Exclusive: Interview with CHEE AND T’s Sunkrish Bala & Tanuj Chopra

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HNS sat down at the Los Angeles Film Festival with indie comedy Chee and T star Sunkrish Bala and writer/ director Tanuj Chopra. Check out our exclusive interview below!

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Director/Writer: Tanuj Chopra
Story By: Tanuj Chopra, Chee Malabar
Cast: Dominic Rains, Sunkrish Bala, Asif Ali, Noureen DeWulf, Rebecca Hazlewood, Bernard White, Karan Soni, Himanshu Suri, Scott Rogers
Producer: Sohini Sengupta
Runtime: 80 minutes
Website: www.cheeandt.com
Facebook: www.facebook.com/cheeandt
Twitter: https://twitter.com/CheeandT

Synopsis: Everything goes wrong when a pair of burnt out debt collectors are tasked with getting their boss’s lit up nephew ready for his engagement party.

What drew you to this role? When you read the script, what made you say yes?

Sunkrish: I think when you’re a South Asian actor you… I’m relegated to a certain kind of role often. And that role is often dickless, sort of like cuddly, dickless guy. It’s either that or they write super eroticized South Asian actors, and it was really cool for me specifically to get to play someone who had an imposing physical presence and for me, I grew up in the Bay area – and this is a big Bay area story – and to get to play guys that I kind of knew, that I grew up with that people who look like me don’t get to play. These stories go untold.

Is comedy something that you’re drawn towards?

Sunkrish: I think I moved here with fantasies of being a very serious actor. But I’ve been assured that comedy is where generally I gravitate towards naturally.

Your character in the film is a debt collector, and I think that’s probably one of the most hated professions/ most hated people. Was it fun to kind of play up that character?

Sunkrish: Absolutely. These guys aren’t just debt collectors; I think we were talking about a shroud of society that preys on its own. Uncle Rob gives people loans who can’t get loans elsewhere. So we are kind of the debt collector that… we collect debts from people who can’t go to the police because they’re probably renting things illegally, and so yeah it was fun to do that. It was fun to see that side of things.

Would you make a good debt collector?

Sunkrish: I am the biggest pushover in the world. [laughs] You could sell me anything.

The energy on set looks really fun. What was the energy like?

Sunkrish: Asif is a comedian and a wonderful actor. It was a lot of us improving. I think Tanuj (Director/ Writer) sort of let us fly. I mean there was a script and everything, but a lot of the stuff you end up seeing in the movie is his character basically. We had no choice to spend a lot of time with his character throughout the movie and it was his job to annoy us and he did a really, really good job. We ruined a lot of takes.

Do you have any funny stories or memories on set?

Sunkrish: Yeah, there’s a scene where he had to throw up and I think that was a mix of like bananas and oatmeal. That car is sort of like a third character in the film, and it was given to Tanuj as a favor and lots of things. I mean he had to throw up all over that car what was like a mixture of bananas and oatmeal and stuff, and I guess it smells better than vomit but I don’t think the smell is that much better when you’re driving around in it. And then I think we screwed up the transmission on that car…

Tanuj: Yeah, there’s a scene where the transmission breaks and it really broke.

Sunkrish: Yeah we actually broke the transmission while pretending to break the transmission.

Tanuj: And the kicker was that we had shot everything we needed with that car moving. I was looking at it like it was a great thing.

Sunkrish: The film gods shined down on us.

Tanuj: Anything could happen with that car at anytime and if it did…

Sunkrish: The movie’s over.

Tanuj: Yeah.

What inspired you to write this story?

Tanuj: I did a film prior called Punching at the Sun and it went to Sundance, and I got to see it play all over the world, and I got to know my movie watching it over and over. And there’s a journalist who wrote – people wrote all kinds of things – but there was one journalist who wrote, ‘There’s a 40 minute stretch of the movie where it could’ve been its own movie.’ And it was so funny, that 40 minute section is about the three characters of the film in a car, the kind of comedy of errors in one of the days of the film. And I watched it with that in mind and was like, Oh this is something easy and natural, and people really like it. To make people laugh, to make people laugh at people’s follies seems to be something I do well and it’s also something that’s pleasurable in the cinema. So I wanted to make a film to take that spirit and kind of extend it over into a movie.

How is writing comedy different – is it more difficult than writing a drama for you?

Tanuj: Well I mean so much of it I think, from the way I work comedy, is you need really good lines on the page but then you also have to give space for the actors to like find the moment, like sometimes something off the page isn’t funny. Whereas with dramas you have to kind of nail what’s there prefixed. So that’s the learning curve I think when it comes to directing comedies, how much to nail like what you need and what’s funny in the moment.

Sunkrish: Asif’s comedy is so specific. What was on the page… I think he did what was on the page but I think that casting a different actor, which we almost did, in Asif’s role would’ve done something completely different.

Tanuj: The way comedy works with us is we have three different acting styles for our leads. Sunkrish is very fluid. Dom is very method and he’s very rigorous and has a process that needs a lot of attention. And Asif is a comic, like a stand up comic for the most part. So when Sunkrish is doing something, when he’s like interacting with the other energies, when Dom’s doing something great it’s because he’s found something in his head, but Asif is like he’s just good at telling jokes. And like being in the moment – it’s like you’re a coach and you’re a pitcher throwing a hitter, you kind of don’t want to say much, just let him. You kind of smile at what he’s doing and you don’t want to interfere too much, because you don’t want to get in his head. In general, when things are working, you don’t want to get in peoples’ heads. Especially with comedy.

Sunkrish: Yeah, I feel like when you came and gave notes, it was like, for me at least, I don’t know what you were doing with the other guys, but for me it was just like, ‘Think about it this way.’ It was just like a quick little blurb and then we’ll see what would happen.

Tanuj: Right, and it’s like it starts with the cast. You have to know that the people that are there kind of get it and have a certain sensibility. I don’t know, comedy is like serious business. You ‘re doing jokes. And also it’s funny how many times we’re on set and we’re doing a scene and it’s funny and we’re all laughing and then we yell cut and everyone goes back to a serious moment. And when you’re looking from the outside it kind of looks like we’re lunatics. Like you’re having fun and totally vibrant and then you stop and technically evaluate the timing of a joke.

Sunkrish: Yeah, it’s less about the time and then it’s also like what stresses me out is not having an endless fountain of silly. You just watch it happen. And for me it’s like when we’re doing alt and after we do the take, highlight, what do I do that’s different, what do I do that’s new? And keep it fresh for myself. And for you [to Tanuj] the other guys and sometimes when you’re off camera, how do you keep it fresh for the other guy, like what can you say to the other guy? There’s a lot of that going on which I really appreciate that you let us do.

Tanuj: Yeah. A lot of that was ramp-ups, you did a lot of ramping which was cool. Like they would improv the two minutes prior to action, you know. I have these great takes of them just like… I almost put some in the bloopers. There’s some really funny bloopers in this film. They’re just going back and forth and I just have these absurd arguments in character. But you don’t know if they’re like… sometimes I thought, ‘Are they really fighting?’

Sunkrish: Yeah, sometimes we were. [laughs] Well because it was also like camp when we made this movie. We were in Tanuj’s parents’ garage which was the home base. And we would drive from there to wherever location. We were all staying in the same motel and the three of us – me, Dom and Asif spent 18 hours a day together. And at the end of the day we would all gather in my hotel room together to go over the next day’s pages so we would be ready for him in the morning. So like yeah there was a lot of shit to work.

What was the casting process like? It’s such a unique chemistry that you have to achieve, and what was the audition process like for you?

Tanuj: Well for me, it’s like you know this universe of male actors is very small in Hollywood and you kind of already know them all anyways, and because we were writing it originally, I’m not saying I tailored the parts for the people, but I kind of knew how to [write for them]. With Sunkrish especially, he didn’t audition. I mean I’ve known him for 3 or 4 years. We did a little short spot together once and I just felt like this is the right part, the right moment and Sunkrish is definitely ready for it. I’ve seen how dedicated he is as an actor. I honestly didn’t even know what I would do completely, but I had a strong instinct for Sunkrish and he was the starting point actually. I built other pieces sort of off of – I knew Sunkrish’s energy so we paired certain energies, like T, off of him.

Sunkrish: It was really cool – no one’s ever let me be a part of the casting process.

Tanuj: Yeah I brought him in for that.

Sunkrish: So I like got to read with the different T’s and Mayunk’s. And I don’t know, like that was an eye opening experience for me. And to watch him in those casting sessions, like he kind of wants to see your energy. It’s a very energetic thing with Tanuj. He’s like, ‘Yeah I just want to see what you’re about man.’ He kind of says that to them before the thing and some people go, ‘Oh shit, what am I about??’

Tanuj: And what ends up happening is I’ll like all these random people and my producer comes in and she is just like, ‘Shhh! This is who you’re casting.’ We only auditioned for 3 or 4 of the side parts and Myunk. Although we kind of knew who we wanted to play the parts.

Sunkrish: I knew immediately who Myunk was playing. And the beauty of Tanuj is he can see the movie in so many different ways and he was going in a lot of interesting ways. And scary ways. And I was just like, ‘No no, you got the guy, you got the guy, you got the guy.’

Tanuj: Also even Asif in the audition, as great as it was, he didn’t have the best timing, but he had the best sort of raw tools coming in. He was the funniest too. But I still didn’t know if he was going to be able to do what he did until we got there. He really exceeded and carried the film in a lot of ways.

There’s a lot of action in the film. Was there any scene in particular that was hard to shoot or just went terribly wrong?

Tanuj: The trailer does a really good job at putting all the active parts in it.

Sunkrish: He was literally in the trunk of the Chevelle at one point because he wanted to see. It’s a low budget shoot so once we were underway driving, the only way to be out of the shot and look at the shot that you’re getting was for him to be in the trunk. And we were like on the highway.

Tanuj: It was shady.

Sunkrish: It was shady, we were breaking some laws.

Tanuj: I think anything involving a moving car is always scary and weird and we had like a pace car, and a car behind us. We had a little caravan we go around town in. It was my hometown so I felt a little more comfortable.

Sunkrish: I don’t know why he felt as comfortable.

Tanuj: These are probably some SAG violations. Definitely anything with a moving vehicle was rough. Then just I think like sometimes the challenge with if you look at the trailer, it’s more about staging, more about blocking and kind of having interesting shots.

Sunkrish: He is a very visual director and the world that he creates out of a suburban neighborhood, a wealthy suburban neighborhood, is really such a visually interesting movie. I think it looks beautiful. It looks familiar; it’s just such a visually interesting movie to me.