In Sandy Honig’s Pennies From Heaven, Absurdity Comes With Heart
For Pennies From Heaven, director and writer Sandy Honig kept it in the family.
Comedian Sandy Honig likes to keep it in the family, literally and figuratively. Whether it’s her friends Mitra Jouhari and Alyssa Stonoha, who together created the live show and Adult Swim series Three Busy Debras, or her brother Jake Honig, who often produces or directs her projects, Honig maintains a tight-knit group of funny people who seem to embody the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” For her latest project — which also marks her silver screen directorial debut — Honig doubled down on her creative kinship practices by helming a short film, co-written by and co-starring her friends and identical twin actors Annabel and Sabina Meschke, titled Pennies From Heaven.
The absurdist picaresque follows the Meschke sisters as general store clerks who avert a robbery only to score an unbelievable jackpot: a pick-up truck filled to the brim of pennies. “How many do you think are in here, sister?” asks Sabina. “Well, there are 60 pennies in a dollar,” replies Annabel. “No, that’s minutes in an hour. There are 24 pennies in a day…”
There’s a clear narrative, sure, but for anyone who’s followed Honig’s work, the simple plot description doesn’t do it justice. Pennies exists in its own irreverent universe, one where the identical protagonists break out into song to celebrate “busting a piss,” fill up on jelly packets at a diner, or visit a twins-only nightclub where we witness one sibling inhale a cigarette and the other exhale the smoke. Despite the 11-minute runtime, the short packs in more jokes per minute than early 30 Rock and embraces vaudeville and slapstick in the lineage of Mel Brooks, Bob Fosse, and Dumb and Dumber — all of which were direct reference points for Honig. Despite the film’s frenzied humor, Honig emphasizes its heart. “Even though it is so absurdist and silly, it does feel grounded emotionally.” That balance, plus the star-making performances by the Meschkes, is likely what won Pennies a Special Jury Award at South by Southwest in March, as well as led to the core team now developing the short into a feature-length film. (Well, once the writers strike ends.) “That’s been the main response that we’ve gotten from people: ‘I could watch two hours of that,’” Honig says.
Ahead of the film screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, Honig talks about the genesis of Pennies From Heaven, leaving room for off-the-cuff material, and why the project was an extremely gratifying “little family affair.”
How did you meet the Meschke twins? What was your original connection point?
I think we met in 2020. They’re a little younger than me and I don’t know if we overlapped at NYU, but I wasn’t really involved with comedy or acting or writing when I was there. But I met them at one of my last comedy shows before I moved to L.A. We had a mutual friend and we were talking before the show started and I was so immediately obsessed with them. They had the coolest outfits, the most fun energy. They were just so sweet and so funny. I immediately was drawn to them not knowing that they were performers, just being like, “Oh, these are really cool, funny girls.”Then when everything shut down, I was kind of just lurking around Instagram and someone posted a photo of them, and I was like, “Oh, it’s those girls that I met!” I looked them up, saw that they had sketches online, was watching their sketches, and was immediately like, “Oh, my God! These girls are incredible writers, incredible performers. Just so, so, so unbelievably funny and so unique.” And I just got obsessed with them. I watched every video on their YouTube channel, and I just couldn’t stop thinking about them — in a normal way. [laughs] And then I would go on these really long walks while listening to music, and I couldn’t get the image of them driving a pickup truck full of pennies out of my head. I kept thinking, “I don’t know what this is, but I just need to follow it.”
That was literally the spark? It was a single image?
Yeah. It was just that. I feel that that is mostly how I write. A lot of the time it comes image first.
So once you had that kernel, the idea, did you reach out to them? How did it develop from that to you all saying you want to write an actual script together?
I was very sick of the pandemic and didn’t have much to do and was going on these long walks. I started setting an intention for every walk of being like, “I’m going to keep thinking about this idea. Who are these characters? Where are they going? What are they doing?” And a lot of the time, I was putting on the song “Pennies From Heaven” on Spotify, going to radio mode, and just listening to it and writing down ideas on my phone. I did it enough times that I felt like I had a semblance of a plot. I had the twins working at the convenience store, getting robbed, getting the pennies. It was mostly there, but I didn’t have an ending. And that was when I reached out to them, which I was really afraid to do because I thought it was going to be weird and creepy.
”I wrote a film about you two with you two starring, do you want to get involved?”
Exactly. But I also hadn’t written it. I just had a vague plot idea. I didn’t really know them so it was hard to be like, “I’m just going to put words in your mouth when you are comedians and performers with your own voice.” I DM’d them and basically said, “I have this idea, would you guys want to Zoom about it?” And we talked about it a little bit, and then I asked if they wanted to write it with me. I really was feeling like they have such a special energy and such a unique way of talking that I didn’t feel that I could write it myself. I much prefer collaborating in that way.
Something I’m so curious about with you as a writer in general is that your work is often very absurdist and surreal. I’m curious how that actually translates to the page when you’re in development. Are a lot of the crazier, wackier things there from the get-go? And how much space do you even leave for improv and off-the-cuff stuff?
It’s interesting because it’s definitely different from the ways that I have worked in the past. Like on Three Busy Debras, we almost never improvised. Everything was extremely, heavily scripted. Each line sets up the next line, which sets up the next line. Sometimes, we would improvise something, but it would throw things off. The twins are very improv-heavy, though. All of the gags and stuff were scripted. I feel that it’s mostly the dialogue that was improvised. It was honestly a challenge for me as a director to just be chill and go with the flow. If something gets improvised, that’s fine. And it will ultimately make things better and funnier and more natural. I think this was tough, especially coming from a standup background. A lot of times, aside from crowd work, standup can seem like it’s very off-the-cuff, but it really is extremely scripted and timed-out. If you pause too long or not long enough, you won’t get the laugh. It’s very much like that. So I’m trying to push myself in standup to go more off the cuff.
But what I like about writing with the twins is... Ugh, I should refer to them as Annabel and Sabina. When I refer to them as “the twins,” I’m like, “Am I being disrespectful?” But yeah, when I write with Annabel and Sabina, I feel that I kind of drive the story points, but the two of them have such a unique dynamic and way of speaking, and everything out of their mouth is so funny, that I’ll kind of just go, “OK, here’s the scene. We’re going to beat out what happens; here’s what we need emotionally and what we need out of the scene.” Then the two of them will just start talking while I frantically try to type up everything they’re saying. At a certain point I have to go, “OK, OK, OK, we have enough jokes, now we have to switch to structure or emotional stuff.” It’s a really fun collaboration on both narrative and jokes.
You’re almost like the anchor that ties their brains back down for structure?
Yeah, but they’re really good at structure, too. They’re incredible, incredible writers. But I think since I’ve done a proper writers’ room situation, I know how to run a room. And it is sort of a little writers’ room, the three of us. I think that I kind of help drive the structure and keep us on plot.
I feel like doing the short was such a great way for us to really hone in on the tone of what we want to write for the feature version. Where now when we’re writing and we’re going, “OK, we’re having this scene in a diner and something’s happening in the background. Are we going to write dialogue or should we just leave space for this to be a place where they just improvise and it’ll be really fun?” I also really like doing rehearsals and I feel like a lot of stuff came from us rehearsing the scenes.
How do you describe a movie that’s as absurd as Pennies From Heaven?
To me, it just feels like classic slapstick comedy. It’s got jokes and gags, but there is a heart to it. And it is ultimately about the Meschkes’ relationship as sisters and twins and friends. Even though it is so absurdist and silly, it does feel grounded emotionally.
Do you consider Pennies to be your directorial debut?
I directed two episodes of Three Busy Debras, but I mean in terms of film, I guess it is my debut.
Did you have anyone give you any memorable advice about approaching a short feature as compared to directing TV?
Honestly, yes. Ben Mullen, the [director of photography] of the short, gave me really good advice that he claims he doesn’t remember giving me. [laughs] He said a lot of times with a shoot like this, which can be really hectic, it can be hard to focus on what’s actually happening on the screen. Like there are so many factors that you can worry about and panic about. But when you’re filming, he said, really just always focus on what is literally on the screen. And then Phil Steiger, who was the production designer for the short, also gave me some great advice, which was really helpful for me, especially in terms of what we were talking about with improvisation. He said, “Just go with the flow. Like if something comes up and it’s not what you expected, but it’s still fun, just follow it.” That’s what I learned most from making this short. We also got to experiment and play around with stuff in a way that I think television just doesn’t really allow for.
Tell me more about the shoot. When was it? How long did it take? How big was the crew? I’m curious about the actual production process.
We shot it a year ago. It was May 2022. What year is it now? [laughs] You know, it felt like a big production in terms of a short film. I was lucky enough to get some funding from friends, and I put a lot of money into it because we also wanted to make sure that everybody who was working on this was getting paid. It’s a passion project of mine, but also it is a job, and we wanted to pay people fairly.
But I was spoiled. My first real shoot was Three Busy Debras, which was a TV show. And in terms of television, it was very low budget, but we also had two cameras filming at all times. I literally thought that was the norm, and then I found out later that’s actually extreme, especially in film. That’s not how things really work. Prior to that, I was literally filming videos in my brother’s backyard in Brooklyn with my own camera and a little microphone on top, so going from that to a full-scale television production for Adult Swim was something else. Then going to this sort of middle, self-funded indie route was definitely a shift, but also we had everything that we needed. Everyone was extremely confident, worked really hard, and I was amazed at the gags that we were able to pull off with such a small art department team.
Totally, even the shots of the twins in the pickup truck are wild to me.
Oh, my God, aren’t they literally so gorgeous? It totally blew me away. Also, you know all those shots of us that were of the landscape and of the power lines? Those were from me driving a rented convertible while Ben was in the backseat filming. That was one of my favorite things. My brother and producer Jake loves to rent a convertible when he’s in L.A. So we’re scouting in this convertible, and I was just laying in the back seat, looking up at the power lines the whole time we were scouting. Power lines make me get really existential, because even when you think you’re in the middle of nowhere, there’s always these lines above you and they are always kind of impeding your view of the sky. It’s very rare to look up and not see power lines when you’re driving. It’s strange to me how well we’re all just used to them. They are everywhere. You don’t think about them, but they’re everywhere you look, and they’re always in your eyesight.
You mentioned having some unique references that inspired parts of Pennies.
I feel like the most obvious one that you can probably completely tell from watching it is the twin lounge scene, which is heavily Bob Fosse-inspired, specifically Sweet Charity and the “Hey Big Spender” number and “Rich Man’s Frug.” It was his first movie, and I love it so much. Fosse was a choreographer who started directing movies, and you can totally tell because in this movie, he wanted the camera to feel like it was dancing, too. He does these amazing snap zooms that were really inspirational for the party scene in my film. The dance numbers in Sweet Charity are just some of the craziest things I’ve ever seen. And apparently that was not a very successful movie, and it’s definitely his most experimental. But it’s one of my favorite movies.Also in terms of just visuals, things like Wim Wenders movies like Paris, Texas. I had a lot of photography references for Pennies. It was really fun for me to work with Ben the cinematographer on that stuff because we just sat down for a whole day and went through our favorite photo books and talked really in depth about what was the best aspect ratio for our film.
Do you have a particular favorite joke, gag or even shot from the film? My personal favorite is during the party scene when one of the twins inhales from a cigarette and the other one exhales.
Oh, my God. Literally, thank you so much because that is something that I feel that nobody has picked up on. I have to shout that one out to Annabel. That was her idea. She and I came up with that whole dance sequence thing during the party scene. While Sabina was making dinner, we were playing that song on loop, trying to come up with what would happen at certain parts of the song, what the moves were. She came up with that image and it was so funny. I felt like when we did screenings of the short, it didn’t really get a laugh, and we were like, “Oh, maybe it’s too quick or too subtle or something.” But I’m so glad that that’s your favorite. I also really love the scene with the two toilets, which I think is also something that people don’t really seem to pick up on. That was literally something that I saw in a bathroom when I was location scouting. I went to the bathroom, I sat on the toilet, I looked to my side, and I didn’t see it immediately upon walking in. 20 seconds later, I realized that there was another toilet to the right of me. I was like, “What is going on here?” [laughs]
Pretty cosmic that you stumbled upon twin toilets while in pre-production.
Totally. Also, I think one of my other favorite jokes is probably the “Fraternal Corner” shot during the party scene. It was really fun for me and my brother and producer Jake to play the fraternal twins. At first, I was like, “Is it annoying to do a cameo?” But I thought it was a fun little thing, and also, we couldn’t afford any more extras. Me and Jake are not actually fraternal twins, though. We’re technically Irish twins, 13 months apart.
Also, to speak to the sibling element, it was amazing doing the short with Jake. I think the four of us — me and Jake, Annabel and Sabina — making it together was truly so emotionally gratifying, as well as a fun little cheat code to doing things. Jake and I have such a shorthand; we know each other so well. We’re extremely close. We share such a strong sense of humor and the same with Annabel and Sabina. Obviously, Annabel and Sabina have a different relationship being identical twins, but people always think that Jake and I are twins. It really was a little family affair. All the sets of twins were obsessed with all the other sets of twins on set, too.
Tell me about the SXSW screening. Could you immediately tell people were connecting with the film? Did any reactions surprise you?
Obviously, I was paralyzed with fear ahead of the screening because, you know, coming from a comedy and performance background, if people don’t laugh, I’m miserable. I desperately need people to laugh. I was nervous because we were in a big block of short films, and not all of them were comedies. And it’s a different type of audience. When you go to a comedy show, people are there ready to laugh. They know to perform their duty as an audience member and that laughter is expected. But in a block of short films where each of them is wildly different, the audience doesn’t know what to expect. It feels so gratifying to get laughs from an audience of people that don’t know us, too. They’re not there to see our thing, and they’re not primed to laugh, so it’s a win when they do.
What was it like to win the Special Jury Award at SXSW?
We really didn’t know that we were even up for an award. We almost didn’t go to the ceremony because we thought that we were only up for an audience vote award and the voting link was broken during our block. We assumed that there was going to be no award. But Jake kind of got a spidey sense an hour before, and he said, “I think we should just go.” We truly almost showed up in sweatpants, but right before I was like, “I’m going to put on one dash of eyeliner, and that’s going to be my going-out look.” And then it got to our block, and we heard them say the word “sisters.” We didn’t even hear the rest of what the programmer was saying. Annabel and Sabina immediately burst into tears, and Jake had his jaw on the floor. We were so excited and also didn’t know that we would have to make a speech. I don’t even remember what we said. We tried to do a bit based on something that the previous person had done. I don’t remember if it got a laugh. I was in such a blackout state. [laughs]
Where are you currently at with the feature version of Pennies From Heaven?
When we made the Pennies short, we didn’t really have plans to make it as a feature. It just felt like a self-contained little story. But then it felt like there were so many places we wanted to take it. And that’s been the main response that we’ve gotten from people: “I could watch two hours of that.”
We’ve been plugging away at a draft of it that we feel good about, but now that the writers strike has happened, we’re not going to send it to anybody. I think it’s kind of nice to be able to just send it to close friends, get some feedback, keep working on it in a way that doesn’t feel like, “You gotta go, you gotta sell it now, you gotta!”
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.