When director Jacob Tierney began reading the screenplay for the comedy Preggoland, which opens in theatres May 1, he says he realized the story was one too rarely seen on the screen. It was a story filled with women just being funny, flawed, fascinating people.
“You don’t read that a lot,” Tierney told Toronto Film Scene over the phone from Montreal.
That wasn’t the only thing that attached him to the film – one that eventually premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2014.
“Most importantly, it made me chuckle,” he says. “That’s the great thing about comedy: if you’re not laughing, it’s not working. And I laughed the whole time I read the script.”
Preggoland must have impressed Tierney, who had never directed a feature film before that he had not written. He was a friend of Vancouver character actor Sonja Bennett, whom he had worked with on a pilot for the Comedy Network years earlier. Bennett wrote the screenplay and sent it to Tierney.
The comedy, set in suburban Vancouver, tells the story of Ruth (also played by Bennett). She is a woman in her mid-thirties who still lives at home, doesn’t have a boyfriend and makes a paltry wage as a grocery store cashier. As many of her close friends are ditching her for their newborns, Ruth decides to fake a pregnancy.
Even with the bizarre premise, the protagonist resonated with Tierney, who is 35 and says he has watched some of his old friendships change once children come into the picture.
“Suddenly, nobody can be out past 7:00,” he says. “It’s a whole new world.”
That’s the great thing about comedy: if you’re not laughing, it’s not working.
The modestly budgeted Canadian comedy got a bit of a boost from two well-known actors outside of Canada – stars one normally wouldn’t align to a film entitled Preggoland. The first was James Caan, whom Tierney had worked with on the 1998 drama This is my Father, for the role of Ruth’s dad, Walter. As Pedro, a Mexican immigrant and one of Ruth’s co-workers, the part went to Danny Trejo.
Tierney says he was hesitant to ask Trejo to take the part since he was not sure a man best known for brandishing weapons in Robert Rodriguez films would embrace the screenplay. However, he says Trejo was very excited and became the first actor (other than Bennett) to sign on to the film.
“He showed up to work the first day, and he was like, ‘I don’t have a gun. I love this!’” Tierney says. “I think he was thrilled with the idea of playing a goofy stoner.”
More importantly, though, was the thirty-something female ensemble. Tierney says without much time for pre-production and shooting, he didn’t have the luxury of doing chemistry tests with the actors. Instead, he says he stuck to hiring the funniest women who walked in the door.
Fortunately, many hilarious women walked through. Despite a strict shooting schedule, Tierney said he had no problem giving the actors room to improvise. As Ruth’s friend Cherry, improv and sketch comic Denise Jones made up some vulgar lines about her attraction to Walter that stayed in the final cut.
“I always try to create an environment where nobody’s holding back,” Tierney says.
Best known with Canadian movie lovers for his 2010 comedy The Trotsky, Tierney says that he wanted to make Preggoland feel grounded and not as broad. Thankfully, the pallid lighting and poor Vancouver weather shown throughout the comedy echoes Ruth’s cloudy demeanour.
I always try to create an environment where nobody’s holding back.
“[Director of photography] Steve Cosens and I had talked about doing something different… not honeying up the hues and of not doing soft-focus stuff,” Tierney tells TFS. “Comedies don’t all have to look the same.”
Tierney adds that the basis for the film’s more natural aesthetic was early Mike Leigh comedies, like Life is Sweet.
The Montreal native is especially excited for his next screenplay, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Tierney co-wrote the film with Xavier Dolan (who directs) and the drama boasts a cast including Kit Harrington, Jessica Chastain and Susan Sarandon. The film will begin shooting in the fall, as soon as Dolan wraps production on another title.
“He’s an inspiring dude,” Tierney says of Dolan, whose first five films all received critical acclaim and major festival berths. “He’s so committed to the work that he does. He’s fearless and doesn’t take no for an answer.”
Still, Tierney is a busy bee himself. After filming Preggoland, Tierney signed on to direct Game On, a comedy series for YTV about a high schooler whose life receives sports-like play-by-play commentary. (The shows premieres May 4.) Earlier this spring, he directed a production of Tom Stoppard’s period drama Travesties at the Segal Centre in Montreal.
It seems that for Tierney, just like the title for one of Preggoland’s influences, life is indeed sweet.