Ally Pankiw has always had the it factor. If you look at her filmography, it’s clear that she’s always had the comedic chops; taking on projects like Schitt’s Creek and The Great have established her as a voice in bridging comedy and heartfelt characters into worlds of opulence and outlandish situations. In her directorial feature film debut, I Used To Be Funny focuses on the comedic aspects that Pankiw has always had, while also allowing for her own voice to pave the way into something more tragic. The film centers around Sam (played by Rachel Sennott), whose world is turned upside down after Brooke, a young woman (played by Olga Petsa) she used to watch disappears out of the blue. Told through flashbacks and present day, Sam finds herself reminiscing on the past while struggling to lean back into standup after a whirlwind of events that has affected her PTSD. Sam navigates day to day with her close friends Paige & Philip (played by Sabrina Jalees and Caleb Hearon) as she debates on if she should join the search around the area for Brooke.
Before I Used To Be Funny made its world premiere at SXSW this week, I spoke to writer/director Ally Pankiw on Gen Z’s coping processes, Rachel Sennott’s incredible performance, and the 10 year learning process of working on the project.
Leia Mendoza: First of all, I just wanted to say that I’ve watched a lot of the films screening at SXSW and I watched I Used To Be Funny last week as my first screener. It’s my favorite film out of the festival.
Ally Pankiw: Thank you so much! That’s so nice.
LM: I know you’ve said in the past that you’ve been working on this project for ten years, so what was your epiphany moment when you decided to work and expand on it?
AP: I started writing the script in 2013-2014. At the time I just didn’t have the resources to make a feature. I didn’t have the connections to make a feature. But, it was just an important project for me and a story I wanted to tell. So, I just kept diligently working away at it and then started to work a lot in TV and then started to meet people that could help me make it. And then, in 2017 or 2016, I met one of my producers James in Canada. He read the script and was like “I’d love to help you make this.”, so that felt like that was a great spout of confidence to keep going. You know, along the way in development and pre-production and production, there were more of those responses that gives you that energy to keep going with a marathon of what it is to make a film.
LM: Since this is your directorial feature debut, as well as writing the script, what have you taken in the process of making that you’re going to apply to the rest of your career?
AP: Oh! Well, I’m never going to shoot a feature in so few days again! *laughs* I’m gonna fight to have more shoot days. We were really scrappy and had to be really resourceful and that’s obviously because you always want the luxury of time. But, I guess making the film in the way that we did, being so lean and being so resourceful, it does make you a better creative problem solver when you can’t just solve everything with money. So, I think I’ll take that spirit of trying to solve creatively first with me and into all of my future work. The past work I’ve done in film and TV and the music video branded space started teaching me that lesson and it was really obvious on the indie feature front. Also, just being pretty firm about your vision and making sure that it’s always being understood. But also making sure that you’re being articulate enough to help people understand it that are collaborating with you and being a really good communicator, hopefully! *laughs*
LM: Yeah! I know that you’ve touched on the fact that you have worked on other projects like Schitt’s Creek and The Great, and you’ve directed music videos, so you’ve kind of jumped around from TV to music to now film. What do you think was the biggest shock or learning experience that you’ve learned about feature filmmaking?
AP: Well, the actual production is not different or a shock. I think the business side of indie films is quite new to me and quite interesting and something that I don’t have the experience to navigate. So, like, just the whole business side of trying to sell the film and everything that goes along with that has been really eye opening. When I join a TV show, for instance, it’s already set up somewhere and you already know what the platform is going to be so the film timeline has been very eye opening of all the different stages of development, distribution, sales & all of that stuff. So, I’m learning a lot about the business side of film with this experience. But you know, a day on set is a day on set. So, it felt the same as my other work in that regard.
LM: So, I kind of want to talk about the film without spoilers, obviously. I think in a lot of media nowadays, we see a very clear power dynamic between babysitters and children that is never really taken seriously. One thing I loved about Brooke and Sam is their banter and the way they become each other’s confidant. With Rachel and Olga, how much did they add to the creation and the world building of their characters?
AP: Well, I’m glad that you picked up on that relationship being sort of unique! Because I think a lot of the time we don’t see intergenerational relationships between women explored on screen, and I really wanted to do that because those have been very formative relationships for me and my life. It’s lovely that their relationship stuck with you. I think they brought so much to the chemistry of those characters and just bringing those characters to life. The characters sort of are them, in a way, if that makes sense! I had a very different idea of who the character Brooke was before we found Olga Petsa. It was the kind of experience when you’re casting, and this is advice I always give; when you’re casting something, if someone can come in and change your mind and your preconceived notion of who the character is that you created, that’s something you shouldn’t ignore. So, Olga just brought so much depth and dimension to her character. It’s just so smart. She’s such a brilliant young woman that I feel like Rachel could really latch onto that. They sort of were each other’s equals in a lot of ways. That was a relationship that we fostered off screen and hopefully that came through on screen as well.
LM: It came on screen very well! I think what also helps with the film is in a way it kind of shows two generations of Gen Z.
AP: Yeah! That’s true.
LM: Despite that Sam’s a lot older, she has more experience, she’s done a lot more, there is kind of a difference in the way that the two cope with different circumstances that have unfolded. What do you think is your message to Gen Z viewers who watch this movie and what do you hope they gain out of Brooke and Sam?
AP: I mean, I don’t know if I have a different hope for different demographics for the film. But, I think that my hope for young women especially is that I hope that they can watch a character finding her way back to herself, back to her relationships and back to connection, and to be inspired by that. I’m a millennial, not even Gen Z. Rachel, I think technically is Gen Z. Hopefully young cool females will be cool to millennials and to give us grace as we age, and maybe get things wrong! So yeah, maybe that’s a hope! To have patience with older generations. But also, I think them having an intergenerational relationship, hopefully illuminates that women have been dealing with the same shit forever and we always will be. The only way to sort of get through that is to try to connect with each other and to take care of each other.
LM: As someone who is Gen Z, I just want to say that millennials are great! I don’t know why you guys get a bad reputation.
AP: *laughing* I mean, some of us are really bad, it’s fine and fair to say that!
LM: I also want to say that the ending really made me cry it all out because it just felt so therapeutic. I think you’ve written Sam in a way that you can’t help but root for her.
AP: That’s a lot of Rachel. She’s just so sweet and I think that comes through her. Her inherent sweetness as a human comes through in her character. Sorry, I just had to compliment Rachel, I didn’t mean to interrupt you!
LM: No, don’t worry! I’ve met Rachel twice. I saw her yesterday and she’s just so sweet and so lovely. I just love being around her, she just has the best energy. I’m so glad that this is the film where she’s obviously funny, but this film gives her the opportunity to showcase that she can do a very serious role and still be grounded. I think you’ve done a really great job with Rachel and directing her as well.
AP: Thank you so much! She’s incredibly talented so it was a joy to direct her. But yeah, I’m really excited for people to see her depth and her range in this film. She can really do anything. I just think generally speaking, I try to cast comedic actors and comedians in most of my roles, whether they be comedic or dramatic because I just think there’s just so much pathos in them. I also think specificity of voice is often embraced in comedic films or comedic work, but not a lot of people embrace the specificity of voice in sometimes more dramatic roles. I really wanted to still embrace Rachel’s essence and who she is and why she’s so loved. I channel that into this character. She definitely brought a lot to the character. It was a real treat to get to work with her. I’m excited for people to see the whole spectrum of what she can do as an actor.
LM: As a final question, I love the music that was chosen throughout the film. It helps tells the story to the fullest extent. Since you’ve been working on I Used To Be Funny for almost a decade, did the music stay the same or was a lot of it changed as the story began to take shape?
AP: Some of it were some songs I knew for a really long time. As we started filming and the characters came to life more and more through casting, we all made playlists and talked about music a lot when we were shooting. I have a friend named Lou Roy who wrote a few songs that are in the film. One is called Valkyrie and that was just a song that happened to come out before we went into production, and I would listen to it everyday on the way to set. And so, it became something to me that was tied to the project. We were very thrilled when she let us use it for the film. So yeah, I think I always wanted to feature only female and non-binary artists on the soundtrack, but the soundtrack has definitely evolved from way long ago when I was much younger, when I was closer to Brooke’s age than Sam. I hope I answered the question, I talked a lot.
LM: No, you totally answered my question! That’s my last question. I just want to say congratulations! I love this film so much. I’m so excited for everyone to watch it.
AP: Thank you, thank you!
LM: I’m so glad it’s premiering here in Austin and congratulations on being in the Narrative Competition!
AP: Oh, thank you again! We’re just happy to be here and it’s been such a fun festival so far, and the audiences are amazing. I’m very thrilled to be premiering here!
I Used To Be Funny is playing in the Narrative Competition at SXSW 2023. This was written for SXSW Film & TV Festival.