The Art of the Steal Filmmakers Debut First Feature Film

Slow Learners opens this weekend at the Roxy.

Slow Learners movie

Adam Pally and Sarah Burns in Slow Learners. | Courtesy of Chase Bowman

With six documentaries under their belts — including the critic-loved Rock School and The Art of the Steal — Philly filmmaking duo Don Argott and Sheena M. Joyce are embarking on new cinematic territory in a film that premieres in Philadelphia this weekend.

Slow Learners is the real-life couple’s first foray into narrative features. It’s a comedy starring Adam Pally and Sarah Burns as platonic friends who set out one summer to add some zest to their humdrum existence in Media, Pa. In the end, as you may surmise, the pair wind up falling in love. Joyce describes it as a summer-sex comedy from the teachers’ perspective, with influences from funny films like 40-Year-Old Virgin and Step Brothers. It gets its Philadelphia premiere on Friday, September 28th, when it opens at the Roxy. 

I caught up with Argott and Joyce over the telephone to discuss their experience making the film. Here’s what they had to say on …

… why they wanted to do a narrative feature: 

“We never set out to only make documentaries for the rest of our lives,” Argott says. “We’ve been fortunate to have had a fair amount of success making docs throughout the years, but in this industry, when you’re known for doing something, you get pigeonholed. The more documentaries you do, the more it feels like it’s all you do. We don’t want that.”

… the appeal of Slow Learners

“We really liked the world it was set in, this idea that it’s almost like a summer-sex comedy from the teachers perspective,” says Joyce. “We liked that there was a male and female lead, two characters who start off as friends and get into a relationship. That’s what happened with me and Don. There was also a lot in it that felt grounded in reality, but that we could have the opportunity to make really, really funny.”

Slow Learners

Adam Pally and Sarah Burns with co-stars Mary Grill and Reid Scott | Courtesy of Chase Bowman.

… the decision to work with actors skilled at improvisation: 

“Our go-to comedies—like Judd Apatow and Adam McKay films—have a lot of improvisation going on in them,” says Argott. “That’s what we respond to, and coming from the documentary world—where we’re very much used to the unknown constantly—there’s something exciting about that.”

“Our actors are so funny and talented, Joyce follows up. “[The film is] going to live and die on the talent that’s on the screen. We were very fortunate to be able to work with solid and comedic actors.”

 … their decision to set the film in Media: 

“It was originally set in a suburban town,” says Joyce. “To me—I grew up in Delaware County—it felt like Media. It felt like a place a lot of people could relate to it. It’s very easy to fall into your hometown rhythm, and that’s certainly what these characters were experiencing. They weren’t clueless. They were probably near a big city, but they didn’t want to live in the grittiness of a city. So I pictured a place like Media.”

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Adam Pally and Sarah Burns in Slow Learners. | Courtesy of Chase Bowman

… how their experience as documentary filmmakers gave them a leg up in this new venture:

“When you go in to make a doc, you have an idea and a blueprint of what you want to do, but ultimately real life dictates where the story’s going to go,” says Argott. “Slow Learners was a much more contained situation, where we had a script and we knew what would happen with the characters. We approached most scenes asking, ‘How would this really happen? If this situation presented itself, how would this character really react to it.’ Working with great comedic actors to begin with—and people who are rooted in improv—is that they have this ability to run with it and see what happens.”

“We are also used to having hundreds of hours of footage that we pare down to a 90-minute film,” Joyce says. “Having a lot of footage and a lot of takes and freedom to go off the script was not something that was scary to us. Someone on the crew actually commented that they could tell we came from the doc world by the way we directed. I asked what he meant, and he said, ‘Well, you ask the characters’ questions, you don’t tell the actor to do something.'”

… what’s next for them: 

Argott says, “We’re working on a Kurt Vonnegut documentary. We’re also developing another comedy that we really want to do. It’s exactly what we’d hoped would happen. This experience has diversified us in a way where people will stop seeing us as doing only one type of thing. It opens the world up a little more for us to have the opportunity to do things other than documentaries.”

Slow Learners opens at the PFS Roxy Theater on Friday, August 28th. Argott and Joyce will host post-screening Q&As that night and on Saturday, August 29th following the 7:20 and 9:45 pm screenings. For more information and additional showtimes, go here