From First AD to Director: Jono Oliver on the Making and Distribution of Home
A moving, informed tale dealing with one man’s struggle with mental illness, Jono Oliver’s debut feature Home is graced with both heart and street smarts. The film tells the tale of Jack, an outpatient hoping to leave his group home, reunite with his son, and manage life on his own. Adversity comes from both his illness but also the day-to-day realities of life in New York. Indeed, Oliver’s great achievement is to make Jack’s reality an entirely palpable one while not sugarcoating the issues of his affliction. In a film with strong performances thorughout, Jack is wonderfully played by Gbenga Akinnagbe (The Good Wife), and Oliver, a longtime New York first assistant director, imbues the film with a knowledge of and sensitivity to New York’s various communities.
Making Home has been a personal and long struggle for Oliver. Produced entirely independently, Home pulled in favors the writer/director built up over years working in the film community. When the film was finished and didn’t get into Sundance — a circumstance Oliver discusses below — he rented a house in Park City and screened it to whoever would stop by during the fest. Oliver did his own DIY theatrical last Fall in New York before a digital and DVD release by E1 this Spring. Throughout it all, Oliver has been a tireless frontman, manning his film’s social media campaigns and overseeing distribution to the mental health and community groups who are extending its audience beyond the independent film crowd. The film is currently available on various VOD platforms, including iTunes.
Below I speak with Oliver — who, full disclosure, I’ve worked with professionally several times when he first AD’d films Robin O’Hara and I produced — about the inspirations for his film, what he learned about directing by being an AD, and the importance of maintaining an enthusiasm for your movie throughout the distribution process.
Filmmaker: What inspired you to make your first feature about mental illness?
Oliver: My parents are both social workers. My father actually ran a mental health treatment facility in Bushwick, and so I think that segment of the population was kind of always in my head — at least I had an awareness of them. Also, just living in New York, you can’t walk down the street without being confronted by someone going through some problems. You ride the subway and there’s someone there who has some sort of form of mental illness. So it’s always been an awareness. People do say, “Well, why’d you make a movie about mental illness?” but I don’t even look at it that way. [Home] is really about a guy who’s kind of struggling and just wants to put his life on a better path. And, as it turns out, he happens to have some issues that a lot of people also deal with. But it was never really designed to be a statement on the disease — it is just more a look at this guy and his friends and the world around him. I think that’s also why it has kind of resonated. He is trying to attain what most people would think is a simple goal, and that’s something that pretty much everyone can relate to in their lives, whether it’s trying to get a better job or a better apartment or whatever. One of the things I was really concerned about in doing a film about mental illness is not screwing it up. I was very concerned about the idea of stigma, and I didn’t want to add to that. It’s unfortunate that pretty much every time you see someone with mental illness in a film, they’re either a psycho killer or a joke. And I didn’t want to make it jokey, although, at the same time, I wanted to have a certain levity.
Filmmaker: Was he inspired or modeled on anyone that you knew?
Oliver: No, not really. I had written a pilot that I wanted to make called Brooklyn Psych, and it had to do with a group of people going out and treating others. I did a lot of research, and I talked to a lot of people in the field. I came up with the idea of this particular character, who you kind of see on the street every day but you don’t really pay much attention to. I thought, “What was he like when he was a kid? How did the system separate from him? How did he get to this point?”
Filmmaker: You’ve had a long career working as a first assistant director in New York, both in independent and in studio films. And I think as far as a crew position goes, the AD, along with the DP, is arguably the person closest to the director on a day-to-day basis.
Filmmaker: Given that you are so familiar with running a set, what were the challenges for you of specifically switching to the director’s chair?
Oliver: Well, I’ll be honest with you: I love directing. All of the challenges for this film had to do with the money and not having the money and having to spend so much time at every stage trying to get things done without the financial resources that I’ve been used to. Forget about directing or ADing. Like, on a CBS show now, if you need something, you pay for it, it comes, it’s there. There’s no wheeling and dealing. Between me and my producer, Daniela Barbosa, [on Home] it was a constant calling up crew we’ve worked with years ago saying, “Hey, can you deliver a dolly? We need it for a day and I’m trying to get a PA for free to go pick it up.” It was just that kind of low-budget kind skin-of-your-teeth filmmaking that was a little bit challenging because it took my attention away from actually directing. But the directing stuff was great.
But, what I got because I didn’t have money was people showing up who — and I had never had this before — were there purely because they wanted to make this film. The actors read the material and they’re like, “I’ll do it for nothing. I’ll change in the bathroom. That’s no problem. You don’t have to bring me to set.” It was mind-boggling. And that’s in addition to the crew, who all showed up and worked for practically nothing other than a meal. You can’t buy that kind of dedication — and literally, we couldn’t because we had no money. But as far as moving from ADing to directing, fortunately for me, it didn’t feel like that much of a leap.
Filmmaker: Were there things that you observed from working with so many other directors that stuck in your head when it came time to direct yourself?
Oliver: Between features and TV, I’ve worked with close to 100 directors. And the lessons I’ve learned from them are pretty simple: You have to be a good communicator and you can’t be a dick. Those are the two. Do your homework and tell people what you want and be relatively nice about it. Granted, there are a lot of directors who don’t do that, but I don’t think they get back what they feel they deserve because they don’t treat people well.
Filmmaker: What specific AD skills transferred over to your directing?
Oliver: It was a funny thing because I would click into AD mode very quickly. Joanie Bostwick was my first [AD] and she was terrific. I wanted to give her all of the authority, the AD stuff, and I was very good at just giving it to her. But there were certain times when I would just click in and say, “Guys, let’s go. Let’s do it.” And it would help. You know, the script was 113 pages and we did it in 20 days. We had two cameras running the entire time, but there were a lot of setups. There were scenes with 10 or 12 people in a scene. And so, there was a certain amount of wrangling that I had to do as a director, but it was kind of seamless. It complimented what Joanie and the other ADs were doing, and it just kinda felt like the way to go. I think without me having the AD skills, I’m not confident I could’ve gotten all that I got in those 20 days. That kind of AD scheduling discipline in how you shoot has always been my strength. That’s one of my favorite things about ADing: helping a director figure out what their shots are, how you can maximize them, what their best order is and when you’re going to turn around, what you’re going to do with A camera and B camera. I don’t get the chance to do it that much on television, but in film, I love doing that.
Filmmaker: How did you raise your budget?
Oliver: We started with Kickstarter, and we raised about 10 percent of the budget that way. I put in some of my own money. I had producers put in their money. And then, we got two outside investors who gave us about half the budget. But the [original] plan was do it on the hiatus for Blue Bloods [the TV series Oliver was AD’ing], and to get some big investor or production company to give us a million bucks. When that didn’t happen, I don’t want to say we were going to give up, but you kinda go, “All right, well, maybe let’s put it off until next year, right?” With all of these Kickstarter people giving me $25 or $50 or $100, I was like, “I can’t come back after the break and say, ‘Sorry, I didn’t make the movie.’” It was kind of like peer pressure. So I go, “Well, these people believe in me. I gotta make it.” And, as it turned out, we had a lot of great things happen to us. We had Canon come on board really early because we were the first film to use the C300 exclusively. They were really supportive in giving us the tools we needed. And then the actors all started coming on. That didn’t get us more money, but it just helped us realize that we were doing the right thing. You know, a lot of it is just a mind game. When people start believing in the project and coming on, it was hard to say, “All right, we’ll just put it off until later because you never know if later’s going to be better,.”
Filmmaker: You’ve been tireless in pushing the film now that it’s finished. More than many filmmakers, you’re really fronted your distribution and outreach campaign.
Filmmaker: You were also pretty vocal about telling people you didn’t get into Sundance. You were featured in that New York Times article. A lot of filmmakers who don’t get into Sundance, they don’t admit it. Their film just simply becomes “not ready.”
Oliver: You know, I don’t know if that was a mistake or not. But the reality is not everyone gets into Sundance. Yeah, I was disappointed because my short had gone there and I had been to the Lab with a project. I maybe mistakenly thought that I had a really good chance of going. And for whatever reason, we didn’t get in. It’s no big deal. But, I also realized that out of the however many films that go there, not all of them get distribution either. We wanted to get into Tribeca, but we didn’t get into there either. We didn’t get into the Los Angeles Film Festival. We didn’t get into Berlin. The big ones, we didn’t get. But, there are other festivals. And what made [those rejections] okay for me is that when we did show the film, people were so thankful they were able to see it. And it wasn’t just people who connected with the subject matter of mental illness. At the close to 40 festivals we did get into, people would come up and go, “Oh my God, that’s like my cousin or my uncle or my mom or me.” So, I was like, “Well, big film festivals may not like it for whatever reason, and distribution companies may not like it for whatever reason, but I know that when people see it, they really, really like it.” And so, that was something that helped me know that I was on the right path and that I needed to find an audience. We didn’t get into Sundance, but we showed it in a house at Park City on this big screen. And people there, they would say stuff like, “Wow, I’ve seen five films at the festival and this is the best one.”
Filmmaker: I remember when you did that, and it was challenging for me because, just as press, Sundance is so packed. It was hard to step outside their schedule and see something that was a preview, that couldn’t be written about. Would you do that again?
Oliver: Listen, we had a ball. But like I said, all of these were steps. And the reason why it was so great is for the reason I just said: it inspired all of us — the filmmakers, the producers and me — to realize that we had something that was worth fighting for. Had we not done that, it would have been easier to take the word of the Sundance programmers and go, “Eh, we kinda suck.” Showing there and at all the other festivals made us resolve to get it out there. And then, fortunately, Entertainment One saw it in the American Black Film Festival in Miami, and they’re the ones who picked it up and are going out with it on DVD and Video on Demand. But even there, it’s funny. I think most companies, they buy a film and they put it out and they just kinda let it go. And I’ve been very involved in trying to get it out broader, whether it’s getting in touch with mental health groups or universities. Schools have really responded to it. There are certain issues the film brings up that people have said, “Let’s show this and we can start a dialogue about stigma or homelessness or healthcare.” As a filmmaker, I want to keep making films that a) entertain, and hopefully show some great acting, but b) maybe can start a dialogue about something that we should be talking about.
Filmmaker: Just to stay on distribution for a moment, did E One have a rep at the American Black Film Festival?
Oliver: Yeah, he just sat in the audience. We had no idea. It was a guy named Allen Blackwell, [Senior Director, Urban Film and Comedy]. And the irony is that the screening was actually screwed up because something happened with the projection. It jumped a big important scene, but it didn’t seem to matter. There were probably about 50 or 60 people in the audience, and I was there with my kids. And when it ended, we handed out cards with our Facebook on them and we were swarmed by about 20, 25 people who just were like, “How can we get this out there?” Because in the Q&A, I had been very vocal: “It’s hard. You know, you can’t get money for these kind of movies. And then when you do make them, it’s very hard to get distribution.” I think [Blackwell] probably saw that, to be honest with you, and that helped us stand out a little bit. I think that these companies a lot of times want to get involved with people who they know will work [for the film]. They want to deal with someone who is not a jerk and who will come to the table with ideas and energy and enthusiasm. We’ve been banging people over the head about this film for two years, so it just kinda paid off.
Filmmaker: What rights did E One take?
Oliver: Just North American DVD and Video on Demand. Theatrical, we technically owned ourselves, and so we bought theaters in New York and L.A. in November, mainly to be qualified for some of the awards that we thought we might be up for. That worked out because you know, the NAACP Image Award, you needed [a theatrical release]. That was a big shocking surprise, to be nominated for directing alongside 12 Years a Slave, The Butler, Mandela and The Best Man Holiday. We won the Prism Award for Best Film Dealing with a Mental Illness, which is a big industry award — last year’s winner was Silver Linings Playbook. And we’ve been nominated for a SAMHSA Voice Award for mental illness. So, it was worth it. And also, that’s how we got reviews. Without being in the theater, it’s very hard to get reviews, but we got The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, and The Hollywood Reporter.
Filmmaker: Did you do the four-wall deal at the Quad?
Oliver: Yeah, the Quad has a great package. It ain’t cheap, but you know, the film was there for a week. We had 35 screenings. [The Quad was] great. They got us The New York Times write-up. They also got, I think The Village Voice. And then we did the Arena Cinema in L.A., which has something similar. It wasn’t as many screenings. I think it was 15.
The one thing I have learned the most about during this whole process, to be honest, with you, has been exhibition. When I did the film — and in this day and age maybe I should’ve thought more about it — but I was like, “We’re going to get a big theatrical. Everyone’s going to sit in the theater together and eat popcorn.” That’s kind of how I looked at it. And then, when we started showing it at this house in Sundance, it was on a big television, and I just felt something was missing. I thought, “This kinda sucks. I don’t like this.” So, we wanted to shoot for theatrical. And then we did all these festival screenings, and it just re-solidified my dream to have the movie show like that. It just showed better. I don’t know if every filmmaker feels that way, but with this particular movie, the jokes were funnier in the crowd and the sad parts were sadder in the crowd. And [audience reactions] would be kind of contagious.
I’m not saying that it doesn’t translate to DVD. But, as a filmmaker who sat through literally, 100 performances of the thing, I just know how great it is [on a big screen]. And that’s why, even now, someone wants to bring it to Dallas and show it for a group or a school, I’m so supportive. We’re not going to make money off of it. It’s not about that. It’s really just getting it out there so people can experience it. I think it’s why people invented movies in the first place. You want to share that story and those experiences with other people. Even now, when people get the DVD’s, I’d love for them to show them in groups. It just works a lot better.
Filmmaker: A lot of people are advocating right now that filmmakers give up on theatrical early on, or at least do a small theatrical coinciding with a day-or-date digital release. Your theatrical was last fall, and you’ve followed a conventional windowing model by being released in other formats this spring. Is that something you would do again, or do you think the time commitment involved might make you think of doing a more accelerated approach?
Oliver: Well, it depends. I appreciate you asking these questions, but it implies that I know something. Our whole thing has just been kind of intuition and this stupid “we’re not going to take no for an answer.” We’re showing the movie, and that’s kind of how we’ve done it. And it’s worked. I feel like we’re in a great place, and I’m happy with where we are. Fortunately, we made the movie for so little that I don’t have investors looking to recoup their millions of dollars standing over me. That would be very different. Yeah, I owe some people some money, but I’m sure they’ll get most of it, if not all of it back. It’s funny, I first said, “Oh, I need a million and a half, I need two million.” I am so grateful that no one gave me that money because I’d be a much different person right now. You know, if it were all about, “Well, how do we make the money back?” as opposed to, “How do we get people to see this movie that I think they’ll like?” That’s all we’re talking about.