While touring the Canadian film festival circuit with their debut feature film, Toronto-based filmmakers Jon E. Cohen and Nicola Sammeroff have had to field some awkward questions.
The first question they often receive from audiences and journalists: are you swingers?
The inquiry may seem out of left field, except that Sammeroff and Cohen are not just creative partners – she produces, he directs – they’re also married with children. And the subject matter relates directly to their film, A Swingers Weekend.
“We’re not swingers,” admits Sammeroff. “We thought that that (angle) was a funny way and an awkward way to get these six characters into the space that we wanted them.”
In the comedy, which was written by Cohen and Sammeroff, a weekend of casual fun between two couples in cottage country goes awry when a third couple arrives unexpectedly. The sexual tension at the lake house eventually leads the characters to examine their own lives, both inside and outside of the bedroom. The film explores the theme of whether a couple can be happy together, if each person is not happy individually, Cohen says.
Filmed in Gravenhurst, Ont., at the tail end of the summer of 2016, A Swingers Weekend has spent much of this season charming audiences at festivals in Calgary, Edmonton and Sudbury, Ont. The comedy will screen at the Whistler Film Festival on Nov. 30 and Dec. 3, and is expected to reach Canadian cinemas early in 2018.
Part of the reason the film has thrived on the festival circuit is due to Cohen and Sammeroff’s decision to aim their story at a larger audience.
“Writing a film just for ourselves is fulfilling, but our end goal is we want people to see it,” Sammeroff tells The CJN. “As a writer, you have to tread carefully. How can I stay true to what I want and still give something that I think has a broad appeal?”
However, there was no guarantee that the film would be produced in the first place. Actors Mia Kirshner (The L Word) and Jonas Chernick (My Awkward Sexual Adventure), who play the dysfunctional couple Fiona and Geoffrey, were only cast a week or two before filming began.
Sammeroff and Cohen say they knew that with a small cast and a limited number of locations, they would be able to produce it themselves, without too many challenges.
But that threw a wrench into the screenwriting process: how do you engage an audience for 90 minutes with just six characters?
“The cast was the key component … to make it a success,” Sammeroff says.
TV mainstays Erin Karpluk (Being Erica), Michael Xavier (Bitten), Randal Edwards (The Killing) and Erin Agostino (Murdoch Mysteries) round out the ensemble.
Shot on a small budget at Cohen’s sister’s lake house, the production didn’t always go as planned. With several Gravenhurst locals volunteering on set, there was a revolving crew working with expensive camera and lighting equipment, Cohen says. “On the very first shot, the camera wouldn’t work.”
“WE’RE NOT SWINGERS”
The final product is a culmination of many years of behind-the-scenes work for Cohen, who worked as a production assistant and in film development in Los Angeles, after graduating from film school.
More than a decade ago, he reconnected with Sammeroff and the two began working together professionally.
“We said, ‘Let’s try writing a project together,’ ” she recalls. “We realized that we had a really good writing relationship. We had a similar sense of humour.”
With a title like A Swingers Weekend, Cohen and Sammeroff say that audiences can be confused as to why there is so little sex and nudity in the film.
“Our film is being a marketed as a sex comedy.… It’s really not,” Sammeroff says. “It’s a drama with funny people, funny situations and cringe comedy.”
Nevertheless, the catchy title could be valuable when the film appears on streaming and on-demand platforms.
“People are pleasantly surprised,” Sammeroff says, adding that it has been fun to observe festival audiences not knowing whether to laugh at some of the awkward comedy. “They go in expecting one thing, and they’re coming out getting something a little bit smarter.”