At a lakeside cottage, Allen Sunshine (Vincent Leclerc) keeps to himself. He goes out on his boat, walks his dog, and wanders the surrounding forest with a tape recorder capturing the sounds of nature, which he then mixes into songs with different analog synthesizers. We soon learn that Allen is a music mogul mourning the death of his wife, a famous singer whose career he helped launch. But Allen’s time alone is far from peaceful. He’s full of guilt and rage over his wife’s passing, rejecting the fame and fast-paced life of success in the industry to find solace in the quiet luxury of his cottage and home studio.

Allen Sunshine, the directorial debut of Montreal-born and New York-based filmmaker Harley Chamandy, observes its title character’s journey to acceptance after loss through the help of several neighbors, including two children and a local delivery man. The film has a modest appearance, with its minimal plot allowing Allen’s feelings to be conveyed through mood and setting. Much of Allen Sunshine amounts to watching the generosity of others, and how basic acts of kindness and connection can change someone’s world.

Chamandy was 22 years old when he shot Allen Sunshine, and he’s quick to explain how much he pored over every one of his film’s seemingly light touches. His background includes multiple shorts, as well as getting to participate in a filmmaking workshop led by Werner Herzog when he was only 17. Now, he directs his first feature with precision, which includes his choice to shoot on 16mm. So far, things have been working out for him. Allen Sunshine won the First Cut+ award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in 2023, and Alex Coco, who produced Palme d’Or winner Anora, signed on as an Executive Producer. 

Before the film’s world premiere at the Munich Film Festival, I spoke with Chamandy via Zoom about the making of Allen Sunshine.

The Film Stage: This is an entry into a sort of subgenre of rural Canadian movies. I think it’s a part of Canadian identity, this idea of going into the woods or to a cottage. My family didn’t have one, but growing up we’d go visit friends at their cottages in the summer. Did you have that experience growing up?

Harley Chamandy: Yeah. Like you said, every Canadian––especially in Quebec––growing up you’d go skiing or you’d go to a country house. If it’s not yours, it’s a friend’s. My parents had a country house and we did the classic thing of going to friends’ homes to ski. It was never really in the summer––more like winter-country vibes. But it was never the inspiration. I never thought of the Canadian aspect of it, but I really wanted to explore this [kind of location in] North America. That’s why there’s no defined location in the film; I really wanted to grasp this aesthetic of North America and this location. There’s a familiarity. We know where it is, but it’s not specified. But I had never thought of it that way.

Do you prefer the solitude of a rural environment?

I definitely appreciate the solitude. The idea stemmed from this image of a man alone with his dog making electronic music and going through something. I really like the juxtaposition of electronic synthesizers and big gear by a lake. I had never really seen those images come together. As a filmmaker, I know that a lot of people feel like they have stories to tell, but I never see film as storytelling. I think that story evolves from images. But it really started with this element of solitude and this juxtaposition in the image.

Why did you think of electronic music?

It’s one of my favorite genres of music. I was looking into electronic music, and I read an interview with Aphex Twin where he said something that stood out to me: he said electronic music is the most introspective music because it’s the only music where you’re not thinking about another audience. It’s really about you and the gear and what comes out of that. It’s a beautiful, meditative relationship. I think that electronic music is the most personal form of music, and that’s what I’m looking for. 

So you have this image of a man in the woods working on electronic music. How do you branch out from that and come up with more details?

I wanted to explore the idea of an intergenerational relationship that is completely innocent and how one can learn from that. And that stemmed from the idea that this person is already famous, and what fame and celebrity means in the modern context of how we approach people. I think that these two kids, already knowing that Allen was a famous musician, made for so many possibilities to explore. I also wanted to explore what happens after grief and how we find ourselves. It was very much about this idea of what can happen next, and finding the truth through these two boys. 

Allen Sunshine

What made you want to have children play the parts of those helping Allen through his grief?

I guess I was always interested in children. All of the short films I made prior were with kids, and I think there’s so much more truth to them. I personally had never really seen many modern films explore that. One of my favorite filmmakers is Abbas Kiarostami, and one of my favorite movies is The Wind Will Carry Us. I thought the relationship between the young boy and the man who comes to the village was very interesting. I think that in a modern, American context that would be so taboo. There were so many ideas and thoughts that went into my film that you don’t see on the surface. Questions about society and what’s stopping us from becoming friends with people that we wouldn’t necessarily be friends with. What are the outcomes of that? I was basically searching for these questions while writing.

I’ve seen two of your short films as well as Allen Sunshine. The Final Act of Joey Jumbler was inspired by your lead actor and his backstory. And with a short like Where It’s Beautiful When It Rains, you shot it guerilla-style with an actor you liked. How would you describe your process when it comes to making films?

With the short films, they were always exercises. I’ve been making short films since I was 14. I had many prior films, some that I’m not as proud of. Allen Sunshine was this aesthetic that I was chasing for a very long time. I was collecting photos for years in high school, and my focus was always to evoke this atmosphere of Allen Sunshine. Even with the shorts, I was always thinking about how I could take it to the next level. But I thought that the short format was too limiting because it’s more punchline-y, like it’s always getting to the punch. The primary focus was really to evoke this emotional atmosphere rather than telling a simple, linear story. Every detail of the film has been carefully considered––like the props, the costumes, the way characters speak, the selection of the film stock, the breed of Allen’s dog. The way I speak about my film is more like how a visual artist would speak about a film, rather than a movie maker.

Your film is not what one might commonly associate with a first-time feature filmmaker at your age. It’s subdued, and people might expect something more fast-paced or energetic. Have you ever thought about what draws you to the style you’ve described about your work?

I honestly take that as a compliment, that you recognize that. Even in my festival submissions I would write that I find a lot of art made for and by young people is very cynical and nihilistic. I hope to offer a fresh perspective of optimism and choosing happiness. The core of my movie was always about returning to what makes us human. Obviously it starts with the image, then the thematic of finding yourself, and these questions of society and fame and these big topics that I wanted to explore. This nuance was something that I thought was missing, and I still think it’s missing in my generation. 

Do you think there’s a response built in your work to the cynicism you’re seeing in contemporary art?

For sure, because [with film festivals] you start to find these patterns in what they’re accepting. If you told me tomorrow to remake my first feature film but the goal was to get into Cannes, I would make a completely different movie. Even for the short films like Joey Jumbler, all these fancy festivals weren’t down with it. But after it played at a festival, I had people come up to me and shake my hand saying it’s refreshing and how they’re so moved. It’s interesting that they use the word refreshing, since it’s really the essence of what we are as humans. These are stories about childhood and happiness and friendship––these very PG, nice subjects. 

The film takes place almost entirely at Allen’s large, lakeside cottage. What was location-scouting like? 

I did the location-scouting all on my own. I was looking everywhere––Airbnb, all those websites. The last resource I had was Facebook. I know that no one in my generation uses Facebook anymore, but I just had this urge to go on Facebook. I really like this area of Magog, Quebec, because my producer Laurent Allaire has his production company in the Eastern Townships. That was easier, since he can drive there, and if I’m in New York I could drive there. I went on a Facebook group in the Eastern Townships and I got so lucky that a woman had this home. It’s a home from the 1880s; it was a draft-dodger’s home and it had about ten acres of land. It was the craziest find, but that was a very difficult period of my life to try and find a perfect location. It was months and months of looking and then finally––like two weeks before I had to lock in a location––I found this house.

Behind the scenes of Allen Sunshine

Since this is your first feature, what was the most difficult part of the shoot for you? 

The most difficult aspect was literally everything. [Laughs] Finding the location was hell. Another difficult thing was finding this exact dog breed that I really wanted. There was only one dog in all of Quebec that was a black Great Dane, and a month before the shoot that dog got cancer. I had to find another one, and the dog that I got had never acted before. Werner Herzog once said there’s no such thing as child actors, there’s just children, so working with two 10-year-old boys was difficult. My Native American actor, Joseph, never acted before. He shows up on set and he says, “What’s a script?” So that was completely improvised. What else can I tell you? 

Looking back at it now, this film would have never been possible to make with the budget we had without my mother [producer Chantal Chamandy], who found a solution to everything even when it seemed impossible. I don’t even know how I was able to get this movie done because it was so difficult every step of the way, especially being a young filmmaker with no real industry connections. I mean, my mom did one movie and she makes music, but it wasn’t a thing where it’s, like, one phone call to make this movie happen.

I wanted to ask you about casting Vincent Leclerc, who plays Allen. How did you get him for the film?

Vincent is a very well-recognized actor in Quebec, and I work with this casting director named Ginette D’Amico, who I actually interned for when I was 13 or 14. She was casting my short films, so when I came to do this film she told me it’s very hard to get actors interested because it’s a low-budget movie. We sent the script around and I actually got [a response] from Vincent. We got on a FaceTime call, and he loved how nuanced and sensitive the [script] was.

Was there a lot of hashing the role out with Vincent Leclerc on set or during prep for the shoot?

I had a very specific view of how I wanted Allen to be. I know that most actors probably wouldn’t love that because it doesn’t give them as much room to figure [the role] out. I thought it was important to get this sensibility across, this nuanced and toned-down type of performance. We spoke every day before shooting and really got into the scenes and the character and the motivations. Once Vincent got on set and saw all of the music gear, he understood way more of what I meant by this character, like the subtleties of his luxury and the way that this man was living.

I assume it’s more straightforward when you’re working with the two kids. 

Yeah. They’re kids, they’re jacked-up on Mountain Dew, they’re just acting and having fun. They were excited to say some bad words.

Can you talk about developing the visuals with your cinematographer Kenny Suleimanagich, and why you chose to film on 16mm?

The reason for 16mm, in terms of an aesthetic choice, was that it was very important that there was no time frame in the film and that it had a timeless essence. I felt like 16mm really was the way to capture that. I always knew this was a movie that had to feel almost like an old photo. Kenny is one of my best friends and he did me a huge favor by doing this movie. It actually made more sense to shoot with Kenny because he owned the camera and the lenses. We spent countless hours speaking about how we find that modern movies––even stuff that’s shot on 16mm––are not very specific. To us, the colors mattered, the texture and the grain and what we were going to do with the image. 

None of our references were cinematographic. The only references we had were from the Canadian painter Alex Colville. All of my visual references stem from paintings because I wanted this to be the purest form of me trying to create new images, even though that’s impossible these days. I never wanted to get inspired by any cinema.

In pursuing that timeless quality beyond the format, what do you think helps with that? I’m guessing, from what you said, that you’re mainly looking outside of cinematic influences.

I almost wanted each image to serve as a reference for other artists. Don’t kill me for this, but: I’ve always wanted to say that I think, if a filmmaker is not thinking visually first, that they shouldn’t be making films because film is a visual medium. The filmmaker should think about every single thing that’s in frame, and this attention to detail is really lacking these days. To create this atmosphere, the clothes needed to be these vintage pieces, like designer pieces. Think of these old Margiela, old Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, where you’re feeling these textures. It’s like you’re bringing other art into a frame. Everything has to work in a way that’s very harmonious. All of those things really went into this and I really wish that more people could get that.

I agree with you: these details are all there, and it’s frustrating that people won’t register them, but at the same time it’s contributing to something overall.

I think that’s what gets lost in North American film. Europeans use the word “sensibility” and we never use that word to speak about film as much in the modern context. 

How do you work on developing that through compositions?

It’s instinct. I just know where the camera needs to go. I am trying to make every frame a painting. I would love for you to go through my movie and, if you screenshot every second and one of them looks like they can’t stand alone, then I did a bad job. I wanted to create stuff that you can reference when you’re one day doing something.

You have several scenes where Allen is working and we hear his music. It sounds experimental, more like him doing a jam session with his synthesizers. Could you go over the process of working with your composer Ethan Rose on establishing the sound of Allen’s music?

Ethan Rose is an artist I’ve admired forever. I think that his music has so much nuance because he’s using all these different [sources], like old piano boxes and ambient sounds he records. Allen and his relationship with the natural world, and what that meant, was very important to me. Because of his relationship with nature and music, it all becomes one. It’s all part of the healing process. The music was a collaborative way of speaking about what I wanted. But I told Ethan that he has to just watch the movie, and however he feels about it should be the way that [Allen] feels about it, because this character is like a version of him and the music that he’s made.

How did he feel about that, if you put it in that way to him?

He said that he really liked the relationship Allen had with his music. And I think, by him saying that, I understood that it’s similar to the way that he composes. I never met Ethan in-person yet, but we had these Zoom calls where he showed me around his entire studio. And I based a lot of the character off of how I envisioned Ethan made his music. 

Earlier, you asked me what was really hard. Finding the synthesizers was extremely hard, because it needed to be these very rare Japanese synthesizers that no one has anywhere except for one guy in Montreal, who I was so blessed to meet. His name is Peter Venuto. He owns this thing called Synth Palace, but it’s basically in his apartment. He has synths from all over the world––he’s a crazy collector––and I just hit it off with him. It was a blessing that he was so willing to lend me his stuff for next-to-no money when it’s like $200,000 worth of gear. Obviously most viewers won’t know that Allen’s setup is a half-a-million-dollar kind of setup. It’s a little nuance that I really wanted to push. It’s these small things that, in the end, are gonna make this big picture.

You put some light, magical-realist touches in your film. There’s the strange fish that Allen and the boys catch.

My reference was The Tree of Life and the dinosaurs. I wanted the viewer to ask if it was real or not. I took a lot of inspiration from Blow Up, and there’s even a scene that references a shot. You’re saying magical realism, but it was this question of “what is our reality?”

What I took from it was the idea of much more going on outside Allen’s perspective. What made you want to put these elements in? There’s also the camera someone gives Allen. There’s no explanation; it just shows up on his doorstep.

And it’s in a purple velvet box. It would never be delivered that way. Allen exists in one reality––of the modern day and success and fame. My question was, “Can he learn to live in this other reality?” The question of reality interested me, which adds to the Blow Up context and how the whole movie is about what’s real and what’s not. And then to continue that with these little magical elements, so the audience keeps [wondering] what’s real. And in an aesthetic way that just hits for me. I’m like, “Damn, that’s fire. I love that.”

This is your first feature, which you made when you were 22 years old. You’ve had success already, like the prize you won at Karlovy Vary. You’ve also had some people put their names on your film who are interested in it. I guess, in a very broad sense, how would you summarize your experience navigating the industry side of things since making the film?

It’s a success to have even made this film, but an even bigger success that I have made a film that I’m so proud of, and that I feel is preaching everything that I believe cinema should be. But at the same time, I feel like I got to be outspoken. There are too many filmmakers that speak so humbly about their stuff, but I’m so excited about my movie. Even getting someone like Alex Coco, who just won the Palme d’Or for Anora, to want to put his name on it… I never knew him. I met him after he put his name as Executive Producer. He found my movie through a kid I knew that worked on his set of another movie. He watched the movie and he said he wanted to be part of this. I think that’s cool, that people like that could recognize. 

And then I got Werner Herzog, who I did a program with when I was 17. We did a Zoom call before shooting the movie to get his advice, and now his brother’s coming to my premiere in Munich, which is sick. Winning the First Cut Lab programme, and then winning at Karlovy Vary––that was a really big deal for me. I’m this random 22-year-old kid winning at a major festival like Karlovy Vary. There were filmmakers there with their fourth feature in the same category. I hope that I’ll be able to push out what I really believe that cinema should be, because I really love cinema. I live for cinema, and I think that we need it to change if we want to survive, and you gotta have young people really care about it.

You mentioned names like Werner Herzog and Alex Coco, and you told me before that you talked with Godland director Hlynur Pálmason as well. Is there any piece of advice that you have taken from the people you’ve encountered while navigating the industry?

That’s one I got to think about. [Pause] Probably from Hlynur. He said to me, “It’s all about persistence. Just keep going, keep making the work, it’s gonna find a home.” The advice that I would want to give to any young person or young filmmaker is: don’t be afraid to send that cold email. I met Hlynur because I went to see Godland, and I was so floored by it that I had to email him. He offered to do a Zoom with me and then watched my movie. We’ve been in contact for a year now. It’s sick because he’s one of my favorite filmmakers, and I now have a dialogue with him. So don’t be afraid.

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