In contemporary society, the truth is elastic. It’s hard to pin down. With so much information accessible via the internet, everyone has their own opinions and facts based on a whole host of ‘credible’ sources. The confusion and anxiety birthed by this notion are front-and-centre of Jon Ryan Sugimoto’s latest comedy short Gut Punch, which sees three locals in a New York bodega convene and converse over the truth behind antibiotics. Sugimoto’s film isn’t a lecture though and doesn’t contain a lesson to be learned, instead he asks that we all just take a step back and laugh at the sheer messiness of the situation itself. DN took the opportunity of the film’s recent online release to speak with Sugimoto about the genesis of Gut Punch, how he cast the semantic comedy via direct messages and the choice to self-release the short.
What I loved about Gut Punch is how it presents as a comedy whilst trojan horsing in the subject of confusion in the information age. How did this project come to be?
Like many people, several of my relationships were damaged during the pandemic due to the information wars that separated us. At the time I took to the emerging platform of TikTok to start writing and acting in comedy sketches to bring me some joy and connection. I made a sketch called Professional Biotics, about three bodega dwellers arguing about gut health, to reflect the information disconnect between me and some of my family. Funny or Die bought the sketch, it did well on their page, and the success made me want to expand this idea. Subconsciously, I think I wanted to extend a truce with friends and family that I had been disagreeing with as if to say “Hey none of us know shit! I miss you.” Over the next year I developed the script from five pages to 18 pages and nailed down an inspiring cast.
Subconsciously, I think I wanted to extend a truce with friends and family that I had been disagreeing with.
How did comedian Joe List become involved in the film?
One of my favourite New York comedians right now is Joe List. To me he was the holy grail, so like many daunting goals I put it off and kept working on other aspects of the film. I met with another prospective key member, Ling Mai, who is such an artist. After he accepted the project we had one too many sojus over dinner and I said, “Screw it, I’m going to message Joe List on Instagram and see if he will even respond.” Joe responded to me the next morning accepting the offer. Something is so intoxicating about getting a “yes” from someone you revere. After that, production really kicked off.
Joe and the rest of the cast bring the script to life with such vibrancy. What was it like sourcing the other cast members?
Once I secured my Producer Brenna Webb, we had a team going. I needed someone to keep up with Joe, so I started tapping into stand-up connections and tried for many many comics that either turned it down or were not available. One night I came across this insanely electric personality Radel Ortiz. Then I looked at his IG which had one million followers, his Tiktok two million, and Facebook another two million. I thought “He will never read my DMs”, so I put it off and kept on with holding traditional casting websites. No one came close to the character. After a defeated 10 hour casting session I came home and decided to email Radel’s manager. About one hour later at 10pm I get a call from his manager that he was interested. I could not believe it was coming together. Radel comes in to audition the next day. It was just as electric as his sketches. I cast him on the spot.
The third character, Rex, was the last piece of the puzzle. I worked with Casting Director Aaron Schoover to find the right actor. He has suggested Greer Barnes who I was a huge fan of. I didn’t hear back from his management and the IG message trick didn’t work. I tried to go to comedy clubs to ‘run into’ him and just could never find him. This guy is an enigma! I searched his IMDb and found another short film he had done. I then messaged the director of that short film and asked for his email which he gave me with Greer’s permission. I pitched it to Greer and he was on board. The principal cast was locked.
What was the dynamic like on set? Did they require much direction from you or did the performances come naturally?
On set it felt truly like a bunch of friends having fun. It was one of those shoots where even the sound guy was laughing at every take. It was by far the most fun I have ever had making a film. 14 hours later we were burnt toast but truly felt satisfied with what we had made.
What was it like working with Joe, Radel, and Greer on set? How did you approach your direction with them?
They’re all so quick and smart. It was fun to harness their comedic minds in our two rehearsals. At the first rehearsal I had them bring whatever they wanted to the table and I took note of their improv lines and worked them into the script. For the second rehearsal they now had a script with their improv lines in there so it was just tightening some timing and blocking. On set the only scene that was improvised on was the opening scene. The cast came in hot with those opening lines. After that it was mostly small direction and timing notes between takes. A lot of the blocking and performance notes were already set from the rehearsal. I can’t say it enough but this cast was so fun and light throughout the whole thing.
It was by far the most fun I have ever had making a film.
You mentioned that you shot over one night, did you thoroughly shot list in anticipation or did you find the shots on the day after blocking?
For every short film I make a previs. Once we had the location we shot the film shot for shot in photos and from those I edited together the entire film with dialogue, music and sound design. I make sure the key crew watches it so that we can all be on the same page. It also helps to have a video to send to outside colleagues to get notes on the film before it’s even shot. You find what dialogue works, pacing, music, and angles, not to mention it almost becomes drag and drop for the editor’s assembly. Once the previs is locked we added screenshots of every angle to a shot list and just crossed off the shots as we shot them. The final cut is damn near shot for shot the previs.
You’ve taken an unconventional route with your release and promotion of Gut Punch, could you walk us through that decision?
I really wanted to make this film as a thank you to my crowdsourced donors for helping me fund this and my other films. So instead of doing the festival route, I chose to put on my own screening. That way the donors could actually watch the film as soon as possible. I held the premiere at the Angelika theater in Manhattan. I set it up as a short film night and packed out the theater! I ran a Q&A after and posted it on YouTube that night.
How challenging was it to self-release the film?
Doing a self-release is a lot of work. It really takes all of your free hours especially if you have a full time job like I do. However I can say that everything that is coming from it is paying off ten fold.
What can we expect from you next?
At the moment I am looking for representation to help me make that decision. I have a drama feature I’ve been writing for a while that is about female comedians that I would love to be shooting by spring/summer next year. I would also love to package my narrative work over my last three short films and advance towards directing TV comedy. If I could direct something along the lines of a High Maintenance episode I think that would be a great fit for me. I also have a short film currently in its festival run called Full Time. It’s about a skateboarder that is offered money to stand in a square for money and the longer he stays there the more money he gets. I am looking to post that on my YouTube channel in late fall/early winter this year.