"We knew generally speaking that we needed someone who was naturally very likeable to play Edith, to counterbalance what could be read as a very unlikeable character on paper," says Pavan Moondi, writer and co-director of Diamond Tongues. "[When] we first saw Leah performing onstage as part of July Talk, she came off very charming and endearing. Beyond that, we really just needed someone with a strong artistic voice and a bold, engaging personality, and Leah has that in spades."
While Goldstein is the star onscreen, her musical partner in July Talk, Peter Dreimanis, is the cinematographer, capturing quiet moments with just the right amount of space, while giving room to bursts of chaos (which feels similar to watching their band dynamic onstage).
Moondi finished the script for Diamond Tongues in July 2013, and he and co-director Brian Robertson cast Goldstein and hired Dreimanis in September. Because of July Talk’s touring schedule, they shot the film in April 2014 during a 12-day window, sometimes shooting five or six locations in a single day (including one scene on The Strombo Show and an unexpected drop-in to an improv class). It premiered in January 2015 in Park City, Utah’s Slamdance Film Festival, and since then it’s been the official selection for nine other festivals.
Diamond Tongues' credits read like an indie musician’s who’s-who: Brendan Canning scored the soundtrack, and also served as executive producer of the film through his production company, Draper Street Film, co-founded with Sarah Haywood. Broken Social Scene, Timber Timbre, Lowell and Emily Haines and the Soft Skeletons are all listed as having contributed songs, and Islands perform as themselves in a bar scene. It’s a movie about an actor, but at its heart is a long list of musicians.
In light of Diamond Tongues' Canadian premiere, we gathered Goldstein, Dreimanis, Moondi, Robertson and Haywood — over the internet — to talk about getting the project going, casting Goldstein without an audition and how, exactly, Goldstein made such an acerbic character so likeable.
On getting started
Brian Robertson (co-director): Pavan and I started thinking of a concept for the film after taking a few meetings with our executive producer, Ari Lantos at Serendipity Point Films. ... What we came up with was essentially what Diamond Tongues is: a character-driven narrative that takes place here in Toronto. Pavan and I settled on an idea about someone struggling with the uncertainties of something they're passionate about and Pavan got to writing the script.
Pavan Moondi (writer, co-director): I had made a film previously [Everyday Is Like Sunday] that was about not knowing what to do with your life. I decided this next one should be about knowing exactly what you want to do with your life but feeling like you have very little control over it. Brian and I had earlier talked about making a film about a group of actors and so it made sense to put the two together. Making the film about an actress specifically seemed to be the best way to convey this idea of a frustrating lack of control, as the industry for actresses, especially, is not an easy one.
Sarah Haywood (producer): When Brian and Pavan came along looking for investors,Diamond Tongues fit our criteria in several ways. ... Our first feature film. It all happened really fast and we dove right in and began shooting within a few weeks of taking it on. It felt like a big risk financially and it was nerve-wracking when we thought about what will happen to the film, but I was absolutely positive this genre was going to be of interest and that the talent and ability a lead singer has would be translatable to the screen in terms of being able to perform and go for it.
On hiring both halves of July Talk
Robertson: Pavan and I had been trying to find an actress for about three or four months and we just couldn't find anyone. We were pretty discouraged with how things were going and I was starting to really worry about making the film. We saw July Talk perform [at a Mongrel Media party at TIFF in September 2013] and Leah had this wild energy onstage. This was at a point where Pavan and I were so used to just pointing at people on the street wondering if they would do it. As soon as we saw Leah it just clicked for us. We had a mutual friend and we asked him to introduce us. Pavan pitched Leah the next night at a different show. I think he actually asked her to be in our film like 10 seconds before she walked onstage.
Leah Fay Goldstein (actress, July Talk): As a teen I worked as a "party motivator" (my words) for this entertainment company that DJed bar and bat mitzvahs. It used to be my job to make people hit the dance floor and do the macarena or whatever. I learned the best way to fill an empty dance floor is to put yourself there first, flail around, smile like a gleeful idiot and pretend to have fun until you're actually having fun. It doesn't take long.
In an attempt [at the Mongrel Media party] to get our audience to uncross their arms and be less suit-like and more human-like I decided I wanted them to limbo using my microphone stand. So between songs I mentioned my bar/bat mitzvah dancing days and said something like, "Don't worry I'm basically a professional. What are you, too cool to limbo? Just trust me!" Once they were seemingly on our side I pretended to pass out in the crowd during one song and poured a beer on Peter's face during another one. When faced with a "too-cool" crowd we always try to shift the energy from contrived to chaotic.
Despite my being a total shithead onstage that night, Pavan and Brian, there in the audience, decided they wanted me to play Edith. I guess it was kind of my audition. They came to our next show and asked if I'd be in their film. I said, "But I've never acted before." They said, "That's good! Will you do it?" and Pavan swears I just said "OK!" and then walked onstage to perform but in my memory I asked to read the script first. ... I told [Pavan], "I'll do it, but if I suck you have to be honest about it and fire me and find someone else."
Robertson: After talking with Peter for five minutes I knew he was the one to shoot the film. He has a background in cinematography and all the videos he shot for July Talk were beautiful.
Moondi: Peter was insistent that he didn’t want to do this film if he was going to be expected to just sit back and be a camera operator. He was interested in being a real collaborator and he really understands the filmmaking process. He gave us some great notes on the script that had a major impact on the film. Peter tends to view things a little bit differently than Brian and I do. ... It allowed us to fill in each other’s gaps and really take the film into new and interesting places we likely wouldn’t have been able to do if we didn’t work together.
Peter Dreimanis (cinematographer, July Talk): I had some issues with the initial script, and even at our earliest meetings, Pavan and Brian were really receptive to my concerns. The movie was largely dialogue-based and allowed very little time for the audience to breathe and reflect on some pretty bizarre and terrible decisions made by the protagonist, Edith. I immediately felt that the dialogue in the script was only going to provide a loose structure to follow and that to believe that Edith would actually do these terrible things, we had to allow her and the other actors to go totally off of the script.
Robertson: Part of this is that Diamond Tongues was never going to be a union/ACTRA film. When you're casting a film that is going to be made up almost extensively of “non-professional actors,” we found that people who have experience performing in other areas are great to work with across the board. We didn't have a lot of time in pre-production and we were really limited with our number of shooting days, so when you're putting people in front of a camera in a room full of strangers you want them to be as naturally comfortable as possible. We approached musicians and comedians because that experience is part of their profession and they tend to bring a general easiness with them.
On the July Talk working relationship
Robertson: I think Pavan and I suspected that working with Leah and Peter was going to be pretty easy. Based on how hard they work and how often they're touring with the band alone, we knew that there wouldn't be any issues concerning the tight timeline we were dealing with (we shot the film in about nine-and-a-half days).
Moondi: I think Peter’s presence behind the camera made Leah immediately comfortable from the get-go.
Goldstein: I’m not sure either of us would have jumped into this project without the other person. I fully trust Peter’s taste and ability so I felt as comfortable as one possibly could while acting in a film for the first time. He’s an incredible cinematographer with an insane amount of lighting knowledge and experience so I knew that, if nothing else, at least we’d have beautiful-looking footage. There are some scenes in the film involving sex and drugs that I just wouldn’t have been OK with acting in if Peter wasn’t behind the camera. For example, when a script says, “They have intercourse,” there are countless ways that can be portrayed and shot, which is absolutely terrifying. But Pete knows me better than anyone so I knew my values wouldn’t be compromised.
Dreimanis: Leah and I are joined at the hip and we love it. Working with her is a lifelong commitment for me, she is a very intense, challenging artist that never ceases to surprise me even after hundreds of shows performing together. To be honest, in all of my prior film work, it was easy to hold myself at an arm's length away from a true creative commitment. ... [But] because Leah was the face of this movie and her career means a lot to me, I had no choice but to break down that wall and be really critical of writing I didn't like or characters I didn't believe in. This made me commit in a way that I didn't know I could, especially as a cinematographer.
Goldstein: Within the first few pages of the script, Edith is with her agent, who is telling her she "can’t pass for 16" and she "can’t play a vixen." Right off the bat, that set a tone that I could get down with. In the vast majority of films based on female protagonists, those are two of the top deciding factors for who will play the leading role: does she look young enough for us to see her as doe-eyed and innocent but also sexual enough to be objectified and sell tickets? There it is in the second scene ... she just has to be a human being and struggle with her dreams and aspirations. What a concept: a woman who is flawed and unlikable, who has shit to deal with and darkness inside of her. She's not an accessory to a male character nor a stunning heroine in heels. There’s been an effort in mainstream comedies to make female protagonists relatable and human by making them fart and shit and talk about their vaginas. Of course de-objectifying and re-humanizing the female body is so important, but what we really need to see more of are stories about human beings that appeal to human beings regardless of gender. And without making gender its main focus, I felt that Diamond Tongues told that kind of human story.
Dreimanis: Because of the dark side of Edith's character, I wanted to allow her face to fall to total darkness in certain scenes to allow the audience to see themselves within her character and appropriate the parts of themselves that they are the least proud of.
Goldstein: We filmed all these scenes where Edith is watching other people excel at their craft. None of them had dialogue so Pavan would stand behind the camera and give cues about how to react, kind of acting as Edith's psyche. It would move from sheer enjoyment, to self-doubt, to hints of jealousy and eventually to a crippling, feverish, self-loathing envy. I'm not sure how many of those scenes made it into the film but doing it repeatedly — usually at one location every other day — provided an easy route back into the darkest parts of Edith. That's where my understanding and patience for her came from. Jealousy, though a repugnant feeling, is one that every single person battles with at some point. It is directly related to self-doubt and self-worth and no human, no matter how seemingly confident, hasn't felt inadequate at some point. While I personally have never sabotaged a friend's success out of jealousy or gone out of my way to ruin someone's chances at happiness, I have absolutely let my emotions get the best of me and done things that I still cringe about and might not ever entirely forgive myself for. I think everyone has. It doesn't make you a bad person, it just makes you human.
Catch Diamond Tongues at the TIFF Lightbox until Aug. 13.