“Ultimately, the Solution Isn’t There Until the Pressure Has Been Lifted”: Youngstown Director Pete Ohs on Microbudget Filmmaking and the Benefit of Being One’s Own Crew
As pre-production was ramping up on his first narrative feature, the pressure to find the perfect shooting location was weighing on Pete Ohs. While he and co-director Andrea Sisson eventually shot the film several hours outside LA — Everything Beautiful is Far Away stars Julia Garner and Joseph Cross, and was released by The Orchard in 2017 — Ohs theorized that knowing his shoot location before coming up with his next story idea would relieve some pressure from the narrative filmmaking process and, in turn, win back invaluable time for creative exploration.
The result is Youngstown, Ohs’ sophomore feature which recently screened at the American Film Festival in Wroclaw and is now available to stream on Amazon Prime. The film follows a woman in witness protection who is warned against returning to the only place she longs to go — her hometown in Youngstown, Ohio. She can’t keep away and hitches a ride home with a seedy character who chatters incessantly yet reveals nothing truthful about himself. They are a delightful pair of oddball misfits, exploring a place beloved by one and foreign to the other. And through a series of impromptu reunions and interactions with a sea of local Youngstown-ers, the film is about reconciling hidden identities with the thrills of honest connection.
Ohs wanted the time spent shooting Youngstown to feel like an enjoyable vacation amongst friends. So unfolding over the course of two weeks, he decided to shoot the film and simultaneously write it with the two leading actors — Stephanie Hunt and Andy Faulkner. All three also produced alongside Jesse Reed. Otherwise, there was no additional production crew.
Filmmaker: You’re from Ohio, but you hadn’t been to Youngstown before you showed up to make the film. How did your initial impressions and feelings of the place inform what would eventually become Youngstown the movie?
Ohs: I went in deciding to love the place no matter what. The reason to location scout is because you need the location to be something and you’re trying to confirm that it is. But if you don’t need it to be anything, then you don’t need to worry about it because it doesn’t matter what it is. I’m so glad I had not seen anything prior to going there to shoot because it was just a clean entry to creativity. I had a sense it was going to feel like Ohio, but I also knew it was good that it wasn’t my actual hometown because then I’d have to overcome my own memories to find something inspiring about a place I already had so many other connections to. So going to Youngstown was this perfect combination of both familiar and new. Around any corner, the neighborhood felt exactly like the neighborhood I grew up in and also somehow still felt new and fresh.
Filmmaker: When you showed up with your two actors — Stephanie Hunt and Andy Faulkner — you had developed the beginning of characters with them, but how did you work together to find the arcs and dynamic between them as you were filming?
Ohs: Because there was no script and we didn’t know where the story was going, it was potentially very unsettling for the actor. But we knew the story was about a person figuring out who they were, so it made sense that the filmmaker also didn’t fully know who the character was yet either. It was almost like being “method” with the story. This really interesting thing happened where the movie kept wanting to be a romantic comedy. It kept feeling like they were going to kiss. But we had said early on that we didn’t want to do that. We wanted to make a buddy comedy and not a romantic comedy. So we’d collectively have to turn away from where it felt like it wanted to go to gear it back in another direction.
Filmmaker: And was improv a helpful tool for steering the story?
Ohs: I actually don’t really think about the movie as if it’s an improvised ad-libbed movie, even though some of the best parts are totally improvised by Stephanie and Andy. Generally, we’d write the scenes, but just in the Notes app on my phone. So we’d know what the characters would say, but we weren’t precious about the exact words that were said. I find perfection in imperfection. The thing that only ever happens once and you’re lucky enough to get it on camera is more valuable to me than the thing that you did a hundred times and finally got it because you wanted it to happen so badly. When Andy’s character plays the claw game machine in the movie, we only had two quarters and did it one time. I wanted him to play and what would happen didn’t matter.
Filmmaker: He seemed genuinely thrilled when he won.
Ohs: He was! That a real reaction like that is in this movie feels so good to me. That is magic, to me.
Filmmaker: So you were down in Youngstown with the actors and no one else. Logistically, how did you manage to be the whole crew?
Ohs: Shooting on a small [Canon] 5D that’s basically on a tripod the whole time meant I didn’t have to spend energy to hold the camera. It meant I could walk away from the camera to talk to people, to adjust the light. The audio was just lav mics that the actors were wearing — I was listening to make sure it was recording, but it was basically set-it-and-forget-it. I had one small 50 millimeter lens and didn’t carry around a bag of other lenses. Extra things like that could quickly add up to then make it not logistically possible for one person to do it all. I accepted the fact that I might not have had something I maybe would’ve wanted, but I just had to live with the fact I didn’t get to do that wider angle because I just didn’t have that lens. This then very quickly eliminated options where I could put the camera. A lot of the time, I didn’t even have to try to make a decision because there was only one thing that would work anyways.
Filmmaker: How did you come up with this nimble by design approach?
Ohs: I relied so much on lessons I’ve learned from 15 years of making things on my own, shooting behind the scenes videos for music videos, and doing all kinds of little projects that were trimmed down to the essentials with literally nothing extra. Making movies this way is limited though. They can be made this way, but not all movies can or should be made with this approach. So it’s not that making a movie where I’m the whole crew is the model, but I do like that it challenges the model. All the roles of a crew don’t have to be automatically fulfilled. They can be fulfilled thoughtfully. This film was very small, so it didn’t need all the crew members that would be needed if it was more complicated. It’s useful to design the approach based on what the actual thing is that you’re making.
Filmmaker: Now I want to know what camera you used.
Ohs: It was a hacked 5D Mark III. It’s just a DSLR camera from 2012 that some people on the internet had figured out how to unlock the raw recording capabilities. It’s called Magic Lantern. And so it can shoot 16 bit, color depth, raw video. My thing is that almost every camera is good enough and maybe even too good at this point. So, if there’s a camera you have easy access to that you’re comfortable with then that’s the camera for you.
Filmmaker: I want to talk about the time after your first feature — Everything Beautiful is Far Away — was released. You wrote a new script, had meetings, worked to make another. How did that time eventually inform the filmmaking process that came to define Youngstown?
Ohs: Ultimately the process is something that had already been there because it’s how I made things when I was a teenager. After my first feature, there was this Eureka moment, but there was also a period of time, I guess, of disillusionment – I was thinking something else was on the other side of this big mountain that was the first feature, but when I got there, I realized that it’s just another mountain. I can’t help but imagine that there are the filmmakers of the world who make their first feature, and it plays at the biggest and the bestest of film festivals. And it gets the coolest companies to promote and release it. And then their next mountain is a mountain, but there’s a ski lift on it, and they just get on the ski lift. I can’t help but imagine that that is a reality and has been a reality for some people, but that definitely was not my experience. It was just straight-up another mountain to climb.
Filmmaker: At the end of Everything Beautiful is Far Away, the robot says: “when you reach the destination, the challenge is what to do next.” I can’t help but think this idea was embodied not only on the road to making Youngstown, but actually embedded in the filmmaking process itself.
Ohs: The idea that those thoughts were already seeded into the first feature is very cool to me upon reflection. That does seem to be a recurring theme in my own brain. There was just so much I didn’t know, not only with making my first feature, but just everything around it and what does or doesn’t happen next. As storytellers, we’re great at imagining things, and we’ve imagined all these things that could happen based on what we’ve observed from the few examples we’ve read about — the rare cases where a filmmaker had a whole future blossom from making their first movie. And I would focus on those outliers really, not realizing that that’s very rare.
Filmmaker: I wonder whether this disillusionment was an opportunity for you to imagine something different?
Ohs: That’s what we sort of have to do to keep going. The first feature just happened through pure luck — a friend of a friend introduced us to a commercial producer who just happened to be interested in making a small indie feature. It was pure luck that arrived, and I didn’t think I was going to get that lucky again for another movie to get made. It felt so passive and, I guess, disempowering. And maybe it doesn’t have to be that way. Maybe there actually is an active way to do it. But it often feels like we’re asking for permission to make a movie, whether it’s literally a permit we’re applying for, or it’s hoping somebody grants us with money to allow us to create something. And that just feels so bad. I guess it’s giving power away, letting somebody else tell you what you can or can’t do. Because why? Because you are asking for permission. So maybe don’t ask for permission. The only person who actually has to give me permission is myself.
Filmmaker: When you premiered Youngtown at a local cinema in Youngstown, you posted a few photos on Instagram and wrote: “The dream was always to return to Youngstown and share the movie in a theater.” What does it mean to you to screen your work live in front of an audience?
Ohs: When somebody watches something I’ve made, but I’m not there and the only proof I have is a view count number that’s gone up, I get nothing from that. But knowing someone watched it and then having a person say something in person does mean something. That doesn’t just feel like a number. That feels alive. So anytime I can be around people who’ve just watched a thing I’ve made, I’m very grateful. Screening Youngstown in Youngstown was a particularly unique screening experience that I’m not sure I will ever have again. I realized, while it was happening, that this audience wasn’t really watching a movie. They were watching Youngstown. They were watching to see streets they’d recognize and people they recognized. And the reactions from that audience were, I think, reactions that no other audience will or should have. There’s a moment in the movie where Stephanie’s character lifts up a business card. It’s just information. It’s just this place where she’s about to go. But at one of the screenings, there was one section of the theater that just exploded in applause when that business card came out. And I realized that those 15 people work at that accounting firm and it was just very exciting for them to see their business card pop-up onscreen. That business card will never get a reaction again — and it shouldn’t get a reaction — but it was really cool that I was there to experience the one singular moment in time when it did.
Filmmaker: To premiere your film in Youngstown is a humble dream. Most filmmakers will either openly admit or secretly pine for a dream that often includes prestige festival premieres, first-look deals, fancy agents, etc. Are these ambitions relevant to the filmmaker you are now?
Ohs: Certainly I’ve had those dreams. I’ve allowed my mind to imagine that kind of stuff. But there was a certain point when I recognized that I like coming up with new ideas. I really like getting together with friends and the actual act of shooting a movie with them. I really enjoy sitting in front of a computer by myself editing and watching it come together. And then I really like showing what I made to my friends. And that is actually it. Anything beyond that, I don’t actually need. It’s just those four things that I’m trying to keep repeating. I recognized that that’s quite independent — just fulfilling those four steps. No one can ever stop me from doing that. When I try to engage with the idea of a big festival premiere or fancy agents or those sorts of things, I feel like what I’m trying to imagine is something that would make my life or this filmmaking process easier, which I don’t actually think is true. It probably doesn’t actually ever get easier. It’s just as hard with maybe a slightly different set of challenges. But it’s still going to be another mountain.
Filmmaker: I know that was a delicate question. I’m glad you took a second to think about your truthful answer.
Ohs: It’s not that it feels delicate. I just don’t know that there’s a simple answer. I can feel inclined to want to keep all the doors open, all the options on the table. You would hate to say something to make some agent who is maybe thinking about you to then reconsider their interest. I don’t like the idea of closing doors by saying anything, but I’m also all about limited options, so…
Filmmaker: In your recent Talkhouse piece, you wrote about eliminating pressure, that it’s the enemy of creativity. Just to poke you on this — can’t pressure unlock things or propel things forward in unexpected and exciting ways?
Ohs: I think we often experience pressure on our journey to solutions, but ultimately, the solution doesn’t come until we’ve found the way to release the pressure — whether it’s just actively disengaging from it, going on a run, or talking to somebody who gives you a new perspective. Ultimately, the solution isn’t there until the pressure has been lifted. So I’m not thankful for the pressure. Something good finally comes once you get rid of the pressure. It was part of the journey, but I don’t think it actually had to be. It’s okay that it was — it often is — but ultimately, we’re just trying to get rid of it. I also think we’re used to feeling pressure. We’re used to thinking that’s part of it — to be pushed up against some deadline until we finally figure it out. But I really theorize that the figuring out didn’t happen until three o’clock in the morning when you finally said ‘fuck it.’ That’s literally you letting go of the pressure. Did you really need the last 12 hours of freaking out? Maybe you think you did. Maybe you didn’t.
This conversation has been condensed for clarity.