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“Life is a sliding scale between devastating and weird”: Ally Pankiw on her new dramedy, I Used to Be Funny

The writer and director for hit series like Schitt’s Creek, Black Mirror and Feel Good talks comedy, trauma and how her new Toronto-set project came together

"Life is a sliding scale between devastating and weird": Ally Pankiw on her new dramedy, I Used to Be Funny

You’ve written and directed for TV series like Schitt’s Creek, Black Mirror and Feel Good. Now your first feature film is set to debut. Was it difficult to transition between forms? Yes and no. I’ve been spoiled with big budgets, so making an indie was a reality check. But TV taught me how to pivot. I’m not sure I would have survived our gruelling schedule and sparse resources without all that experience.

When your film premiered at SXSW, did you watch with the audience? Yes, but I prefer not to. Mostly, I’ll intro my work, go have a glass of wine nearby and then come back at the end for a Q&A. Making a film is like raising a kid: you have all these dreams for them, and they do turn out wonderful, but never the way you expected. Movie-making is an exercise in loving the thing you made while also grieving all the shots you didn’t get.

Let’s talk about the title: I Used to Be Funny. What does it mean to you? The title references the effects of violence against women. Trauma can strip people of their joy, and the result is the loss of amazing comedic voices.

Do you worry that you’ll someday stop being funny? I don’t. Life is too absurd to stop being funny.

You wrote the script in 2013, and it took a decade to get to the big screen. Were you concerned it would lose its resonance? I tinkered with it for a long time, and then the pandemic delayed shooting. But, a decade later, it’s still a nightmare to be a young woman in the world, so, no, I don’t think it lost any resonance. After #MeToo, I saw a lot of movies about women getting justice through revenge, which never felt authentic. In truth, it’s a quiet process, and I wanted to capture that in my movie; I wanted it to be about the banality of victimhood.

You shot it in 18 and a half days. How intense was that? We were so lucky to get funding, but it was only enough for a very short shoot. It seemed like we were going to war. I would never agree to complete a project so quickly again. But it was still fun. I remember telling one of the actors that they had five minutes to get into this closet and start crying, with full snot and everything. It’s relentless. And as the filmmaker, you have to be so focused on executing everything because you don’t have time to get that extra take or add that additional creative layer. It makes you wish you could bend space and time.

Your lead, Rachel Sennott, has really blown up since you cast her. It was a miracle to get her. I met Rachel while she was doing stand-up, but Shiva Baby made me realize that she was a great dramatic actor. When I sent her the script, she immediately got the gallows humour, so I offered her the role on the spot.

A lot of the film takes place at Comedy Bar on Bloor. Why there? Toronto’s comedy scene is top-tier, so it felt right to set the film here. Also, I was at Comedy Bar the night it opened. When I moved to Toronto from Edmonton in 2007, one of my roommates did improv, so a lot of my new friends were comedians. I still cast them in my work. Kayla Lorette, for example, was featured in my Black Mirror episode. When Rachel was in town for costume fittings, she performed her character’s sets at the bar on a regular night to test them out.

What’s your relationship with the city today? I’m a prairie girl, but I came out in Toronto and found my voice here. I would love to shoot more projects in the city.

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You seem to be comfortable working in all types of comedy. Is funny always funny, or do you have to adjust? Moving between styles isn’t hard for me. Even though the tone varies—Black Mirror is more sci-fi; The Great is a period piece—they’re all somewhere on the dramedy spectrum. Life is a sliding scale between the devastating and the weird, and I like to work on projects that are more than just one or the other. I don’t do comedy for comedy’s sake. I want my work to be grounded and have a heartbeat. I like to be in that sad clown zone.

You belong to a cohort of queer filmmakers taking Hollywood by storm. What’s driving that? People with power and money have realized that shutting out queer voices was a mistake, and they’re embarrassed about it. So the world is now seeing that we are very funny.

Have you noticed any backlash? There’s a certain demographic of men who are threatened by the fact that young women are funnier than them. It’s a fear that I see in their eyes on set. Artists are now putting out funnier stuff than the straight-white-male sitcom we’ve seen a thousand times. We have the element of surprise because we’re saying something audiences probably haven’t heard before.

A lot of those voices are from the Toronto scene—Emma Seligman, Devery Jacobs and long-time friends of yours like Mae Martin and Dan Levy. What’s the secret sauce? It’s the delicious tap water. Seriously, though, it may seem like it’s just happening now, but we’ve been here toiling together for years. I’m grateful to see Canadians and queer people succeed because it forces everyone to set extra places at the table. But I couldn’t have predicted that it would all hit at the same time.

On the flip side, they all found success by working abroad. Are we doing something wrong? Canada is so risk averse. Before I got hired for Feel Good, which filmed in the UK, I couldn’t get a Canadian gig to save my life. I’d go to job interviews and they’d say, “Your work is beautiful, but we can’t hire you for TV unless you’ve already done TV.” Then Feel Good did well, and all of those same people wanted me. By then, I was busy with other projects. In Canada, we’re very behind on letting a person with a strong point of view do their thing.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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