by Lucy Leitner
The fictional Youngstown of Sonny Days is a failing town filled with strange people who powerlift logs on the side of the road and dress in fifty shades of neon pink. Known as a one-time Mafia stronghold, Youngstown is kindly defined by the fine folks of the Urban Dictionary as “one crazy-ass shithole.” It’s a place perpetually sinking down in a Bruce Springsteen song, that has recently seen some revitalization that the makers of the good-natured upcoming film are attempting to depict.
Youngstown’s eccentricities, blight, and rich mafia history make it the ideal setting for Sonny Days, a fictional comedy about a bumbling attempt at urban renewal. Executive Producer Jon Kasunic and Director Tom Megalis of Crow’s Run Pictures, creative partners for the better part of three decades, co-wrote the script for their first feature-length film, which they hope showcases their unique, offbeat brand of humor.
In order to reinvigorate the Ohio city, the mayor and rather inept city council ask the, shall we say, interesting people of Youngstown to voice their ideas to save the city. Amid proposals like self-serving online dating services to help socially awkward plaid pants enthusiasts, Chuck Coolenzo (Megalis) emerges with his plan to construct a commemorative bench outside City Hall. However, the funding for the bench is coming from the widow (Carnegie Mellon drama professor Ingrid Sonnichsen) of local mobster and “sometimes beloved human being of Youngstown, Ohio” Sonny “The Sponge” Sopella, who died tragically in an accidental head explosion. Chuck and the council are met with opposition by Barry Winkle (St. Elmo’s Fire screenwriter Carl Kurlander in his acting debut), a nerdy film director who wears bathrobes outside the house and doesn’t approve of the bullet holes in the bench, which Chuck claims signify the “unfortunate passing of many mobsters who were lost in their prime.”
Though Pittsburgh merely stands in for Youngstown and none of the action occurs in our magnificent metropolis, the cast and crew are almost entirely local, exemplifying Pittsburgh’s own eclectic array of talent. Kati Lightholder sports an oversize wig and glasses to play Councilwoman Sophie, a comedic role that she hopes to see more of, although she has been successful in producing commercials and the Syfy series Mercury Men. Comedians Aaron Kleiber (in a primary role as a councilman) and Jim Krenn (cameo) both performed injured in the film due to their participation in a rib-cracking, bone-crushing, finger-smashing, ferociously dangerous charity softball game.
James Howlett plays the mayor, and ubiquitous local actor David Earley (Silence of the Lambs, Dawn of the Dead) and comedian Billy Elmer also appear. Hungarian-turned-Pittsburgher Joszef Fitos gives the film the obligatory Eastern European Olympic gymnast presence, while international champion whistler and Pittsburgh native Sean Lomax has a role. The only prominent non-Pittsburghers are “Genuine Nerd” and American Splendor actor Toby Radloff and YouTube comedian Ed Bassmaster. They even recruited their Uptown neighbors for speaking roles, creating a much less weird and much more accomplished version of the Dreamlanders.
“We have the support here, the comedy network. All our comedians are also actors,” Kasunic explained.
But even with a strong local network and friend Nancy Mosser to help with the casting, Kasunic wasn’t sure that they could pull it off. Though he and Tom had been working together for nearly thirty years and had put together successful careers shooting national commercials and short films that were shown at Sundance, they had not ventured into feature territory, and their clean, eclectic humor was untested at a longer length. Some of the laughs come from awkward moments, others from broad physical comedy, and still others from subtle, deadpan, unexpected twists in almost banal lines of dialogue reminiscent of Christopher Guest.
“We just wanted to make a movie that makes us laugh,” Kasunic explained.
It’s the type of humor that is meant to be heard more than once. It’s funny, but the reason is difficult to explain. It could be oddity. And the delivery helps, but there is something inherently amusing when Megalis as Coolenzo ad-libs that the bench “will be blessed repeatedly by a group of bishops who are yet to be determined.” The film operates on the assumption that the characters do not have a hint of self-consciousness and therefore have no idea how funny they are.
“On day three, when I saw that the actors we cast were actually pulling it off, I got kind of emotional,” Kasunic recalled. “I said to Tom, ‘We’re going to make this movie.’”
Kurlander was equally pleasantly surprised by the strength of the film and everyone working on it.
“What I thought was different and unexpected was how talented they are,” the My Tale of Two Cities filmmaker said. “The only thing I question about the production is their casting me.”
Sonny Days is different from other feature debuts in the age and experience of the crew. Kasunic says that he and Megalis have “enough finished scripts to shoot our lives out,” but until recently simply could not afford to make a full-length film with the available technology. They bring their decades of professional experience and understanding of both film and comedy to the production while integrating younger interns and Point Park Cinema and Digital Arts graduates into the 25-person crew.
Editor and Director of Photography Dave Prokopec, a Point Park alum, has shot, directed, and edited videos for Wiz Khalifa. Production Coordinator Shaun O’Donnell runs his own local production company, Resilient Entertainment. Experience and professionalism helped the cast and crew stay on track during grueling days of filming—fourteen hours a day for twenty days straight—while balancing a cast of eight primaries and between fifty and seventy total players.
“This is a new age of Pittsburgh filmmaking,” Kurlander said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”