makers like me feel the same way.
My brother managing to make “Sick” – despite passing away so shortly afterwards after a long battle with cancer – was a blessing, because I can watch it any time and feel like nothing has changed and he's still with me.
Your first film was a horror flick and you’ve said you a big fan of that genre. Did you purposely want to write/direct something other than horror for your second film to avoid being typecast in the horror genre? Any thoughts for what your next project will be?
That was never really my intention – let's be real, being typecast can be a good thing because it means people know who you are and what you're doing. Man, I wish I could get typecast.
But, that being said, it was refreshing to work on a different kind of project and encourage humor, improvisation, and fun during the shoot, and I think that energy translated really well into the finished product. Making a comedy can be really difficult, but if you surround yourself with really funny and talented people, it's a breeze.
As for my next project, I do think I'll be going down the horror route again. I want to see what we can do with the things we've learned from all of our past projects and really push ourselves to our limits.
We've written a treatment for a horror film that I would love to get funded, because it's unlike anything I've done before. So someone please throw money at me, I can't keep using my own money, I'll go broke.
You’ve had parts in each of your films. Is that something you plan on continuing throughout your career?
Yes. I am a massive narcissist and I love seeing myself on screen. It's amazing I didn't force myself into more of “Sweethurt,” honestly.
When you submit to film festivals, do you find they put you in the “international” festival box each time? Or have you been able to get films in festivals (both regular and international content based) around the world?
We've only just begun our process of submitting to festivals and trying to get the film out there, so it's a little hard to tell. I honestly don't mind what box they put us in; as long as they enjoy the film and give us a chance, it's all good with me. I'm flexible, put me in any box.
Finally, what can you say about the importance of Kevin Smith to indie filmmakers like yourself around the world?
I think Kevin Smith represents to me the same thing he represents to a lot of indie film-makers – hope. This guy knew that no one was ever going to give him a chance to make a movie, so he did what he had to do to make it happen himself, and so many indie filmmakers can relate to that.
So many directors or writers have ties to the industry or live somewhere advantageous; but there's so many people who have the same talent, skills, and aspirations who have nothing and no-one, who have to try much harder to get to where they want to go. Kevin Smith is one of the people who made it. He managed to make a movie with almost no money and no resources, but he spun it into something really special that resonated with so many people and built a whole career out of it – hell, he even made a cinematic universe.
And, even now, he's still just doing his thing, making the things he wants to make – for someone like me, that's the dream right there. But he's still just a fan of the movies, just like any one of us, and the way he talks about certain people, shows and movies in his stage appearances or his podcasts, you can tell he's never lost sight of what made him love movies in the first place.
Man, what I wouldn't give to go on his podcast.
“Sweethurt” will be available on Sunday, June 6th. After purchasing the film, you’ll have 23 hours 58 minutes to start watching. Once you begin, you'll have 24 hours to finish watching. Click here to purchase the stream.