August 29, 2021
PJ Landers grew up in Sunnyside/Woodside Queens with his mother. It was just the two of them. No brothers, no sisters, no father, no husband. They had a mature relationship in the way they conversed and approached life. She was loving and caring.
The two would often watch Million Dollar Movie on WOR-TV Channel 9, a long-running film showcase program. He remembers watching James Cagney, the epitome of a tough New Yorker in the early 20th century, dancing and singing in “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Landers no longer let it get to him when the neighborhood fellas teased him for taking tap dancing lessons.
After she passed away in 2015, he started writing “Rockaway Sunset,” a love letter of a short film to his mother’s affection, strong will and feistiness.
“The way I depicted her in this film was to show the world how tough and resilient she was,” Landers said.
“Rockaway Sunset” is about Lori, an older woman who finds out she is terminally ill and has only a few months to live. Like most people who get the news that they’re about to die, Lori is not ready for it to all be over. She needs to see her grandson graduate high school. She needs to visit her family home. And she needs to sit on the beach and watch one last sunset. One day, instead of going to a doctor appointment, she hops into a cab and takes a ride to the Rockaway section of Queens.
The relationship between Lori and the cab driver Mo is a charming clash of old and young, male and female, European and Middle Eastern. Lori is of Irish heritage and Mo is Syrian American. Landers said he wanted ethnicity to play a role in Lori and Mo’s relationship to mirror the real-life friendship between his girlfriend and his mother.
“My girlfriend was becoming closer to my mother as she was dying,” he said. “My girlfriend is Indian Pakistani and Muslim, and my mother is an Irish American. I wanted to show how two people from totally different backgrounds – doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from – can share an impactful relationship.”
Landers has been working in the entertainment industry for the past 30 years, but for the most part, he was writing, acting, dancing, doing standup comedy and proposing ideas. “Rockaway Sunset” is the first time he wrote, directed, produced and stared in his own film.
He unfortunately couldn’t attend the film’s screening at the 2019 Lake Placid Film Festival. It won the gold medal in the short film competition that year.
“I felt horrible that I had missed it, and the fact that we won, I felt bad I couldn’t be there to recognize all the people that made it happen,” he said. “It’s not just me. It’s a whole team. It’s about the actors, the musicians, the people who supported the film, the people who watched the film and tell, ‘Wow, thank you for that. I had that type of relationship with my mother.’”